Why Couples Counseling in Abusive Relationships Doesn’t Work

15, April 2011 at 11:06 PM (conflicted, scapegoated, trapped) (, , , , , , )

I had no idea it was so common for abusive partners to insist on couples counseling, but apparently it is downright cliché. I always felt couples counseling was not the right solution, but could never make to my partner an effective enough argument why I felt that way (please note I was never just “allowed” to have my own feelings or opinions but through untold hours of argumentation the onus was always on me to convince him why I felt some certain way). I have just read today about why an abusive partner would think couples counseling is not only the right solution but the ONLY solution to the problems in the relationship: because it helps him believe the problem is not his abuse, but “our relationship”; because it enables him to look only at his feelings and my behaviour instead of looking at my feelings and his behaviour; because he thinks the counseling will fix what he sees as the true source of every problem in the relationship: the person being affected by and not keeping quiet about his abuse; or: anything and everything besides himself. In the next two posts after this one, I would like to provide a link and excerpt from a website I found which states all of this more concisely and effectively than I can, then an excerpt dealing specifically with abusers in couples and/or individual therapy from the book Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. For now, this was my experience with an abusive partner and couples counseling:

At some point in our relationship, very near after I started calling my ex’s behaviour out for what it was– abusive– he began to insist that we go to couples counseling. He stated his belief that “we” had a bad “relationship dynamic” and cited “communication” problems and my inability to “get over” things on his schedule. I balked because the only issue for me was his abusive behaviour, and I did not think sitting around and talking about our feelings was going to accomplish anything. I made many other suggestions to deal with what I saw as the problem, such as participating in groups or programs at the local men’s center which specifically handle domestic abuse, or his participation in non-violent communications workshops with Friends for a Non-Violent World. I pointed him in the direction of websites, podcasts, and books. My partner rejected all of my suggestions out of hand and never pursued any of them. Clearly, it was his way or the highway.

His abuse and blame-shifting escalated, and I became increasingly confused and depressed. The more I resisted couples counseling as the only solution, the more personal my partner’s attacks became. One day he came home and approached me with something that he said had been on his mind for some time, and he was finally going to tell me because he cares, because he thought it was for my own good: I am “too sensitive”, he said, and he gave me many reasons for how he thinks I got this way, none of which had anything to do with his behaviour toward me, none of which had anything to do with the abusive relationship or environment I was in; all explanations blamed other people in my past and my supposed inability to separate my past experiences from my present one. Repeating that he was only saying this because he cares, he stated that he believes my character is “deeply flawed”, and thus I am and have been “unable to see” the things about myself which were causing all of our problems, and causing me to “interpret” his actions as abusive (see also: What is Gaslighting?).

Thankfully I was still me enough to recognise this as blame-shifting and even more abusive, and I called him out on it. The subject of couples counseling fell off the table for a short time. Our relationship, of course, did not improve. But the only thing my ex would allow as a “solution” was couples counseling. Because none of my original concerns regarding whether couples counseling could be effective in dealing with his abusive behaviour were ever addressed, I still had the same concerns. Finally, at the end of our relationship, after he had already moved out, he made it an ultimatum: either I agree to couples counseling or our relationship will be terminated. He made it very clear that what he wanted out of it was to “discover” if there was any way for him to feel we could work things out (please note: the couples counseling is for his benefit alone); he stated quite plainly several times “no one can have or will have any influence” on his decision regarding whether we could work things out– not me, not the couples counselor, not his individual therapist, and not his mother– that this is a decision he needs to make for himself. This was of course bizarrely confusing to me; I did not know why I was being asked to go, then, and moreover I wondered what kind of “relationship” this was supposed to be where I do not have any influence whatsoever on my (supposed)-partner’s opinions of or life with me. In any case, I was afraid, and the relationship was now being held hostage by him, so I capitulated.

