Putting It All Together

16, May 2011 at 4:09 AM (sad or sorry for myself) (, , , , , , , , )

[21. May update: I have been thinking about this post, and I feel stupid for it. I won’t remove it, however, because I think it serves to represent just how confused, insecure and unable to know what reality even is anymore when someone exercises gaslighting, withholding and underloading on their partner– and how much I had to rely on deduction, inference, or “filling in the blanks” to try to figure out what was ever going on. I could never know what was true and what wasn’t, I still can’t. I am back to thinking that probably nothing happened between him and his high-school friend, and that I’m just being ridiculous for thinking maybe something did. But that’s just it: this is how things were every day, me going back and forth never being able to know anything, and feeling guilty, stupid or ridiculous whenever I had doubts. What certainly was going on throughout our relationship is that by lying, withholding, manipulating what I could and couldn’t know about him, my partner took control of whether or not there could be any trust or stability in the relationship. He didn’t have to actually cheat on me to make me feel insecure or jealous or even distrustful of my own instincts; by choosing to be always evasive and secretive, he only had to leave open and let me wrestle with the possibility of whether or not he did, would have, or wanted to. Obviously trust and intimacy cannot be created in such a relationship; anyone who, like my ex, would choose to cultivate insecurities, jealousies, distrust and self-doubt in their partner instead of trust, confidence, and stability, is taking abusive control of his partner’s feelings, emotions and ability to make decisions that are right for them.]

From what I have been learning, abusers seem to respond to the final break-up in one of two ways. Some are deeply outraged at their loss of control over their partner and intensify the abuse in an effort to maintain control or get it back. The other type leaves almost in relief: it was getting to be too much work and hassle to control their partner, manipulate their allies, and keep their guilt from overtaking their conscience. Neither outrage nor relief would be the reaction of someone who genuinely loves their partner. Except for one breathless and panicky voice mail message in which he insists I let him come over to talk to me left shortly after he read my break-up letter (he claims there was no connection, that he was just beside himself in a state of incoherence for no reason at all), my former partner falls and remains squarely in the latter category.

One of the things he did from the very beginning and throughout our relationship was lie to me about just about everything. Yet he would argue for hours whenever I confronted him that he was being completely honest even though he understood at the time I asked him something that he was strategically misleading me (“protecting” me from the truth so I “wouldn’t feel bad”, he said).  He can make the claim that he was honest due to extremely very careful and idiosyncratic interpretation known only to him of questions that I asked. Instead of answering the spirit of a question, he would pick out a single word, interpret it in his own private way, and answer accordingly. I could, of course, never know what, exactly, he was answering, and it took a very, very long time to figure out this is what was going on (this is called “Gaslighting”; see also: What is Withholding?).

[Note: the text below has been revised since this was originally posted; I discovered by review of our emails that I did not in fact question my partner on if he was sleeping with someone else, but rather I wondered if he was sleeping somewhere else– a significant difference, which does not make any assumption about whether he was staying with someone male or female, friends, other family or a new partner.  My inquiry only questions his location and not his activities. As shall be seen below, he responded aggressively about where he was staying by introducing himself the possibility he was sleeping with someone. Though he denies it, he does so in the same breath as he suggests it. Not only is this an example of gaslighting, especially because even I myself was led by his response to believe or feel as though I asked something I didn’t, but it looks very much like “confessing by denying”– like the classic “stupid criminals” story of the guy who was standing by a trash can when police officers walked by: when asked what he was doing there, the guy said, “I didn’t throw any drugs in the trash, if that’s what you were thinking!” This unsolicited denial aroused the officers’ suspicions; they then looked in the trash and sure enough, there were drugs and the guy was arrested. Having noticed this oddity today, I take back that it seems far-fetched that he was sleeping with someone within a week of seeing me for the last time, and now feel it appears likely he was– and what this would mean to me is that not only might he have lied to me about the incident itself, but also he lied the last time I saw him about how long he intends to wait (“at least a year”) before considering himself recovered enough from the pain of our relationship not working out before he “could even think about being intimate with another woman.” The bottom line, if it is the case that he lied about these things, for me is this: he suffers absolutely no heartbreak about never being with me again; further, I was not the “love of his life”, but rather an easily replaceable object. 😥 All that said, let us proceed with the story:]

