Tag Archives: couples counseling

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

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 In the Protest Polka, there is critism and withdrawal, and in Freeze and Flee, both partners have emotionally withdrawn.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.

Beliefs Prejudicial toward the Abused in Abusive Relationships

cartoon couple with telescopeOne of the problems people have who have grown up with emotionally abusive parenting or who have lived with an emotionally abusive partner is that when they try to describe their experiences to others, people think that they are exaggerating. Others will try to normalize the abused person’s suffering, saying that everyone loses their temper occasionally. Much of our popular psychology advice addresses relatively normal problems between people. Even family and couple’s counseling addresses emotional abuse as a matter of problems that gradually escalated out of hand over time, whereas, when one party is an emotional abuser and personality disordered, the abuse suddenly escalates after the other partner has been swept off their feet and the “honeymoon” phase is over.  For someone with an emotionally abusive partner or parent, the abuse can be relentless and/or over-the-top and out-of-proportion every time the abuser is upset. If a person hasn’t experienced it, it is highly difficult to imagine.

Another caveat of family and couple’s counseling that fails people with emotionally abusive partnering is the die-hard conviction that people in a relationship are equally sick. And sometimes that is true. And often, it is not. Subconsciously, people with personality disorders sometimes seek partners who are highly flexible and highly patient and good-natured. They have uses for these traits and can readily manipulate their partners’ benevolence toward tolerating their rigidity and self-centered insistence that others tolerate their difficult moods and need to control.

While the abused may be “too good for their own good,” that is a far cry from being personality disordered. Often the abused partners in these relationships are highly functional, but somewhat uncertain of themselves and their boundaries after growing up with a highly critical or otherwise abusive parent. The abused partner often has worked hard on themselves and has all or most of the basic skills needed to maintain a satisfying relationship, but are partnered to someone whose disorder makes it impossible to maintain a healthy relationship. In counseling, an abuser may present charming, flummoxed, or may perfectly model the role playing exercise prescribed by the therapist in session, only to berate their partner all the way home. With counseling, emotionally abused partners in my practice go on to find much more loving partners after leaving their abusive partner. All too often, abusers drop out of counseling and go on to find another victim or someone who is also personality disordered.

These are not patterns that would be predicted by the theory that both parties in a relationship are equally dysfunctional. Yes, everyone has issues, but that is far different from equally disordered. A common complication is that the abused party in an abusive relationships often develops an anxiety and/or depressive disorder due to the stress of the relationship. Both courts and counselors may target the abused as the problem, ignoring the personality disordered person who presents well because they have developed intense defenses like being super charming, highly skilled at lying, being highly resolute, etc. (and have unloaded all of their stress on their partner and/or their children).  Counselors and the court system need to become more sophisticated about the dynamics of abusive relationships, including emotionally abusive relationships. Otherwise both the mental health field and the legal system collude in enabling abusers and persecuting the abused.

Questioning Your Relationship? Red Flags

(Note: Published originally on http://toolkitforhealing.com/11.html by Noreen Wedman 2008, published now with updates)

Do you find yourself questioning your relationship? Counseling can help resolve relationship issues or help you sort out whether it is better for you to leave the relationship. Although the list is written using the word partner, many of the problems signal serious problems in any significant relationship.
 
1. There is a pattern of sexual, emotional, physical, or financial abuse. Any sexual or physical abuse in a relationship is a signal that counseling is urgently needed.
2. Your self-esteem has deteriorated as a result of being in this relationship.
3. Your relationship feels like a contest, battlefield, or some other interminable game.
4. Nothing you do seems to please your partner.
5. You don’t have fun together.
6. You don’t feel respected or don’t respect your partner.
7. Issues don’t get resolved in a way that brings you closer together.
8. S/he maintains that the problems in the relationship are mainly your fault, yet you are usually the one on the receiving end of the abuse or both of you are abusive.
9. Your partner refuses go to counseling or work on his/her issues.
10. You don’t enjoy talking with your partner.
11. Your children are traumatized by your relationship.
12. Infidelity is not a deathblow to a relationship, but it is important to resolve it. It may indicate some problem with the relationship, a sexual addiction, or a childhood trauma/abandonment issue.
13. Sexless relationship. Physical intimacy is important to a healthy partner relationship.
14. Major problems like addiction and personality disorders will destroy a relationship without major intervention. If you have spent years with a person who is chemically dependent or very difficult, and s/he still hasn’t changed, it may be time to consider how much more you are willing to invest.
15. Your child is being abused by your partner.
16. You fantasize about injuring or murdering your partner or wish your partner were dead. You fantasize about Divorce or your spouse threatens you with divorce (whether they seem serious or not).
17. Some life events often require counseling for successful negotiation of the life passage in a way that keeps the relationship intact. Examples include death of a child, serious illness, or loss of a job.Sometimes these issues get resolved. Sometimes, the issues become destroy the relationship. If your relationship has even one of the above issues, you have probably done some serious procrastination. It is time to resolve the issues or move on in as honorable a way as possible (or, in the case of leaving some abusers, with as little damage as possible).
 
You may wish to see an Individual Counselor to sort out if it is even safe for you to try couples counseling if there is significant abuse in the relationship. Either Individual or Couples Counseling can help you sort out whether the relationship is salvageable, although resolving Couples Issues best benefit by a combination of Couples and Individual Counseling. Resolving problems of interrelating requires couples counseling. Sometimes the problem is that one or both parties have a significant mental health issue, which requires Individual counseling to manage. Couples or Family counseling can help relatives manage and cope with the process of healing to increase the likelihood of success. If there is physical or sexual violence, or a pattern of emotional abuse in the relationship, it is safer and sometimes more effective for both parties to get Individual Counseling until a pattern of safety has been established in the relationship. One big cue that Individual Counseling is warranted is if you answer, “Yes,” to the question, “Are you afraid of your partner or spouse?”