The first session ended with the counselor asking us to make an “agreement” that we (meaning he, since I do not threaten him this way) will excuse ourselves/himself from any situation in which we/he begins to feel violent, and we (meaning me, since he was the only one claiming this occurs) will agree not to “push each others’ buttons.” She made suggestions for us to cope with an escalating situation which, unbeknownst to the counselor, my partner used frequently as punishment and for which I had been punished by my partner for exercising (example: she suggested I go for a walk if things got to be too much; the one time I did this in the past, I was barely across the street before I saw my ex speed past in his car. I did not know where he was going, I did not know when or even if ever he would return. So even though he often left when things got to be too much for him, the one time I did the same, my partner abandoned me/our relationship. Although it occurred so many times I get them mixed up, I believe he was gone for two weeks in that instance.) This scared the shit out of me, honestly, because the suggestions and agreements sounded enabling. Was he not in effect being given permission to be abusive if given a “good reason”? I was reminded of my partner telling me only AFTER I agreed to go to counseling that he actually thought I would be disruptive or un-cooperative in counseling because of a single incident a year and a half prior in past family therapy with my (verbally and physically abusive) son, when my son’s therapist said I was “making him angry” and “pushing his buttons” by crying or saying how I feel or telling of my experiences. Let me underline: the family therapist’s enabling, blame-shifting remark was now being used by my partner as “advance proof” to justify any anger/violence he displays in the future, to shift blame for his anger/violence onto me, and to hold me responsible for whether or not couples counseling can be effective. Whoa. Double-triple-bind! (And how’s that for “collecting grievances for later justification”, another thing abusers do: at the time the family therapist said I was responsible for my son’s anger and violence, my partner gave me a hug, because it made me cry more to be told my son’s anger and violence was my own fault. But yet he saved this one remark and his never-before-expressed agreement with it for well over a year before he took it out as evidence that I’m potentially too “disruptive” for couples counseling, defined no less by him as our relationship’s only chance to survive.) So, if he gets angry or violent, it’s all my fault: I pushed his buttons! If counseling is ineffective, it’s all my fault: I’m disruptive and non-cooperative! If the relationship ends, it’s all my fault: I sabotaged the effectiveness of counseling! This was too much entrapment for me to navigate.

Before our next session, I was freaking out. I was incredibly afraid that counseling– since it would take much too much time for the counselor to start to get a picture of the abusive environment I was in– was going to have an adverse effect, escalate and justify his abusive behaviour, and further validate his belief that this is all just a “bad dynamic”. I tried to go in to see another counselor alone ahead of the next couples appointment to see if I could get advice on how to communicate to the couples counselor that there was abuse present in the relationship, that I feared retaliation, and that I needed her to understand and be careful not to “give him permission” to abuse me. Because I did not have the money or personal strength to get to the counseling center by myself, I asked my partner the night before for a ride (I did not tell him why I wanted to go). He was very supportive and agreed to help. The next day he called me in what I wondered was an aggressive and hostile mood. I did not feel safe going anywhere with him, but I really wanted to talk to another counselor before our next couples appointment, and this was my last chance to do so before then. He argued with me over the phone while I tried to figure a way out of yet another double-bind, until finally he yelled at the top of his voice that he can’t help me. Alarmed, I hung up on him before he could say anything else. I was on the phone with him just exactly the right amount of time so that even if I tried to get myself to the counseling center on the bus, I would arrive too late and they would be closed. My partner had effectively prevented me from getting help. My reliance on his word and expressed wish that he would tone down his hostility so that I could feel safe getting in a car with him prevented me from helping myself.

I called three hotlines and explained I needed advice on how to communicate to the couples counselor my concerns. I told them only about how I wanted to but couldn’t get to see another counselor before our next couples session, and gave as an example of my experience in the relationship only one incident of physical aggression. Without even knowing how many such incidents there were, and without knowing anything at all about the emotional and sexual abuse, all three stated plainly, “He is an abuser. You need to get out of that relationship NOW, and never look back.” I kept their bluntness in mind during the next session. Abuser’s name removed. By their fruits ye shall know them. Matthew 7:16

In the second session, the counselor called my partner’s physical aggression threatening; when he tried to make the “she pushes my buttons” and “I can’t control myself” excuses, she did not allow it. She asked him how he could communicate his anger without blaming me, and he had the right answer immediately. I asked him afterwards why he knew without hesitation the right way to express himself without threats or blame while in the counselor’s office, but all the times I gave him examples of how to express himself without threats or blame he said he didn’t understand or that if he “was the kind of person who said things like that we wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with”. His answer to why he knew how to act non-abusively in the counselor’s office but acts abusively at home, and I quote: “Because it’s you.” There we have it again in one tidy little sentence: I “push his buttons”, he is not responsible for his behaviour, it’s my own damn fault, and I deserve it.

