Encore: Domestic Violence or Bad Behavior in Law Enforcement Relationships

Tabitha Westbrook, LMFT, LCMHC, LPC, Domestic Violence expert talks about the difference between Law enforcement domestic violence vs. bad behavior and action steps.


There are a lot of statistics that go around with law enforcement and domestic violence. “Google 40% in Law Enforcement” or maybe just the comment “40%”.

Those are the comments I sometimes get in my posts or in my reels on Instagram. I know exactly what it means when I read it. They are referring to the popular statistic that 40% of Law Enforcement engage in acts of violence against their spouse or their children. What many people do not know or share to care, is that this statistic is from two research articles. One from 1991, the other from 1992. This statistic has not been able to be duplicated since that time.

October is Domestic Violence awareness month making it the perfect time to have the conversation. Not only about DV, but a real conversation about what to do if you think you or your spouse might be unintentionally crossing the line.

To help give some clarity to the line between domestic violence and bad behavior, I interviewed Tabitha Westbrook, LMFT Fellow, LCMHC, and LPC, is an expert in domestic violence and an expert witness in PTSD for this podcast.

What is Domestic Violence?

The best term for it is Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control because it encompasses more than just the physical aspect. A great definition comes from Justin and Lindsey Holcomb who wrote a book called “Is It My Fault? Hope and healing for those suffering from Domestic Violence.” Their definition is beautiful broad. It is: “a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injury or wound an intimate partner.”

Very rarely is Domestic Violence physical. People seek counseling for a “bad marriage”, but as counselors we listen and hear the patterns of coercion, control, intimidation, and all of those things mentioned in the definition. Most people can say, yes if we have someone getting punched in the face it’s a problem. Abuse is more insidious than that.

Coercive control 

Coercive control is an ongoing pressure or coercion of someone who is targeted. This can be acts of intimidation or violence. It’s really anything that really reduces safety and sanity.

No one is perfect. We can all be jerks every now and again in a relationship. We all have bad days! This isn’t a pattern. When we get into trouble is when “the every now and again” becomes more frequent and a pattern forms.

Yes, sometimes these things come out, but again we are looking for the pattern. If it’s a constant tearing down of another person, then we are really getting into that coercive control. Controlling movements are monitoring social situations and finances. Are you allowed to have friends, what does you partner do when you go out with friends, are you allowed to even go out with those friends or see family?

Types of Abuse

There are key pieces of abuse that can take form.  These include physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, financial, psychological, spiritual, and digital.

From a statistical perspective, more men are the abuser than women. It can go in different directions. It’s just rarer.

Law Enforcement and Domestic Violence

Conditioned behaviors of law enforcement officers and spouses need to be distinguished from abuse.  Authoritarian Spillover is effective at work to control a scene but at home can present as intimidation. Officer’s brains tend to want to off load anything that is uncomfortable and thus officers tend to blame a lot more rather than taking ownership. An officer’s compulsion to find out the location of family members while on duty could be seen as control but may also be able the need to put at rest that the spouse and family are safe.

As spouses of law enforcement officers, we need to know where the line is between abuse, spillover, or fear so we can properly interpret our significant other’s behavior. A good way to discern this is to look at the totality of your relationship and have awareness of pervasive patterns.

There’s a difference between knowing you are ok with a check-in and being controlled. You know it’s a healthy relationship is there is mutuality. You are both in this together as a team. There is a healthy give and take where both partners are giving and receiving.

“One of the things I often tell people. You know if a relationship is safe if you can disagree.”

If you can’t disagree you need to ask more questions.

Mutuality and the ability to disagree are two key components to a healthy versus an unhealthy relationship. This is a good way of determining whether the spillover from the job coming into your relationship is harmful. The relationship in an abusive situation is very one sided. One person tries to fix it and make everything better. There’s a feeling of walking on eggshells and a feeling of not knowing what will set them off. Those are indicators that we might have a problem.

Abuse versus Bad Behavior in Law Enforcement Relationships

Key questions to assist in determining if this is bad behavior or abuse in your law enforcement relationship are:

Is this a “one off”?

Is there a pattern of behavior?

Is the relationship one sided?

Is their mutuality in the relationship?

Can you disagree?

It’s not about INTENT.  It’s about IMPACT.

There are times when our officer comes home and they’ve had a bad day at work and we do walk on eggshells, but we must remember those key points when assessing the situation. The Officer might not have the intent of causing eggshells in a relationship, but it might be an impact. A lot of times you’ll hear “I didn’t mean to _____ (fill in the blank)” but the impact of the behavior is problematic and deeply hurtful.

Take the example of Manslaughter vs. Murder 1. The outcome is the same. The intent isn’t necessarily the most important piece. A lot of people who are exhibiting abusive behaviors, have their own trauma and their intent is not to harm, but to have a controlled environment. Regardless it is still power and control. They are not murder 1. They are manslaughter and their spouse is still run over with a car. Regardless of the intent, it still needs to be dealt with.

“The motive of your heart isn’t necessarily important as the outcome of your behaviors.”

Getting help if you are being impacted or making an impact.

First things first. Couples therapy is not appropriate if abuse is present. It can put the abused party in danger. That is not a marriage problem. That is a power and control problem.

If you aren’t sure if you should leave, find a therapist well versed in domestic violence and coercive control. They will help you think through the process and what’s best for you.

If you are exhibiting domestic violence type behaviors, just remember that “just like the basket was woven, we can unweave the basket and weave a new one.” You have to do the work and be humble in the process. If you think you might be causing a negative impact in your relationship, have a conversation with your spouse and then seek therapeutic help to learn how to redirect and change behavior.

Other resources that are helpful are calling a national hotline and reaching out to family and friends. Talking to someone is the first step. Don’t be alone and like Brene Brown says “Shame grows in the dark.” When we reach out, it reduces the shame.

Links from the Podcast

Is It My Fault? Hope and healing for those suffering from Domestic Violence. By Lindsey Holcomb 

National Domestic Violence Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/ 

Tabitha’s Practice: www.thejourneryandtheprocess.com 


Encore: Domestic Violence or Bad Behavior in Law Enforcement Relationships

Tabitha Westbrook, LMFT, LCMHC, LPC, Domestic Violence expert talks about the difference between Law enforcement domestic violence vs. bad behavior and action steps.