Victims Affected by Abuse: The Conflicts of Therapy
Abuse victims often go to therapy to heal. For some, therapy and a bad therapist can hurt the recovery process for the abuse survivor.
Statistically, the majority of abuse victims are female and most abusers are male. Still, we should bear in mind that there are male victims and female offenders as well.
Ideally, after a period of combined tutoring, talk therapy, and (anti-anxiety or antidepressant) medications, the survivor will self-mobilize and emerge from the experience more resilient and assertive and less gullible and self-deprecating.
But therapy is not always a smooth ride.
Victims of abuse are saddled with emotional baggage which often provokes even in the most experienced therapists reactions of helplessness, rage, fear and guilt. Countertransference is common: therapists of both genders identify with the victim and resent her for making them feel impotent and inadequate (for instance, in their role as "social protectors").
Reportedly, to fend off anxiety and a sense of vulnerability ("it could have been me, sitting there!"), female therapists involuntarily blame the "spineless" victim and her poor judgement for causing the abuse. Some female therapists concentrate on the victim's childhood (rather than her harrowing present) or accuse her of overreacting.
Male therapists may assume the mantle of the "chivalrous rescuer", the "knight in the shining armor" - thus, inadvertently upholding the victim's view of herself as immature, helpless, in need of protection, vulnerable, weak, and ignorant. The male therapist may be driven to prove to the victim that not all men are "beasts", that there are "good" specimen (like himself). If his (conscious or unconscious) overtures are rejected, the therapist may identify with the abuser and re-victimize or pathologize his patient.
Many therapists tend to overidentify with the victim and rage at the abuser, at the police, and at "the system". They expect the victim to be equally aggressive even as they broadcast to her how powerless, unjustly treated, and discriminated against she is. If she "fails" to externalise aggression and show assertiveness, they feel betrayed and disappointed.
Most therapists react impatiently to the victim's perceived co-dependence, unclear messages, and on-off relationship with her tormentor. Such rejection by the therapist may lead to a premature termination of the therapy, well before the victim learned how to process anger and cope with her low self-esteem and learned helplessness.
Finally, there is the issue of personal security. Some ex-lovers and ex-spouses are paranoid stalkers and, therefore, dangerous. The therapist may even be required to testify against the offender in a court of law. Therapists are human and fear for their own safety and the security of their loved ones. This affects their ability to help the victim.
This is not to say that therapy invariably fails. On the contrary, most therapeutic alliances succeed to teach the victim to accept and transform her negative emotions into positive energy and to competently draw and implement realistic plans of action while avoiding the pitfalls of the past. Good therapy is empowering and restores the victim's sense of control over her life.
Yet, how should the victim go about finding a good therapist?
next: Intimacy and Abuse
Last Updated: 05 July 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD