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

Section 5
The Good or Bad Guy

Question 5 | Test | Table of Contents

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Previously, we discussed the using the Cold Weather Analogy to help your clients accept and experience negative feelings towards their highly valued “Great Catch.”

As you know, one of the reasons why accepting and expressing these negative feelings is so difficult is because victims of controlling abusive relationships are "Invisible Victims” and usually need feeling-validation.

As you know, the victim of verbal abuse is invisible because she does not have physical bruises as evidence of being victimized and attacked. Therefore, she is invisible to, for example, the legal system. To magnify the problem, her family and friends may view her as being lucky to have gotten such a great guy.

Marcy, age 25, was so worried about meeting the needs of her "Great Catch" that she gave away much of her power in the relationship. Sound familiar? Thus, along with her power, she also gave up much of the control she had over her life. I've found, like you, that the pain of this loss of power and control is invisible. Unlike physical abuse, the recipient of the verbal abuse, which lacks physical evidence, may not be validated by her support system.

Marcy stated, "If only Ron would just hit me once and give me a big bruise across my cheek, I would know I was being abused! Right now I just don't know. I feel like he's some kind of invisible controller in my life." Can you see how Marcy's disbelief and denial that abuse is taking place is evident in this statement? This, of course, sets the scene for her later minimizing and selective forgetting, as we will discuss.

3 Feeling-Validation Strategies
Because the loss of her power was invisible unlike physical abuse, I reframed Ron in Marcy's relationship using her term of the "invisible controller," because he left no visible wounds. Here are three feeling-validation strategies I used to validate Marcy's feelings of being abused. See if you would use any of these three or some variation.

♦ Strategy #1: Jekyll-and-Hyde Reframing
With Marcy I found a Jekyll-and-Hyde reframing technique helpful as a feeling-validation strategy. Here's how it worked.

a. First, I used Marcy’s comment in a session as the springboard for this technique to validate her feelings. Marcy stated “Ron seemed like such the All-American guy initially. But when I confront him about our lack of time together, he lashes out like some type of ghoul. His whole facial expression, body, and voice changes. He becomes like a totally different person. What came to mind was that old movie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

I expanded upon Marcy's Jekyll-and-Hyde description by saying, “For you, when hearing Ron’s promises of time you would spend together, Ron was like “Dr. Jekyll.” He was your “Great Catch;” the ideal partner. Marcy agreed, “Yeah, at those times it’s easy to forget about his other side.”

However, as you know the “Dr. Jekyll,” All-American guy-side, actually facilitates “Mr. Hyde's” abusive goal of control and dominance of the relationship.

b. To increase Marcy’s awareness, the second step, after expanding and exploring her Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde description, was to reposition Ron and to increase her awareness that, while Ron may be kind and supportive on some occasions, this kind and supportive behavior did not excuse Ron for the times when he breaks an agreement and does not follow through with his promises of time to be spent together.

Think of a client you are treating who feels she is in a relationship with a controlling, abusive partner, while at the same time, she feels that he is a "Great Catch," a prized possession so to speak.
Marcy used the term “Dr. Jekyll,” and I was able to take the ball and run with it by referring back to this concept, in subsequent sessions, to increase her awareness of the invisible wounds created by Ron’s lack of physical presence.

Some other descriptions clients have used are: two-faced, wearing a mask, phony knight on a white horse, and so on. Take a moment and think. In your next session with your "Marcy," who is being verbally but not physically abused by their significant other, would it be a good idea for you expand upon her descriptions to reposition her "Great Catch?"

To validate Marcy's feeling of abuse, I explored her disbelief and denial. I depersonalized the situation by asking how she felt about someone in a relationship with an abusive Mr. Hyde who was rarely present. Being physically unavailable can be a powerfully seductive tool of control, especially when someone feels they have gotten a "Great Catch" in the relationship.

♦ Strategy #2: Decreasing Selective Forgetting
In addition to repositioning the "Great Catch" based upon the client’s description, a second feeling-validation strategy I have found helpful is to have my client recall their first memory of abuse.
In addition to using Marcy's Jekyll/Hyde description, secondly, I find it helpful to increase her awareness of when the verbal abuse first started.

Have you found, like I, that disbelief and denial go hand in hand with selective forgetting? Can you name a client right now who has developed "amnesia," so-to-speak, as a means of coping? For many clients, like Jenny, her first encounter with verbal assaults led to a feeling of shock and then to blocking the memory. As I describe Jenny, see if you agree that, helping her to unblock the memory of Tom's abuse was crucial to her validation of the abuse taking place and the resulting motivation to change.

Jenny, age 30, married Tom, an electrician, after they had dated for 4 months. The first time he yelled in a rant for five minutes was on their wedding night. Jenny stated, “It was like an out-of-body experience for me. I couldn’t believe that Tom would yell so violently. And all over the fact that I tripped slightly on the hem of my nightgown as I walked towards him in the bed. His face actually turned red. He yelled things like, ‘clumsy klutz, you ruined this perfect moment for me! You don't think I'm going to put up with all your bullshit like I did when we were dating, do you?’ At first I was afraid. What if he hit me? But after he wound down, he felt so bad I didn’t think it would ever happen again. I remained optimistic. I thought we were going to be Mr. and Mrs. Happily-Married couple again.”

