Couples Therapy

Most survivors are deeply committed to their relationships. It is a very common to seek couples therapy at the survivor's insistence,. Where primary aggression is operating, this almost makes things worse for the survivor. This website's author is a couples' therapist, and can endorse this statement both from studying the experience of survivors, and from his own clinical experience. Even if the therapist understands the dynamics of primary aggression (which is rare), the detrimental effect seems to be the usual outcome. Couples therapy can go wrong with either an expert, or inexpert therapist for the following reasons:

  1. In therapy, subjective perceptions are treated as carefully as objective facts. From a psychological point of view, what a client thinks should be true is as important as what is true. However, a primary aggressor's subjective perceptions will be so blaming of the partner, and so numerous, that privileging his perceptions in this way keeps blaming attention on the survivors behavior, which replicates the basic abusive maneuver.
  2. Some therapy will attempt to lessen conflict by encouraging partners to accomodate each other more. Survivors may take this to heart and redouble efforts to accomodate the primary aggressor, who, for his part, will not follow through on any promises.
  3. Primary aggressors are usually dedicated at impression management. It is possible that a naive therapist will ally with the primary aggressor against the survivor for the alledgedly outrageous behavior reported about her.
  4. Survivors tend to take responsibility for more than their share anyway. Since lesser skilled therapists welcome 'volunteers', this means still more focusing on survivors behavior. Somehow, the primary aggressor never volunteers to take responsibility.
  5. If the therapist does start pointing out power behavior immediately, the primary aggressor will usually make a case that the therapist is against him, and demand another therapist. Considering how difficult it is to find a therapist that understands the dynamics of abuse, and considering how hard it is to get the primary aggressor to agree to go at all, it can be quite disheartening to start over, and often therapy is given up with hope and energy depleted further.
  6. Often the primary aggressor insists on finding and seeing the therapist first. This is to screen out anyone that can see through the con or recognize the power behavior. This guarantees that if a therapist is allowed by the primary aggressor, he or she will be clueless about power and control.
  7. A survivor may feel encouraged (or actually be encouraged by the therapist) to speak honestly. This may set her up for punishment later.
  8. To the extent that the therapy actually gets to core issues, violence may increase dramatically, because that is how the primary aggressor usually responds to anxiety and bad feelings. Now it is true that a very skilled therapist can anticipate this and help the client build a 'container' for reactions, but this requires a high level of cooperation and an absence of denial.
  9. The primary aggressor will be on better behavior, which takes the impetus from the survivor to insist on therapy. The primary aggressor will then suggest that things are better and therapy is not needed. The survivor will be made to feel crazy if she insists on continuing.
  10. If the therapy does seem promising, the survivor hopes that the primary aggressor will keep coming. His continuing to come becomes something that she wants, which he will sense and he may use it to manipulate and mentally torture her.

This is not to say that individual therapy about the issues contributing to domestic violence and primary aggression is not valuable. The reasons listed above do not mean that therapy is 'not deserved' by anybody. Rather it is the format of couples therapy in this circumstance that is defeating. Couples therapy is commonly believed to be devoted to 'stopping break-ups'. In the presence of primary aggression, couples' therapy can become a tactic that actually makes the option of leaving the relationship less available to the survivor, which replicates the basic abusive maneuver.

It is true that very often both members of couples experiencing domestic violence want to stay together safely. Should they not be helped if they ask for help? Yes, but help comes in many forms. The same thing that makes the couples format of therapy so urgently desired in this situation--intense partner focus to the exclusion of self focus--is one of the under-pinnings of abuse.