If your marriage or serious relationship has become strained, you and your partner may consider couples counseling. There’s no doubt that a good therapist can help otherwise healthy couples work through issues that are giving them trouble.
But if your partner is an abuser, it’s a completely different story, and couples counseling will be a complete waste of time.
Narcissism and other high-conflict personality disorders cannot be “cured.” That’s not to say that the narcissist in your life won’t tease you with some short-term positive behaviors. They might do exactly that to keep you in the fold. But it’s a fantasy to believe that things will somehow change for the better in a lasting way.
In fact, while you might long for past days when things were better, if you really are honest with yourself, you’ll realize that things were never healthy between you and your partner. Exciting, fun, whirlwind romance? Sure. But, truly healthy? Probably not.
I used to tell myself that we (my severe malignant narcissist ex-wife and I) “had some good years.” But looking back now with clarity, we just had some less awful years. You may be in for a similar revelation down the road,
If a narcissist agrees to counseling, you can expect one or more of these behaviors:
- They will spin everything and turn it around to make the problems in your relationship your fault. They will take no responsibility, unless maybe to appear reasonable to the therapist.
- As master manipulators, they may completely fool the therapist and turn him or her against you.
- They may enjoy tormenting you by lying about you. They will thrive on your emotional reactions!
- They will hear what they want to hear and twist the therapist’s words around after the fact.
- They’ll learn further ways to manipulate you.
The one thing they won’t do is actually change for the better.
Lisa saw three different counselors with her covert narcissist / sex addict / alcoholic ex-husband. Absurdly, the first one was his own therapist (for 18 years.) This person suggested he was having an affair because he was unhappy in the marriage. Lisa was asked to “shelve” her own feelings, not get angry with him, and – shockingly – help ease his grief over letting go of the teenage girl he had “fallen in love” with online. Of course, he didn’t even let go of her, anyway.
The second therapist focused on helping them “communicate better.” Diagnosing him as a sex addict and alcoholic, she said he needed a minimum of a month of in-patient rehab. He accused her of being motivated by money, and fired her.
Ultimately, the third therapist, a sex addiction specialist, called it “the worst case of infidelity she had ever seen.” Satisfying, maybe, but way past the point of being at all helpful in a practical sense. After tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of talk, and untold emotional distress, Lisa eventually divorced him anyway. At no point did he end his affair.
In my case, I suggested therapy way too late in the game, and my ex refused to go (thank goodness!) However, part of our settlement involves using a “co-parenting coordinator” who has built a strong reputation among the family law community in our town. We are each able to request three sessions per year with him, at shared expense.
The first problem is that this therapist, while likely a fine choice for “normal” divorces, is not equipped to handle a high-conflict case like ours. I had advised him ahead of time that our situation was such that I could not have normal contact with her. Yet, he spent our first session talking about how we should sit together at the kids’ sporting events and other cookie-cutter advice like that.
Of course, she used her full allotment of sessions every year, mostly to engage with me. At last, earlier this year, the therapist advised us that he may not be the right one to work with us, possibly sparing me from more nonsense and expense.
Beyond being a useless exercise, couples therapy can actually be harmful, in several ways:
- As an abuse victim, you need to heal. That’s not going to happen when your tormentor uses therapy sessions to abuse you further, letting CPTSD or other symptoms you may have get worse, not better.
- When you talk openly in therapy, you’re giving your high-conflict partner more ideas for how they can hurt you.
- If you discuss any plans you may be making to end the relationship, you’re tipping your hand and giving them an opportunity to prepare, or, worse, take preemptive action themselves.
Lisa, who is a licensed abuse counselor, was taught in her training that you never, ever go to therapy with someone who has abused you. Period.
It’s not just therapy that’s a waste. There are some other common mistakes people make that full under the category of “ineffective solutions”:
In an effort to salvage your relationship, you may be tempted to do even more to please your partner. This can be terribly harmful. We know of one person who was six months away from earning a full pension after a military career. His narcissist wife asked him to quit to save their marriage, which he did. She almost immediately began an affair, and they separated shortly thereafter.
In my case, months before our split, my ex convinced me to use a big chunk of a recent inheritance to pay off her credit card debt.
A severe narcissist will suck you completely dry of everything. Beware the damage that they will intentionally inflict while the relationship is in its death throes.
Working on the relationship (outside of therapy)
- Don’t bother trying to explain yourself and your point of view. They lack an innate value system, and they lack empathy. They are not capable of understanding your take on things, and they are not capable of real change.
- Do not reveal your views of what the core problem is. Do not tell them they have narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. It’s a waste of time. They can’t hear you. They’ll use it against you if they can. In the end, labels don’t really matter, behaviors do.
So, what CAN you do?
If this sounds like a bleak situation, that’s because it is. Being in a relationship with a high-conflict person is awful, and it’s very unlikely to get better. But that doesn’t mean your life has to be miserable forever. Here are some things you can do now to help yourself:
- Pay attention to your own emotions. Listen to your gut. Face reality. You may be off-balance emotionally, but the person you once were, before the abuse, is still in there.
- Starting building your support network or strengthen the one you already have (we’ll have a separate blog post on this topic soon.)
- See your own therapist. If you’ve allowed yourself to be abused, that doesn’t make you a bad person, but you likely have some things about yourself that you need to work on. We talk about this a bit more here: https://beentheregotout.com/understanding-the-nature-severity-of-your-predicament/
- Open your mind to the possibility that the relationship could end; that that might be the healthiest thing for you and your children, if you have children. It’s not time to commit to ending the relationship now (unless you’re ready for that)… it’s more about having a healthy, open approach to this problem.
- Continue to educate yourself, privately. Learn as much as you can, but also be careful not to go overboard – too much immersion in this stuff can keep the trauma swirling around inside you at a time when you need to take your first steps towards protecting yourself.
As you learn, it’s possible that you (as an empath) could feel sorry for your partner. After all, his or her personality disorder came from somewhere, right? Most often, an abusive person was abused or neglected or suffered some other significant trauma as a child, so of course it would be natural to feel some sympathy for them. Be that as it may, that is NOT an excuse for them to abuse you.