When Counseling Facilitates Abuse

Another Platform for the Perpetrator

Domestic violence projects, women’s aid organizations, and directors of perpetrator programs strongly recommend against any type of relationship counseling until the abusive partner has satisfactorily completed a perpetrator’s program and demonstrated authentic change in both behaviour and attitudes. He must then show he is willing to engage in healthy interactions with his partner. (Although perpetrator programs do help some abusers, their success rate is low because chronic abusers usually lack a strong, continuous desire and determination to change; therefore perpetrators seldom cease all forms of abuse over the long term.)

Unfortunately, many professionals to whom an abused person may go for help, have not been warned that couple counseling is perilous for the abused partner. Other professionals have heard the warning, but then choose to disregard it and to proceed with attempts to counsel the couple together or in separate individual sessions. I believe this will continue to be a problem as long as domestic abuse is regarded as a relationship issue, rather than intolerable criminal behaviour. Laws alone cannot change societal perception, which is in fact the root of poor professional judgment and malpractice in many cases. 

The abuser easily manipulates and exploits a joint counseling session to his malicious advantage, often feeling that he now has an ally in the professional counselor! His abused partner faces greater danger in this situation: He adds new weapons to his repertoire of torment, twisting the counselor’s words to further demean and blame his partner. He will punish her for revealing his abuse. He will ‘report’ her mistakes in exaggerated, distorted detail, lying about her to the counselor to discredit and humiliate her.  A master manipulator, he can easily extend his domination within the 50-minute session by these methods and a variety of distraction and diversion tactics, tantrums, and pretences.

He may play along and reward the counselor by appearing to cooperate, as long as discussions are tailored to his preferences. In that case, the perpetrator can create a triangular dynamic to gain control and credibility; he may succeed in convincing the counselor that he is the healthy one of the pair, perhaps even that he is actually the victim of abuse by his partner.   

Improper Focus and Faulty Premises 

A common pitfall in couple counseling is this: The partner seeking genuine help and change is willing to examine her own part in the dysfunctional relationship, honestly; so she becomes the focus of the counselor’s attention. The abuser is neither likely to want change, nor to admit that his behaviour needs changing. He will criticize his partner, demanding that the counselor focus on ‘her part of the problem’, her faults and bad habits, her personality flaws and psychological weaknesses. 

The perpetrator accompanying his partner to counseling sessions can comfortably take the position that his agreement to counseling is a gesture of goodwill and generosity toward his worried partner. As far as he is concerned, there is no real problem in the relationship, at least not with him. The counselor has been trained to validate positive behaviors, and she reasons that his appearance in her office is a step in the right direction. She will see his attendance in sessions as a hopeful sign, and praise his willingness to ‘seek help’ with his partner, while in fact he is only occupying a chair in the room!

His abuse may continue unabated while he attends, because doing so gives his partner and the counselor hope that his behaviour will eventually improve. Thus, he escapes scrutiny and strengthens his adversarial position. He will deny his partner’s account of incidents, reconstructing events to his own advantage. The counselor, trained to approach couple therapy in an impartial, non-judgmental manner, maintains an open mind, hearing him out, while the abused person must listen helplessly to his lies, excuses, and historical revisions. Desperate for the counselor’s help, she won’t want to risk disapproval and possible loss of this opportunity.

Therefore, in addition to worrying about her partner’s reprisals at home, she will worry that the counselor may think her objections are ‘out of order’, disrespectful of the counselor’s protocol and authority. The more her partner ‘acts out’ with angry outbursts, refusing to return unless things are done his way, or storming out of the room in ‘protest’ when she or the counselor confronts him about his actions, the more the victim will want to show the counselor her attitude is different from his. She will fear constantly that the counselor may reject them and then she will be left to deal with the problem alone once again. 

If the counselor chooses to work with them in separate individual sessions for all or part of the time, the abuser may insist on driving his partner to her individual sessions and then remain just outside the room in the waiting area, to escort her home afterward. This sets up a repressive environment and dramatically increases his partners inhibitions about confiding in the counselor.

The abusive partner is likely to pump his victim for details of what was said in her individual sessions and punish her if she does not comply. He is likely to give his partner false reports of what the counselor said to him in his individual sessions. For example, he may tell her the counselor confided to him that she thinks his partner is suffering from a serious personality disorder/mental illness. He can easily fabricate or misquote the counselors statements and questions to persuade his victim that the counselor believes his partner treats him unfairly. He can convince his partner he is telling her these things to ‘clue her in’ on the counselor’s real assessment of their situation.

She cannot easily question the counselor about his report—after all, the counselor has probably cautioned them not to discuss the content of their separate sessions with each other, so checking on the truth of his reports would reveal to the counselor that she has ‘broken the rules’. If she does ask, the abusive partner will deny everything he has said, to make her appear foolish, manipulative, or paranoid and delusional. No counselor wants to experience the frustration of a failed therapeutic session. This works to the perpetrator’s advantage, as the counselor can only work with a person who cooperates.

