COUPLES WITH AN ABUSIVE POWER DYNAMIC

THE MIRACULOUS “RECOVERY”

Couples with an abusive power dynamic

Don Edwards, Ph.D.

 

abusive power dynamic

 

This article describes a not often discussed dysfunctional playing out of the therapeutic engagement in which, by the time we recognize how to help our client, the opportunity may have largely passed. I have seen this in many guises where the presenting problem is personalized, but is actually the dynamic in a couple, and only one partner is presenting for therapy. Moving quickly to help the presenting partner find their voice in the couple may require that the therapist at least partially set aside their allowing stance of extending the benefit of the doubt to the client that what they say is the problem is actually the problem. By so doing, perhaps we can interrupt a predictable course that the therapy will take which, if allowed to run its course, will curtail the therapy to the detriment of the client and the couple.

 

Power struggles are common in couples such as minor tussles for ascendancy that are sporadic, situational but not systemic. The focus of this post is the power struggle that has progressed to the stage of domination and control of one partner over the other, perhaps with collusion by the dominated partner who is either afraid of their partner or afraid of losing the relationship. In these situations, the controlling partner has attained power over (domination) versus power with (synergistic cooperation) their partner, which, as Esther Perel points out, is the “booby prize” of a failed relationship. The hallmarks of this form of coercive control are that:

 

  1. the abusive power imbalance is obvious to observers, but the dominated partner does not speak of it and may not recognize it if it is pointed out to them.

  2. the dominated partner seems to be anxious and depressed, but may deny it.

  3. the dominated partner has become socially isolated.

  4. the relationship is static, and the individuals are not growing personally.

  5. there is a lack of synergy in the couple – it is not the case that they are better together than separately. There is a leader and a follower. They are not a team.

  6. the partners do not “have each other’s back.” At least one is out for #1 ahead of the relationship.

  7. the price of staying in the relationship is that the controlled partner puts the dominant partner’s interests first, something to which the dominant partner feels entitled.

  8. every transaction in the couple is a win/lose, a zero sum, because when the dominant partner wins, the relationship loses.

  9. the pattern of domination is systemic as contrasted with couples where partners defer to each other in domains where one has more skill or expertise than the other.

 

Couples with an abusive power dynamic may show up in therapy because domestic violence has occurred and could not be hidden. Otherwise from the perspective of the controlling partner, there is no incentive to change anything because they are enjoying their domination. Applying the principle of least interest -- he who wants least holds the power (Waller, 1938) – the controlling partner does not see any benefit to giving up their current advantage.

When the abusive situation has not been exposed, the dominated partner may look for an avenue out of their entrapment by presenting in therapy stating that they are “in crisis”—usually posed as some kind of “emergency” involving only them. Their partner may endorse therapy to calm down the crisis, even if they don’t buy into it and don’t plan to be involved in it. The dominant partner views the crisis as yet another proof of their partner’s weakness or inadequacy. This setup may be a passive-aggressive strategy by the dominated partner to get the other into couples counselling, first bringing them into the individual counselling as a “support,” an observer or a commentator. The counsellor is also being manipulated when presenting partner’s “crisis” masks an intent to suss out a couples counsellor they think their partner will accept. Their ulterior intention is to transition the individual work into couples counselling. This strategy may be successful in bringing the dominant partner into couples counselling, but without the counsellor quickly finding leverage to keep the dominant partner engaged, a containment offensive at home by the dominant partner will increase the vulnerability of the dominated partner to the point that they concede to retreat from the therapy. There may be arguments or fights in private, or a more savvy dominant partner may simulate change by temporarily toning down their controlling behaviour at home, or making minor concessions. In the counselling sessions, the controlling partner may seek containment by playing nice, mount a charm offensive, or use humour to engages the counsellor. Alternatively, they may betray indifference or contempt for the counsellor through body language, avoidance of eye contact, being loud or aggressive, showing up late or missing sessions, denying any role in the “crisis,” threatening to get angry at any hint of criticism, claiming that the couples counselling itself impugns their dignity or integrity, or by dismissing the counsellor’s comments, minimizing/trivializing the significance of anything raised, or by overtly questioning the counsellor’s competence.

The result is that after attending couples counselling briefly, the couple quits therapy, saying that are “fine now.” They may add an excuse such as sudden money problems, schedule changes that eliminate mutually convenient times for sessions, etc. The sudden disappearance of conflict between them may leave the counsellor feeling a little disoriented, because the shift claimed by the couple has happened without any of their deeper relational issues being addressed. The counsellor may see this as a professional failure, but it is also important to notice that the couple closed ranks when the dominated partner felt too vulnerable and chose to revert to their traditional safety strategy of aligning with the controlling partner.

