The Development and Implementation of a Multi-Couple Therapy Model with Torture Survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By Morgan, Erin; Wieling, Elizabeth et al. | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2018 | Go to article overview

The Development and Implementation of a Multi-Couple Therapy Model with Torture Survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo


Morgan, Erin, Wieling, Elizabeth, Hubbard, John, Kraus, Elsa, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


"Madame, it's the couples. So many couples have divorced since the war, and the ones who are still together are suffering in their relationships. We need to work with couples, to help them heal their marriages" (Pascal, psychological counselor, personal communication, 2007).

Pascal, like many of the Congolese psychosocial counselors working at the Center for Victims of Torture in the Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had lived through the wars along with the clients we were trying to help. His neighbors and friends were those struggling couples. I (first author) arrived in the Katanga province, in September of 2007, to work at the Center for Victims of Torture clinic, providing training and supervision for clinical work, and to address gaps the Center for Victims of Torture Congolese psychosocial counselors identified related to the relational difficulties that many of the Center for Victims of Torture clients were experiencing. During my first 8 months in Katanga, 15 Congolese psychosocial counselors and I conducted group therapy with hundreds of torture survivors, which helped build our understanding of their relationship difficulties and needs. This, along with a variety of treatments for traumatic stress and couple therapy models, informed the development of a couple group therapy model for torture-surviving couples.

The residents of this city located in the Katanga province (and many Congolese nationals other regions of the country) experienced widespread torture at the hands of both government and rebel soldiers during the wars between 1998 and 2004. Nearly every citizen in the area fled during that time; by 2006, repatriation had begun. Hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children moved from camps to communities in Zambia and elsewhere back to their communities to start over from scratch. For survivors, the impact of war and the intrusion of torture into their lives and relationships, was physically and emotionally devastating. Many survivors of torture and mass war have great difficulty picking up the pieces of their lives and reestablishing "normal" due to the lasting impact of trauma-related symptomology. Some who were the most symptomatic survivors participated in individual group therapy conducted by the Center for Victims of Torture. Though people generally benefited from group therapy, for many, their marital relationship quality remained poor compared to what it had been prior to the war. Of couples in which both spouses survived, many decided to divorce, and intact couples faced a great deal of marital difficulties and tension.

Marriage After Mass Torture, Murder, and Exile in Katanga

Torture, especially sexual assault, has been used as a weapon of war throughout the course of human history (IRIN/UNOCHA, 2005). Perpetrators of sexual assault intend to terrorize the population, humiliate women and men, and entertain themselves, with the end goal of causing as much harm as possible (IRIN/UN-OCHA). In the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, between 1997 and 2004, a vast number of women and many men were raped, often by multiple aggressors. Family members were often forced to watch the assault; applaud or laugh during the attack; or even assault their own family members while soldiers, rebels, or police officers watched. Politics, terrain, cultural stigma, language barriers, and ethical considerations severely complicate the task of gathering accurate data about the prevalence of rape in the region during that period, and there is agreement that most data collected so far are likely to be gross underestimates (Peterman, Palermo, & Bredenkamp, 2011). Many women and men who are raped are shamed or ostracized by their families and communities and have little protection from the criminal law and justice systems (IRIN/UNOCHA, 2005). Attempts to report sexual or physical violence are complicated by widespread police corruption and impunity for perpetrators. …

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