The Cultural Context Model: Therapy for Couples with Domestic Violence

By Almeida, Rhea V.; Durkin, Tracy | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, July 1999 | Go to article overview

The Cultural Context Model: Therapy for Couples with Domestic Violence


Almeida, Rhea V., Durkin, Tracy, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


This article offers a brief analysis of heterosexual dominance within various cultures toward a larger understanding of domestic violence. It then describes the Cultural Context Model, developed over 15 years of experience treating domestic violence in its broader context, utilizing separate "culture circles" for men and women before and during couple therapy. It then identifies guidelines for assessment and intervention with a discussion of the special issues raised when substance abuse is involved.

The question of when and how to do couples work in cases of domestic violence is a thorny one. Domestic violence is shaped by structures of domination that organize intimate partnering along the following dimensions: emotional connection to emotional isolation; physical affection to physical abuse; equitable economic power to misuses and abuses of economic power; shared childrearing and responsibility to underresponsibility, neglect, and abuse in parenting; and sexual intimacy to sexual abuse. Because male partners are overwhelmingly the batterers among heterosexual couples, our intervention program focuses on this pattern. It should be noted that battering also occurs frequently among same-sex couples along similar categories of power and control, albeit with some differences (Almeida, Woods, Messineo, Font, & Heer, 1994; Renzetti, 1996).

Therapists' Misconceptions about Domestic Violence

Therapists are often under the misconception that domestic violence is physical abuse alone. A broader understanding of what constitutes domestic violence is critical to maintaining the safety of the battered woman.

Domestic violence is the patterned and repeated use of coercive and controlling behavior to limit, direct, and shape a partner's thoughts, feelings, and actions. An array of power and control tactics is used along a continuum in concert with one another. These tactics include: physical abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, threats and intimidation, isolation and entrapment, sexual abuse and exploitation, control and abuse of children, and isolation through job relocation and language barriers. Undocumented immigrant women are at greater risk for abuse along the latter dimensions due to the added the threat of deportation (Font, Del Vecchio, & Almeida, 1998).

Therapists may also err in limiting their clinical focus with heterosexual couples to the relational category of experience, based on the historical definition of "mental health" as a psychological or emotional state of well-being. Such a narrow focus, however, obscures the ways in which men have and use power over women within our institutions and intimate lives (Stark & Flitcraft, 1995). Walsh (1989) put forth an analysis of the marital quid pro quo, showing the ways in which women's desires and autonomy are systematically subjugated to the desires of men. Approaches that teach couples to "fight fair" or "negotiate equally" must take into account the gendered imbalance of power.

Heterosexism is a product of male and female patterns of socialization that value and privilege men over women. Males learn the traditional norms of masculinity early on: suppressing emotional vulnerability; independence and self-reliance; aggression and striving for dominance; supporting their families economically; treating sexual partners as objects; avoiding "feminine" behavior; and homophobia (Green, 1998).

Women learn early on to feel at fault for interpersonal conflict and to feel responsible for making it better-their social training for connectedness, accommodation, and cooperation prioritizes relationship over all else, including the self. While most women may learn that education and paid jobs are important, they are made to feel that there is nothing more essential than having a man and children. Raised for interdependence with others, they pursue relationships with dogged perseverance and seek to please men to gain and keep their love and approval. …

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