The controlled partner’s formulation of the strategy to gain back their autonomy reveals dysfunctional beliefs, self-esteem and boundary issues, and their codependent status. The putative “emergency” is viewed by the declaring partner as something their partner has to take seriously. But it is really a proxy for the far more dangerous issue that the dominated partner fears to confront head on: the power imbalance in the relationship. It seems easier to fight a proxy war over the emergency concern than to say I want to be an equal partner in a relationship where I am respected, cherished, and have my needs met. The choice of proxy issue may reveal to the counsellor a limit the passive partner will not cross. It may also be an attempt to gain leverage in unsettled disputes about which the controlled partner has long felt helpless such as finances, sex, drinking, addictions, concerns about children (having them or raising them), the division of domestic labour, lack of boundaries with in-laws, intrusions of work, work colleagues or friends, outside relationships that are becoming intimate, etc. -- all topics, should any of them be tabled, the counsellor is well advised to consider exemplars of a core issue—the power struggle-- and not issues to be taken up one at a time in a solution-focused fashion.

The miraculous recovery – the We're Fine Now! declaration -- after shallow, go-nowhere couples therapy, might be understood in terms of the stages of change model (Prochaska & DiClemente (1983). The “miraculous recovery” is a relapse of the declaring partner to the pre-contemplation stage of that partner’s codependent addiction to powerlessness. They pull back from challenging the power imbalance in the relationship because they are not truly ready to face the risk of losing the relationship, or ready to challenge their fears of confrontation that any attempt to level the playing field will raise. Initially the counselling setting seems like a safer setting to gauge their partner’s response to challenge, secretly hoping the counsellor will ally with them and challenge their partner. Venturing into counselling is a seen as a lower risk contemplation stage move until failure is looming in this manipulative attempt to drag the controlling partner into therapy. At this point the declaring partner relapses back to the pre-contemplation stage until another opportunity for freedom presents or another exit strategy is conceived.

 

stages of change

 

The counselling engagement collapses when the counsellor buys into the story that the presenting problem – the “emergency” – is the real problem. Without looking deeper, the counsellor misses a crucial opportunity to identify the underlying power imbalance, and to challenge both partners about their roles in it, thereby shining a light on the controlling partner’s entitled attitude, and the cooperation of the oppressed partner that has sustained the imbalance in the relationship and protected the controlling partner’s vulnerabilities. By buying into the emergency story, the counsellor implicitly colludes with the declaring partner’s codependent avoidance, ending up in the same disempowered stance.

Naming the power struggle in the first session, and the partners’ fears of loss (one of the relationship, the other of power over the other) may shock both as they are forced to realize that their subterfuges are transparent and that their relationship is in peril. Naming the power struggle is not about blaming one partner. Both have participated in making their present reality, one by demanding too little and the other by taking too much. Once the power struggle is on the table as the main issue, the “emergency” issue becomes just one of many exemplars of the struggle. The tensions around these highly specific issues likely will soften once the power struggle is identified as the real issue, and there is commitment to change the balance of power in their relationship.

Unfortunately, the act of naming the power struggle is a dangerous move for the counsellor. As it must be done early in the counselling engagement, there is a risk that by getting out in front of both partners, they may close ranks and turn on the counsellor who appears to be claiming to know them better than they know themselves. Although the counsellor’s skill, experience and artistry may moderate this, the risk of blowing up the therapy is high -- one that must be taken, because it is the only way to break the impasse that brought the couple to counselling, albeit for a quasi-specious reason -- the “emergency.” The counselling may be terminated by the couple with explosive sound and fury signifying nothing, but with the down-stream benefit that the dominated partner may realize that they have to stand up as a full partner in the relationship or leave it, and the controlling partner may have to realize that they need to rein in their overreach or lose the relationship. Sometimes good intentions by the counsellor do not result in a thank-you.

Such cold war power struggles take time to develop and have their origins in:

  • never being in agreement about (or never having discussed) what the relationship is about and what they expect from it.

  • not understanding the minimum contribution each has to make for any relationship to be successful.

  • there is a parallel process governing the dynamic: possibly the controlling partner was him/herself controlled by a parent and is now dishing to their partner what they endured as a child.

