Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy are types of treatment that are based firmly on research findings. These approaches aid people in achieving specific changes or goals.
Changes or goals might involve:
A way of acting: like smoking less or being more outgoing;
A way of feeling: like helping a person to be less scared, less depressed, or less anxious;
A way of thinking: like learning to problem-solve or get rid of self-defeating thoughts;
A way of dealing with physical or medical problems: like lessening back pain or helping a person stick to a doctor’s suggestions.
Behavior Therapists and Cognitive Behavior Therapists usually focus more on the current situation and its solution, rather than the past.
They concentrate on a person’s views and beliefs about their life, not on personality traits.
Behavior Therapists and Cognitive Behavior Therapists treat individuals, parents, children, couples, and families.
Replacing ways of living that do not work well with ways of living that work, and giving people more control over their lives, are common goals of behavior and cognitive behavior therapy.
HOW TO GET HELP:
If you are looking for help, either for yourself or someone else, you may be tempted to call someone who advertises in a local publication or who comes up from a search of the Internet.
You may, or may not, find a competent therapist in this manner.
It is wise to check on the credentials of a psychotherapist.
It is expected that competent therapists hold advanced academic degrees.
They should be listed as members of professional organizations, such as the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies or the American Psychological Association.
Of course, they should be licensed to practice in your state.
You can find competent specialists who are affiliated with local universities or mental health facilities or who are listed on the websites of professional organizations.
You may, of course, visit our website (www.abct.org) and click on "Find a CBT Therapist"
The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) is an interdisciplinary organization committed to the advancement of a scientific approach to the understanding and amelioration of problems of the human condition.
These aims are achieved through the investigation and application of behavioral, cognitive, and other evidence-based principles to assessment, prevention, and treatment.
Increasing attention has been devoted to marital violence, or couple violence,
by the general public, government agencies, and mental health professionals
during the past decade. Psychologists have focused their research on understanding
couple violence in order to prevent it, or eliminate it once it has developed.
Currently, mental health professionals take various approaches in the
prevention and treatment of couple violence.
What Is Couple Violence?
Various forms of behavior, or acts, classify as couple violence. The most
obvious forms are physically aggressive acts, such as pushing, slapping, punching,
scratching, biting, hitting with objects, choking, burning, assaulting with
weapons, and rape. More common, but less likely to be thought of as couple violence,
are psychologically or emotionally aggressive and abusive acts, such as
threatening physical aggression or abandonment, insulting, intimidating, humiliating
or ridiculing, destroying property and pets, and controlling access to
finances, friends, and family. Although these acts appear to be very different,
they are very similar in their function: coercing or forcing the partner to do
something he or she does not want to do. Thus, many professionals consider a
relationship to be characterized by couple violence when it includes a pattern of
psychologically and/or physically coercive behavior of one or both individuals,
significantly limiting the freedom of the partner.
How Common Is Couple Violence?
Couple violence is shockingly common. Statistics vary, of course, depending
on who’s counting what when. The Center for Disease Control contends that one
out of six families (17%) experiences some form of “marital violence”; with one
out of eighteen families (6%) experiencing serious violence (beatings, say, or the
use of weapons). Some national surveys indicate that as many as 28% of domestic
partners, married or unmarried, experience some physical violence at some
point during their years together, while 16% of all American couples, or one out
of six couples, experience physical violence during any given year.
If one considers the higher numbers (28%), this means that as many as 8.7
million American couples could experience at least one episode of physical violence
during the year, and up to 2 million adults are severely assaulted by their
partners every year. Surveys conducted among dating couples, including high
school and college student couples, show that approximately 30% to 35% of
these couples are characterized by physical violence. The prevalence of psychological
aggression or abuse is not known.
Who Experiences Couple Violence?
According to the Department of Justice, 97% of the victims of reported
domestic assaults are women. Further, according to other studies, of women
murdered, as many as 75% were murdered by current or former male partners
(as opposed to murders in robberies, random assaults, etc.). Two-thirds of the
women murdered by current or former male partners had been physically
abused for some time prior to being murdered. However, while women comprise
the majority of the victims of domestic assault, men are often abused
by their partners; further, many believe abuse against males is severely
Couple violence occurs among all types of families, all ages, races, religions,
and occupations. However, research has found some common characteristics
among abusive partners. Abusers tend to be younger, less educated,
unemployed or less satisfied with their jobs, and to have lower-status occupations
and lower incomes. Abusers are more likely to have grown up in
homes characterized by couple violence, to use and/or abuse alcohol and
drugs, to approve of domestic violence, and to report more daily stressors
than nonabusers. Characteristics such as low self-esteem, jealousy, lack of
assertiveness, and the tendency to blame others for their actions have been
found to increase the risk for being abusive. Abusive relationships are characterized
by poor communication between partners, high levels of conflict,
and unequal distribution of power.
