Coercion in Intimate Relationships

In an ideal world, therapists are there to help relationships in trouble and give abused clients the space to heal from their traumas. But it’s possible for a therapist who isn’t familiar with the signs of coercive control to prevent an abused party from getting the help they need.

         For 23 years, I heard experiences from women in my Recovery Groups for Women with Controlling Partners, that therapy was unhelpful and actually hurtful. The common denominator is often a therapist uneducated about psychological and physical abuse in intimate relationships—a reality that’s supported by a 2013 study of mental health professionals. The recipient is often confused, in denial, and minimizing psychological abuse from an intimate partner. These issues underscore the need for therapists to be informed in order to help.

A fifty-one-year-old woman shared this experience: “I was a severely psychologically battered woman, but until my husband was observed visiting me in a psychiatric hospital, no one knew it. My husband was sophisticated and knew how to leave no signs. His abuse was so hidden even I didn’t recognize it. I thought there was something wrong with me, probably in my brain, that I couldn’t ‘do life’ as other women did. He thoroughly convinced me—and my family, friends, and doctors—that I was completely incompetent.”

Psychological Abuse

         Psychological abuse in intimate relationships is far more common than physical abuse. It is also a known precursor to physical abuse and a greater cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Psychological abuse is made up of coercive tactics embedded in a partner’s behavior that are not easily recognized by the recipient, yet result in a mental health decline. The most common conditions are depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, self-blame, PTSD, and loss of trust in judgment and self-efficacy. Recognizing these conditions and the coercive behaviors that cause them, are essential for the treatment to be successful.

A Treatment That Failed

         Since relationship problems can be an issue, it’s likely a therapist might recommend couples therapy. Unfortunately, it’s not always the best option for controlling relationships. This is where an educated therapist becomes a skilled evaluator when determining what’s best for an individual or couple dealing with coercion. Here’s Emily’s experience:

         Emily, a thirty-two-year-old woman, found her way to a group after years of trying to get help through couples therapy, with no success. She told the group that the therapist put the onus on her to make the relationship work. The therapist counseled her to avoid making her husband angry and to be more understanding of, and sensitive to, his neglectful and abusive childhood. Of course, Emily’s efforts never worked. Her self-blame intensified and she became more confused and depressed. The therapist never held her husband accountable for his angry, controlling behavior, which made him feel more justified in blaming and abusing her. In the end, the therapist failed them both.

         In Emily’s case, individual treatment for herself and her partner at the beginning could have benefitted them both. Simply put, two things need to happen for them to be in a better position to address their relationship together.

  • Her partner stops reacting with anger and coercion.
  • She develops trust in her judgment and feels empowered.

Get Educated

         I’ve received positive feedback about my book from many therapists who are educating themselves and using it with their clients. Women with Controlling Partners: Taking Back Your Life from a Manipulative or Abusive Partner is a self-help book based on my evidence-based recovery program.

A Successful Treatment

         Recently, I received an email from a private practice psychologist knowledgeable about treating individuals in controlling relationships. She helped her clients by educating their spouses’ therapists, who in turn were more effective in treating their spouses.

         She noted that using Women with Controlling Partners allowed the woman in a controlling relationship become aware of controlling behavior. In addition, the work between her and the controlling partner’s therapist becomes collaborative, even making it possible for the controlling party to attempt to change negative behavior.

         I’m so impressed with the collaborative therapeutic work that’s taking place for these couples. These clients just might have the best chance at success in their relationships,.

Domestic Abuse:  Where Are All the Therapists?

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© Lambert

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