I must admit that when I entered private practice I thought I was on my way. I was a trained therapist. I was going to focus my practice on individual and couples counseling, with a little batterer intervention on the side. I had been trained through graduate school and supervised practice. I had learned how to diagnose mental health concerns and I had learned the fundamentals of a variety of therapeutic models. My education was good, but I had no way of knowing what I did not know. Looking back, there were so many things that I thought I knew, but…
When Sherry and Bill came to my office for couples counseling I had no idea what I was about to learn. They were an older couple, from rural Kansas where they had farmed together for most of their adult lives. Sherry did most of the talking while Bill listened.
Sherry explained that Bill had recently been involved in a long-standing disagreement with the neighbor about land boundaries. Several weeks before they came into my office, the disagreement escalated. Bill believed that the neighbor was pushing the limits and Bill had finally had enough. He took his deer rifle out of the gun cabinet. Sherry followed him as he stormed out of the front door, heading for the neighbors. Sherry explained that she was able to stop him before he was able to get down the driveway. She was distressed about Bill’s behavior and she insisted that they see a counselor. Bill reluctantly agreed.
Bill remained quiet for most of the session. Sherry was obviously hopeful that counseling could help, and at the end of the session she was encouraging Bill to schedule a return visit with her to see me again. We made another appointment, but they called and cancelled a few days before.
She knew that Bill would punish her severely if she chose to tell me the truth.
Well over a year later, Sherry returned. When I greeted her, she told me that she had come to offer an apology. I imagined that she was going to apologize for canceling the appointment over a year ago. Sherry sat down in my office and told me that she had made up the entire story about Bill’s conflict with the neighbor. She said that she owed me an apology because she had lied to me over a year ago. She went on to say that his actions of grabbing a gun and storming out of the house did not exactly happen. She said that she knew Bill would not come to counseling unless she agreed to lie to me. She knew that Bill would punish her severely if she chose to tell me the truth.
Sherry then described her real experience that evening. It was a cold, rainy night in November when Bill, who had been drinking, became angry, accusing her of cheating. Sherry looked at me and said, “I was not cheating.” The argument escalated, and Bill went to the gun cabinet. Sherry believed Bill was going to kill her, so she ran out of the house, into the rainy dark night. She did not stop until she was halfway through a field. She lay down in the corn stubble, praying that Bill would not find her. Bill yelled for her and fired his rifle several times standing in the front yard. Bill went inside after only a few minutes. Sherry returned to the house after several hours, muddy, frozen and wet, only to find Bill passed out on the couch with the rifle across his chest. Sherry took the rifle and hid it. She then went upstairs and cleaned herself up. She never went to sleep that night. In the morning, Bill tried to apologize for “getting angry” and Sherry demanded they go to counseling or she was done with their relationship.
It had never occurred to me that Sherry might be in danger, even though it was reasonable to think that Bill could be violent.
As Sherry relayed this story to me, my mind kept wandering to the first day I had met them. I wondered how many signs I had missed because I had not been thinking about domestic violence. It had never occurred to me that Sherry might be in danger, even though it was reasonable to think that Bill could be violent. It had never occurred to me that I might say or ask something that, unbeknownst to me, could increase her risk. I had no procedures in place to screen for domestic violence. I was oblivious.
By the time Sherry returned the second time to my office, she had been out of the relationship for 6 months. She told me that she had to leave everything behind, but she believed that was her only choice. She thanked me for listening and then apologized one last time for lying to me. I have not seen Sherry since.
Sherry changed my life that day, and in turn, increased the safety of so many women who came to my office seeking couples counseling. I incorporated screening procedures and policies designed to identify those who may be at risk by coming to a session. I no longer work with couples together when there is a potential that one is afraid to speak their truth.
All BIP facilitators should understand that couples counseling is a dangerous activity for those who are experiencing violence and cruelty in their relationship. I have had conversations with enough victims to know that couples counseling can place victims in a terrible bind of wanting to fix the relationship but not wanting to risk telling the truth. I know that, in large part, because of Sherry. Sherry, if you are reading this, let me say again: “It is I who owe you an apology. You changed the way I approach my work. I am forever grateful."