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Couple arguing

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David Castillo Dominici

This is an important post. Reading it might just save you a lot of time, angst and frankly, money; money spent on well-meaning and often highly-qualified counselors and psychologists.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have managed to convince your abusive significant other to accompany you to couples’ counseling, though his reason for agreeing will invariably be to ‘help you overcome your issues’. He remains spotless, and by agreeing to ‘help’ you, puts himself once again in the saddle as the knight on white charger, all-round-good-guy, long-suffering, well-calibrated member of the spousal unit. And by now, you probably believe him.

So, off you go to your first counseling session, with high expectations of your partner finally understanding the depth of pain and anguish he’s been causing you, and with hopes of reconciling your relationship in a spirit of co-operation, collaboration and mutual love. That, after all, is what couples’ counseling is all about.

That’s our first sticking point. Until I read Patricia Evan’s books (The Verbally Abusive Relationship, The Verbally Abusive Man, Controlling People), I was operating under a misapprehension, and I’m willing to bet you are too, or at least you have been at some point during your relationship. Perhaps you understand the dynamics better now, but many targets of abuse never do.

Your lack of understanding is not because you’re deficient in intelligence, insight or comprehension, but rather that you operate from a rational perspective. Yes, I said ‘rational’ perspective. Confused?

Let me elaborate. The premise that underlies couples’ counseling is that both parties to the relationship are equally empowered and that therefore, their contributions to the health, or problems of that relationship, are also roughly equal. This is the way functional marriages and partnerships work; however, when you’re with an abuser the relationship is anything but functional. The dynamic that underlies the dysfunction is that of skewed power. An abuser usurps all power within the relationship, seeking to gain and maintain power over their partner with a winner-takes-all mentality. Abusers see the world solely in terms of winning or losing, and they will fight to win at all costs, especially against those who love them. This perspective is the ‘irrational‘ one.

The non-abusive partner operates from the world-view of equal, shared power. In conflict negotiations the goal is to reach agreement and harmony in a manner that empowers both parties and leads to a mutually satisfying result. You expect to make compromises and to enter into discussions, even heated discussions, in order to make your point. But you are also prepared to hear your partner out and do your best to accommodate their point of view. The atmosphere you wish to create is one of mutual respect.

In couples’ counseling the counselor or psychologist will also be operating from an assumption of shared power, assuming that the problems within the relationship are contributed to equally by the partners. Your counselor will expect to attribute equal responsibility to each of you, and you will be asked to seriously consider your input. But if you’re in an abusive relationship, you don’t have equal power to make decisions, affect everyday living or direct your own life. You are coerced and oppressed into silence. Your abuser calls the shots, prevents you from taking either positive or negative action by controlling you with fear, while himself making unilateral decisions that affect both of you. How then can you be equally responsible for what goes wrong?

What has gone wrong is that you are being humiliated, shamed, blamed, accused, denigrated, belittled, lied to, manipulated and controlled. You’re being held in a psychological prison.

Couples’ counseling works against the interests of the non-abusive partner in a number of ways. My own experience is common and I’ll share it here.

The first difficulty arose because of my over-willingness to examine my own motives, communication style, actions and reactions in order to ‘take on’ my share of the responsibility. I was willing to turn my own head inside out to analyze virtually everything I said or did that might be construed as offensive, and to change my ways. This is a common experience for targets of abuse.

The trouble is, our abusers are equally unwilling to do the same, convinced as they are of their complete innocence and our complete culpability.

The second difficulty is that abusers are cunning manipulators of conversations, and I often found myself at the centre of attention – not in a good way – while the counselor pursued the line of questioning my husband cleverly led him to believe would reveal the essence of our problems. That is, my madness, my unreasonableness, my over-the-top emotions, my issues from the past. He did anything to avoid self-reflection. As a result, despite the presenting issues desperately needing to be addressed, they never were, not in ten months of counseling.

The third, and most frustrating difficulty, was that I wasn’t free to express my concerns fully and openly. I wasn’t able to say what was really going on. If I had, it would simply have released another tirade of cruel abuse upon my head the moment we left the office and got into the car. It would then continue unabated at home with days of stone-walling and shunning.

For those three basic reasons, couples’ counseling is not only unlikely to work, but also to be actively detrimental. It gives the abuser further power, sided with (unwittingly) by the counselor or psychologist, and able to sidestep further responsibility by his habitual use of manipulation and fear.

Few counselors are skilled enough to spot covert abuse. With no overt bruises, it’s infinitely easy to portray the damaged and hurting party as the neurotic, dysfunctional one.

There is no easy answer. I can only urge you to do your homework first, shop around, ask friends and family, ring Lifeline and other agencies for a referral to an expert in abuse counseling (not simply relationship counseling), and don’t be afraid to move on if you’re not satisfied. It’s also essential to see your chosen counselor for individual sessions before moving on to couples’ counseling. Make your first appointments before informing your partner and asking him to participate.

An adept counselor or psychologist will ensure both of you have a number of individual sessions before moving into shared sessions.

I highly recommend the reading of Patricia Evans’ books as mentioned above. I’m not an Amazon affiliate so don’t stand to make any financial gain from posting these links, but do so because they have given me so many ‘aha!’ moments, helping me enormously with my healing and with making great inroads towards self-empowerment.

The Verbally Abusive Relationship – Patricia Evans

The Verbally Abusive Man – Patricia Evans

Controlling People – Patricia Evans

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