  • attempting to resolve childhood attachment issues in the current relationship by using the partner as a surrogate for a parent with whom they did not have a satisfactory relationship; e.g., the dominated partner could not achieve love and connection with a narcissistic parent and has chosen a partner with the same psychological makeup in the hope that, by connecting better with their partner than their similar parent, they have somehow solved the riddle of connecting with their parent. If both partners are engaged in this kind of projective fantasy (which may be unconscious), it may appear to an outside observer that each partner is fighting for themselves in the relationship ahead of or in place of fighting for the relationship.

  • wanting something that a relationship provides such as children, financial security, not being alone, etc. without becoming beholden to their partner – i.e., using their partner to get certain benefits without being truly in a relationship with their partner.

  • believing that the relationship can be stable without addressing individual issues such as addiction, personality or bipolar disorder, out of control OCD, or other untreated mental health concerns.

  • a disagreement about how much autonomy each partner thinks they and the other should have in the relationship – what could be described as the length of the leash the other is on in the relationship; e.g., one wants an open relationship and the other does not.

  • emotional awareness deficits such as alexithymia or affect blindness that undermine the connection between the partners resulting in rigid or collapsed behaviour in one or both.

  • one partner has unconfirmed diagnosis of a serious nature and worry about the diagnosis or being abandoned is being acted out by controlling the other partner or collapsing.

 

Hypothetical Example: Jamie and Klaus

 

After carefully evaluating therapist profiles in an online directory, Jamie contacts Thomas, a gay male therapist and couples counsellor. In the telephone intake, Jamie tells Thomas that he wants to understand relationship dynamics better in general, and he wants to understand how his experiences as a child may contribute to some problems he is having in his current relationship with his male partner, Klaus. Thomas agrees to see him individually as Jamie seems curious about himself and seems to be taking responsibility for his problems and his role in them. There is no talk of couples counselling. Jamie says he wants to pursue this for his own personal growth.

In the first session, Jamie reveals there are communication difficulties in his relationship with Klaus, who sees these difficulties as entirely Jamie’s “fault,” and that “he should go and get fixed.” Thomas tries to address the problems Jamie stated during the telephone intake -- the downstream impact of Jamie’s family of origin experiences -- but Jamie continues to steer the conversation back to his problems with Klaus. By the second session, Jamie claims that Klaus has remarked on “improvements” in Jamie and is interested in coming in with him. On asking, Thomas gets no clarity on whether Klaus will attend one session to support and give his perspective on Jamie’s issues, or whether the intent is a transition to couples counselling. Regarding the latter possibility, Thomas warns that Klaus may not see the playing field as level, even though he and Jamie have had only two individual sessions. Jamie urgently wants to proceed in any event, and Thomas caves without getting clarity on the direction the counselling is taking.

Quickly as the joint session commences, it is clear that the intent is couples counselling. Klaus takes the lead describing how their relationship is disrupted by Jamie’s “complaining” about matters that Klaus does not see as issues or certainly not issues that involve him. In his view, if they have “real problems at all, Jamie is 100% to blame,” and “if Thomas is any good, he will see that.” Always the diplomat, Thomas does not address the professional slight, and gently tries to make the point that, in any relational problem, both parties play a role, even if their contributions to the problem may be unequal. Klaus regards this as an academic point and himself as an exception, arms crossed, slouched in his chair and looking at the floor. Not being able to engage Klaus, Thomas obtains Jamie’s agreement to explore his family of origin attachment history so that Klaus may better understand him. This seems to be going well until it becomes clear that Klaus’ attitude resembles that of Jamie’s father who had had an angry, dismissive attitude towards Jamie’s mother manifesting whenever she tried to advocate for change in the family. Thomas, mistaking that Klaus has any good faith motivating his participation in the couples counselling, feels that he is getting some traction with Klaus.

The couples therapy continues arduously for a few more sessions until, having run aground on the reef of Klaus’ resistance, both partners are eager to put an end to what has become an uncomfortable process. Jamie’s panic is secretly building as he sees that his game plan is failing apart, and Klaus is winding up for one of his explosions that he secretly enjoys so much. Outwardly they collude to pursue the common aim of getting rid of Thomas though for different reasons. They inform Thomas that they are “much improved and don’t think they need counselling any more,” and thank him for his services. A Miraculous Recovery seems to have occurred. Somewhat disoriented, Thomas experiences a hollow relief at their departure.