Before that second session, immediately after speaking with the hotline workers who advised me to get out of the relationship, I had written my partner a letter in which I stated that the only circumstance in which I could continue having a relationship with this man was if he admitted to his abuse, without blame, without excuses. He needed to admit it to me personally, he needed to admit it to an abuse counselor, and he needed to admit it to his parents and friends he lied to about it. I also outlined many ways in which I would support him outside of the relationship becoming a non-violent person. It just so happened that without knowing what I wrote in my letter, and unsolicited by me, my partner did admit to me personally over the phone that he was abusive toward me and that I did not “ask for” or deserve it. I had hope. I mentioned in the second session that I had written this letter, but that I had not given it to my partner or read it to him because I was afraid of his reaction. The counselor thought I had done something really good, and assigned him to also write what he wanted from our relationship; she said we could exchange our ideas in the third session, and she would be a “translator” for us, since it “sounds like we’re both walking on eggshells”. Suddenly my partner changed what he wanted from counseling: he just wanted “closure.” Interesting. And in the car after that appointment, he took back his no blame-no excuses confession that he had abused me and reverted again to “we abused each other”. I have no doubt that he really believes this, that he cannot understand the difference between reactions to chronic abuse (fear, anxiety, depression, etc), and the initial abuses. But one thing I knew for sure through all this, he was hopeless and would not change.

Though there is a “rule” in this house not to ask me for permission for anything while I am sleeping (as a single parent of a clever child, I have become skilled at “sleep-talking”), he called the next morning because he wanted to cuddle before work. What? Oh yes. We went out after our appointment the night before to talk, and somehow had a good time– like no good time he ever showed me during our whole relationship (I have since learned that it is typical of an abuser losing control of their partner or the relationship to flip on the “nice switch” to keep his options available; this sudden charm contributes to a tremendous flood of relief and gratitude from the abused partner, resulting in traumatic bonding). Naturally he wanted to take advantage of these good feelings, and I was not alert enough to resist (I was asleep with the phone still to my ear when he appeared at my bedside). Until he got here. I was not cuddly, I talked nervously the whole time, and eventually just got up out of bed. He went to work. I did not hear hide or hair from him again for four days, and when I did, he was all business, totally impersonal. I could see what was going on: as long as I am nice and cuddly, he’ll be sweet to me. If for any reason I can’t/won’t/don’t put out whenever he wants me to, he desires me no more and openly displays a total lack of interest in the fact that I still exist (and have feelings that are hurt by his Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde routine).

So before the third session, I told him I wanted to go to the next appointment alone, and sent him an email saying our relationship was over. I could tell he was very far away from being able to take responsibility for his actions, his treatment of and his attitudes toward me. He came back some days later with the dubious claim that he had written his assignment prior to receiving my break-up message, that in his letter he states he wants to terminate the relationship, and I could read it “if I wanted to” since he would not be present at the next counseling session. I asked him if it was going to be just another of his many letters detailing all the ways he has been “victimised” by this relationship. To this he said no, of course, because he “has a different perspective” than me (what he calls my “perspective”– but was in fact my factually lived experience: that he emotionally abused me, physically threatened me, and sexually assaulted me– is in his mind totally wrong; his perspective– that he is the real or greater victim of “our bad relationship dynamic” is right). Because of a series of mishaps and time-wastes, he drove me to the third appointment. We were early, I talked to him in the car about his abuse and my great hope for him to seek real help for it. He started crying a lot, especially about needing to know I’m “still here” (for him? with him? in physical proximity? emotionally attached? I do not know), so I invited him in to the session. I can’t leave a person in such pain, and knew I could always have my appointments alone the next weeks. It was explained to the counselor that he would no longer be attending, that I had ended the relationship once and for all, and that I desired future counseling only for myself. There were some diversionary topics which were irrelevant given the circumstances, he did a little begging for understanding. I expressed my relief that it was finally over, and expressed some sorrow that he will remember me so negatively. It ended with his head in my lap and me bawling.

