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But I have such a Great Catch! Treating Abusive Controlling Relationships

Section 1
Gender-Role Conflict: Loss of Relationship Power

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In this section, we will discuss extremely controlling behavior. We will also assess the effect controlling behavior has on a recipient in two areas. These two areas are: Loss of Power and Disintegration of Self-Image.

♦ Recognizing a Power Imbalance
Have you heard the term he or she has gotten a “Great Catch?” You probably have. What are the criteria set by one of your clients for a “Great Catch?” Great looks? Tall? Short? Muscular? Small built? Athletic? Good income? Good retirement plan? When you think of this client who feels that she has gotten or perhaps has lost “The Great Catch,” ask yourself, does her feeling of having gotten the “Great Catch,” create a power imbalance in the relationship?

Most importantly, does this power imbalance of the “Great Catch” lead to a controlling abusive relationship? Keep in mind I am using “she” for purposes of brevity and could easily say he or she, him or her, each time I use a feminine pronoun.

According to statistical information gathered by the battered women's National Crisis Center’s Organization, “Within a single year, 7% of American women, or 3.9 million, who are married or living with someone as a couple were physically abused. That's 7%.

However, 37% or 20.7 million, compared to the 3.9 million physically abused, are verbally or emotionally abused by their spouse or partner. That's 7% compared to 37%, a 30% difference. Keep in mind that's over 1/3 of the people who are married or living with someone.” Ask yourself, would providing this statistic to one of your clients be beneficial?

Let’s take a look at extremely controlling behavior and assess the effect it has on the recipients in two areas. There is a saying that goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

2 Effects of Extremely Controlling Behavior
Think of a client you are currently treating who feels she has gotten her “Great Catch.” Chances are she thinks she is extremely fortunate to be in this relationship. Ask yourself, how much control does she give away and in the following two areas: Loss of Power and Disintegration of Self-Image?

♦ #1. Loss of Power
The first area I assess is the client's Loss of Power. Have you found, like I, that this loss-of-power can unfold sometimes very slowly as the abusive controlling behavior by the “Great Catch” begins. I’ll talk about Sandra in a minute. You will see how, gradually, Sandra lost control over herself and her own emotions. The extent of her loss-of-control is directly proportional to her feeling that she has gotten a “Great Catch,” James. In short, the greater the Catch the greater was her loss of power.

What form has this loss-of-power taken for a current client you are treating? Loss of decision making regarding: Finances? Pregnancy? Even how much and what food they eat? Yes, how much food she eats.

Sandra, a 31 year-old divorced... physical therapist, has two girls ages 9 and 10. James moved in with her over a year ago. When Sandra came into my office, she stated, “James seemed like such a godsend when he first moved in. He had a steady job and paid most of the rent. But, a few weeks after moving in, he started telling me I was a bad mother, and a failure at caring for my two girls. He then started disciplining my girls for not studying hard enough or for making too much noise. He would send them to their room without supper or not allow them to watch TV. James calls me "a wimp." I‘m so nervous that I have to take sleeping pills, just so I can sleep every night.”

Sandra then continued to describe how James serves-up her and her daughters’ supper and insists that they eat all they were served. Sandra stated, “I hate brussel sprouts. James would give me and my girls practically a whole plate full! I know this sounds like a little thing, but it’s humiliating to be treated like a child in front of my girls.” Clearly, Sandra’s feeling that she has gotten the “Great Catch” via someone who paid her rent has found that the price was her loss of power. So with your client, who is in an abusive-controlling relationship, make this first assessment in your mind. In what areas has your client lost her power?

♦ #2. Disintegration of Self-image
In addition to Loss of Power, the second symptom I assess in abusive-controlling relationships is the level of Disintegration of Self-Image. What is your image of yourself? Mentally rate yourself as a therapist right now on some imaginary subjective scale of your choosing. Are you a superior therapist? Excellent; Very good; Average; Fair; or Poor?

For example, let’s say your self-image is that you’re a very-good therapist. However, in your annual written evaluation the board governing your agency rates you below average. Does your self-image as a therapist disintegrate? Probably, or maybe not. However, what if you got fired and sought several positions only to be fired because of poor ratings, would your self-image as therapist disintegrate? I can only speak for myself, but these circumstances clearly would have a major impact on me.

