Abusive Men and Their Allies

19, May 2011 at 7:10 PM (defeated, scapegoated, trapped) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Various notes on the subject from Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. All italics in the original, bold is mine; my exclusions and comments are in brackets:

Abusive Men and Their Allies
There continues to be social pressure on women to “make the relationship work” and “find a way to hold the family together,” regardless of abuse. Since so many people accept the misconception that the abuse comes from bad relationship dynamics, they see the woman as sharing responsibility equally for “getting things to go better.” Into this context steps the abuser, telling his partner’s friends, “I still really want to work things out, but she isn’t willing to try. I guess it isn’t worth the effort to her. And she’s refusing to look at her part in what went wrong; she puts it all on me.”

[My ex said exactly the same thing to me, my friends, his friends, his family and his therapist!]

What her family and friends may not know is that when an abused woman refuses to “look at her part” in the abuse, she has actually taken a powerful step out of the self-blame and toward emotional recovery. She doesn’t have any responsibility for his actions. Anyone who tries to get her to share responsibility is adopting the abuser’s perspective. [helping him abuse her]

[What he calls his “support network” is often so wildly misinformed and prejudiced in his favour that it functions only to enable him to continue abusing his partner and not feel too bad about it– and that’s just the way he likes it. My partner would argue me to death to try to make me “look at” how “abusive” I was supposedly being to him when I would stick up for myself or defend myself against his abuse. He would get crazy with rage whenever I refused to blame myself for his actions or absorb his abuse with a smile. I knew, just as it says here, that he was responsible for his own actions and that I did not deserve to be treated that way. His rages prove to me that what he hated most of all about me was my unwillingness to give up my entire soul to him and become his emotional slave. No one made him hit, yell, molest, withdraw, throw, slam, punish, scream, disappear, drive recklessly, etc etc but himself. These were HIS choices, NOT MINE. I will never take responsibility for his abusiveness, and I am glad to see Bancroft say here I was right not to.]

The Myth of Neutrality
It is not possible to be truly balanced in one’s views of an abuser and an abused woman. As Dr Judith Herman explains eloquently in her masterwork Trauma and Recovery, “neutrality” actually serves the interests of the perpetrator much more than those of the victim and so is not neutral. Although the abuser prefers to have you wholeheartedly on his side, he will settle contentedly for your decision to take a middle stance. To him, that means you see the couple’s problems as partly her fault and partly his fault, which means it isn’t abuse.

[…]

In reality, to remain neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal. If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no one will help– just what her partner wants her to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.

How Society Adopts the Abuser’s Perspective
Almost anyone can become an ally of an abusive man by inadvertently adopting his perspective. People usually don’t even notice that they are supporting abusive thinking, or they wouldn’t do it. Let’s examine some of the most common forms of accidental support:

+ The person who says to the abused woman, “You should show him more compassion even if he has done bad things. Don’t forget he’s a human being too.”

I have almost never worked with an abused woman who overlooked her partner’s humanity. The problem is the reverse: He forgets her humanity. Acknowledging his abusiveness and speaking forcefully and honestly about how he has hurt her is indispensable to her recovery. It is the abuser’s perspective that she is being mean to him by speaking bluntly about the damage he has done. To suggest to her that his need for compassion should come before her right to live free from abuse is consistent with the abuser’s outlook. I have repeatedly seen the tendency among friends and acquaintances of an abused woman to feel that it is their responsibility to make sure she realises what a good person he really is inside— in other words, to stay focused on his needs rather than her own, which is a mistake. People who wish to help an abused woman should instead be telling her what a good person she is.

+ The person who says to her: “You made a commitment, and now you need to stick with it through hard times.”

The abusive man believes that chronic mistreatment, overt disrespect, intimidation, and even violence are not good enough reasons for a woman to want to stay away from a man. When people say to her, “You made your bed, now lie in it,” they’re supporting the abuser’s value system.

[An important and therefore influential friend of mine used to say this to me a lot, that at least he’s not “beating the shit out of me”, and that it’s normal for there to be some discord between couples. I therefore believed my partner and beat myself up inside when he told me I was being too “high-standards” for insisting on being treated non-abusively. My friend now deeply regrets having told me to stick it out, she is even now reading Bancroft’s book because she never wants to make this mistake again.]

+ The person who says to her: “You’re claiming to be a helpless victim.”

