Why Couples Therapy Doesn’t Work For People In Abusive Relationships With Narcissists
By Shahida Arabi, Bestselling Author
As an author who has corresponded with thousands of survivors of narcissistic partners, I have heard horror stories of those who attended couples therapy with their abusive and narcissistic partners. The National Domestic Violence Hotline does not recommend couples therapy with your abuser, and for good reason. The power imbalance present in an abusive relationship is naturally counterproductive when entering a space where both parties are expected to participate to improve the relationship.
As Licensed Family and Marriage therapist Albert J. Dytch, writes, “One error I encounter with troubling frequency is the failure of couples therapists to assess adequately for partner abuse. By partner abuse, I mean the use of force, intimidation, or manipulation—or the threat to use any of those methods—to control, hurt, or frighten an intimate partner. Note that the definition can be met even if no physical violence is involved. Verbal and psychological tactics are more common; frequently, they are also more effective at controlling, hurting, or frightening another, and they can be more emotionally damaging in the long run. I have met with couples whose seasoned therapists, over the course of several years’ treatment, missed the extent and severity of the physical and emotional abuse taking place at home.”
There are five common ways couples therapy harms the victim of abuse. Whether you’re a couples therapist or a survivor of abuse, I invite you to evaluate which examples resonate with your experiences:
1. Many couples therapists will attempt to address the victim’s behavioral responses to the abuse rather than the abuse itself.
A couples therapist often has to remain neutral to see “both sides” and “both perspectives” in the therapy room in order to avoid assigning any blame. In keeping up with this model, they assign a form of assumed “equality” where both partners share responsibility for the nature and quality of their relationship. However, an abusive relationship is simply not equal for both partners by any means. The abuser has far more control and power over the victim, having spent years coercing, belittling, and gaslighting the victim into believing he or she is worthless, going crazy and imagining things. They are indeed at fault for abusing, and that needs to be acknowledged, not sugarcoated or denied. The abuser has far more responsibility than the victim in creating chaos in the relationship and is thus the one who should be held accountable for stopping their behavior. Seeing both perspectives only places the victim at a further disadvantage as he or she feels even more invalidated, invisible, and forced to take responsibility for the abuser’s toxic behavior. In the Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy, clinicians Gurman, Lebow, and Snyder (2015) note:
“Such “absolute neutrality” may help to maintain a focus on the presenting problem and enhance treatment effectiveness. On the other hand, accepting information provided by the couple at face value risks ignoring potentially critical clinical information. For example, many couples present with “communication problems,” but experienced therapists know that such euphemisms can mask far more serious problems. If the therapist accepts the presenting problem at face value and makes no independent assessment, he or she might overlook serious but unvoiced problems, such as substance abuse, chemical dependency, and/or intimate partner violence.”
Shared responsibility also causes the couples therapist to look at what the victim could be doing to “provoke” the abuser’s behavior or “better manage” the abuser’s actions. For example, the therapist may suggest that victims work on their “jealousy issues,” when the narcissist is purposely triangulating (manufacturing love triangles) them, or deceiving them. They may hyperfocus on the way a victim behaved in reaction to a verbally abusive incident, rather than addressing the abuse itself. They may coach victims to try to “better understand” the narcissist’s perspective, which likely is already the focal point of the relationship, leaving the victim feeling even more voiceless than when they entered therapy.
Coaching someone who is already empathic to be even more empathic towards an abuser who uses that empathy against you does not work. It only makes the victim responsible for something he or she had nothing to do with. Abusers are abusive regardless of what their victims do and actually exploit their victims even more when they are shown empathy; couples therapists must acknowledge this and recognize the signs of even more covert abusers in order to provide victims with the help and resources they need to exit, not stay, within the relationship.
2. Manipulative abusers will often put on a charming facade for the therapist, fooling them into thinking they are the true victims. Narcissists will use therapy as a site for further gaslighting their victims, if they even attend at all.
Couples therapy is designed to help both partners sort out problems in their relationship and to improve communication patterns. This design can be helpful when both partners are empathic, committed to improving, and open to feedback. However, when one person is highly narcissistic, unempathic and is prone to narcissistic injury at any perceived slights or criticism, it is unrealistic and even potentially harmful to assume that abusive partners have the best interests of anyone but themselves in mind. The abuser is only committed to defending himself or herself; this means they will engage in the same tactics they do in the relationship in the therapy space to maintain the status quo of power and control. It’s not uncommon for abusive partners to blameshift, project, and minimize incidents of abuse in an effort to maintain their image as the innocent partner who is “put upon” by the complaints of the abused party.
Although some couples therapists who are experienced in manipulation and abuse will recognize the signs of abuse quickly, not all are equipped to discern the true nature of a narcissistic personality. I have heard many stories of couples therapists being easily charmed by the narcissistic partner into believing that the abuser is actually the victim. There have even been a few tales of couples therapists who engaged in an affair with the narcissistic partner – their client’s own spouse or partner! Of course, those cases probably involved a therapist who was already unethical, but regardless, there are many who may still miss the signs and cause harm unintentionally.
It’s important that couples therapists be trained and alert to the fact that an abuser can be quite charming and convincing, but that this does not mean the victim’s experiences of the abuse are invalid. In fact, I would advise therapists to be on the lookout for types who seem overly charismatic, and yet who have partners who appear depleted, angry, anxious, and depressed; those who say all the right things are often the ones who are capable of quite horrendous actions behind closed doors. Their victims, of course, may appear less “charming” and “likable” in the therapy space because their energy has been drained by the abuser. After all, who do you think is more likely to be happy and upbeat in the therapy room – the victim, who has been terrorized relentlessly, or the abuser, who is benefiting from a perpetual power trip at home?
