When your BPD wife tells the couples therapist she feels “unsafe,” what do you do? Same goes for a histrionic, narcissistic or some other Cluster B variety-pack high-conflict personality wife, girlfriend or ex — what do you do? If you’ve never been physically violent or made threats of physical violence, don’t minimize or ignore the very real threat your partner and (potentially) the couples therapist pose to you.
In all likelihood, your abusive wife or girlfriend is constructing and buttressing her false victim narrative. Best case scenario, your BPD, NPD or HPD partner is engaging in a bit of performative theater for the couples therapy game. This may not go any further than triangulating the couples therapist to consolidate her power and dominance as the designated victim. She could also be trying to use the couples therapist to enable and legitimize her abuse of you.
Yes, this really happens. In fact, it happens a lot.
BPD wife: All he cares about is his career. I’m home alone all day with the kids. I feel so unloved and unappreciated. Then, when he comes home, he does nothing to help. All he does is complain and criticize when I’m so exhausted from being home all alone all day. He never has any time for me or gives me any attention!
Abused husband: I’d like to not have to work so much, but she refuses to either get a job or live on a budget. The kids are in school most of the day. When I get home, breakfast dishes are still on the table, the house is a mess and she’s yelling at me to order a pizza and deal with the kids. I don’t know what she does all day. When I get home, she’s pissed at me for I don’t know what half the time and rages at me and then starts sobbing in front of the kids. . .
BPD wife: That’s not fair! NOT FAIR!!!! See how mean he is to me?! I don’t feel safe here!
Enabling therapist: Do you hear what your wife is saying? She says she feels criticized by you, and here you are criticizing her. Maybe if you validated her feelings and did more to help her around the house she’d consider your feelings, too. Do you think you have the right to dictate how your wife spends her time during the day? That’s coercive control.
Abused husband: I’ve never hit her — I’d never hit her!
Enabling therapist: That’s irrelevant. If she says she feels unsafe then she’s unsafe.
What just happened?
This is an example of a biased and potentially destructive therapist. A trained mental health profession ought to know that feelings aren’t facts. They should also know how loaded and potentially dangerous words and phrases like unsafe, afraid and scared are.
In this example, enabling therapist doesn’t care about objective reality and facts any more than BPD wife cares about reality and facts. Enabling therapist doesn’t ask clarifying questions. Good basic questions are, “What do you mean by unsafe? Has your husband ever physically assaulted you or threatened physical violence?” Gentlemen, don’t work with this kind of therapist.
NPD wife: He’s pressuring me to spend time with his family and I don’t want to. They’re rude and disrespectful. I feel uncomfortable with them. They don’t include me in conversations. And all they do is shower praise on him. I’m tired of getting the same crap every year when I don’t want to see them during the holidays.
Abused husband: My family hasn’t been disrespectful or rude. She got along with them fine before we got married. They try to include her in conversations and she just sits there with a sour expression. All I want is to take turns spending time with our families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Or, if she really doesn’t want to go at least not give me a hard time because I want to take the kids to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
NPD wife: YOU. JUST. DON’T. GET. IT! Why would I want MY children around people who are so rude and disrespectful to me!?!?!
Abused husband: They’re my kids, too. My family’s their family, too.
Enabling therapist: Hold on, hold on. Time out. Husband, what happened just now is an example of you not respecting your wife’s feelings. She’s telling you she feels uncomfortable around your family. I wouldn’t want my children around people who I’m uncomfortable with.
Abused husband: They’re not a bunch of strangers. They’re the kids’ family, too.
Enabling therapist: That doesn’t matter. Your family needs to make it right with your wife if they want to see the kids.
Abused husband: I read online that isolating your spouse from their friends and family is a form of abuse . . .
NPD wife: I. CAN’T. BELIEVE. YOU. I’M NOT ABUSIVE. YOU’RE ABUSIVE. You’re trying to control me and the kids!
Enabling therapist: And where did you see that husband? You need to be careful what labels you use. You’re not validating your wife’s feelings. That’s a form of emotional abuse.
Abused husband: Her feelings aren’t based on anything real.
NPD wife: [Crying] See! See! This is what I tried explaining during our initial call. I don’t even feel safe in my own home with him! [More crying with shoulders trembling and lower lip quivering for maximum effect.]
Abused husband: What’re you talking about?! I’ve never laid a hand on you! You’re the one who kicks and slaps me! She even tried to choke me once!
NPD wife: LIAR!!! LIAR!! See! HE’S A NARCISSIST! I told you!