Since our breakup, my partner and I have remained distantly in contact over email, mostly him dumping his endless problems with his car and his job on me, and arguing about financial matters. One day he seemed to me to suggest that he wasn’t staying where he said he was staying, and I wondered if he was hinting that he was already sleeping with someone else or at someone else’s house. I wrote him back and told him I really did not need to hear about such things, and stated I felt it was insensitive to imply to me that he had so soon moved on. He replied to everything else in my message except this issue. In fact, he seemed to make it a point to highlight his evasion by beginning his message with, “I guess I’d better clear some things up”– addressing every single thing in my previous message except whether or not I had any cause to be concerned that he was implying he had already moved on only a week after we shared our last kiss. What one doesn’t say is sometimes more revealing than what one does say, so I pointed out that I noticed his omission. He wrote back another ambiguous note that still did not address my concern. Finally, after many messages between us, in a note which makes several totally unfounded accusations distorting my original concern, he said, “If you like just assuming I’m sleeping with someone, go ahead. But I’m not.” Pretty insensitive, isn’t it, to assert I like to think of him sleeping with someone else, or that I would like to believe he had so little feeling for me that he’d have moved on within just a couple weeks.

Tonight I was thinking about just that: how quickly and totally he appeared to be over everything. At no time since we broke up has he ever expressed being sorry, or that he misses me, or that this is hard or in any way an emotional time. He has sent me a list of dumb things to make sure I remember to give back to him and includes a gift I gave him as if it were no more sentimental than anything else on the list, like bottles of vitamins, or unused notebooks. To everything I have said– angry, sad, sentimental, in need of closure, or even just asking him to read a book which might help him understand what went wrong– he has responded with THE WALL OF SILENCE, as if all he saw in those parts of my messages was blank space. I hear from a trusted friend that on facebook he is just exactly the same as he was two years ago, as if he never knew me, and our relationship never happened: his mood is neither up nor down, he’s just the same ol’ guy he always was. Sure, people don’t have to “advertise” their bad relationships online, but I guess what I think I’m seeing here is a guy who hasn’t had a single regret or thought in his head wishing we weren’t broken up or that there was anything he should have done differently to prevent that. I think what I’m seeing here is a guy whose last-relationship demons are already exorcised, who is already over it, and for whom there is no looking back. You know what that usually means: he slept with someone.

But when I wondered if he was sleeping somewhere other than at his parents’ or a friend he intended to move in with, after a great deal of dodging he finally said, “If you like just assuming I’m sleeping with someone, go ahead. But I’m not.” At the time I thought, silly me, yeah, it would seem pretty far-fetched that he found someone to hook up with that fast, but tonight it hit me: the -ING! SleepING with someone. Ah, I get it. In order to understand his answer, passive-aggressively worded no less, I have to interpret the question in the way that he would: sleepING with someone suggests something currently happening and/or ongoing (in fact, this verb tense is called “present continuous”). If he had already slept with someone once or twice and he does not expect it to happen again– he would say, no, I am not sleepING with someone. This is very different than what would be said by a compassionate partner who didn’t sleep with someone; a compassionate partner would not want someone he cares about to worry or feel bad, especially about something that didn’t happen. A person who loves you and cares about being honest with you would answer the spirit of the question directly: “I haven’t slept with anyone.” A person who cared about you might even expand on that to comfort you with something to the effect of, “I am not interested in getting involved with anyone so soon, I have a lot to deal with, etc” or “I told you I loved you and never wanted to be with anyone else, that doesn’t change in a matter of weeks.” But I know the guy I was with, and I know his particular method of lying to me in such a way as to be able to later claim and feel like he’s technically telling the truth: by picking out a single word, interpreting it in his own private way, and answering only that. So it could very well be possible that he had sex with someone else anywhere between the day he left and the day before I wondered if he was sleeping at someone else’s; it could also be possible that he got a blow-job a few times but didn’t have intercourse; it could even be possible that he had sex a few times, got a blow-job a few times, did it upside down standing on his head in the middle of Main Street with five different women in broad daylight, but as long as he didn’t SLEEP with someone (as in catch a few z’s), this guy would say, “If you like just assuming I’m sleeping with someone, go ahead. But I’m not”, and feel 100% confident that he was answering what I wanted to know with the absolute, God’s Honest Truth.