Thus, many sessions may be spent discussing the victim’s personality and problems, while no mention is made of the perpetrator’s misconduct and dominating mentality.  If he does reluctantly consent to discuss his own behaviour, the counselor will be encouraged by this development. In a misguided effort to be fair, she may indulge him, encouraging him to vent his anger ‘safely and appropriately’ during the joint session, to talk about the ‘reasons’ and feelings that ’cause’ him to treat his partner abusively.

The abused woman will cringe as she realizes the counselor has just given him another platform from which to abuse her… with the counselor as an approving audience. Since he insists that he abuses her because she makes him angry and mistreats him, or because she doesn’t do what he thinks she ought to do, he will launch into a familiar diatribe, citing all of  these ‘reasons’, just as he does with her at home.  

Non-Confrontational Approaches are Inappropriate for Abuse 

Counsellors using traditional methods are unlikely to confront lies, manipulations, and intentional deceptions. Their approach is usually one of gentleness and validation.  A counselor may advise the abused partner to praise her abuser’s good and loving behaviors, providing him with ‘positive reinforcement’ when he is not being abusive, while just ignoring any ‘negative behaviors’ (i.e. abuse).

Ignoring the perpetrator’s objectionable behaviors gives tacit agreement and encourages him to increase his power plays. A victim of abuse often cannot respond in a confrontational way without increasing the risks to herself; however, the counselor who tells her to ignore abuse and reward good behaviour instead, compromises the victim’s integrity by taking this approach, and by failing to confront the abuser on her behalf. It is never acceptable to deliberately ignore or excuse abuse toward others.

A counselor may urge the victim to “consider her partner’s point of view,” to validate his feelings and to “be more respectful toward him”. The counselor may foolishly believe that polite and cooperative behaviour toward the perpetrator at all times will demonstrate civility and persuade him to do likewise.

Perpetrators are not ignorant about rules of conduct in society; they disregard them with those they want to overpower and control. Most are selective about the persons they treat with respect, according to the advantage it will gain for them. They choose to subjugate their partners. It is no help at all to treat the problem as a case of bad manners!  Respect must be earned. It is ridiculous and contradictory to show respect for disrespectful, dishonest, inappropriate behaviour, attitudes, and statements.

Asking an abused person to treat her abuser’s lies, misrepresentations and manipulation with respect, reinforces his assumption of dominance and authority over her. In fact, both abuser and victim will probably interpret this as validation of his chauvinistic, controlling attitudes. This is NOT an appropriate occasion to instruct clients that differing ‘perceptions’ of any event must be considered. Calling a perpetrator’s lies and false accounts of events, ‘another perspective’ or ‘a different perception’ communicates acceptance. The counselor who speaks this way is telling him and his partner that his lies and misrepresentations are valid.  

Likewise, it is unconscionable for a counselor to state, in the presence of a chauvinistic abuser, that everyone is entitled to assert his point of view and to live by his beliefs. The perpetrator has already demonstrated that ‘living by his beliefs’ means dominating and maybe battering his partner, and that ‘asserting his point of view’ means verbally, mentally, and emotionally abusing her, with accusations, blame, interrogations and verbal assaults. 

Inappropriate Use of Mediation Techniques 

Counsellors sometimes urge the victim to be more understanding toward the perpetrator, to make compromises with him since he is her partner. ‘Mediation techniques’ communicate tolerance of the perpetrator’s inappropriate expectations and domination.  As soon as the counselor introduces or allows the perpetrator to take this approach, he will use it to manipulate and control his partner. He and the counselor together will urge her to demonstrate good faith and cooperation by ‘meeting him halfway’ even when he makes unfair, demeaning, or excessive demands. If she has separated from him or refused sexual intimacy because of his abuse, she may be encouraged to reconcile or resume intimate relations.  

One man who had committed acts of mental, emotional, and physical abuse against his partner and had forced sex upon her during an abusive incident, complained to the counselor in a couple session that he was being treated unfairly.  Although his partner had been sexually responsive toward him before the sexual abuse occurred, she now felt unsafe and fearful. She had insisted that he sleep in another bedroom.

During their session, the woman described the abusive incidents and the perpetrator admitted that her accounts were accurate, but he flatly refused to discuss it any further.  He told the counselor that he had apologized, and his partner ought to get over it. He continued with all aspects of his abuse, and demonstrated no tenderness toward her. He pressured her constantly, berating her for withdrawing what he considered his conjugal rights. She often had to lock the bedroom door to prevent him from coming back into her bed and making sexual advances. In fact he was threatening that if she continued to resist him, he would force himself on her again! 