What Are the Consequences of Couple Violence?
Victims of couple violence suffer from a variety of physical and psychological
symptoms. In addition to physical injuries, such as bruises, broken
bones, cuts, and burns, victims of abuse experience general restlessness,
insomnia, nightmares, chronic headaches and backaches, and fatigue.
Psychological symptoms of victims include depression, anxiety, low selfesteem,
suspiciousness, and feelings of shame, loneliness, inferiority, helplessness,
and hopelessness. The abuse suffered by victims of couple violence
can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims of couple violence are
more likely to be victims of suicide and homicide as well.
Unfortunately, the consequences of couple violence are not limited to the
abused spouse or partner. Couple violence has a negative impact on the psychological
and social adjustment of children growing up in violent homes.
Although not all children from violent homes develop psychological problems,
children who witness or are aware of their parents’ violent relationship
are very likely to have conduct problems, such as with violent behavior, truancy,
lying and stealing, and emotional problems, such as depression and
anxiety. The effects of couple violence on children are compounded if the
children are physically abused as well.
What Help Is Available?
Victims of domestic violence often feel ashamed or feel as if they are
somehow responsible for the abuse; this often prevents them from seeking
help. In these cases, the first step is for the person suffering abuse to admit
that no person is responsible for his or her own abuse at the hands of someone
else; the second step requires the courage to step forward and ask for
assistance or intervention.
There are three major forms of interventions for
couple violence: legal, community, and therapeutic.
Legal intervention for couple violence consists primarily of arrest and
criminal prosecution of abusers, and court orders of protection for the victims.
Victims of couple violence can contact their local precinct, district
attorney’s office, or battered women’s shelter or hotline for information and
assistance with legal resources.
Community intervention consists of local women’s shelters offering temporary
housing and legal, psychological, and social services for battered
women and their children. Battered men typically do not have access to shelters.
Location of shelters often are not disclosed to the public in order to
maximize the safety of shelter residents and staff. Individuals needing shelter
services may call shelter hotlines or their local precincts to make appropriate
arrangements. When resources allow, shelter networks also will offer transitional
housing: housing at a reduced cost for a longer period of time to assist
women who decide to leave their abusive partners permanently.
There are various forms of therapy available for the abused partner and
the abuser. The major goal of all forms of therapy is the elimination of violence.
What Types of Therapy Are Available?
Generally, in treating people involved in couple violence, one of three
distinct formats are employed: individual therapy, group treatment, or marital
therapy. The goal of treatment remains similar across all forms of intervention,
and all interventions emphasize the importance of the abuser’s willingness
to accept responsibility for the violence and the ability to control
anger. However, these different interventions vary in their assumptions
about the major causes of couple violence, the specific issues emphasized in
therapy, and the techniques and strategies used to accomplish treatment
Behavior therapists and cognitive-behavior therapists believe therapy
should be goal-oriented, should specifically address current or ongoing problems,
should work with the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,
especially those that precede and follow abusive incidents, and it should
focus on the dynamics of the relationship in which the abuse is taking place.
Individual therapy. Individual cognitive-behavior therapy approaches
to couple violence are based on the assumption that a set of beliefs or
behavioral characteristics of the abuser is responsible for the violence. The
objective of individual cognitive-behavior therapy is to discover and change
the abuser’s attribute or characteristic that is responsible for his or her
choice of violence for conflict resolution. The focus of therapy is on the abusive
individual’s background, current experiences, thoughts, and behavior.
Typically, individual therapeutic interventions are designed on the basis of
cognitive-behavioral conceptualizations of human behavior. Cognitivebehavioral
approaches focus on what and how we think, and on the effects of
our thoughts on our behavior. Anger control, problem-solving, and social
skills training are commonly used by therapists treating abusers individually.
