The highly “therapized” abuser tends to be slick, condescending, and manipulative. He uses the psychological concepts
he has learned to dissect his partner’s flaws and dismiss her perceptions of abuse. He takes responsibility for nothing that he does; he moves in a world where there are only unfortunate dynamics, miscommunications, symbolic acts. He expects to be rewarded for his emotional openness, handled gingerly because of his “vulnerability,” colluded with in skirting the damage he has done, and congratulated for his insight.
Many years ago, a violent abuser in my program shared the following with us: “From working in therapy on my issues about anger toward my mother, I realized that when I punched my wife, it wasn’t really her I was hitting. It was my mother!” He sat back, ready for us to express our approval of his self-awareness. My colleague
peered through his glasses at the man, unimpressed by this revelation. “No,” he said, “you were hitting your wife.”
I have yet to meet an abuser who has made any meaningful and lasting changes in his behavior toward female partners through therapy, regardless of how much “insight”—most of it false—that he may have gained. The fact is that if an abuser finds a particularly skilled therapist and if the therapy is especially successful, when he is finished he will be a happy, well-adjusted abuser—good news for him, perhaps, but not such good news for his partner. Psychotherapy can be very valuable for the issues it is devised to address, but partner abuse is not one of them; an abusive man needs to be in a specialized program.
Therapy focuses on the man’s feelings and gives him empathy and support, no matter how unreasonable the attitudes that are giving rise to those feelings. An abusive man’s therapist usually will not speak to the abused woman, whereas the counselor of a high-quality abuser program always does.
Therapy typically will not address any of the central causes of abusiveness, including entitlement, coercive control, disrespect, superiority, selfishness, or victim blaming.
It is also impossible to persuade an abusive man to change by convincing him that he would benefit from it, because he perceives the benefits of controlling his partner as vastly outweighing the losses. This is part of why so many men initially take steps to change their abusive behavior but then return to their old ways. There is another reason why appealing to his self-interest doesn’t work: The abusive man’s belief that his own needs should come ahead of his partner’s is at the core of his problem.
Therefore when anyone, including therapists, tells an abusive man that he should change because that’s what’s best for him, they are inadvertently feeding his selfish focus on himself: You can’t simultaneously contribute to a problem and solve it.
Women speak to me with shocked voices of betrayal as they tell me how their couples therapist, or the abuser’s individual therapist, or a therapist for one of their
children, has become a vocal advocate for him and a harsh and superior critic of her. I have saved for years a letter that a psychologist wrote about one of my clients, a man who admitted to me that his wife was covered with blood and had broken bones when he was done beating her and that she could have died. The psychologist’s letter ridiculed the system for labeling this man a “batterer,” saying that he was too reasonable and insightful and should not be participating in my abuser program any further.
The content of the letter indicated to me that the psychologist had neglected to ever ask the client to describe the brutal beating that he had been convicted of.
As a routine part of my assessment of an abusive man, I contacted his private therapist to compare impressions. The therapist turned out to have strong opinions about the case:
THERAPIST: I think it’s a big mistake for Martin to be attending your abuser program. He has very low self-esteem; he believes anything bad that anyone says about him. If you tell him he’s abusive, that will just tear him down further. His partner slams him with the word abusive all the time, for reasons of her own. His wife’s got huge control issues, and she has obsessive-compulsive disorder. She needs treatment. I think having Martin in your program just gets her what she wants.
BANCROFT: So you have been doing couples counseling with them?
THERAPIST: No, I see him individually.
BANCROFT: How many times have you met with her?
THERAPIST: She hasn’t been in at all.
BANCROFT: You must have had quite extensive phone contact with her, then.
THERAPIST: No, I haven’t spoken to her.
BANCROFT: You haven’t spoken to her? You have assigned his wife a clinical diagnosis based only on Martin’s descriptions of her?
THERAPIST: Yes, but you need to understand, we’re talking about an unusually insightful man. Martin has told me many details, and he is perceptive and sensitive.
BANCROFT: But he admits to serious psychological abuse of his wife, although he doesn’t call it that. An abusive man is not a reliable source of information about his partner. What the abuser was getting from individual therapy, unfortunately, was an official seal of approval for his denial, and for his view that his wife was mentally ill.”
—“Why does he do that ? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling men”
by Lundy Bancroft