If you are struggling within a destructive or abusive relationship, or if you have left one and are still picking up the pieces, beware your therapist.

After more than twenty-five years in the advocacy field, helping women and children survivors of domestic and sexual violence, I went back to school so that I could dig into the latest trauma research. I wanted to come out better prepared to work with trauma survivors as a clinician, a therapist, rather than solely as an advocate. I went back to school already very well read in the field. Given that, I did not learn much new in the way of trauma research or about working with survivors. Instead, I came out much better prepared to warn you why you have to be wary of all those lovely, well meaning therapists you might turn to.

Chances are your therapist has been schooled in one of these ill conceived approaches to domestic violence that they tried to teach me in school:

Reenactment theory: a victim/survivor seeks out abusive relationships in an unconscious desire to resolve issues from her past.
Here’s the deal:
Sure, your awful relationship reminds you of your earlier awful relationships. And yes, you probably learned some survival patterns early on that suited you at the time, but are not serving you now. Yet consider this: do women have their human rights actively violated all over the world because they have mother issues? (You should be shaking your head and saying, ‘No, they don’t’.)
Also, importantly, all abusive partners present themselves as those terrific guys you know and love and admire (and maybe even cheer on the playing field.) None of them asks you on the first date to sign up for a relationship of humiliation, loss and degradation.

Family Systems theory: a victim/survivor is an equal partner in the abuse. Every member of the family plays a role in the system and is responsible for their role in creating abuse.
Here’s the deal: No.
Okay, this is a very helpful theory when you are looking at relationships that are not abusive. If you are thinking about relationships that are not based on one partner bullying the other to maintain power, family systems theory will take you far. In abusive relationships, research has shown that the more relationally skillful, communicative and conciliatory the abused partner, the more the abuser consolidates his control. The more you try–the worse it gets. “It takes two to tango?” It is not a tango. It is a train-wreck!

Low selfesteem: A victim/survivor feels badly about herself, which is why she seeks out the relationship, or stays in the relationship, perpetuating the abuse.

Here’s the deal: We’ve got cause and effect reversed here. Survivors feel their self esteem erode terribly when they live with a denigrating partner. They don’t stay to perpetuate abuse. They stay because it is dangerous to leave, because the partner threatens to take or hurt the kids and because of economic vulnerability or poverty. Many abusive people seek out women who have great ego strength because they see them as a challenge. In batterer intervention groups, these men talk of “taking her down a peg.”

What do these lenses for viewing domestic violence have in common? They hold the survivor responsible for the abuse. And that is just what the abuser does. If it feels comfortable and familiar–that is why. Also, we know that the first stage of response to a trauma is to blame yourself. There is some power in claiming responsibility–but it is the wrong place to take it. Where is it worth taking responsibility? Take responsibility for your healing path.

What should your therapist know about that would help you?
Conflict or Feminist Theory: The perpetrator of violence is exercising multiple forms of power over the partner and children he abuses. He often finds support for his choices in the media, his community and in our courts’ legal decisions. The victim is not responsible for the abuse perpetrated upon her.

This point of view relieves the survivor of the distracting and false burdens of guilt so that she can get on with rebuilding a life without the abusiveness or destructiveness.

Ask your potential therapist: what do you think causes domestic violence? Listen carefully to the answer. Having survived already and having read this, you are likely more savvy about the dynamics of domestic violence than many a therapist out there trained to blame.

By JAC Patrissi

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JAC Patrissi's Blog – Growing A New Heart

JAC Patrissi is a Communications Specialist who uses writing, performance art, training and collaborative facilitation in order to support healing for women who are questioning the health of their relationships or who are healing from destructive relationships. This is her blog.