Why Couples Counseling (or Mediation) in Abusive Relationships Doesn’t Work

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Source: Escape Abuse

Several people have asked about this and we’d like to address it in case any one of them – or anyone — is ever faced with this — or knows anyone who is faced with it.

If you are in any type of intimate relationship where there is abuse: verbal, emotional, psychological (ie: gaslighting, crazymaking), sexual, or physical — and the abuser suggests “couples” or “partners” counseling as a means to try to “work things out” or as an ultimatum to stay in the relationship – DON’T fall for it.

Couples counseling does NOT work where there is abuse in a relationship because it does not address the issue. Get your own individual, separate counseling to help deal with the abuse. If there is abuse, then abuse is the ONLY issue — not “communication” problems or any other type of mutual interaction problem, so couples counseling will not address this situation properly — and may in fact make it worse.

I had someone suggest this in a prior abusive relationship and soon realized that the reason he wanted couples counseling was ONLY because he wanted the counselor to FIX ME. In his opinion, nothing was wrong with HIM. He felt (and stated) that he was blameless, not responsible for his abusive behavior, flawless — and I was the one who was “messed up” and who had caused all or most of the issues in the relationship. He denied and minimized his abuse. Many abusers are very narcissistic in this way, viewing themselves as special, above reproach, incapable of making mistakes, and flawless – regardless what they’ve done or said to their partner. They think they should bear no responsibility for their behavior, or for how it affects others. A complete lack of empathy for their partner is usually very marked.

In my situation, the counselor was fairly well-versed in abusive relationships and saw through this. I had spoken with her about this alone prior to signup. This is a good thing to check ahead of time – ask them directly if they are experienced with counseling people in abusive relationships, and if they’re familiar with the tactics of abusive partners.

She soon began confronting him with some of his abuse and lo and behold, he railed and bailed. He minimized, blamed, denied – even blamed the counselor for “twisting things around” when actually she was UNTWISTING things. She was trying to get beyond his minimization, avoidance, projection, and denial about his abusive behavior to get to what was really behind it (anger and resentment, among other things and whatever was behind that). Having been confronted and not wanting to take responsibility or face himself, he ended it right then and there (which I fully expected having researched this – but it still hurt a lot at the time).

Most abusers would rather end a relationship – no matter what the situation is – than take responsibility for their abusive behavior once confronted with it. It’s rare that they ever do anything to change, or look at themselves as being whatsoever at fault in driving their relationships to destruction.

The problem is, an abusive person will only look at THEIR feelings and SOMEONE ELSE’S behavior — instead of looking at SOMEONE ELSE’S feelings and THEIR behavior (as Lundy Bancroft describes in the excerpt below).

When confronted, one of two things will usually happen: They will escalate their abuse – or they will end it – claiming that their partner(s) are being “unreasonable”, “too sensitive” or “twisting things around”. They will claim THEMSELVES to be the victim.

The abusive person will claim that *other* people are trying to make them “walk on eggshells” (projection) if they’re asked to recognize or respect anyone else’s feelings or needs. But, it is actually the abuser who chronically causes others to feel that way – with their constant criticism, name-calling, insults, condescension, humiliation, and blame. No one in their relationship(s) can do anything right in their eyes except them, and others will often try to modify their behavior in order to try to avoid the abuser’s constant devaluation and criticism. This is an exercise in futility, however.
“Walking on eggshells” is how an abuser often describes any request to recognize or respect someone else’s feelings besides his/her own. (ie: “I’m not going to walk on eggshells around you!“) For most people who posses the ability to empathize normally, empathy isn’t an issue. For an abuser, it’s a lot of work because it’s not something they’re used to having to do — and it’s a skill they aren’t much interested in. When their partners express hurt because of the abuser’s behavior, the abuser will claim the partner is just “oversensitive”. The fact is, the abuser is the one who needs to develop some sensitivity.

As I stated earlier, this is very narcissistic behavior. Abusers are often narcissists or sociopaths or simply have very strong narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies, primarily marked by a complete lack of empathy towards their partners (beyond the initial romance stage), or at least a marked inability or unwillingness to recognize or respect anyone’s feelings or needs other than their own.

And this goes far beyond any “communication” problem or “incompatibility” issue. The issue – is the abuse.

When abusive people go to couples therapy they simply learn to be more skilled abusers and many of them are quite skilled to begin with. Most are highly intelligent. My own ex was a member of Mensa, in fact.

