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The Therapist's Struggle
Battered women are slow to take action, and most never leave their potentially
murderous mates. It is easy for workers to feel frustrated with the grim realities
they must face when treating these women. When working with the batterer, workers
form relationships with and must develop positive feelings about people who are
violent. When working with the couple, workers are directly confronted with a
violent family system where someone is aggressed upon and someone is the aggressor.
In short, the worker faces a woman who has been injured physically and psychologically,
and a man who has brutalized her.
Upon contact, the therapist is immediately
assaulted by the horror of this reality. Barbara Mathias comments, Therapists
struggle with both their revulsion and their denial, a feeling that this just
couldnt be real. But it is all too real, and the therapist treating
battering cases needs to cope with and be effective in the work. Countertransference
responses do not get enough attention. Unless therapists are acutely aware of
the feelings evoked as a result of working with battering, these feelings left
unattended can result in mistakes in treatment that can seriously hamper the work.
Countertransference is the totality
of the therapists experience in relation to a particular client, conscious
and unconscious, feelings and associations, thoughts and fantasies; it includes
the therapists feelings about the client as well as the therapists
feelings about him or herself. Any aspect of the therapeutic relationship
can and inevitably does evoke countertransferential feelings, but the treatment
of battering is particularly fertile ground for the growth of countertransference.
It is easy for the therapist to develop feelings about the abused partner and
the batterer even before treatment begins; indeed, the terms themselvesbattering,
batterer, abuse, beaten, victimcan elicit a cadre of feelings. Some of the
feelings these words conjure up are: abhorrence, avoidance, anger, fear, sympathy,
empathy, the desire to rescue, and control.
Of the choices availablethe
abused woman, the batterer, the couplepractitioners may be more comfortable
working with the battered woman individually. She appears helpless and dependent,
and they are the victim. Working with the batterer, with or without his partner,
is less popular. They are the violent partners, and they have committed a crime.
Although countertransference must always be wrestled with in this work, it
feels potent and overwhelming with battering cases. This problem has been noted:
Working with family violence puts the therapist under special pressures.
. . Those who work with violent families have to find some way to avoid being
overwhelmed. Battered women tug at our feelings of the need to rescue.
Jody entered my office looking like a scared doe. She was petite and thin,
with enormous frightened dark brown eyes. Although she hung her head down so that
her curly brown hair hid most of her face, I could still see the bandage above
her eyebrow and the purplish bruises around her eye.
This description can evoke many responses in practitioners. They
may identify with helplessness and powerlessness, which every human being has
experienced. They may feel anger at her assailant or at her for being abused.
They can feel empathy, which can foster dependency and perhaps revulsion. The
batterer can evoke fear and intimidation of his aggressive tendencies, anger and
hatred for his bullying and unfair display of physical force, or a secret admiration
for his ability to control. What is triggered in each practitioner is totally
individual, but the feelings inevitably arise.
One way of coping with
uncomfortable feelings is to distance from them. When the feelings aroused by
clients are discordant with therapists professional self-image, avoidance
is a reasonable outcome. In teaching a course on the treatment of battering, I
asked the class to tell me what feelings were aroused by some case examples. The
students resisted, responding intellectually, giving me interpretations, developing
treatment plans, and so forth. When I insisted on an expression of their feelings,
they conveyed anger at the batterer but noted they are not supposed to feel that
way as professionals.
The feelings engendered by battering cases can
result in a therapists avoidance of feelings and lack of involvement, which
can be manifested by not offering services to these clients and a lack of exploration
of the presence of violence because they do not want to know. I believe what they
do not want to know is what the feelings are that may get conjured up, some of
which are possibly alien. Moreover, working with couples compounds countertransferential
- Geller, J. A., PhD. (2002). Breaking Destructive Patterns. The Free Press: New York.
Battered women may create stress for the therapist because of the therapists
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