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Why Couples Counseling Rarely Works with Narcissistic and Borderline Women


queen of heartsI receive a lot of emails and comments from men who are involved with emotionally abusive narcissistic and/or borderline women who want to know if couples counseling will help. Many readers have shared stories in which they recount how therapy was a waste of time, money and energy because it only emboldened and validated their wives’/girlfriends’ crazy and hurtful behaviors. Why is this so?

The Perversion of Psychology

If used properly, Psychology’s ultimate benefit is personal responsibility and freedom. At its best, it can help a person:

  • Become more aware of how he or she is affected by and affects others.
  • Make clear, conscious choices.
  • Strengthen their ability to say “no” to unhealthy and/or abusive situations, people and relationships and open up the possibility of new, healthy opportunities.
  • Set an example for others to become fully developed, conscious individuals.

Ideally, therapy is used to help an individual explore his or her past in order to understand their pain in the present. It is then the individual’s responsibility to use that awareness to make different choices, change self-limiting behaviors and free themselves from the past and unconscious forces that control them.

Unfortunately, many practitioners have allowed Psychology to become a big cop out and blame game. As a result, we now have a few generations of professional victims who take little to no responsibility for their own happiness and who blame everyone but themselves for their difficulties and misfortunes. “It’s not my fault because my parents did x, y, and z to me, so you have to excuse and put up with my bad behavior. I can’t help it.” “If you weren’t so angry, selfish, etc., I wouldn’t have to yell at you right before bed and refuse to have sex with you.

NPD/BPD women usually fall into three categories when it comes to therapy:

1) Professional shoppers. This woman is usually the one who suggests therapy because she wants to portray you as the one with the problem. She wants a “professional” to say, “Yes, Mrs. Crazypants. You’re right. Your husband is an obnoxious jerk. You’re right about everything. If you don’t criticize him and tell him what to do and how to do it every minute of the day, it will bring on the apocalypse. So, by all means keep hammering away at him. You’re absolutely right to do so and he’s a defensive, overly sensitive crybaby for being upset about it. How ever do you tolerate him?

A BPD/NPD woman rarely attends therapy for her own issues, because it would mean admitting she has issues. Therefore, she has a different agenda for counseling than you do. Alternately, she may admit she has some issues, but stipulate that you need to work on your issues first because you’re the “cause” of her issues. By the time you fulfill her laundry list of grievances and it’s her turn to do some work; she ends treatment. (Please note: A good therapist doesn’t let one spouse/partner hijack couples therapy like this).

The professional shopper will often spend years dragging her husband/boyfriend from one couples therapist to the next. If she does individual “work” it usually amounts to weekly hand holding with a lame therapist who acts as cheerleader, confidante and expresses empathic statements about how much she “puts up with” and what an “angry, insensitive, unfeeling, selfish jerk” you are without ever really challenging her or making her the focus of her own therapy. Basically, she’s buying herself a best friend. Do you really want to pay for this?

2) Hell no, I won’t go! This woman refuses to go to therapy and believes it has no value. While it may be frustrating for her partner who’s desperate for relief, she’s actually demonstrating a rare moment of personal insight. She’s right. Therapy probably won’t help her. Alternately, she may have had therapy in the past and received a diagnosis she doesn’t want you to discover. She may fear her controlling, abusive behaviors will be exposed for what they are—abnormal pathology. She knows a good therapist will see through her and expose the truth.

3) Go to therapy or the relationship is over. A husband/boyfriend issues this ultimatum out of desperation. Here’s the problem: First, if you have to issue an ultimatum in order to get your wife/girlfriend to work on the relationship and treat you with basic kindness, it doesn’t bode well. Second, like everything else with a BPD/NPD woman, it’s about control and she certainly isn’t going to let you usurp her control even under the threat of divorce/break-up.

She may agree to go and then play games and stall in regards to choosing a therapist and scheduling a date and time. Or, she’ll lead you on a merry chase, going from one shrink to the next until she can find one she “likes” (i.e., one she can control). Or, she will go to therapy and spend the entire session criticizing you. If the therapist challenges her in any way, she’ll refuse to see them again and accuse them of “siding with you,” of having an affair with you or something equally preposterous. She will also twist your ultimatum into accusations that you are the abusive controlling one. There are many ways for this to blow up in your face, even though, ironically, you’re trying to save the relationship.

Why Couples Therapy Rarely Works

A BPD/NPD woman typically can’t tolerate effective therapy because it puts boundaries in place and holds her accountable. In this case, therapy often degenerates into yet another vehicle to complain about and blame others, namely you. It becomes a device to a) get you to do whatever it is she wants you to do (e.g., stay in the marriage or quit asking her to get a job); b) get you to shut up and do as you’re told; and/or c) co-opt the therapist into validating her distortions, forcing you to “prove” yourself and placing the entire onus of the relationship on you. Meanwhile, she continues to play the “Queen of Hearts,” declaring, “Off with his head!” when you inevitably displease her. The following are some key reasons why therapy rarely works with narcissists and/or borderlines:

1) Ego syntonic vs. ego dystonic. Personality disorders, particularly the Cluster B personality disorders (Narcissistic, Borderline, Histrionic, Antisocial) cause the most pain and suffering to those who come in contact or have relationships with the personality disordered individual rather than the person with the disorder. NPD/BPD individuals often experience negative consequences for their bad behaviors, however, they don’t see themselves as the ones with the problem. They believe they’re okay (syntonic) and blame everyone else for their problems and unhappiness. They will not connect the dots back to themselves, until their behavior becomes dystonic, i.e., they see their own behavior as the source of discomfort, pain, etc.

