Attempting to address abuse through couples therapy is like wrenching a nut the wrong way. It just gets harder to undo than it was before. ~ Lundy Bancroft
This is the second article exploring the appropriateness of couples counseling in various situations. See the first article here. In this article, we explore the situation where one of the partners treats the other partner very badly, disrespects the other, bullies or intimidates or otherwise tries to control them, and doesn’t consider the other partner’s opinion worth taking seriously. If you guessed that couples counseling can do little or nothing (and may actually be harmful) in these cases, you guessed right. Let’s look at this situation more closely, then explore some alternative options.
Here’s the typical scenario: the disrespected partner, we’ll call her “the wife,”* contacts a couples counselor to help her make her husband* aware of his troublesome behavior. This seems like a good idea since she certainly hasn’t been able to have any effect on him and doesn’t feel safe going it alone.
If the troublesome husband agrees to come in (and he may only do this if he thinks he can make his case against her and control the situation), then the couples counselor (not me, in this case) begins to talk in terms of relationship problems as a 50/50 thing. They then begin to look at how each partner triggers or “pushes the buttons” of the other. This immediately plays into the husband’s game by putting much of the blame in his wife’s lap. The attention can be taken off of his behaviors and placed onto hers. In this case, he’s off to the races, doing whatever he can to manipulate the process in this direction. “It’s her fault. She’s always trying to pick a fight. She’s the one who changed. She’s not the person I married. I yell at her for her own good” or some such self-justifying BS.
Ideally, in these cases, the focus should be on the husband’s behavior and the wife’s feelings. In this case, that is the crux of the matter. Sadly, the focus quickly shifts (and he makes sure of this) onto his feelings and her behaviors. At this point, if things continue in this direction, there’s really no hope for her and she may feel even worse in the end. She may find that now, not only is her partner pointing out her faults, the counselor is unwittingly colluding with him.
If the counselor has a clue, they might attempt to shift the focus back to his behaviors. When this happens, the husband will often become enraged, question the competence of the counselor, and walk out of the session (queue the slamming door). Things are not going the husband’s way anymore, so he manipulates, controls, gets angry, shuts down, does whatever he needs to do to escape blame and responsibility. In the end, the counselor is damned if they do confront him and damned if they don’t.
If the counselor pacifies the husband enough to stay in the process, they are essentially re-enacting how the wife pacifies him and thus they both enable him to continue being as he is. Further, there may be discussion about how she can make him behave better if she changes how she behaves toward him (more in line with how he wants her to be). This message is incredibly harmful to her (since the victim is being blamed), advantageous to him (reinforcing his message to her), and most often makes the relationship worse (at least for her).
The counselor may try the technique of getting the husband to agree not to be troublesome for some period of time, say a couple of months. This negotiation also requires that the wife must do something in return, most often something that’s exactly what the husband wants her to do (cater more to him, not see her friends, have more sex, you name it). This serves only to solidify the toxic aspects of the relationship and give them professional sanction. “You’re not doing what the counselor told you to do!”
Lastly (but not leastly), the wife may at some point feel safe enough in the presence of the counselor to describe her complaints about his behaviors. This might feel good to her at the time and she and the counselor might begin to believe that progress is being made. As an aside, one of the most popular couples counseling methods** these days focuses on partners expressing feelings and emotions to each other, thus increasing the possibility of empathy between them. Can you imagine that happening in this case? Boing!
Anyway, let’s say the wife is able to talk about the abusive, controlling, disrespectful behaviors of her husband. The husband in this case will probably not give a you-know-what about what she’s saying other than how it comes across to the counselor as he’s very concerned about his image. He may either blow up and call them both names or he might act contrite and apologetic in the session. Now wouldn’t that be wonderful, except that it’s most probably a ploy for sympathy and to shift attention to him and his feelings. He’s not really sorry about what he did; he might be sorry he got busted. In any case, just wait until he gets his wife out to the car. There will be a severe price to pay. “I told you never to tell anyone about that, you (b-word)!” and so on. The relationship gets worse, the wife becomes even less hopeful and more depressed and frightened.
By now, you are no doubt getting the picture. Do not, under any circumstances, engage in couples counseling with an abusive partner involved!!! This message is for counselors as well as relationship partners. OK, so what should you do?
The answer to this question deserves an entire other article and depends greatly on the nature of the abuse and the level of harm that might come should the abusive bear be poked. The first rule is Stay Safe! Do what you need to do to stay out of harm’s way.
If you are in a position where you are able to see a therapist on your own (this may work well with a husband who thinks you’re the crazy one), then do so. Try to find someone who is familiar with abusive behavior so they can guide you toward greater understanding of what’s going on, help you understand that this is not your fault (he was probably like this well before you even met him), and what to do going forward, given that it’s highly unlike that he’ll ever change.
The more support you can get from friends and family and professionals, the better. You may wish to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (also http://www.thehotline.org). If possible, you may also wish to educate yourself about your situation. One of the best resources I’ve found is the book “Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Mind of Angry and Controlling Men” by Lundy Bancroft.
In the meantime, I wish you the best. Life can get better! And remember, your life belongs to no one but you. Take care.
* I’ve chosen to refer to the victim as “wife” and abuser as “husband” since that is the vast majority of cases. It’s absolutely true that men can be the target for verbal and physical abuse. I have had male clients where this is the case.
** Emotion Focused Therapy
Copyright 2018 Daniel J. Metevier