Dr. Sue Johnson and her colleagues pioneered Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a therapy that is successful with as high as 70% of couples. Note that Dr. Johnson states that EFT does not work with “abusive relationships.” She describes 3 common “demon dialogues” that create problems that require counseling: http://www.ocfi.ca/index.php/select-articles-by-dr-sue-johnson/12-where-does-love-go-wrong-or-the-three-demon-dialogues-that-can-wreck-your-relationship. The point of this blog is to help differentiate some of the types of relationships are not suited for couples counseling, even with a therapy as successful as EFT.
Note that these “demon dialogues” include emotional abuse. For example, the demon dialogue that she describes as “Find the Bad Guy” is the shame and blame game, which is emotionally abusive. In the Protest Polka, there is critism and withdrawal, and in Freeze and Flee, both partners have emotionally withdrawn. So when does the emotional abuse in a relationship require a different approach? The dividing line that I have found useful is that there is a pervasive pattern of psychological abuse. In other words, there are a number of different types of emotional abuse used by at least one partner in a frequent or relentless way. (See types of Emotional Abuse: http://mindbodyintegrativecounseling.com/types-of-verbal-and-emotional-abuse/.)
If one partner is addicted, there is often a pattern of Gaslighting in an attempt to hide the addiction. In order to heal the relationship, the addiction must be addressed. Sometimes the pervasive pattern of abuse dissipates once the addiction is in remission, and sometimes it escalates. Sometimes a pattern of emotional abuse in an addicted family system persists because at least one party never learned how to fight fair or the addicted family system needs to heal. These two scenarios are dynamics that couples and family counseling can often improve.
However, if a pervasive pattern of emotional abuse persists, a couple is better served by each party getting their own counseling, at least until there is significant progress by the abusing partner(s). Abusers tend to manipulate the counseling session to scapegoat their partner in couples counseling and the abuse may escalate (often after counseling sessions when the counselor is not present to observe). In this aspect, these emotionally abusive relationships are very similar to other forms of domestic violence.
In fact, if there is a pattern of coercive control, there is a risk of physical violence when the abused partner leaves, even when there has been no previous physical abuse. Couples counseling may feed an emotional abuser’s internal and external dialogue that his/her partner is the cause of the abuser’s distress. The abusive party needs to deal with his or her own internal defenses that are abusive – it is not just a communication problem or a case of normal attachment needs going unmet. And it is important to have a feedback loop with the primary counselor of the abusive partner with the abused partner to insure that the changes the primary counselor sees in his/her client are being carried over into the couple’s relationship.
Unfortunately, too many abusers refuse to go to counseling or drop out prematurely. Recovery is a slow, gradual process when it does occur. While all of the above mentioned patterns can lead to relationship dissolution, couples counseling is dangerous when there is physical abuse or a pervasive pattern of emotional abuse.
It is important to address the needs of the abused partner. Often, there is so much focus on the abusive partner and his/her intensive needs, that the very real needs and welfare of the abused party are neglected. Long-term emotionally abusive relationships can impair psychological health, resulting in depression and/or an anxiety disorder, as well as have health consequences to the rest of the body, creating illness and reducing vitality and longevity. While the good news is that there is a couples therapy, EFT, that is wildly successful with a majority of couples, couples therapy in general is unsafe with some emotionally abusive couples.