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Helping Clients Move Through Partner Emotional Abuse
By Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd

Most social workers have at least a few clients—usually female ones—who are emotionally abused by a spouse or partner. To ensure that these clients keep progressing toward emotional health, a theoretical framework should guide their therapy. A simple but effective model involves laying out stages of recovery from partner emotional abuse, as well as collaborating with clients in an ongoing assessment of their strengths and challenges in each stage. In Stage 1, clients are in denial, function passively, and walk on eggshells around the abuser. In Stage 2, they intentionally try to ignore the abuse and/or engage in ongoing confrontation and arguing. In Stage 3, assuming there is an insufficient reduction of abusive behavior, they end the relationship.

Assessment starts from the first contact with the client, including noting when the abused person raises the issue: Is it the reason she seeks out a therapist or does mention of the abuse arise down the road or in an off-hand manner? What is the client’s initial emotional presentation of the abuse (minimizing, offering facts without feelings, defending the partner, feeling like a victim, laughing it off, fearful, etc.)? Before we can develop a plan, we must be clear about the view clients hold of the abuse and the abuser.

Assessment helps us recognize which stage of recovery clients are in; identify areas of weakness in their life skills; monitor whether they are gaining strengths, overcoming challenges, and making progress; and target what works or does not work for them in session and in their relationship. Abused clients sometimes enter therapy in Stage 2 when the relationship is already an ongoing battleground. In fact, they may not even realize they are being abused. Instead, they may think, “This is just how relationships are” or “I’m not abused because I stand up for myself.” If you suspect emotional abuse is occurring, it is wise to lay out the stages of recovery early on when the subject comes up, or as soon you deem that the client is ready to address the issue. Of course, as with much of our work, you will likely need to reiterate the stages and remind clients that passing through them may take months or years.

Stage 1: Denial, Passivity, Walking on Eggshells
Because depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse are symptoms that may develop from partner emotional abuse, it is often easier for clients to blame themselves for their difficulties than to lay blame on the abuser. Just as addicts may be more comfortable thinking of themselves as chemically dependent vs. having mental health problems, abuse victims frequently would rather consider themselves intrinsically defective than accept that they are being abused.

This form of label denial protects their fragile egos, helps them feel in control, and keeps them from having to confront the real problem: They have chosen an abusive mate. At this point, the therapist’s job is to help clients shift their perspective from believing that control comes from fixing a defective self to acknowledging that real power and recovery come from confronting and changing external circumstances as well. Strengths that help clients in this stage are accepting validation of being abused from friends and family, a willingness and capacity to explore and identify patterns of abuse from childhood to the present, a belief that they have the power to improve their lives, and trust that the therapist can help them do so.

Clients who recognize that their partner is abusive but remain passive and walk on eggshells around them may have tried previously to confront the abuser with little or no success, fear that pushing back may cause the emotional abuse to escalate into physical violence, or assume that they will be abandoned if they make waves. Or they may be stuck in a transference reaction involving a time when they truly were helpless to fend off emotional harm in childhood. Qualities that help clients move beyond passivity and walking on eggshells to take charge of their relationship include being reflective and insightful about the past and fully exploring it, recognizing their distorted thinking and understanding that belief is not necessarily truth, and the ability to effectively test out which of their assumptions are valid and which are holding them back from empowering themselves.

Stage 2: Ignoring Abuse and/or Ongoing Confrontation and Arguing
One of the major reasons to lay out stages of recovery from partner emotional abuse as soon as possible is to help clients understand that constant quarreling is neither normal nor healthy in an intimate partnership. If they were raised by parents who were locked in battle or if every disagreement between them and their parents turned into World War III, clients may assume that turmoil and high-octane conflict are part of married life or any relationship. Moreover, due to class, culture, and media influences, clients may not realize that there are couples who get along well and solve problems sanely, rationally, and nonabusively.

Alternately, clients may have grown up with one parent who habitually turned the other cheek to ignore abuse. While it is true that we need to let some comments or actions in close relationships roll off our backs, a stiff-upper-lip, turn-the-other-cheek attitude is not a healthy way of reacting to intentional mistreatment. Hurts and insults seep through our flimsy protective veneers and rough up the ego, even when the abused partner tries hard not to let them do so.

Clients who initially were in denial about being abused by a partner or who responded passively and by walking on eggshells may take a while to shift into fight mode, but when they do, they often feel tremendously empowered and want to hold onto the feeling. Letting out emotions pent up from years or decades or a lifetime of abuse, talking back and arguing with the abuser, and engaging in behavior that does not make them feel like a victim helps clients feel strong, powerful, and in control. Ongoing fighting can be very seductive for women who have been passive for much of their relationship or lives and who fail to understand that warring with a partner is only another dysfunctional relational pattern. It can feel so empowering that clients do not want to give it up and, for this reason, it is essential that they understand from the outset of therapy that this is not the final stage of abuse recovery.

Sometimes when abused individuals begin to stand up for themselves and refuse to let their partners verbally knock them around, the abuser does change. Or when the abused client brings a spouse or partner into therapy, he finally “gets” what he is doing wrong and takes steps to mend his ways. However, in my experience, this happens in only a handful of cases and makes therapist assessment of the relationship especially crucial. Rather than provide lengthy therapy and communication coaching that is actually going nowhere because the abusive partner lacks the capacity or motivation to change, the therapist must lay on the line what he or she observes. I have heard of too many cases in which therapy has gone on for years without meaningful relationship change, reinforcing not only abuse but also the misguided belief that this is what a partnership is meant to be.

To move abused clients to the final stage of recovery means helping them prepare to leave the relationship. Strengths that propel a client forward include feeling deserving of a better life; having the emotional, social, and financial resources to take care of oneself and one’s children; having family and friends to provide help and support on numerous levels; maintaining a belief that if others have survived marital breakup, it’s not insurmountable; and relying on a solid therapeutic relationship that will be there as one first builds a bridge out of the relationship and then crosses it.

Stage 3: Ending the Relationship If Abusive Behavior Continues
It is not always easy to assess when an abused client is ready to leave the relationship. For example, I was working with a couple for several months when the wife called me early one morning to say that after her abusive husband had gone into the shower, she packed some clothes, grabbed her son, and left. No one was more shocked than I was (except her husband). Another client set a deadline for one year to save enough money to get out and then surprised me by moving the deadline up by six months and renting her own apartment. More likely, however, clients appear ready to leave and then back off time and again.

Laying out a framework of recovery stages for clients in abusive partner relationships shows them a tried-and-true path to follow, while recognizing the life skills they already possess and those they need to learn gives them a clear focus in therapy that moves them from one stage to the next and, finally, out of abuse.

— Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd, practices in Sarasota, FL, and is the author of several books. Her Web sites are www.eatingnormal.com and www.nicegirlsfinishfat.com.