The next day he brought the letter which inspired this blog, the one he claims to have written to fulfill the counselor’s assignment to be read in the next session. Compared to my page and a half of solutions which inspired the assignment, his was six typewritten pages long, would have taken most of the appointment to read, and offers not much more than blame, blame, blame, blame, he is so victimised, I am so in denial, and “we” just had a bad relationship dynamic. There are very many points detailing what a monumentally judgmental, intolerant, impatient, cruel and oversensitive person I am, and as such I cannot even think correctly (one almost wonders why he insisted to the very end that he loves such a terrible person). An incredible lot of things I said over the past two years are taken completely out of context; in some cases I see he has narcissistically taken things I said about myself to “really be” statements about him; my childhood experiences (not his abuse, of course) are THE Explanation for why our relationship didn’t and couldn’t work; many times he understands something to be the exact opposite of what I actually said; even a self-deprecating joke I made recently about myself sounding “like such a stereotypical woman”, after which I did say I do not mean to give that impression, is leveraged as evidence that I am belittling of him and do not take his music seriously. -???- It made me wonder about his mental state, and it made me sad. I honestly don’t know what he expects me to believe would have been accomplished by bringing this to “couples counseling”; not only would there have been no time to discuss anything in it, there was nothing to discuss. He laid down his experiences, and that is that. He really wanted me to read it, too, he had been saying for days he wanted me to have it even though there was now no relationship nor couples counseling to bring it to. When he handed it over, I asked if it was written for himself, or for me. He said he did not know. I asked him if he was giving it to me because he thought reading it would be good for me, or if he was giving it to me because it makes himself feel better. Again, he said he did not know. Perhaps he made all these accusations and claims in his letter just to hurt me, or perhaps he really believes these things occurred; perhaps he wanted me to read it so badly because it was his last chance to hurt my feelings, or perhaps he is simply just so insensitive that he can’t tell what feelings I have to hurt. Well I can say now, it did make me feel bad– for him.

In the letter, and throughout our last weeks, and even the last time I saw him, he repeated over and over again that it was he who tried to “save” our relationship so many times by suggesting couples counseling, and that if only I would have co-operated with his solution, maybe we would have had a chance. This has caused me to doubt myself a great deal, is it really all my fault? If I would have stopped being stubborn, or resistant, or having my own opinions about counseling, or any of the other criticisms he had of me, things could have been alright?  I have learned today that couples counseling absolutely would not have worked. Not only would it not have worked, it would very likely have made things worse. I learned also that my instincts about it were valid and correct. Most incredibly to me, I learned that rejecting all other solutions, making only this one solution available to me/us, is typical of abusive and controlling partners. And that if I insist that his abusive behaviour be the focus of the therapy, abusive and controlling partners would rather end the relationship than face themselves— just exactly as my partner suddenly said he wanted “closure” from therapy the same day the counselor showed him he was being abusive, and challenged him not to be. He has portrayed himself to me, and I suspect also to his individual therapist and family at least, as a would-be hero of our relationship, the one who had the right and only “real” solution to our “dynamic”, whose noble efforts to save our relationship were constantly thwarted by my wide variety of personality flaws (sensitiveness, stubbornness, judgmental-ness, ignorance, unreasonable way of thinking, and everything else he had complaints about regarding me as a person). The thing that makes me the most sad is that I think he really believes this, and feels he should be commended for having “tried so hard” to fix our relationship. My wish for him today would be that he would come someday to understand that what he feels he should be commended for is something that very many abusive partners also feel they should be commended for. But coercion, double-binding, blame-shifting, and denial are not commendable. Accepting responsibility, striving toward personal improvement, developing empathy and making reparations, only these could I ever commend him for, even though, as the target of his abuse, there would be absolutely no obligation for me to do so.

I wish him clear vision, and I wish myself healing.

(I also wish my posts were shorter!) 😆 😉

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