This leads to wondering if it would even be possible for him to find a new partner so fast. But then I remembered when he left another time last year, he told me he had gotten together socially with his high-school friend Becky, a girl he reported having a crush on and wanting to sleep with for years. She was going through some difficulties with her boyfriend at the time, and was considering an estrangement or break-up also. After their meeting, I saw a message she wrote him about “renewing vows” with him. I asked him what that meant, he said he had no idea. That to me sounds pretty hard to believe, such a strong sentiment from one of his oldest friends, someone he had long and lingering feelings for, something that references some kind of special or meaningful pact or agreement he made with her at some time in their past. But, he claimed, he had no idea what she was talking about. She also invited him on a road trip somewhere, somewhere which would involve staying overnight together. I asked him why she would think it’s appropriate to invite him to stay with her somewhere overnight when he supposedly has a girlfriend (whom she never met, besides). Again, he said he had no idea what her intentions may have been or why she would invite him to go somewhere and stay overnight with her. He said because he hasn’t a clue what any of it was about, he was just going to ignore her messages, so I shouldn’t be worried. Though I found it kind of odd that he would just ignore his oldest friend like that rather than give her an answer to her invitation or try to find out what she meant by “renewing their vows” (if he really didn’t know what this meant, which I seriously doubt), I had so many other things to worry about with him I took his advice and forgot about it.

Well now, I must admit, this stuff worries me. Was he leaving me and going to her and talking to her about things and in some certain way that gave her the impression that he was available? Perhaps this shouldn’t matter now, but when I look at how fast this guy (who always and even at the end claimed he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me) seems to be without a regret or care in the world that he shall never lay eyes on me or hear my voice again, I wish, I really, really wish, I knew what was really going on then. I just want to understand what was happening in my relationship. And if he was mincing words when he answered my supposition that he was sleeping somewhere other than where he said he was at the time, I wish, I really, really wish I knew that too. Not because I have any “claim” to him anymore, and not so I can torture myself about it, but so I can finally put to rest the question of whether this guy, who never showed love for me a day in his life but could (and often did!) argue to the contrary for 6, 8, 10 uninterrupted hours if I said I didn’t feel cared about, could this guy have possibly loved me, did he ever even like me, or was everything a lie? Because I’d have to say, if he was flirting with his friend while we were together, if he slept (in any of that word’s connotations) with her or someone else since we broke up, that would explain a great deal: about the speed and ease with which he appears to have gotten over me, about why he will never acknowledge or deal with what he did, about why he isn’t sorry, about why isn’t sad, about why he isn’t even fucking curious about how I’m doing personally (what kind of guy wants to spend the rest of his life with a girl he doesn’t even care to ask, “How have you been?” when he writes her two months after not seeing her anymore?), about why he can go around smiling and joking with people, same ol’ guy he always was, while two months after he moved out I’m still wrecked with grief, loss, and the physical and emotional effects of his abuse on me and my son.

Maybe it is is a far-fetched explanation to suppose the reason he’s over everything as quickly and completely as he appears is because he has already consummated a long-developing affair with his high-school crush with whom he had taken some kind of secret personal vows. The simpler explanation is: he is an abuser, and abusers don’t give a goddamn about anything that isn’t providing direct benefit to themselves. Most especially do they not give a damn about their partners’ need and right to hear the truth about what he did, why he did it, and what, if anything, he is willing to do about it to help her recover from the damage he caused.

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Feeling Responsible

13, May 2011 at 11:58 AM (scapegoated, trapped) (, , , , )

From Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery:

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.”

I would only add: However, if the victim refuses to be silent, and people start listening, he simply runs away in search of a new and easier target to abuse, and the cycle starts all over again.

On the one hand, I have this knowledge, and with it feel like there is something I can and must do to prevent another person from being harmed by him. I have tried desperately to get him to acknowledge his problem, I have pleaded for him to recognise the expansiveness of the damage his behaviour causes– not only because I wanted him to stop abusing me, but also because I do not want him to abuse anyone in the future who shall have the misfortune of becoming entangled in his sicknesses; there is even a sliver of me that wants him to deal with the problems which drive him to be abusive (and according to abuse literature, those problems are his value system and his way of seeing women), because I care(d) about him and still have compassion enough to not want him to continue to damage himself and his own life.

