Emotional Abuse: Why Your Marriage Counseling Failed

Previously, I wrote about Why Couples Counseling in Abusive Relationships Doesn’t Work.   Steven Stosny, in a recent blog entry confirmed some of what I wrote which is essentially that (1)couples therapy often will only reinforce abusive behavior, (2)that it does not address the issue (abuse), and (3) that couples therapy typically deals with abuse as if it were a mutual or communications issue – and it isn’t.

Here is part of Stosny’s entry:

So now the problem isn’t Gary’s sense of inadequacy or his addiction to blame or his yelling or his abusiveness; it’s Estelle’s judgmental tone of voice. With this crucial shift in perspective introduced by the therapist, Estelle rehearsed her new approach. Gary responded positively to her efforts, while the therapist was there to contain his emotional reactivity. At home, of course, it was another matter.

In a less reactive relationship, the therapist’s advice wouldn’t be so bad. If Gary could regulate his emotions and sense of entitlement, he might have appreciated Estelle’s efforts to consider him in the way she phrased her requests; perhaps he would have become more empathic in response. But in the day-to-day reality of their walking-on-eggshells relationship, Gary felt guilty when Estelle made greater efforts to appease him. Without self-regulation skill, he blamed his guilt on her — she wasn’t doing it right, her “I-statements” had an underlying accusatory tone, she was trying to make him look bad, etc.

Many abusers assail their partners on the way home from the therapist’s office for bringing up threatening or embarrassing things in the session. One couple came to our boot camp after being seriously injured in a car crash that resulted from arguments on the way home from their therapist. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve tried marriage counseling in a relationship rife with resentment, anger, or abuse, you’ve had a few chilly, argumentative, or abusive rides home from the sessions.

And Steven Stosny has something very interesting to say about boundaries and the admonition that abuse victims need to learn to set boundaries. I still assert that they DO, however doing so still may not stop or reduce the abuse once they are involved in a relationship with an abuser. Abuse victims tend to have a poorly formed sense of self and tend to be passive or submissive – which attracts manipulators and abusers. Having a better-integrated sense of self would therefore seemingly make one less of a target. Here’s what Steven says about that:

One popular marriage therapist and author has written that women in abusive marriages have to learn to set boundaries. “She needs to learn skills to make her message – ‘I will not tolerate this behavior any longer’ – heard. [The] hurt person [must] learn how to set boundaries that actually mean something.” This is the therapeutic equivalent of a judge dismissing your law suit against vandals because you failed to put up a “Do not vandalize” sign. You have to wonder if this therapist puts post-its on valued objects in her office that clearly state, “Do not steal!”

Putting aside the harmful and inaccurate implication that people are abused because they don’t have the “skill to set boundaries,” this kind of intervention completely misses the point. Your partner’s resentment, anger, or abuse has nothing to do with the way you set boundaries or with what you argue about. It has to do with his violation of his deepest values.

You will protect yourself, not by setting boundaries that he won’t respect, but by reintegrating your deepest values into your everyday sense of self. When you no longer internalize the distorted image of yourself derived from your partner’s behavior, a powerful conviction will emerge; you will overcome emotional reactivity and return to the person you were before the relationship went bad.  Then your partner will get it: He must change the way he treats you to save the relationship.