If the abuser could hear these words being spoken to his partner, he would jump for joy. He may have said the very same thing to her. The abuser’s perspective is that the woman exaggerates the hurtfulness of his conduct because she wants the status of the victim, attributing to her the maneuvers that he is actually fond of using himself. When an abused woman tries to tell you how bad things are, listen.

[My ex did indeed tell me I was just “playing the victim” and I have been very afraid– and still am– of coming forward about my experiences because I fear people will think this about me. Of course, he openly claims to be the victim of me being depressed because he was abusing me; of being jealous or insecure because he was abusively neglecting me, withholding, underloading, or just plain rubbing my face in how little he desired or was interested in me compared to other women; of having to listen to me be angry because he was threatening and violating me; of me being “cruel” to him for calling his abuse abusive and asking him to get help– and for this he wins sympathy and support. But telling people what I have experienced and what he did somehow posits me as someone only “playing” the victim. This is very frustrating, and a difficult hurdle to overcome with people. I feel trapped. I worry people think because I have experienced abuse by others in the past, that is somehow me “playing” a victim. But it isn’t my fault these people hit me, or sexually abused me, or anything else like that. And it isn’t a “play”. What I went through was real, and it really hurt me 😥 It does not benefit me in any way to say these have been my experiences, because I do not get the sympathy or support that he gets. I get doubted and looked at like damaged goods. That is not at all how I want to be seen, but I cannot pretend these things didn’t happen, nor do I believe I am supposed to protect his image by staying silent. I need to talk about what happened. I wish I could do that and just be believed that talking about it is not me “wanting to be a victim”, but part of what I need to do to overcome his abuse. I wanted to be loved, I wanted to be respected, I wanted to be cared about. I did not want to be a target for his anger and frustrations!]

+ The person who says: “These abuse activists are anti-male.”

How is it anti-male to be against abuse? Are we supposed to pretend we don’t notice that the overwhelming majority of abusers are male? This accusation parallels the abuser’s words to his partner: “The reason you think I’m abusive is because you have a problem with men!”

[I have a letter from my ex from last year when his abuse became dramatically more extreme and I kicked him out of the house, in which he says over and over that the only reason I have a problem with his treatment of me is because I have “baggage” from other men who have abused me and I therefore have problems with men in general. He goes on and on throughout the letter saying how even though he doesn’t want to do it, he “accepts” and “agrees” to let me break up with him (-!- I’m only allowed to break up with him with his permission, really?!), but that he needs me to understand he never did anything very wrong at all and the “only” reason I think he did is because I have “problems with men.” He is wrong. I do not have “problems with men”, I have problems with all people who abuse others, I don’t care who and I don’t care how. He reveals his own misogyny by blaming me for what others have done, as if I’m somehow being sexist or anti-male because it has been only men who have abused me. How is that my fault? Was I supposed to find and have relationships with abusive women also just to avoid being accused of being sexist? By insisting that the only reason I would find my ex’s abusive behaviour unacceptable is because I’ve been abused by other men also shows a profound inability to take responsibility for his own actions. I’m sorry, but when I feel fear because he leaps toward me with his fist in the air or hits the wall within inches of my head, it is NOT because someone else did something similar; it is because BEING THREATENED WITH BODILY HARM IS FRIGHTENING, INTIMIDATING, AND SCARY NO MATTER WHAT, NO MATTER WHO, NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES. He did it. And that isn’t the fault of me or anyone else from my past. HE DID IT, and NO ONE on the receiving end would be ok with that for any reason.]

[…]

Protecting or enabling an abuser is as morally repugnant as the abuse itself. […] Colluding with abuse abandons the abused woman and her children, and ultimately abandons the abuser as well, since it keeps him from ever dealing with his problem. […] If we can erode the ability of abusers to gain allies, they will stand alone, and alone they are easier to stop.

[…]

Much of why an abuser is so able to recruit allies, besides his own manipulativeness and charm, is his skill in playing on people’s ignorance and misconceptions and often on their negative attitudes toward women.

[Just as he probably exercises withholding and underloading with his partner to manipulate her knowledge and ability to consent or make informed decisions about her own life, he is no doubt exercising the same tactic with his allies to manipulate their understanding of what is actually going on within the relationship. He is vague, shifty, leaves things wildly out of context and tells only the parts that benefit him so they will take his side against her and/or at least not tell him what he is doing is dangerous and wrong. He exploits their ignorance to his advantage. What allies don’t seem to appreciate is that he is using the same tactics on them as he uses on the partner he abuses, to win or retain their sympathy, their belief that he’s “changing”, and their opinion that he’s really just a nice guy who is doing his best and who never made any mistake that wasn’t outside the realm of what is “normal.” He lies to his partner, he lies to his allies, too, and for the same exact reasons: to control everyone’s image of him, to justify his actions, and to avoid accountability.]

