Emotional Abuse: Why Your Individual Therapy Didn't Help and Your Partner's Made it Worse

Why is individual therapy risky in angry and abusive relationships?

Posted May 06, 2009

Many abused women in individual therapy withhold important details about their relationships. Most say they're embarrassed to be completely honest with their therapists.

One of the women I treated in connection with an Oprah Winfrey Show was convinced that her therapist, whom she thought was "awesome," wouldn't like her if she knew about the harsh emotional abuse she endured at home. She saw that same therapist for five years without ever mentioning her husband's severe problems with anger and emotional abuse. By the time I met her on the show, she was suffering from acute depression and anxiety that were ruining her physical health.

When therapists are aware that their clients are walking on eggshells at home, they feel bound to persuade the woman to leave the relationship. Though this is understandable, it can easily have the inadvertent effect of making the client feel ashamed of her attachment to the abuser. The most frequent complaint I hear from women who have undergone advocacy therapy is that they were reluctant to reveal the depth of their guilt, shame, and fear of abandonment to their disapproving therapists. Some have reported that their counselors would say things like, "After all he did to you, and you feel guilty?"

I have heard dozens of women report this kind of pressure from their therapists and have heard many more therapists at my trainings express exasperation about their clients' reluctance to leave abusive relationships. The trainings I do for therapists worldwide emphasize the utter necessity of compassion for their clients' enormous burden of guilt. Making hurt women feel ashamed of their natural (albeit irrational) feelings of guilt is intolerably bad practice. Helping them develop self-compassion for their guilt is the way to help them heal their pain and act in their long-term best interests.

Despite these problems, your psychotherapy most likely helped you a little, and even though it did not help your relationship, it probably didn't make it worse. It's quite another matter when an abusive partner goes into individual psychotherapy.

The goal of traditional psychotherapy is to reprocess painful experience in the hope of changing the way the client sees himself and his loved ones, which will then, hopefully, bring about positive change in behavior. If your partner's therapy unearthed painful experience from his past, without first teaching him basic self-regulation skill, he most likely dealt with that pain in the only way he knew how -- by taking it out on you. He either seemed more entitled to enact resentful, angry, or abusive behavior or used the pain of his past as an excuse for it. Here are the sorts of things women hear from resentful, angry, or abusive men who are in therapy:

"With all I've had to put up with in my life, don't you hassle me, too!"
"It's so hard being me, I shouldn't have to put with your crap!"
"I know I was mean to you, but with the pain I've suffered, you have to cut me some slack."

In defense of your husband's therapist, this approach is designed to make him more empathic to you eventually. But it takes a long time - a great many weekly one-hour sessions - before his sense of entitlement gives way to an appreciation of your feelings. And once he reaches that point, he has to deal with the guilt of how he's treated you in his "pre-empathic" years. For at least a few more months of slow-acting therapy, he'll feel guilty every time he looks at you. Without self-regulation skills, he'll either lash out at you for making him feel guilty or distance himself from the wrongly perceived source of his pain - you.

It's not easy to form a therapeutic alliance with a man who dreads exposing vulnerability, as just about all resentful, angry, or abusive men do. Therapists will sometimes validate clients feelings about their partners' behavior as "appropriate," both for the sake of the therapeutic alliance and out of fear that he'll drop out of therapy, as most men do before making any real progress. Your resentful, angry, or abusive partner will likely interpret the therapist's validation selectively as reinforcement that he has been mostly right all along and you have been mostly wrong and that he is justified in his lack of compassion for you.

To make matters worse, most therapists have a bias to believe what their clients tell them, even when they know that they're getting only half the story and a distorted half at that. Abusers almost always perceive themselves as victims and will present themselves as victims in therapy. They will make their wives sound like Norman Bates' mother from Psycho -- they're just minding their own business, when she comes screaming out of nowhere wielding a bloody knife.

I once saw an emotionally abused woman whose husband was in individual therapy for more than 12 years with the same therapist. Her husband invoked confidentiality, forbidding the therapist to speak with her, even though she had left numerous messages on the therapist's answering machine describing the abuse. Upon consulting with the husband's therapist, I was shocked to learn that he was convinced that the woman, whom he had never seen, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. He based his totally inaccurate "diagnosis" on the husband's descriptions, which were reinforced by the "hysterical" messages she left on his answering machine.

If you were lucky enough to communicate with your husband's therapist - and that's something that most resentful, angry, or abusive men will not allow - you probably heard things like this.

"He's really trying, give him credit for that."
"As you know, he has so many issues to work through."
"We're starting to chip away at the denial."

The message to you is always, "Continue to walk on eggshells and hope that he comes around."