Of course, the abusive partner must be willing to enter therapy for this to
In addition to individual cognitive-behavior therapy for the abuser, individual
therapy for the victim of couple violence is available. Therapy for the
victim may be conducted concurrently with or independent of therapy for the
abuser. Choosing to treat both the abuser and the victim or only one partner
depends on the individual therapist’s training and assumptions, and availability
and willingness of each partner to be treated. Individual therapy for
the victim attempts to correct the emotional damage created by the violence
and to empower the victim, thereby enabling him or her to make a personal
decision regarding relationship maintenance. Typically, cognitive-behavioral
approaches are employed to reduce anxiety and depression, to address any
symptoms from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, to increase and maintain
self-esteem, and to develop or strengthen assertiveness and problem-solving
Group cognitive-behavior therapy. Treating abusers using a group
format is a commonly advocated and practiced form of intervention for couple
violence. This approach is based on the belief that the causes of couple
violence are not limited to the personality or psychological characteristics of
the abuser. Rather, the choice of violence for resolving couple disputes is
assumed to be influenced also by the environment in which this behavior
occurs. Issues such as attitudes toward women’s and men’s gender roles and
society’s tolerance of family violence are important issues to address in group
interventions. The support of other abusers in the group, sharing similar situations,
is thought to allow the abuser to reject social mores that facilitate
couple violence and to accept responsibility for his or her use of violence. The
abuser’s acceptance of responsibility for domestic violence is viewed as the
key to change. Capitalizing on the support provided by the group, group
intervention programs include cognitive-behavioral strategies to facilitate
both attitudinal and behavioral change. As with individual therapy, the focus
of group intervention is on the abusers’ background, current experiences,
perceptions and attitudes, and behavioral choices. Common interventions
similarly include anger management, problem solving, and social skills training.
Success may be determined by the degree of motivation shown by the
abuser to change. Court-referred abusers may be less likely to change than
abusers who elect therapy on their own.
Group interventions for victims are equally common. Group therapy capitalizes
on the support of other group members to help victims assess their
relationships realistically and to follow through on choices made regarding
those relationships. As in groups for batterers, there is a strong emphasis on
attitudes toward gender roles and the expectations of men and women. The
focus of the group intervention is on members’ backgrounds, current experiences
and perceptions, attitudes, and options for choice. Cognitive-behavioral
strategies are employed to decrease anxiety and depression, to increase
self-esteem, and to enhance problem-solving skills. Legal advocacy or information
about legal rights and services is frequently provided to members of
therapy groups for battered men and women.
Marital therapy. Cognitive-behavioral models of human behavior
have been used to design marital therapy programs to eliminate couple violence.
Marital therapy approaches conceptualize conflict and violence as the
result of dysfunctional patterns of interaction. Specifically, use of violence by
an individual is seen as the extreme on a continuum of coercive methods for
controlling the partner. Marital therapy programs attempt to reduce the
amount of conflict that couples experience and their characteristic method
for resolving such conflict. The focus of marital therapy is the couple.
Attention is devoted to the partners’ perceptions of each others’ behavior and
the cues and signals they provide each other when they interact.
Communication and listening skills and problem-solving skills are taught so
that couples can learn how to negotiate their differences while avoiding violence.
While marital therapy programs help both partners recognize how each
contributes to dysfunctional communication and ineffective conflict resolution,
the abuser is taught to accept responsibility for the choice of violence as
a response to conflict. Often, individual therapy with the abuser concurrently
or before marital therapy is employed to address issues of responsibility and
What Is the Best Method of Treatment for Couple Violence?
Currently, there is no agreement on which method of treatment is best.
Therapists choose a method of treatment on the basis of their own and their
colleagues’ experiences with couple violence, and on the models of human
behavior consistent with their professional training. Thus, in choosing a therapist,
it is important to inquire about training background and assumptions
about the causes of couple violence. Because behavior therapy and cognitivebehavior
therapy are short-term and goal-oriented and emphasize problemsolving,
many people find it to be especially useful for many of the problems
encountered in an abusive or violent relationship.
The availability of types of therapy and the willingness of each partner to
commit himself or herself to therapy will influence your form of treatment
choice as well. If the abusive partner is unwilling to enter therapy, for
instance, marital therapy is not an option. However, marital problems can be
improved even if only one member of the couple seeks treatment.
When making a choice, it is important to make sure that the form of therapy
you are considering includes the following ingredients: methods to help
the abuser assume responsibility for his or her behavior, methods for controlling
anger, and nonviolent ways of disagreeing and resolving problems with a
partner. The therapy should also have a goal of helping the abused partner
become empowered to set limits for the psychological and physical assaults
that he or she is willing to endure. Research in cognitive-behavior therapy
with family and couple violence has shown it to be effective. Above all else,
choose therapists employing treatment programs that are sensitive to the
safety of the victims of couple violence and that make provisions for monitoring
that safety during treatment.
For more information or to find a therapist:
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from which you took this fact sheet