But I know: abusers are highly motivated to never face themselves; they have no experience with the rewards of a truly loving intimate relationship based on mutual respect and so refuse to give up the “rewards” felt to be gained by maintaining strict control over their partner and their relationship. And so I know: he will not stop, he will not change, and all he got out of our relationship and my efforts to hold him accountable were lessons in how to better avoid discovery and responsibility in the future. Through the experience with this relationship, he will have only learned how to become more sweet, flattering and attentive in the beginning and at points when his next partner considers leaving him, and more secretive, more sneaky, more manipulative and more controlling in order to hold onto her like he was unable to hold onto me. I know his inability to hold onto his last girlfriend played into his determination to hold onto me at any cost. All the abuse literature says abusive behaviour has a strong and predictable tendency to escalate with time and each subsequent relationship, and so there is a very real possibility that the next poor woman is going to get it even worse than I. If no one can hold him accountable for what he did to me and his previous girlfriends, the cycle of abuse will continue.

That feels like my responsibility: if I know a crime is going to be committed, it is my moral duty to do everything in my power to try and stop it. But I know it isn’t my fault if he abuses another person and I know I’ve already done everything I can do short of making a public declaration to prevent it from (re-)occurring. Above and beyond all the other life-long effects his abuse will have on me, my family, and my present and future friendships/relationships with others, knowing I was helpless to prevent harm coming to another person, and that my relationship with him was nothing more than a training grounds upon which to refine his strategies– especially with becoming more covert in his methods of manipulation and control, therefore making it more difficult for the next woman to see and disentangle herself from– these are very hard things for me to live with.

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Telling the Truth is Not Abuse

21, April 2011 at 11:53 PM (angry or frustrated, scapegoated) (, , , , , , )

It is widely established and confirmed and written about everywhere that one of the most classic things an abuser does is claim to be themselves abused by the person they are abusing. This is blame-shifting, manipulative, diverting and crazymaking. My ex was no exception to the employment of this tactic to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions. Toward the end, one of the things he brought up a few times and wrote in his final summation of our relationship as an example of how much I hurt him was that I had early in our relationship made the statement, “You were fucking jerking off to porn!” (He says I stated it, that I did not yell, but yet he added the italics and exclamation point.) He says I made a disgusted face while I said it. This is probably true, because I am disgusted by men who look at porn. I am even more disgusted by men who look at porn frequently, in lieu of having real interactions with real people. I am even more disgusted by men who save collections of porn on their computers. But I am probably most disgusted by my ex, who knew when he asked me out that he was looking at porn at least once and up to (he claims) three times daily, had built many collections of hundreds of photos and videos on his computer, and was well aware in advance of asking me out that I had very strong and outspoken oppositions to the sexual exploitation and abuse of anyone. It is something I put out there, on the table for everyone to see right away, in order to not get involved with and especially not asked out by people who engage in or support the sexual exploitation of others.

Whenever I asked how he could have been so dishonest with me about this, or why he would even ask someone like me out when there are plenty of other potential girlfriends out there who might not feel as strongly as I do about the subject, he said he expected me to be more tolerant, more forgiving, more patient, and more understanding. There we have again further blame-shifting, diversion and, probably worst of all, a sense of entitlement. When I asserted that it was wrong for him to have been dishonest with himself and me by knowingly getting involved with someone who had a moral opposition to how he spent his time alone, and withholding that fact from me until after we were already involved, suddenly the Great Big Concern shifts to the many ways in which I have failed to be a Good Person and Loving Partner (um, excuse me, but was he being a Good Person and Loving Partner to begin with?): in his view, the only reason his use of porn– and, I would later find out: strip clubs, attendance at bachelor parties with hired women, having as a best friend a guy who worked at a porn magazine (and hanging out at his workplace), helping his friend pick out porn videos to rent (he claims he did not rent any himself), seeking out and streaming the most pornographic movies he could find on netflix for masturbating to, going to a 3-D porn movie on campus, scrutinising and studying naked women for the sake of “making art”, taking the opportunity when his girlfriends weren’t around to masturbate to sex scenes in mainstream movies or downloaded porn videos, working at a live theatre and signing up for cabaret shows involving women having to take their clothes off purely for spectacle, taking screen shots to masturbate to from dvds played on his computer of people making out in tv shows, drawing sexual pictures for himself to masturbate to (is anyone else noticing a pattern here? because he says it’s just me only seeing what I “want to”; I wonder what his friends, family, therapist, and future girlfriend(s) would see if they had full knowledge of this guy’s history! [and I must assume that he hasn’t told me about everything])– he claims the only reason all of this continued to be a controversy in our relationship is because I am intolerant, unforgiving, impatient, and stubbornly ignorant– that is what he didn’t know about me, that is what I allegedly failed to reveal about myself before he asked me out, that is what should have compelled me to decline his invitation (because I was supposed to be a mind-reader?); not only was he, by virtue of being a man, entitled to use women for his own sexual gratification (and as long as he felt bad about it, he was paying “penance” and could therefore keep doing it), he expected (was entitled) to never be called to task for it– he deserved (believed himself entitled) to date whomever he chose regardless of her personal beliefs, and having chose me, he expected (felt entitled to get) a much better girlfriend out of me than that! And thus I find myself in the defensive position, and we are no longer talking about his dishonesty, betrayal, and manipulation of my feelings and choices, nor are we talking about his sexual abuse of others (and later, of me). Sly trickery, that.  Abuser’s name removed. By their fruits ye shall know them. Matthew 7:16

