All forms of abuse have in common a pattern of 1) controlling behaviors and misuse of power, 2) a refusal to fully own responsibility for wrongdoing, 3) the use of diversion to shift blame, and 4) the subsequent invalidation, minimization, and/or denial of the other's reality and personhood.
Abuse can be obvious, or hidden.
Emotional abuse is at the core of all other forms of abuse, yet it can be difficult to spot. Behaviors can include a repeated pattern of dismissing, demeaning, belittling, criticizing, blaming, ignoring/stonewalling, manipulating, or isolating the other from friends, family, or work. A relationship is emotionally abusive when a partner uses such behaviors to dominate and control the other for selfish ends.
If you are in an emotionally destructive relationship, traditional couples counseling is not your first step. This is mainly because abuse is not a relationship problem. The problem is in the beliefs and attitudes of the destructive partner. When abuse is treated as a marriage problem, a couple can end up spending numerous years in couples counseling, and make little to no progress at best. And most likely, the issues will worsen.
Therapists are trained to not proceed with couples counseling when the three A's are present: Addiction, Affairs, and Abuse. An unaddressed alcohol problem or a secret ongoing affair will undermine any work in couples counseling. So will an unnamed and unaddressed problem of abuse. However, some counselors may not know how to detect or work with hidden abuse. Therefore, well-meaning and even seasoned practitioners can inadvertently deepen and escalate the patterns of abuse in a relationship by attempting marriage counseling with such clients.
Couples therapists who suspect emotional abuse may hesitate to name and address it in a way that is needed. This is partly because we are trained to not take sides. Our failure to name the abuse, however, only allows it to continue. It also further perpetuates its minimization and the denial of the abused spouse's reality. As minimization and denial of her reality are key themes in her abuse, she is further harmed in such a setting. When a counselor attempts to stay neutral, he sends a message that the abuse does not exist or is no big deal. He colludes with the abuser. Further, when the abusive behavior is not first fully addressed, the abuser often uses what is learned in the sessions to gain further power and control over his spouse.
On the flip side, even if the therapist addresses the abuse issue compassionately yet directly, the abuser can still feel resentful and victimized. His pattern is to blame his spouse for his behaviors. When the counselor names his blaming and avoidance tactics and places responsibility for his actions squarely on his shoulders, he is not likely to stay in counseling.
Depending on the severity of the emotional abuse, there are some instances when the destructive partner takes responsibility with little blaming, excusing, or denying in a couples counseling setting. If he does, therapy with both partners present could be an option. This means the abusive partner acknowledges the destructive impact of his behaviors, is open to feedback, and is taking responsibility for his (or her) behaviors. Traditional models of couples counseling would be inappropriate until the cycle of abuse has been broken for a sustained length of time.
Otherwise, individual therapy should precede couples counseling for both the victim and the abuser with a professional who is specifically trained in the area of domestic and emotional abuse. In order for counseling to be effective for the abuser, he must be willing to sign a release for the counselor to be in regular contact with his spouse, as well as others who can take part in holding him accountable.
Often, the most effective option is to refer the abuser to a batterer intervention group program, either alone or in conjunction with individual therapy. Some respond well in a setting with other men who have similar educational needs. There, they learn about the abusive mindset, the role of family and the broader culture in growing such attitudes, and how to respond in non-destructive ways. The abuser is usually better able to see what is wrong with his peers' attitudes and more receptive to their feedback as well.
A person does not need to be physically violent in order to be considered abusive, nor to be admitted into a domestic abuse program. Some men may need to attend an abuser program multiple times in order to begin to change. The key is his commitment to fully changing. This necessarily includes his willingness to accept complete accountability and responsibility for his abusive actions, without blame or manipulation. Some may never change. But there are those who, when their eyes are opened to what they have been doing, are able to learn to feel empathy for their spouses and continue to accept feedback as they journey on the process of change.
Real change becomes evident over time. Anyone can seem different for a few weeks or even months. When consistent change is demonstrated over a long time, and emotional and/or physical safety are restored, a couple may possibly consider marriage counseling at that time. When abuse can be openly talked about and consistently owned by the destructive individual, real healing for the couple can begin.
*Women can be abusive as well and there are group programs dealing with female abusers in some states. If a woman is abusive toward her partner, andshe is not reacting to abuse from him, she may have a severe and unaddressed childhood developmental trauma history, a mental health issue, and/or perhaps come from a family culture that degrades others as the norm. This is because a woman is not socialized in our culture to appear powerful and to dominate and control others. This does not, however, excuse her abusive behaviors nor remove her responsibility. There are many people with severe trauma histories, mental health issues, and toxic family cultures who do not abuse others.
**The term, "victim" is used here for simplicity. This does not condone a victim mentality.
If you are a victim of emotional abuse, you need help to get safe, think clearly, and make choices you can feel good about. In order for your marriage to heal, you must make certain that the underlying issues are first thoroughly addressed. I will help you regain your voice, break toxic patterns, and work towards emotional and relational health.
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