Why Couples Therapy is Contraindicated with a Psychopath
“The guarantee of safety in a battering relationship can never be based upon a promise from the perpetrator, no matter how heartfelt. Rather, it must be based upon the self-protective capability of the victim. Until the victim has developed a detailed and realistic contingency plan and has demonstrated her ability to carry it out, she remains in danger of repeated abuse.”
― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
The impetus for writing this article is rooted in the unfortunate discovery of a former client’s marriage to her abuser, ostensibly in the aftermath of successful couples therapy. In hindsight, when she prematurely left treatment it was likely she was re-engaging with the man she worked to free herself from so laboriously.
B.F. Skinner’s work with operant conditioning tells us that what we learn is impacted by reinforcement and punishment/unpleasant consequence. A pattern of intermittent reinforcement establishes unpredictability and confusion. The malignant narcissistic abuser knowingly capitalizes on this phenomenon.
As the victim’s mind scrambles to discover what one has to do to acquire a positive response from her abuser, cognitive dissonance sets in and the desperate urgency to discern a rhyme or reason becomes a driving force.
At this point, the victim evidences signs of Stockholm Syndrome, a form of traumatic bonding in which victims are pathologically attached to their perpetrator. She is caught up in an addictive cycle and deifies her abuser, dependent on her tormentor to redeem her.
This pathological attachment is a survival strategy, which enables the victim to dissociate from her pain. By disowning the horror of her reality and taking on the abuser’s perspective, the victim wards off the threat of helplessness and terror she actually experiences.
Her locus of control centers around appeasing and pleasing the abuser, so as to mitigate danger. Over time, the victim becomes over-identified with her abuser, ignoring her own needs and assuming responsibility for the abuser’s `suffering.’ She begins to believe the abuse is her fault.
When the victim finally bottoms out and is either degraded and discarded by the narcissist, or has been confronted with one too many infidelities, beatings, financial ruin or other sundry forms of abuse, she may be ready to seek professional help. In order to initiate a process of recovery, a no contact rule is advised so as to sever the toxic bond.
After working so fervently to stabilize from PTSD and erecting the necessary boundaries so as to liberate herself from such heinous treatment, why would a victim of chronic psychological and physical abuse at the hands of her romantic partner resume contact?
Even more bewildering: why would a psychotherapist agree to facilitate couple’s therapy given these circumstances? To answer this question one needs to understand the machinations of psychopathology.
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Machinations of Psychopathology
In his seminal book, “The Mask of Sanity” (1941), an extreme propensity for evil has been referred to by psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley as a neuropsychiatric defect (i.e.- psychopathy) that fuels the need to destroy.
Psychopathy, as described by Cleckley, purports a visage of normalcy. According to Cleckley, the psychopath has the uncanny ability to conceal this neuropsychiatric defect.
Cleckley asserts that “they are disarming not only to those unfamiliar with such patients but often to people who know well from experience their convincing outer aspect of honesty.” (Cleckley 2011:342)
Hence, we are deceived, even deluded by, the psychopath’s disguise of virtue, his glibness, ostensible calm, status and charm. The psychopath’s veneer of normality can be so seamless it becomes implausible to consider the malevolence behind the mask even for trained clinicians.
If the targeted supply (a.k.a. non-psychopath partner) has acquired autonomy and a modicum of self-respect during their separation, the psychopath will present as highly empathic and loving and even eager to engage in a therapeutic process so as to mollify any doubts and trepidation.
The resurrection of a relationship with a psychopath is often prompted by stalking, amorous and convincing persuasion and false hope. During this honeymoon phase, the psychopath epitomizes what the targeted supply seeks, to such a degree that she is seduced into acquiescing to this fictional romantic narrative.
When meeting the therapist, the malignant narcissist whose aim is to preserve the relationship so as to glean supply from his romantic partner, will likely present himself as contrite, sensitive and charming.
If he is psychologically and/or therapy savvy, he may use psychological concepts to innocently pathologize his partner and characterize her as the unintentional instigator of their disturbing dynamics. The psychopath may even profess to spiritual proclivities to further amplify his presentation of moral virtue.
All of this is conveyed with subtle acumen and cunning.
Should the couple’s therapist fail to recognize one of the partners as psychopathic, the treatment process may tragically culminate in a perverse collaboration between the therapist and the psychopath. As a result, the abuser will be enabled to fulfill his stealth agenda while further subverting the victim’s reality.
Under such conditions, the couple’s therapist will erroneously structure treatment to address co-created problems contributing to the relational discord. The therapist will collude in the faulty premise that the abuser is simply triggered by the partner’s behavior, thus implying that the modification of her behavior is integral to achieving harmony.
Framing abuse perpetrated by a psychopath as a mutual exchange between equal parties consequentially sends the message that any sort of behavior, including physical violence, is allowable and treatable through the couples’ modality.
It fails to recognize the inherent power differential in an abusive relationship with a psychopath and the fundamental incompatibility of love and domination. Additionally, it mitigates the responsibility of the psychopath and stigmatizes the victim.
A Delusional Set-up
Therefore, the duped therapist can be complicit in a delusional set-up, which has severe repercussions for the victimized partner. Sadly, this posturing only encourages the psychopath to promulgate his deleterious maneuvering and reinforces the notion that the victim’s suffering, brought about by gas lighting, lies, infidelities, violence and myriad forms of deception is somehow faulty and exaggerated.
Subsequently, with the therapist’s endorsement, the victim regresses into dissonance and deceptive fantasy believing she has newfound agency and legitimate expectations of happily ever after. Inevitably, idealization gives way to devaluation and the cycle of emotional rape recurs, leaving the victim even more emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially and socially devastated.