+ When people take a neutral stand between you and your abusive partner, they are in effect supporting him and abandoning you, no matter how much they may claim otherwise.

+ The argument that “he is a human being, too, and he deserves emotional support” should not be used as an excuse to support a man’s abusiveness. Our society should not buy into the abusive man’s claim that holding him accountable is an act of cruelty.

[IT ISN’T. My ex said over and over and over I don’t know how many times that I was “abusing” him for saying his behaviour was abusive and for standing up for and defending myself. Just like whites used to say that slaves “must” have a mental illness if they try to run away, an abuser will say the person they’re abusing is “harming” the abuser if they do anything to try to stop, survive, or get away from the abuse.]

Each [abuser] has a mental image of what a “real abuser” is like, and it isn’t him. In his mind, the “real abuser” is more violent and scary than he is and has a partner who is “a nice lady” who doesn’t deserve abuse. Dozens of my clients have said to me: “I’m not like those guys who come home and abuse their partners for no reason, you know.” […]

[My partner’s oldest sister, to whom he was very attached as a young child and called his mother, who all of the family say looked just like an angel– and she did: pretty, blond hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks, perfect smile– was strangled to death in front of her four-year old daughter by an abusive ex-partner and a friend of his. My partner’s (and likely all other of his family members’) mental image of what a “real abuser” is like (a murderer), what a “real victim of abuse” is like (an angelic mother), and what an enabler/ally does (accomplice to murder) are therefore very extreme; their bar of what constitutes partner abuse is set very high: anything less than what happened to his sister doesn’t count.]

+ “She really exaggerated what I did.”

His first line of mental defence is to impugn her honesty and accuse her of being calculating: “She told the police I punched her in the face, because she knew that would make me look like a real bad guy. I only slapped her, and no harder than she slaps me.” My response to such statements is to say that just because she remembers the incident differently doesn’t mean her version is wrong and his is right; in fact, abused women typically have memories of what occurred that are clearer and more accurate than that of the abuser, because of the hyperalert manner in which people react to any danger. And even if this time he is technically right that his hand was open, what difference does it make? He obviously hit her hard enough to make her think that she was punched, so he is not a candidate for sympathy.

[That was my ex’s relationship motto: “Well I have a different perspective.” And according to him, of course, mine was always wrong. This just adds abuse to abuse: if you think, feel, or know he almost hit you and he “has a different perspective” and denies that’s what he meant to do, or that’s what ocurred, or that’s how it made you feel, he not only physically threatened you, but now he’s denying your very reality, damaging your ability to trust yourself, and isolating you– and because he does not take responsibility for how his actions affect you, he is also leaving wide open the possibility, which you cannot ignore, that whatever he did can and probably will happen again– thus increasing your anxiety, fear and depression. A non-abusive partner who cares about your comfort and need to feel safe will listen to you and never ever do again what scared you NO MATTER HIS “PERSPECTIVE” OR WHAT HE “MEANT” TO DO. A non-abusive partner will not argue with you and defend himself: if you say something he did hurt or scared you, a non-abusive partner will take you seriously and agree to immediately stop doing what threatens you, period. ONLY AN ABUSER WILL JUSTIFY OR DEFEND HIS “RIGHT” TO CONTINUE THREATENING YOU.]

You cannot get an abuser to change by begging or pleading. The only abusers who change are the ones who become willing to accept the consequences of their actions.

