Therapeutic Issues in Couples Therapy with Emotional/Verbal (Psychological) Abuse
Moshe Rozdzial, PhD, LPC*
Intimate partner (domestic) abuse is a pattern of physical, emotional, verbal (psychological), and sexual mistreatment to gain and maintain differential power and control within an intimate relationship. Verbal and emotional abuse in relationship are part of a range of coercive behaviors and tactics that include domestic violence, but, without direct physical harm, are often dismissed, as there are no legal ramifications, yet, have deep psychological harms to the victim, including depression, isolation, fear, and guilt, and vulnerability to various health issues.
Emotional/Verbal (psychological) abuse is any use of words, tone, voice, action, or lack of action meant to control, threaten, hurt, humiliate, embarrass, shame, or demean another person. Emotional abuse typically includes ridicule, contempt, belittlement, depersonalization, dehumanization, intimidation, objectification, isolation, or coercion. This may include promotion of shame or vulnerability in regards to body image, sexual performance, or sexuality, and using personal characteristics, and genetic, medical, or historical traits or affiliations to demean, manipulate and control the partner.
Naming and defining the behaviors as abuse is crucial in all work with emotional/verbal abuse victims and perpetrators. Describing psychological abuse as a form of terror may often place it in greater context to the socio-political system, and help externalize the narrative.
Before anything else, regardless of sexual orientation, it needs to be clarified that it is counter indicated to work with domestic violence in the context of couples therapy, and must also be understood in the context of informed consent, confidentiality, the therapist’s obligation to protect, and the laws of the state. If violence or physical harm is not indicated, couples therapy with intimate partner abuse may potentially position the therapist to be in collusion with the abuser’s behavior by victim blaming and mitigating the unequal power dynamics, blackmail, and other forms of manipulations that the abuser enforces. The therapist may not only misconstrue the power and control dynamics in the relationship, but may also minimize the abuse, or reaffirm the abusive behavior by supporting the victim’s unrealistic believing that the abuser can change
Naming the impact is also an important tool in working with couples where psychological abuse is present. Victims of emotional and verbal abuse are more likely to struggle with all the permutations of low self esteem and low sense of self, including depression, anxiety, reduced functioning, decreased self-care, and other mental health issues. Intimate partner abuse may have direct or indirect correlation with unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse or process addictions, unprotected sex, sexual desire issues, and career performance and displacement. This may also translate to physical health issues such as smoking or substance-related disease, sexually transmitted infections, psychosomatic disease, obesity, etc., outcomes that show that intimate partner abuse is a major factor in a range of health problems.
*Moshe Rozdzial is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice, GLOW Counseling (www.GLOWcounseling.com), in Denver, Colorado. He is a certified sex therapist, addiction interventionist, and trauma counselor. Moshe is a trainer and presenter on issues of diversity, multiculturalism, social justice, gender, sexual orientation, men’s issues, and sexuality. Moshe can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.