Monday, October 17, 2011

Co-dependency: Application to Domestic Violence

One area where the codependency model has recently gained some degree of acceptance is in the development of counseling services for women who have been physically abused by a partner or other family member. Domestic violence is specifically listed by a number of the leading writers on codependency as a relevant clinical area for applying the concept (for example, Bradshaw 1988; Cermak 1986). Cermak (1986, p.33) states that `One of the most reliable symptoms of codependence is the inability to leave a chronically abusive relationship behind'.

This use of the codependency model in the area of domestic violence is of considerable concern. The notion that all women who have difficulty leaving violent and abusive men have some form of personality disturbance is dangerous because it blames the victim for not being able to prevent, avoid or cope with the violence (McIntyre 1984; Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force 1988; Roxburgh 1991). Moreover, blaming the victim further undermines her ability to take action against the violence (Dobash & Dobash 1987; Roxburgh 1991). As Roxburgh (1991, p.143) explains, blaming the victim:

reinforces the abused woman's low self-esteem . . . ; can contradict her interpretation of the violent situation and distort her version of what is happening . . . ; can weaken her resolve to act because she feels responsible for and therefore deserving of the violence; makes her feel undeserving of other assistance; diminishes the capacity of the service provider to offer assistance which will be of real benefit to the woman; and is untrue.

Orr (1991, p. 120) concludes her review of the various theories put forward to explain family violence by stating that an `understanding of the differences in the gendered identity of men and women is crucial to elucidating why family violence occurs, and to replacing the common myths about the causes of family violence with a stronger knowledge of who benefits from its continual perpetration'. The Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force (1988) also emphasised the importance of such an approach to understanding family violence. The codependency literature, however, comprehensively fails to examine sociocultural processes and gender related power issues and hence leads to an incomplete understanding of the dynamics of family violence.

Norwood (1985), for example, writes of the women `who love too much'. She avoids examining the cultural processes which obstruct domestic violence victims from obtaining a position of safety and empowerment. Rather she analyses intrapersonal processes in order to explain their lack of power. Hagan (1989) has strongly criticised this approach. She argues that the concept involves `a classic reversal: women are at fault again, this time for loving- what we've been reared to do- too much' (p. 9). She is highly critical of the lack of social analysis which only serves to maintain the processes that enable domestic violence to thrive.

As Roxburgh (1991, p. 130) explains, family violence `isolates the victim from assistance, a consequence the perpetrator frequently seeks to maintain'. Self-help books which promote concepts of personal inadequacy and disorder could be expected to instil a sense of personal responsibility for preventing the violence and hence further isolate the victim from those services which may provide a more realistic solution.

Victims of domestic violence need to have their feelings of fear and trauma legitimised (Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force 1988). They need clear messages which counter the myth that they are in any way responsible for being abused. They need to be able to explore their fears and anxieties and discuss the difficulty they experience in removing or protecting themselves without feeling that this indicates there is anything wrong with them. It is questionable whether a model which employs notions of personal inadequacy can be made consistent with such aims.

The codependency model does not provide any meaningful contribution to the understanding of domestic violence. Given this, and the extensive problems inherent in the model, there is no justification for using it in family violenceprograms. To do so is in fact unnecessary, given that there are more established models of stress and coping which can be used as the basis for developing positive counselling programs for families (for example, Lazarus & Folkman 1984, Orford 1987, Roth & Newman 1991). Such counselling programs need to be coordinated with other supportive and refuge services, and they need to be philosophically consistent with these other services (Dobash & Dobash 1987; Roxburgh 1991).

Counselling programs for survivors of family violence need to help participants understand that they are coping as best they can under difficult circumstances and that with appropriate support, and an opportunity to learn more effective coping strategies, they can minimise the trauma they experience and improve the quality of their future life. It is also important for these programs to provide participants with an opportunity to examine how gender- based power issues have impacted and continue to impact on their lives. The aim is to empower participants to develop more self-protective and self-fulfilling social roles. While this aim is also the declared aim of the codependency movement, the manner in which this objective is addressed within the codependency model is likely to be counter-productive.

by Greg Dear

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