As you know, for clients like Sandra who feel she has hooked the “Great Catch,” this same type of Disintegration of Self-image occurs as continual evaluations of below average are provided by her significant other, James. James, the “Great Catch,” disintegrated Sandra’s self-image by stating for example, “She was incompetent to discipline her girls, prepare adequate meals, and even incompetent to judge how much food she and her girls should eat.” Her self image became one of total negative energy, self-hate, and loathing.

As you can imagine, Sandra doubted her ability as a housekeeper, cook, and as a lover. Sandra, like other women in abusive-controlling relationships, tended to be a traditionalist in her views of her relationship. The problem is, this buys right in to disintegration of self-image as these traditional homemaking areas are negatively evaluated by their “Great Catch.” Think back to the clients you are currently treating with relationship issues. Is this “traditional homemaker view” the basis of their self-esteem? How much value does their significant other place on your clients’ activities outside the home? I found with Sandra, activities she did outside of the home she viewed as unimportant when it came to evaluating her self worth, unless the activity outside the home was recognized as being important by James.

♦ Validates Self-esteem
With a client you are currently treating, what are activities her partner recognizes and validates, that contributes to her self-esteem? Do you agree with the idea that the more highly your client values their “Great Catch” or significant other, the more control they give away in the relationship? Will these two basic assessment points facilitate you in your next session with a client? With the client you've been thinking about as you've listened to this section, what will she say in her next session that indicates: #1, her level of Loss of Power in her relationship, and #2, her level of disintegration of self-image as a result of controlling-abusive behavior by her significant other?

Now that you have assessed the two basics of loss of power and disintegration of self-image for your client. In the next section, we will discuss two labeling tactics you might consider using to increase your client's awareness.

- Burke, S. E., Wang, K., & Dovidio, J. F. (Jun 2014). Witnessing Disclosure of Depression: Gender and Attachment Avoidance Moderate Interpersonal Evaluations. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 33(6), 536-559.

- Meza-de-Luna, M. E.; Romero-Zepeda, H. (2013). Trames: Areas of Conflict in the Intimte Couple. A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences, 17(1), 87-100. DOI: 10.3176/tr.2013.1.04

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Adams, A. E., Bybee, D., Tolman, R. M., Sullivan, C. M., & Kennedy, A. C. (2013). Does job stability mediate the relationship between intimate partner violence and mental health among low‐income women?
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 83(4), 600–608.

Burke, S. E., Wang, K., & Dovidio, J. F. (Jun 2014). Witnessing Disclosure of Depression: Gender and Attachment Avoidance Moderate Interpersonal Evaluations. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 33(6), 536-559.

Cross, E. J., Overall, N. C., Low, R. S. T., & McNulty, J. K. (Aug 2019). An interdependence account of sexism and power: Men’s hostile sexism, biased perceptions of low power, and relationship aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(2), 338-363.

Gilbar, O., Wester, S. R., & Ben-Porat, A. (Apr 30, 2020). The effects of gender role conflict restricted emotionality on the association between exposure to trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder and intimate partner violence severity. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, No Pagination Specified.

Jones, K. D., & Heesacker, M. (Jul 2012). Addressing the situation: Some evidence for the significance of microcontexts with the gender role conflict construct. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 13(3), 294-307.

Meza-de-Luna, M. E., & Romero-Zepeda, H. (2013). Trames: Areas of Conflict in the Intimate Couple. A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences, 17(1), 87-100.

Overall, N. C., Hammond, M. D., McNulty, J. K., & Finkel, E. J. (Aug 2016). When power shapes interpersonal behavior: Low relationship power predicts men’s aggressive responses to low situational power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(2), 195-217.

Walker, A., Lyall, K., Silva, D., Craigie, G., Mayshak, R., Costa, B., Hyder, S., & Bentley, A. (2020). Male victims of female-perpetrated intimate partner violence, help-seeking, and reporting behaviors: A qualitative study. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 21(2), 213–223.

What are two results of an abusive controlling relationship? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 2
Table of Contents