2) You can’t help someone who won’t admit there’s a problem. A NPD/BPD woman will readily admit that you have problems, but that doesn’t count. Therapy not only doesn’t work with an individual who takes no responsibility for their actions, it also becomes another mechanism by which this woman controls and emotionally bludgeons you.

Just like your wife/girlfriend twists the things you say and do, she’ll also twist what a therapist says—especially if the therapist holds her accountable. This woman “shops” for therapists she can use to blame and shame her husband/boyfriend into submission. The moment a therapist tries to hold her accountable, they’re denounced as a quack and she moves onto the next “expert” for hire or denounces therapy altogether and refuses to see another therapist.

Everything is about control. Controlling your reality, controlling the therapist’s perception of her and you—i.e., she’s great; you’re a boorish ogre. If she senses she’s losing control of the therapist and the session and the focus shifts to her behaviors, she’ll probably flee the scene and begin a smear campaign to devalue the therapist and/or the entire field of Psychology. She behaves this way in order to avoid being “outed” and held accountable.

3) Predators don’t get “better,” but they do become “better at being predators.” Predators don’t get better and they often become better predators with the help of an unwitting therapist. Bad therapy helps a NPD/BPD woman to manipulate her partner. It helps her maintain the pattern of blame and  zero accountability.  It strengthens her role of the professional victim, which hides the true aggressor lying just beneath the surface.

An ineffectual colluding therapist can also be used as an “ally.” In other words, she uses the therapist as an authority figure to beat you down. For example, “Dr Ann Abler said that you need to forgive me.” Translation: Let her get away with and forgive her abusive behavior. “Dr Ann Abler says I should do what my heart tells me to do.” Translation: I can act as badly as I want and you can’t say anything about it. “Dr Ann Abler said you need to be more sensitive to my feelings.” Translation: Tolerate her criticisms, put-downs, rages, and emotional/sexual frigidity. You get the idea. Sometimes, the therapist doesn’t actually tell her any of these things. A BPD/NPD woman is masterful at twisting everything to support her distorted beliefs and demands.

BPD/NPD predators use Psychology to engage in name-calling. They learn just enough psycho-jargon about their own pathology, but instead of recognizing the abusive behaviors, distortions, and emotional issues in themselves, they project it onto everyone else. Everyone else is crazy. Everyone else is a bully. Everyone else is a narcissist or a borderline. Some of them even buy books on these topics and begin diagnosing their partners, friends, co-workers, and family.

A BPD/NPD woman also uses therapy (usually with a shrink she’s manipulated into believing her tales of adversity in the face of lesser beings such as yourself who can’t appreciate how wonderful she is and who stifles her creativity, talent, intellect, blah, blah, blah) to cloak herself in a false shield of individuation. “I’ve done my work, you haven’t. I know, you don’t. I solved my issues, Dr Ann Abler says you’re an angry person and says it’s normal not to want have sex with such an angry person.” Meanwhile, the opposite of everything she claims is true.

4) FAILURE TO DIAGNOSE AND ADMINISTER APPROPRIATE TREATMENT. Many therapists fail to detect the real problem when a BPD/NPD woman enters couples or individual therapy. Or, worse yet, willfully don’t diagnose their condition and encourage the husband/boyfriend to “hang in there” and be more patient. NPD and/or BPD don’t improve on their own nor do they improve when you instruct the target of the abuse to jump through hoops and walk on eggshells. These conditions only improve if they’re accurately diagnosed and the individual with the disorder undergoes a highly structured form of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Working on “communication skills,” “exercising patience” and scheduling a “weekly date night” simply doesn’t cut it. It’s like putting a band-aid on an open chest wound.

5) Couples therapy doesn’t work if there’s ongoing abuse in the relationship. Couples therapy typically isn’t viable you’re in an ongoing abusive relationship. Since the BPD/NPD uses therapy to continue to blame and attack, all it does is set you up to be re-victimized. If you insist on couples treatment, it’s probably better to start off with individual therapists who consult one another—that’s if the abusive spouse will attend treatment and consent to sharing information. Since most abusive types fear a loss of control and being exposed, this is highly unlikely

How Therapy Can Help You

If you’re involved with an emotionally abusive BPD/NPD, you can benefit from treatment that:

  • Helps you decide if you want to end the relationship and, if so, how to best extricate yourself and mourn the loss.
  • Helps you work through your fears and worst-case scenarios about ending the relationship.
  • Helps you decide if you want to continue the relationship and, if so, learn how to manage and cope with her abusive behaviors.
  • Helps you understand what secondary gain you’re deriving from this relationship.
  • Helps you understand why you’re attracted to this woman and determine if you have a pattern of being attracted to abusive women.
  • Helps you work through these issues in order to make healthy relationship choices in the future.

Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD

Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to shrink4men@gmail.com.

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Photo credit:

Queen of Hearts on flickr.