The counselor misapplied psychological principles she had learned, by stating to both of them, “The person who says ‘no’ has the power in the relationship.” The perpetrator was pleased at this development, which signaled to him that the counselor believed his partner was withholding sex in order to control him.  She urged the woman to resume some physical displays of affection toward him at least, as a demonstration of her love, support and encouragement.

The counselor implied that the womans continued refusal of sex would create greater disharmony and distance between them and would make reconciliation impossible. She neither spoke to the man about his abusive demands, nor about his aggressive approach toward sex, nor about his assumption of entitlement to his partners body and to her sexuality.
By handling the problem this way, the counselor pressured the woman to compromise her own self-respect and encouraged her to ignore her intuition and her common sense.

When the woman reluctantly agreed to give him another chance, engaging in sexual relations before the issues of sexual abuse had been properly addressed and resolved, he began abusing her again.   Sexual abuse and marital rape are devastating betrayals of trust, which destroy intimacy and turn a former mutual pleasure into domination and torment for the partner. The abuser treats his victim not as his lover, but as an object, when he robs her of her right to consent and to engage as an equal. A woman who says NO to a man after she has been abused is asserting her right to control her own body and to use it in a way that feels healthy to her.

Within a committed relationship, sex must not be treated like a mere commodity. Respectful sexual relations between partners are a mutual expression of desire and love. No one is entitled to ‘conjugal relations’ on demand. It is not enough to discuss abusive incidents, obtaining apologies and promises from the abuser. Until he agrees to a new code of conduct and demonstrates healthy attitudes toward intimate partnership with respectful, consensual relations as equals, an ongoing sexual relationship will reinforce his hurtful treatment of his partner and discount her needs.  

Perpetrators demonstrate little or no regard for their partners’ personal boundaries. When the abused woman asserts and defines her boundaries, she risks further abuse. If the counselor asks or requires her to compromise these boundaries, she makes the woman more vulnerable, and destroys the foundation for therapeutic interaction.  The counselor’s choice of language in countering abusive statements and patterns speaks volumes to both parties in the relationship!

In one televised session with an overbearing, controlling man and his intimidated spouse, the counselor told the abuser, “You need to allow her to go out and enjoy herself sometimes.” Use of the word ‘allow’ subtly implies that one partner has the right to control or object to the other’s choice of independent, separate activities. This is how a parent treats a child; it has absolutely no place in a partnership of adults. A marriage license or agreement to cohabitate is not an abolishment of individual autonomy, personal boundaries, and human rights! 

Focus on the Victim Leads to Distortion 

With those scenarios in mind, I want to discuss similar pitfalls that exist when an abused woman seeks individual help without her partner’s involvement. The counselor obviously has no direct access to the perpetrator, no first-hand knowledge of his ‘point of view’ and actions. She cannot know or examine his attitudes and behaviors, and she usually has no evidence or third-party account of events. She also has no knowledge of her client’s state of mind or healthy functionality before the abuse began; she is presented with the battered psyche and self-doubt that result from victimization.

In such a vulnerable position, with her self-esteem and confidence at its lowest, the victim is often put through months of professional examination into every aspect of her own mental, emotional, family and relational history. There is ample material to sort through in anyone’s life, enough turmoil in an ‘average’ or ‘healthy’ person’s interior reality to discuss and ‘work on’ for a lifetime. How many more ‘issues’ the traumatized individual presents when she seeks professional help! The counselor/therapist will surely find numerous delicate and painful areas of her psyche to explore. 

In most cases, the abused woman will readily agree to any suggestion or explanation offered by her therapist, especially if she believes that doing so might ease her distress. She may demonstrate confusion and impaired mental functions in general, which typically result from abuse. However, working solely with her, the counselor can lose sight of the distinctions between cause and effect, and of the dynamics of abuse. The counselor naturally wonders whether her client has always been this way. 

Considering these factors, it seems a small step for the counselor/therapist to reach a conclusion that her client has deep psychological flaws, which have contributed to her abuse or at least prevented her from escaping it or ‘defending herself’. It is just another small step to conclude that, in fact, maybe she caused the abuse or invited it. It is a further small step, perhaps, to conclude that the client has misrepresented facts and details of abusive incidents, of other interactions with her abuser, and of her own motivations. Can she even be believed? Maybe she is delusional. Maybe she is the ‘sick’ one. After all, she does seem to be a mental and emotional wreck!  Maybe abuse had little or nothing to do with it. Now, the perpetrator’s objective has been achieved. His influence has prevailed even in absentia, with the counselor/therapist unwittingly acting as his surrogate. 

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I would deeply appreciate your written comments on this article Please do not hesitate to leave them for me at http://edgeofraisin.livejournal.com  

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