3. Therapists who aren’t aware of the manipulative tactics narcissists use or the complex dynamics of trauma bonding risk retraumatizing survivors.
All therapists should be well-aware and knowledgeable in not only the manipulative tactics narcissistic and sociopathic personalities use to undermine their victims, but also the trauma bonding which can result from such abuse – the deep attachment and loyalty victims develop towards their abusers in order to subconsciously cope with and survive the abuse (Carnes, 1997). Therapists should understand the effects that tactics like love bombing, gaslighting, stonewalling, covert put-downs, isolation, and micromanaging have on victims over time. They should also be aware that victims who bring their abusers into therapy are often under the illusion that their abuser can change; they are holding onto a false hope that this is a “communication problem” which can be fixed. They are looking for a “cure,” a third party who can help them “fix” the narcissist.
If a couples therapist recognizes the abuse that is occurring, it is far better to take the victim aside and tell them they should be in individual therapy to guarantee their own safety than to continue couples therapy. As LMFT Albert Dytch also notes in his article about couples therapy and partner abuse, “We might be tempted to believe that clients bear some responsibility for staying silent on the issue (whether out of fear or outright denial), but the obligation to assess rests firmly on our shoulders. For example, an abused partner may feel unsafe bringing up abuse in the presence of the other because of likely retaliation, yet many therapists have a policy of never meeting separately with one member of a couple they are treating jointly.”
The couples therapist should be aware that the victim may minimize the abuse, defend the abuser’s actions, or find ways to rationalize staying in the relationship due to the trauma bond. That trauma bond does not mean the victim isn’t experiencing abuse, however, but that they are suffering from the traumatic aftermath and mental fog of what an abusive relationship creates.
4. There is a power imbalance in the relationship. So long as the abuser controls the victim outside of the therapy room, there is a threat of harm and retaliation for anything brought up in therapy sessions.
Couples therapy is all about transparency, mutual empathy, and understanding. It can be highly beneficial when both parties are fairly equal in the power they share and do not feel as afraid of retaliation when sharing their innermost feelings. In an abusive relationship, however, it’s very possible that therapy sessions could actually escalate the abuse outside of the therapy room. Victims may be punished emotionally, verbally, or even through physical violence, for things they disclose to the couples therapist. There is never any real freedom when you are in an abusive relationship – no matter how politely you address your issues with your abuser, you will inevitably be punished later on due to the narcissistic rage and entitlement the abuser exhibits (Exline et al., 2014; Goulston, 2012).
That is why it is so important that couples therapists exercise mindfulness when they see signs of escalation within the therapy room; there are issues that the abuser will often not want to acknowledge and it will become clear in how agitated they become and how they attempt to shut down those conversations and blameshift. It’s important that instead of trying to force the abuser to communicate better or trusting that he or she will (some abusers will pretend to be accommodating but still abuse the victim at home), the victim is taken aside in a confidential manner to do safety planning if the therapist believes there may be any danger involved (Karakurt et al., 2013).
5. The further someone is on the narcissistic spectrum, the less likely they are to change.
All therapy is founded on the idea of beneficial change and the potential for this type of change, even if it does not occur right away. Whether it’s aiding a struggling relationship or helping an individual towards personal development, it is the progress of a client which attests to the strength of the therapy. Yet couples therapy ultimately cannot work when there is a victim all too willing to change themselves to somehow “stop” the abuse, and an abuser who plans to never make any real progress.
Therapists must be aware that there are individuals who are so far on the narcissistic spectrum that they are unlikely to change within their lifetime, let alone within an intimate relationship. This has nothing to do with the victim and everything to do with the abuser. Rather than placing any burden of the abuser’s actions onto the victims, it’s time that couples therapy is reformed to identify the red flags of an abusive relationship and to encourage victims of abuse to do individual therapy which can help them leave an abusive relationship safely, or at the very least, come to terms with the reality of the abuse and manipulation they’re experiencing.
Arabi, S. (2019). Why Couples Therapy Doesn’t Work For People In Abusive Relationships With Narcissists. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 11, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/recovering-narcissist/2019/09/why-couples-therapy-doesnt-work-for-people-in-abusive-relationships-with-narcissists/
Carnes, P., & Phillips, B. (1997). The betrayal bond: Breaking free of exploitive relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Dytch, A. J. (2012). Assessing Partner Abuse in Couples Therapy. Retrieved September 28, 2019, from https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/couples/couples-abuse-assessment
Exline, J. J., Baumeister, R. F., Bushman, B. J., Campbell, W. K., & Finkel, E. J. (2004). Too Proud to Let Go: Narcissistic Entitlement as a Barrier to Forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,87(6), 894-912. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.114
Goulston, M. (2012, February 9). Rage-Coming Soon From a Narcissist Near You. Retrieved September 28, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/just-listen/201202/rage-coming-soon-narcissist-near-you
Gurman, A. S., Lebow, J. L., & Snyder, D. K. (2015). Clinical handbook of couple therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Karakurt, G., Dial, S., Korkow, H., Mansfield, T., & Banford, A. (2013). Experiences of Marriage and Family Therapists Working with Intimate Partner Violence. Journal of Family Psychotherapy,24(1), 1-16. doi:10.1080/08975353.2013.762864
The National Domestic Violence Hotline. (2014, August 1). Why We Don’t Recommend Couples Counseling for Abusive Relationships. Retrieved September 28, 2019, from https://www.thehotline.org/2014/08/01/why-we-dont-recommend-couples-counseling-for-abusive-relationships/