 

What has happened here? Prior to looking for a therapist, Jamie had strategized that “relationship dynamics” was a bland enough sounding reason for seeking therapy, especially if he took ownership of the problem when presenting the idea to Klaus. Klaus agreed because therapy might “lower the background static at home.” This was a gambit by Jamie to get therapy into the relationship so that eventually Jamie might get Klaus into therapy—a manipulative move by Jamie from a position of his perceived relative powerlessness. Jamie’s second manipulative move occurred in the first session when, having enlisted Thomas to explore how his personal family history may be contributing to difficulties he experiences in the present, he repeatedly steers the conversation onto “communication problems” with Klaus. Thomas did not call Jamie on the disingenuousness of this switch of focus in first session, thereby missing the first opportunity to question whether there was a power imbalance in the couple. The secondary consequence of this oversight was that Thomas put himself in the same one-down position as Jamie in the setup for the first joint session with Klaus who makes it clear from the outset that he is in control and intends to stay there. In terms of the principle of least interest, Klaus wants the least change in the relationship – none actually – and he does not want the couples counselling at all; therefore, he de facto holds the power. Thomas needs leverage to compete with this, and he has none unless he can enlist Jamie to consider putting the relationship on the line by raising the possibility that he could leave. Being somewhat narcissistic, Klaus does not appreciate or care that he does not relate to Jamie as an equal and that the relationship is failing.

Could the counselling engagement have played out differently? Perhaps. Getting Klaus into any kind of counselling and keeping him there would be challenging. But Thomas might have had an easier time implicating Klaus in the couple’s difficulties if he had tabled the power dynamic in his second session with Jamie. Klaus would have had to agree to come to counselling knowing that Thomas was aware of the power dynamic. Thomas also complicated the therapy with Jamie by not calling him on his manipulations in the intake and individuals sessions. Thomas could have helped Jamie to see the healthier path of simple assertiveness and taking more risks with Klaus to advocate for a relationship that might serve them both better. Jamie needs to be empowered to stand up and claim the relationship that he wants or to leave. Thomas missed the opportunity to bring to Klaus’ awareness that he cannot take the relationship or Jamie for granted, as Jamie’s father did. Klaus needs to realize that Jamie could leave if there is no change -- that he is not a prisoner in the relationship. Thomas’ diplomacy did not serve him. The Miraculous Recovery was a whitewash over the failure of this couples therapy engagement, over the manipulations underlying its initiation and over the unexplored centrality of the power dynamic in the couple’s problems. Better to have confronted the phony presentation of the case and face the outrage that revealing the power dynamic may evoke than to work around the edges of it as Thomas tried to do.

 

In summary, the plot of The Miraculous Recovery has eight stages:

The Approach: the oppressed partner finds a willing counsellor

The Wedge: in screening interview, the oppressed partner misrepresents the reason for counselling

The Flip: in the first session, the client changes the focus to the relationship with their spouse

The Partner: the oppressed partner brings in controlling partner

The Corralling: by trying to win some cooperation from the controlling partner, the

counsellor joins oppressed partner in their disempowered role

The Becalming: the counselling is stalled because of the controlling partner's limited participation

The Dump: both partners secretly fear losing their relationship more than losing the

counsellor and join ranks against counsellor

The Retreat: "We're all fine now!" The oppressed partner colludes with controlling partner

who has succeeded in putting down the challenge to power.

 

The Flip is the juncture at which the counsellor has the maximum opportunity to alter the course of this plot. When the Flip occurs the counsellor could offer to see the presenting client individually and provide a referral to a couples counsellor; or the counsellor could agree to allow the partner’s attendance, not for couples counselling, but to give their perspective on the presenting client’s concerns; or the counsellor could confront the presenting partner with their one-down status in the apparent power imbalance in their relationship (if that is apparent) and allow the other partner to join for couples counselling. With this up-front declaration that power abuse is the central problem, the controlling partner cannot play innocent in the first couples session.

To intervene at the Partner step (which may be the first opportunity if the power dynamic is not clear enough from speaking with the presenting partner alone), as it becomes apparent in the session, the counsellor needs to identify the power dynamic as a central issue which both partners are sustaining.

 

REFERENCES

 

Prochaska, J.O. and DiClemente, C.C. (1983) Stages and processes of self-change of smoking, toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51, pp.390-395.

Waller, Willard. (1938) The Family: A Dynamic Interpretation. Rev. 1951 by Reuben Hill. New York: Dryden.