But wait– he was jerking off to porn. That’s a fact, one admitted to by him. Me saying so is not abusive. It’s no more abusive than if someone told me, “You fucking took the bus downtown!” If I had indeed taken the bus downtown I would have to say, yes, that’s right, I did. It is also not abusive to make a grossed-out, angry, or otherwise ugly face while speaking of something that grosses you out, makes you angry, or is a very ugly subject. In addition to all his physical and emotional abuses of me (and, with his self-centered moodiness, rages, physical and verbal threats and violence, he abused his co-workers and a great many random people on the street as well), my ex also sexually abused me (forced unwanted sexual contact) AND contributed to the sexual abuse of tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of women, and he has the audacity to say I hurt him because I made a true statement? Denial is a powerful thing. But his guilt and shame for his own actions does not belong to me, and it is not my fault, and it is not my responsibility. He made the choices he did, not I, and so I was never under any obligation to account for them, accept them, or in any way have feelings about them other than what I had. And I had every right to speak of it. And I had every right to be angry about it, not trust him as much as I had before, and feel violated and betrayed. And I had every right to say what was true.

I also had every right to terminate our relationship. But of course, he did not come out with all of this at once, and as I slowly learned more and more, the more and more I had by then become emotionally and financially entangled with him (see also: Traumatic Bonding). At the end, he would even shift the blame onto me for not leaving him sooner. In other words, by staying in the relationship as long as I did, any feeling of being abused I “brought” upon myself and “therefore” I can’t complain about him. This is a fancy way of blaming the victim, and avoiding taking responsibility for having treated me abusively. Goodness, does he really believe he is entitled to abuse? And any woman who tries for any reason and for any length of time to love, understand, or encourage him to change is just asking for it? abusing herself by proxy? giving him permission to abuse her in the meantime? This is a very disturbing attitude, but unfortunately this way of thinking is a defining characteristic of an abuser. It says, the abuser is allowed to continue to be abusive, the abused person is responsible for stopping the abuse. It almost sounds valid to say, “The onus was on you to leave me sooner”, but the reality is that this would not stop him from being abusive to me (even if I left him, as I am still experiencing, because emotional and psychological abuse can still be done from a distance) or to others; nor does leaving him erase or excuse the fact that he abused me. The onus always was and always will be entirely on him to stop treating others abusively.

Being angry, or disgusted by something, or wildly confused in the face of your partner’s dishonesty, and telling the truth about what they did and how it makes you feel– none of this is abusive, even if it makes your partner feel bad. If they did something dishonest, if they did something wrong, if they did something which violates you or others, they should feel bad. It’s called having a conscience; it is not anywhere called being abused by the person whose trust, feelings and boundaries they violated, exploited, disregarded or sought to control. Nowhere can they find support for such an absurd claim, except in the twisted recesses of their own ego-protecting minds. Please understand that if you are with such a person, you cannot get in there and change their minds. If their conscience is hurting them, they will call it abuse. There is nothing you can do. Just leave them alone with their distortions. If you can, just leave before they can do you any more harm.

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The Abuser in Therapy

20, April 2011 at 12:58 PM (trapped) (, , , , , , , )

Excerpt from the book Why Does He DO That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft. All emphases are in the original:

The Abusive Man in Individual Therapy
The more psychotherapy a client of mine has participated in, the more impossible I usually find it is to work with him. The highly “therapised” 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 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 realised 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 behaviour 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 specialised program[.]