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When You or Someone You Know “Disappears”

28, April 2011 at 8:55 PM (solution-oriented) (, , , , , )

I write this from the experience of seeing a friend “disappear” and finding out a few years later that she was in an abusive relationship with a controlling partner, and also from friends telling me now that I have gotten out from under an abusive and controlling partner that they did notice I disappeared when I met him, but they– just like I with my friend– didn’t know what it meant:

+ If you have a friend who starts a new relationship and you notice they seem to have “disappeared”, especially for a very long time, please do not assume they are simply caught up in enjoying their new partner; they may be in an abusive situation. It is typical, especially in the beginning of a new relationship, that someone and their new partner would indulge in being alone together; however, in a healthy relationship, couples eventually resume normal social habits and contacts with friends, often integrating their social circles (introducing their partner to friends and family, taking their new partner to their favourite places, etc). This should go both ways, with both people in the relationship inviting each other into their social lives. If you become concerned that someone you know is not maintaining normal social activities, especially after a very long time, beware: it is very likely the case that your disappeared friend is in a relationship with an abusively controlling partner. Reach out to them. If they do not respond, try again, keep trying. Be especially concerned if your friend says they will call you but doesn’t, accepts invitations to meet you but fails to show up, or seems to explain their withdrawal from their normal activities and friendships by blaming themselves (eg, “I guess I’ve just become flakey”, “I wanted to go but at the last minute I wasn’t in the mood”, etc) or making excuses for their partner (eg, “He just doesn’t like to be around people”, “He had a bad day at work, and I didn’t want to just leave him at home by himself” etc. A partner who doesn’t like to be around people or who had a bad day at work should not be preventing someone from going out themselves or otherwise maintaining normal social relationships). Any sudden change of character in a friend is cause for concern; for instance, if your friend has always been reliable but suddenly starts flaking out, there may be something wrong in their life. Call them up, ask them how things are going, ask if everything’s ok. Listen closely to them, as it may not be safe to tell you what is really going on, or they may be worried what you will think of them or their partner if they tell you the (whole) truth. Reassure them that they will not lose your respect if something is wrong. If they are with a person who is especially emotionally abusive, they may be themselves very confused about whether what is going on is “normal” or their own fault. Trust your gut instincts and what you know about your friend. If something seems wrong or out of the ordinary, reach out and help.

+ If you are in a new relationship and your partner never leaves your side, calls constantly to see what you’re up to, abandons all of his own usual social habits and contacts, never asks you meet his friends and family, does not invite you to go out with him or to his favourite places, refuses to meet your friends/family, refuses to go out by himself, or sulks, pouts, complains (before, during, or afterwards) while amongst your friends or if you go out by yourself, or otherwise exhibits anti-social or other behaviours which make it difficult or uncomfortable to maintain your normal social activities and contacts: do not interpret his constant presence and attention as “he just really likes you”– even if he tells you this– you may be with an abusively controlling partner. In a healthy relationship, your new partner would want to become part of your life which includes friends, family, and activities/interests outside the confines of your relationship. A partner who is always in your presence or who “doesn’t want to share you with anyone else” is not loving you more than someone who maintains his normal social habits and activities, he is supervising you. Beware that abusive and controlling partners will always blame-shift and claim to be the victims of their relationships. They say things like, “We abuse each other”, “We just have a bad relationship dynamic”, or “She always makes me feel like ____, so I can never ____.” An abuser’s first agenda item is to do everything possible to isolate their victim, so that they can control your activities, and manipulate others’ impressions of you. They do not invite you to meet their friends or family, so that they can never form their own impression of you. This comes in handy when your partner attempts to discredit or blame you for all or most of the problems in the relationship– his friends and family are entirely dependent on his perspective. He gets rewarded with sympathy and support, and you get punished with isolation and the inability to get support or hold him accountable for his abusiveness. He may also interfere with your own relationships that you had prior to meeting him, such as calling your friends out of “concern” for you or to “get perspective”. Some partners can and do look to your friends and family for perspective and to get to know you better; but you know an abuser because he will speak about you negatively and actively campaign for your friends’ sympathy and support in an attempt to drive a wedge between you and anyone who may be a support to you when needed. I cannot stress this enough, if this is what is happening in your relationship, do not be afraid to reach out to your friends or family. Remember, your friends love you and will help you. Anyone who does not believe you and help you, or who judges you for being in your situation, or who is skeptical of you because of what your partner has told them, these people were not your friends to begin with– do not waste your time feeling bad about it, keep looking and you WILL find support.

+ No matter what your current relationship status, whether you are single, in a new relationship, or even if you have been in a healthy and enjoyable relationship for some time, tell your friends and family now: “If I ever disappear, there is something very wrong. Please make contact with me, don’t give up.” Discuss this in advance with your most trusted friend(s), you can even have a code word that only you and they know, so if you are unsafe or so confused that all you can tell them is this word, they will know you need their help and support.

Trust and take care of your loved ones, trust and take care of yourself, don’t give up.

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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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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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