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But I have such a Great Catch! Treating Abusive Controlling Relationships

Section 2
Helping your Client Identify Psychological Abuse

Question 2 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, I asked you to assess a client in the two areas: loss of power and disintegration of self-image. In this section, I will discuss ways in which victims of the power imbalance, caused by feeling they have hooked their “abusive partner,” come to increase their awareness to recognize the fact that controlling abusive behavior is taking place.

As you know, there are many reasons women accept verbal psychological abuse from their "abusive partner." And just to recap a point made at the beginning of section #1, for purposes of brevity, I am using the pronoun "her" and female names for cases of the recipient of the psychological abuse. However, I like you, have treated many males involved in abusive relationships and same-sex relationships.

Tina was married for eight years to Jerry. She described how small things could ignite Jerry's temper. When she stated her negative feelings about his outbursts, Jerry refused to speak to her for hours or even days. Tina felt rejected and frustrated, because she didn't know how to calm him down without causing further retaliation. Tina said, "There was never any give and take in the relationship. I felt I was doing all the giving.

Psychological Abuse - I am Perfect
The worst thing was that in Jerry’s eyes he was perfect, and I was the cause of most of his problems. I've been divorced for three years now, but his standard list of criticisms still ring in my ears. He'd yell, 'You are such a slob. You're a bitch. You're lazy. How can you stand your lazy self?' I still struggle against that sense of feeling like a failure. I wonder if Jerry was really right all along. Maybe I am a horrible, terrible, nothing of a person."

Psychological Abuse - Name-Calling
As you can see, Tina is unable to validate her pain. She's in denial that Jerry's name-calling was abusive. She felt paralyzed and unable to shift her self-esteem from the negative Jerry had created to a positive focus. She wasn’t sure if she was really suffering verbal psychological abuse or not. Thus, as you can see, without this awareness that psychological abuse is taking place, Tina like Sandra, whom we discussed in the previous section, could not change.

Do you have a client who you feel you may have overlooked this basic step of client-awareness? Perhaps you are trying to focus your session on actions to change, and the real focus should be on first increasing your client's awareness of the abusive-controlling relationship.

Once I helped Tina truly define and become aware of her psychological abuse, she began to be able to talk about it and express the pain of the psychological abuse as being a legitimate feeling. Ask yourself, “How can I get my verbally abused clients to recognize the validity of what they are feeling?” Here’s a tool I used with both Sandra and Tina.

Over the course of several sessions, I discussed with Sandra and Tina two questions they might consider in evaluating whether they felt they were experiencing abusive-controlling behavior in the relationship, where they felt they had gotten the “abusive partner.”

Relationship Power
As you listen to these two awareness-increasing questions, think about a client you are treating and how he or she might respond:

Question #1. Increases awareness of the “instant-replay syndrome.”
"Do you repeatedly replay his voice mimicking or mocking you?" To what extent does your abused client internalize their controlling partner's behaviors by replaying his or her voice in their mind? I call this the instant replay syndrome.

Question #2. Increases awareness of the “guilt trip strategy.”
"Do you often feel that his verbal attacks were an attempt to make you feel guilty as a means of controlling your behavior?" By labeling the “abusive partner's” behavior as a “guilt trip” controlling strategy, both my clients, Sandra and Tina were able to separate and identify their partners’ abusive behaviors as being their partners’ problem rather than as a defect within themselves.

Relationship Power - Labeling
Do you need to go back to this basic therapy technique of labeling to move unconscious behavior into the light of consciousness to assist your clients to grow? You might use my label of “the instant replay syndrome” and my label of “the guilt trip.” I find dusting off these "oldie-but-goodie" labels can be a very effective therapy technique.

Here’s how I initiated this labeling technique in a session with Sandra. I asked her to be an objective observer of her thoughts. Have you found, like I, this thought-observing-method especially helpful when clients have negative self-comparisons? I find three benefits of thought-monitoring or observation: the separation from the thought process, reduction of the attachment to the thoughts, and objectifying the psychological abuse.

I stated to Sandra, "Examine your thoughts objectively, the way you would study someone else’s thoughts, as if you had no emotional attachment to them." For example, Sandra’s significant other, James, would say, "Our house is never as clean as my mother's" …or, "Your Polish sausages never taste as good as Mom’s." After practicing this thought-observing-method, Sandy was able to recognize the source of these psychological abuse as being her partner's controlling behaviors.

The next section will describe three tactics I used to initiate this labeling technique with Sandra.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Adams, A. E. & Beeble, M. L. (Sep 2019). Intimate partner violence and psychological well-being: Examining the effect of economic abuse on women’s quality of life. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 517-525.

DePrince, A. P., Labus, J., Belknap, J., Buckingham, S., & Gover, A. (Apr 2012). The impact of community-based outreach on psychological distress and victim safety in women exposed to intimate partner abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 80(2), 211-221.

Harrington, A. G., Overall, N. C., & Cross, E. J. (2020). Masculine gender role stress, low relationship power, and aggression toward intimate partners. Psychology of Men & Masculinities. Advance online publication.

Karakurt. G. and Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Gender and Age. Violence Victim, 28(5), 804-821.

Marshall, Amy D., Holtzworth-Munroe, Amy (2010) Recognition of wives’ emotional expressions: A mechanism in the relationship between psychopathology and intimate partner violence perpetration. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(1), 21-30.

Sullivan, T. P., McPartland, T. S., Armeli, S., Jaquier, V., & Tennen, H. (Apr 2012). Is it the exception or the rule? Daily co-occurrence of physical, sexual, and psychological partner violence in a 90-day study of substance-using, community women. Psychology of Violence, 2(2), 154-164.

What are two forms of psychological abuse that your client may experience in a relationship
? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 3
Table of Contents