The Abuser in Couples Therapy
Attempting to address abuse through couples therapy is like wrenching a nut the wrong way; it just gets even harder to undo that 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 a 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 both 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 behaviour 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 behaviour, and look instead at her feelings and his abusive behaviour. 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 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 behaviour, but he wants you to think 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 materialises. 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.

A professional book I recently read offers a powerful example of how couples therapy works with an abuser. The therapist made an agreement with the couple that the man would avoid his scary behaviours and in return the woman would stop making her friends such an important part of her life “because her friendships were causing so much tension in the marriage.” The therapist had, in effect, assisted the man in using the threat of violence to get his way, cutting his partner off from social connections and sources of support that were important to her. What the therapist portrayed as a voluntary agreement was essentially coercion, although the authors of the book showed no signs of realising this.

Couples counseling can end up being a big setback for the abused woman. The more she insists that her partner’s cruelty or intimidation needs to be addressed, the more she may find the therapist looking down at her, saying, “It seems like you are determined to put all the blame on him and are refusing to look at your part in this.” The therapist thereby inadvertently echoes the abuser’s attitude, and the woman is forced to deal with yet another context in which she has to defend herself, which is the last thing she needs. I have been involved in many cases where the therapist and the abuser ended up as a sort of tag team, and the abused woman limped away from yet another psychological assault. Most therapists in such circumstances are well intentioned but fail to understand the dynamics of abuse and allow the abuser to shape their perceptions.

The therapist’s reassuring presence in the room can give you the courage to open up to your partner in ways that you wouldn’t normally feel safe to do so. But this isn’t necessarily positive; an abuser can retaliate for a woman’s frank statements during couples sessions. Later, when he is screaming at you, “You humiliated me in front of the therapist, you made me look like the bad guy, you told things that were too private!” and delivering a nonstop diatribe, you may regret the decision to open up.

Irene, an abused woman who tells her own story in public and has appeared on several panels with me, shares the following account: She had been in couples counseling for about six months with her husband, Quentin, when one day the therapist decided it was time to get the ball rolling. He said, “These sessions have gradually stopped going anywhere, and I think I know why. Irene, you’re not opening up very much, and I think you need to take more emotional risks.” Irene felt the therapist was right; she had been exposing very little week to week. So she decided to take the plunge. She told the therapist about Quentin’s abuse of her, which included considerable physical violence and the downward emotional spiral she had been in as a result. Quentin appeared moved and shaken, his eyes reddening as if he might cry at any moment. “I have really been in denial about my violence,” he told the therapist, “and I haven’t been facing how badly it has been affecting Irene.” The therapist felt that a crucial barrier to progress had been overcome. “Now,” he declared, “I think your couples work can begin to yield results for you.”

On the drive home from the session, Quentin kept one hand on the steering wheel. In the other hand he clutched a large handful of Irene’s hair as he repeatedly slammed her head into the dashboard, screaming, “I told you to never fucking talk to anyone about that, you bitch! You promised me! You’re a fucking liar!” and similar insults in a nonstop rant. After hearing Irene’s account, I was careful to never again underestimate the risk to an abused woman of conjoint therapy.

If couples counseling is the only type of help your partner is willing to get– because he wants to make sure that he can blame the problem on you– you may think, Well, it’s better than not getting any counseling at all. And maybe the therapist will see the things he does and convince him to get help. But even if the therapist were to confront him, which is uncommon, he would just say: “You turned the therapist against me”– the same way he handles any other challenges.

Some couples therapists have said to me: “Before I work with a couple whose relationship has involved abuse, I insist on clear agreements that there won’t be any abuse while they are in therapy with me and no paybacks for anything that gets said in a session.” Such agreements are meaningless, unfortunately, because abusers feel no obligation to honour them; virtually every abuser I’ve ever worked with feels entitled to break his word if he has a “good enough reason,” which includes any time that he is really upset by his partner. Increasingly, therapists across the United States and Canada are refusing to engage in couples or family sessions with an abuser, which is the responsible course of action.

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Why Couples Counseling in Abusive Relationships Doesn’t Work, pt 2

17, April 2011 at 1:14 PM (scapegoated, trapped) (, , , , , , )

Here is what is written at escapeabuse.com about couples counseling and abusive relationships. There is nothing about my ex nor my experiences with him and couples counseling that deviates one bit from what is described below. Some of the insight and advice below is from the book Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft, an excerpt of which I will provide in my next post. All bold and italics are in the original, I underlined the parts especially relevant to my situation:

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[.]

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[.]

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.

[…]

*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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