Abuse & therapy

I was asked for a little advice. A friend is getting to the point where (s)he believes that (s)he can no longer be in denial about being in an abusive relationship.

I’m going to use very gender ambiguous language here. As ambiguous as possible because this is not a gendered issue. Abuse can happen to anyone regardless of their age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, etc.

Abuse can happen to anyone and it is not your fault. You cannot control the behavior of other people. If other people decide to abuse you… you have control over how you react. You do not have control over their behavior.

This is a website that goes through some things to think about with regards to abuse. What things count as abuse. I am intensely bothered by this attitude we have in America that abuse is always (or even mostly) perpetrated by men upon women.

I think we can only say “mostly” if we ignore a lot of more subtle forms of abuse. Yes, men tend to be more physically violent than women or non-binary people. I think that is a result of enculturation as much or more than biology.

Men are abused. Non-binary people are abused. We need to get rid of the narrative that only women are abused.

If you think you might be in an abusive relationship you need to start thinking about some aspects of your life differently. You can no longer consider your partner before yourself. If you are being abused you must act to protect yourself. What does that mean?

Well, I think most people who are being abused would be best served by getting into therapy with a skilled and educated provider because such a person can help you access resources in your area I can’t know about because I’m some chick on the internet who doesn’t live near you.

But I’m 30+ years into my therapy career and I’ve seen 21 therapists and I’m well aware that skilled and educated providers are thin on the ground.

Be ok with firing a therapist if they turn out to not be skilled or educated in the kinds of stuff you need help with. Therapists are service providers and if a service provider doesn’t have the skills you need… move on. You wouldn’t hire someone to dye your hair if the only skill they have is doing a buzz cut.

It’s not about being mean to the therapist. You don’t owe a therapist anything other than appropriate compensation for the time you spend with them. Beyond that you don’t owe them anything. Move on if a given provider isn’t fitting. Therapy is about helping you develop the skills you want to have and you don’t currently have. Their feelings are irrelevant.

I mean, they are people and they matter… but don’t keep seeing  a therapist because you feel bad about breaking up with them. They really should have at least enough training to encourage you to move on to someone who is a better fit. If they are clingy… run fast. Consider reporting them to the state board.

Ok, how do you interview therapists to see if they are right for you? There are a bunch of factors to consider.

  1. Are you looking for help working through a short-term crises or are you looking for a long-term therapy relationship? It is best if you can screen for suitability for your needs early on. If you don’t go in with expectations set it can really be hard. Most people who are not mentally ill can have 3-6 months of supportive sessions to get through a crises and then move on without therapy. Not everyone is a lifer. I am, and if you are then you need to learn how to look for that. At this point I tell new potential therapists, “I’m looking for a long-ish term commitment from therapy. I need an intense relationship with a lot of transference because I’m trying to heal wounds from neglectful parenting. I need a relationship with someone who can be supportive and enthusiastic about me being genuinely a non-standard person. I need a parental substitute who can help guide me without trying to control me.”
  2. Do you know much about different therapy types? It might be most effective if you do a little bit of research before you go in. CBT, DBT, psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy, Existential therapy… there are as many different models of therapy as there are people who need help, just about. Google these terms. I don’t want to put just random links up next to the terms and there is a lot of conflicting information out there. You have to be educated because most therapists aren’t capable of telling you, “I know x but you probably need y.” You have to learn what the options are and you have to proactively say, “I think I need help with changing my behavior. I believe a dialectical behavior therapy approach would work best for me.” Then go shopping for people who have specialties that match up with your best guesses. Your best guesses are all you have at first. (Personally I now say, “I need Harm Reduction therapists. Period. I don’t work with abstinence only people.”)
  3. Be ok with making mistakes. Life is about screwing up and then learning to do better. You’ll screw up as you try to figure out how to stop being abused. It is really hard.
  4. Document as much as you can force yourself to. If you are married and especially if there are children involved things may get to court. If you go to court you want to have documentation of when you have what kinds of arguments. Write down as much as possible about what you are saying and about what your partner is saying. Date everything you write down. If you are dealing with a bad co-parenting situation, write down every time your partner demonstrates neglect towards your children because it could be vitally important in court for protecting your kids. It’s time to stop thinking about what you want instead you must think about what is best for your children. If you have no children… well, documenting will save you headaches in court. If you aren’t married and things are bad enough for documentation… maybe just run. Rebuilding may not be harder than what you are doing.
  5. If you decide to pursue therapy as a short term process, go in with as much supporting documentation as you can so your therapist can jump in full speed with you. Write up documents. Write up a cast list for your life. Write up diagrams explaining how people are connected. Mention major traumas that may be applicable. Talk about how your work/school/friendships are being impacted by this problem. You need to explain to this professional how much of your life is being impacted. They can’t know unless you tell them. If you write this stuff down as a document they can read it outside of session and you probably won’t be charged for the time. My current shrink read my whole auto-biography when we started working together. Now that’s professional dedication.
  6. Be aware. Joint counseling is NOT RECOMMENDED in abusive relationships. Couples counseling often just adds fuel to the fire. Get yourself in order.
  7. If you are being abused the best advice I can give you is don’t try to change your abuser in any way. That’s a waste of your energy and time and you need to throw as much energy and time as you have at yourself. You need to prioritize you. You matter.
  8. If it is bad enough, you can call your domestic violence shelter in your area and ask for help finding resources.
  9. Calling the police is a very mixed experience. I can’t say if you should or shouldn’t. It depends on how bad the abuse is.
  10. Be aware that the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when you leave. That is when the most folks are killed. Be careful. Read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker and learn how to listen to your gut. You can’t move on in life if you are dead. Take threats seriously, but don’t get paranoid. Learn how to evaluate threats.
  11. Reach out for help. Tell your friends. Don’t get isolated. You’re going to need help. It’s ok to need help. Helping you is part of the glue that holds social communities together. Helping people in a time of need is bonding. It’s ok to ask for help. You are still a grown ass woman or a grown ass man or a grown ass person not on the binary. You are not diminished by needing help. You are humanized.

I love you. You need to love you too.