Couples therapy often will only reinforce abusive behavior and they become even more slick and condescending and manipulative with their tactics. That’s because couples therapy typically deals with abuse as if it were a mutual or communications issue – and it isn’t.

Below is a GREAT write-up by Lundy Bancroft (author of “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men“) about why couples counseling does NOT work in abusive relationships – and my own experience bears this out.

*An abuser should go into a specialized abuser program and the target / victim should seek his/her own separate counseling. *I’ll warn that most abusers won’t stoop to such a thing – it would mean they have to admit they have personality problems/faults that have destroyed many of their relationships, and they’d have to be willing to undergo YEARS of tough self-evaluation and work to change — and chances of that are slim to none.

It’s much easier for them to just find another target for their abuse.

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Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling MenExtract from “Why Does He Do That” by Lundy Bancroft

The more psychotherapy a client of mine has participated in, the more impossible I usually find it is to work with him.

  • The highly “therapized” abuser tends to be slick, condescending, and manipulative. He uses the psychological concepts he has learned to dissect his partner’s flaws and dismiss her perceptions of abuse.
  • He takes the responsibility for nothing that he does, he moves in a world where there are only unfortunate dynamics, miscommunications, symbolic acts. He expects to be rewarded for his emotional openness, handled gingerly because of his “vulnerability”, colluded with in skirting the damage he has done, and congratulated for his insight.
  • Many years ago, a violent abuser in my program shared the following with us: “From working in therapy on my issues about anger toward my mother, I realized that when I punched my wife, it wasn’t really her I was hitting. It was my mother!” He sat back, ready for us to express our approval of his self-awareness. My colleague peered through his glasses at the man, unimpressed by his revelation. “No,” he said, “you were hitting your wife.”
  • I have yet to meet an abuser who has made any meaningful and lasting changes in his behavior toward female partners through therapy, regardless of how much “insight” — most of it false — that he may have gained. The fact is that if an abuser finds a particularly skilled therapist and if the therapy is especially successful, when he is finished he will be A HAPPY, WELL-ADJUSTED ABUSER — good news for him, perhaps, but not such good news for his partner. Psychotherapy can be very valuable for the issues it is devised to address, but partner abuse is not one of them; an abusive man needs to be in a specialized program.

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Also on couples therapy:

Attempting to address abuse through couples therapy is like wrenching a nut the wrong way; it just gets even harder to undo than it was before.

  • Couples therapy is designed to tackle issues that are mutual. It can be effective for overcoming barriers to communication, for untangling the childhood issues that each partner brings to the relationship, or for building intimacy.
  • But you can’t accomplish any of these goals in the context of abuse. There can be no positive communication when one person doesn’t respect the other and strives to avoid equality.
  • You can’t take the leaps of vulnerability involved in working through early emotional injuries while you are feeling emotionally unsafe — because you ARE emotionally unsafe. And if you succeed in achieving greater intimacy with your abusive partner, you will soon get hurt even worse than before because greater closeness means greater vulnerability for you.
  • Couples counseling sends the abuser and the abused woman the wrong message. The abuser learns that his partner is “pushing his buttons” and “touching him off” and that she needs to adjust her behavior to avoid getting him so upset. This is precisely what he has been claiming all along.
  • Change in abusers comes only from the reverse process, from completely stepping out of the notion that his partner plays any role in causing his abuse of her.
  • An abuser also has to stop focusing on his feelings and his partner’s behavior, and look instead at her feelings and his behavior. Couples counseling allows him to stay stuck in the former. In fact, to some therapists, feelings are all that matters, and reality is more or less irrelevant. In this context, a therapist may turn to you and say, “But HE feels abused by YOU too.”
  • Unfortunately, the more an abusive man is convinced that his grievances are more or less equal to yours, the less the chance that he will ever overcome his attitudes.
  • The message to you from couples counseling is: “You can make your abusive partner behave better toward you by changing how YOU behave toward HIM.” Such a message is, frankly, fraudulent.
  • ABUSE is NOT caused by bad relationship dynamics. You can’t manage your partner’s abusiveness by changing your behavior, but he wants you to think that you can. He says or leads you to believe, that “if you stop doing the things that upset me, and take better care of my needs, I will become a nonabusive partner.” It never materializes. And even if it worked, even if you could stop his abusiveness by catering to his every whim, is that a healthy way to live? If the way you behave in the relationship is a response to the threat of abuse, are you a voluntary participant?
  • If you have issues you would like to work on with a couples counselor, wait until your partner has been COMPLETELY ABUSE-FREE for two years. Then you might be able to work on some of the problems that truly are mutual ones.

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