Taken and edited from:
Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men
2002 by Lundy Bancroft

Husband & Wife Conflict

Attempting to address abuse through couples therapy is like wrenching a nut the wrong way, it just gets harder to undo than it was before.

Couples therapy is designed to tackle issues that are mutual. It can be effective for overcoming barriers to communication, for untangling the childhood issues that each partner brings to a relationship, or for building intimacy. But you can’t accomplish any of these goals in the context of abuse.

There can be no positive communication when one person doesn’t respect the other and strives to avoid equality, or when one person has power or control over another. You can’t take the leaps of vulnerability involved in working through early emotional injuries while you are feeling emotionally unsafe – because you are emotionally unsafe. And if you succeed in achieving greater intimacy with your abusive partner, you will soon get hurt even worse than before because greater closeness means greater vulnerability for you.

Couples counselling can often send both the abuser and the abused woman the wrong message. The abuser learns that his partner is “pushing his buttons” and “setting him off” and that she needs to adjust her behaviour to avoid getting him so upset.

This is precisely what he has been claiming all along. Change in abusers comes only from the reverse process, from completely stepping out of the notion that his partner plays any role in causing his abuse of her.

An abuser also has to stop focusing on his feelings and his partner’s behaviour and look instead at her feelings and his own behaviour. Couples counselling allows him to stay stuck in the former.

In fact, to some therapists, feelings are all that matters, and reality is more or less irrelevant. In this context, a therapist may turn to you and say, “But he feels abused by you, too.”

Unfortunately, the more an abusive man is convinced that his grievances are more or less equal to yours, the less the chance that he will ever overcome his attitudes.

The message to you in couples counselling is: “You can make your abusive partner behave better toward you by changing how you behave toward him.” Such a message is frankly, fraudulent.

Abuse is not caused by bad relationship dynamics. You can’t manage your partner’s abusiveness by changing your behaviour, but he wants you to think that you can. He says, or leads you to believe that, “If you stop doing the things that upset me, and take better care of my needs, I will become a non-abusive partner.”

It never materializes. And even if it worked, even if you could stop his abusive behaviour by catering to his every whim, is that a healthy way to live? If you have issues you would like to work on with a couples counsellor, wait until your partner has been completely abuse-free for two years. Then you may be able to work on issues that are truly mutual ones.

Couples counselling can end up being a big setback for the abused woman. The more she insists that her partner’s cruelty or intimidation needs to be addressed, the more she may find the therapist looking down at her saying, “It seems you are determined to put all the blame on him and are refusing to look at your part in this.”

The therapist thereby inadvertently echoes the abuser’s attitude, and the woman is forced to deal with yet another context in which she has to defend herself, which is the last thing she needs.

In some cases, the therapist and the abuser end up being a tag team, and the abused woman limps away from yet another psychological assault. Most therapists in such circumstances are well intentioned but fail to understand the dynamics of abuse and allow the abuser to shape their perceptions.

The therapist’s reassuring presence in the room can give you the courage to open up to your partner in ways that you wouldn’t normally feel safe to do. But this isn’t necessarily positive; an abuser can retaliate for a woman’s frank statements during couples sessions.

Later, when he is screaming at you, “You humiliated me in front of the therapist, you made me look like the bad guy, you told things that were too private!” and delivering a nonstop attack, you may regret your decision to open up.

If couples counselling is the only type of help your partner is willing to get – because he wants to make sure that he can blame the problem on you (you may think), well it is better than not getting any counselling at all.

And maybe the therapist will see the things he does and convince him to get help. But even if the therapist were to confront him, which is uncommon, he would just say: “You turned the therapist against me” the same way he handles any other challenge.

Some couples therapists have told Lundy that before they work with a couple whose relationship has involved abuse, they insist on clear agreements that there won’t be any abuse while they are in therapy and no paybacks for anything that gets said in a session.

Lundy says that such agreements are meaningless, unfortunately, because abusers feel no obligation to honour them; virtually every abuser he has ever worked with feels entitled to break his word if he has “good enough reason”, which includes any time that he is really “upset by his partner”.

Increasingly, counsellors are refusing to engage in couples or family session with an abuser, which is the responsible course of action.


The more psychotherapy a man has had prior to joining the abuser program, the more impossible it is to work with him in the program. The highly “therapized” abuser tends to be slick, condescending and manipulative. He uses the psychological concepts he has learned to dissect his partner’s flaws and dismiss her perceptions of abuse.

He takes responsibility for nothing that he does; he moves in a world where there are only unfortunate dynamics, miscommunications and symbolic acts.

He expects to be rewarded for his emotional openness, handled gingerly because of his vulnerability, colluded with in skirting the damage he has done, and congratulated for his insight.

A violent abuser in his program shared the following: “From working in therapy on my issues about anger toward my mother, I realized that when I punched my wife, it wasn’t really her I was hitting. It was my mother!” He sat back, ready for them to express their approval of his self-awareness.

Lundy’s colleague peered through his glasses at the man, unimpressed by this revelation, “No”, he said, “you were hitting your wife.”

Lundy Bancroft says he has yet to meet a man who has made any meaningful and lasting changes in his behaviour toward female partners through therapy, regardless of how much “insight” – most of it false, that he may have gained.

The fact is that if an abuser finds a particularly skilled therapist and if the therapy is especially successful, when he is finished he will be a happy, well-adjusted abuser; good news for him, perhaps, but not such good news for his partner.

Psychotherapy can be very valuable for the issues it is devised to address, but partner abuse is not one of them; an abusive man needs to be in a specialized program.

Written by Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That, 2000

More from Lundy Bancroft.

(Lundy Bancroft has spent the last seventeen years of his career specializing in domestic abuse and the behaviour of abusive men. The former co-director of Emerge, the nation’s first program for abusive men, he now practices in Massachusetts while training various state and judicial agencies with domestic abuse situations.)