For Jenny the power of feeling that she has gotten the “Great Catch” is evidenced by her enthusiastic accolade which followed, "But Tom is everything I ever wanted. He makes really good money as an electrician. He doesn't drink and wants kids like I do." This homage is a great facilitator to her denial.

As you know, like many clients, Jenny put the honeymoon night incident behind her and tried to pretend that it had never happened. Think of a client you are currently treating whose way of coping is to ignore the problem. Your client convinces herself that feelings of devastation aren't such a big deal. Forgetting the impact of overwhelming events is a common defense mechanism we all use to cut life crises down to manageable bits and pieces that can be handled. I have found, like you, that just by the act of encouraging Jenny's expression of feelings, and recall of the forgotten events of the first time she can recall that sinking feeling of being abused, helps to affirm to Jenny that her feelings are valid.

Think of a client you are treating, or have treated, that might benefit by recalling the first time they felt abused. Would this recall be a beneficial feeling-validation strategy?

♦ Strategy #3: Validate Feelings
A third feeling-validation strategy, in addition to repositioning the "Great Catch" based upon the client's description, and validating feelings concerning the first, perhaps forgotten, episode of abuse, is validation by uncovering excuse-making and minimizing. How do you respond to your client's excuse-making and minimizing regarding the abusive treatment they receive?

As you will see, Jenny used excuse-making and minimizing to cope with Tom’s increasing angry flare-ups. She blamed the honeymoon-nightgown-tripping episode on too much stress for Tom at work. She explained, "I know he couldn't help himself from getting angry. It’s no big deal now. There had just been a major subdivision power outage the day before our wedding. Who wouldn't be upset with that level of responsibility? I'm lucky to have him. I'm lucky to have someone like him as a husband. He's really a great guy and didn't mean it."

I have found a good feeling-validation strategy with a client like Jenny, who is excuse-making and minimizing, is assisting the client in identifying their underlying values. As you know, underlying values guide your client’s habitual reactions, as part of their core self.

♦ Four Underlying Values
In Jenny, her four underlying values that supported her excuse-making were:
1. be a good partner at all costs,
2. mask my true feelings,
3. minimize generating or expressing negative feelings, and
4. hold on to my "great Catch" no matter how bad it gets.

To help Jenny to uncover these values that facilitated her excuse making, I used the Gestalt technique of asking her what her inner dialogue is while Tom is yelling. For example, Jenny stated her inner dialogue when Tom was yelling was, "It isn't that bad, I can understand why he's upset.”

Compare this with Marcy, who I described at the beginning of this section. Marcy's inner dialogue was, "Oh, it looks like he's being Mr. Hyde again. I'm just going to forget this happened." What do you think about the idea of helping your client in their next session identify underlying values by asking them what their inner dialogue is. Do you feel a discussion of their inner dialogue will help your client identify his or her underlying values in your next session by asking them to describe their inner dialogue?

In summary the three feeling-validation strategies just described are:
1. Repositioning of the abuser based upon client descriptions;
2. Decreasing selective forgetting;
3. Exploring excuse-making or minimizing.

- Carlson, R. G., Wheeler, N. J., & Adams, J. J. (Apr 2018). The Influence of Individual‐Oriented Relationship Education on Equality and Conflict‐Related Behaviors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96(2), 144-154.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Carlson, R. G., Wheeler, N. J., & Adams, J. J. (Apr 2018). The Influence of Individual‐Oriented Relationship Education on Equality and Conflict‐Related Behaviors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96(2), 144-154.

Eterović, Marija. (Apr 09, 2020). Recognizing the role of defensive processes in empirical assessment of shame. Psychoanalytic Psychology,

Graham, S. M., & Clark, M. S. (2006). Self-esteem and organization of valenced information about others: The "Jekyll and Hyde"-ing of relationship partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(4), 652–665.

Halmos, Miklós B., Parrott, Dominic J., Henrich, Christopher C., & Eckhardt, Christopher I. (2020) The structure of aggression in conflict-prone couples: Validation of a measure of the Forms and Functions of Intimate Partner Aggression (FFIPA). Psychological Assessment, 32(5), 461-472.

Happ, C., Melzer, A., & Steffgen, G. (Apr 2015). Like the good or bad guy—Empathy in antisocial and prosocial games. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4(2), 80-96.

Lundh, L. (Mar 2017). Relation and technique in psychotherapy: Two partly overlapping categories. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration,  27(1), 59-78.

Winston, C. N., Maher, H., & Easvaradoss, V. (Jun 2017). Conceptualizations of the good and the bad life: Two sides of the same coin? The Humanistic Psychologist, 45(2), 134-161.

Jekyll-and-Hyde reframing can result in what benefit for your client? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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