Enabling therapist: Okay, I’m ending the session. Husband, please leave and pay the receptionist on your way out. Did you drive separately? Okay, good. Wife, stay behind. I want to discuss safety issues with you.
What just happened?
In this example, the abusive high-conflict wife just hit the enabling therapist jackpot. Not only is this therapist egregiously biased, she’s aiding an abetting the wife in her false victim narrative and the potential wrongful arrest of the husband.
Enabling therapist ignores the husband’s report of the wife’s physical violence toward him. She ignores the wife isolating the husband and their kids from his family. Even worse, enabling therapist tells the husband he’s being abusive for identifying his wife’s abusive behavior.
Enabling therapist then gives the wife “safety protocols.” Translation: What to say to the police to remove the husband from the house and get an ex parte restraining order. Gentlemen, don’t work with this kind of therapist either.
The couples therapy conundrum.
The APA (American Psychological Association) cites several reasons why men are “resistant” to therapy. Many of these reasons blame men and toxic masculinity. For example, men don’t want to appear weak by asking for help. Or, men have difficulty expressing emotions. Men fear becoming dependent on others.
I’ve yet to see what I believe is the primary reason men are resistant to therapy be honestly addressed. Chiefly, the mental health field has become increasingly inhospitable to men and boys. Over the last 40 years, the profession’s been infected with a strong anti-male bias and animosity toward men. Perhaps mental health providers would better serve men and boys by holding a mirror up to our attitudes and the blame and shame messaging toward men rather than, you know, continuing to blame men for not seeking our services.
I’ve spent my entire adult life working as a mental health professional. Men comprise the majority of my clients the last 15 years and counting. I understand very well the pitfalls that await them in couples therapy with an inept and anti-male prejudiced therapist. Especially if their wife or girlfriend is a high-conflict professional victim who likely has some kind of personality disorder.
Should you attend couples therapy with a borderline, narcissist or histrionic wife?
- (a) Accept that your wife or girlfriend has some kind of personality disorder.
Or, if you prefer not to use diagnostic labels:
- (b) Accept that your wife or girlfriend is a manipulative, scheming, pathological liar, control freak, accountability avoidant, scapegoating cry-bully who’s prone to rage episodes, adult tantrums and sees herself as a victim (especially when she’s the aggressor).
- Understand that couples therapy — or any therapy for that matter — is unlikely to help until she takes responsibility for her issues.
- Recognize the pervasive anti-male bias in the mental health field.
- Yet still want to attend couples therapy, you need to exercise caution and know what you hope to get out of it.
In the unlikely event a miracle occurs, congratulations. You’ve beaten the odds. In the likely event a miracle doesn’t occur, let’s try to prevent you from walking into the proverbial buzz saw unawares.
Before you go…
I have a series of articles here, here and here that address the inherent difficulties of doing couples therapy with an undiagnosed (or diagnosed) narcissist, borderline or histrionic woman. Even when they have a BPD diagnosis, for example, many therapists act as enablers and apologists of the BPD’s abuse of you and the kids. Therefore, it’s important to ask questions of the therapist.
Let’s assume the potential couples counselor makes it through the vetting process. What do you want to get out of couples therapy based upon the above stipulations? For example:
- Do you want to fix the relationship? Remember, that’s impossible unless your partner is able and willing to be accountable.
- Are you looking for validation? Meaning, you want the the therapist to act as an umpire and call fouls, strikes and balls.
- Do you want documentation for divorce and custody litigation? This may backfire for reasons I’ve already explained.
Keep in mind, your HPD, NPD or BPD partner also has an agenda. Their agenda is likely also one of the above scenarios. However, “fixing” the relationship usually means something quite different to a narcissistic, borderline or histrionic partner. To them it means they get to do whatever they want whenever they want with zero accountability, consequences or complaint from you.
When your BPD wife tells the couples therapist she feels “unsafe,” what do you do?
First, observe what the therapist does or doesn’t do. Do they respond like the enabling therapist in the examples above? If so, you’ve a couple of options. You can calmly and clearly ask them if their response would be different if the genders were reversed with the same behaviors. In other words, politely point out they may have a bias that’s causing them to apply double standards. If they become defensive and/or hostile, end the session and don’t go back.
Afterward, send a polite and concise email to the therapist that explains why you won’t be returning. Over the years, I’ve helped several clients with this kind of email. The purpose is to call out their biased and (in some cases) unprofessional conduct in the event they’re called as a witness during the inevitable divorce and custody litigation.
If the therapist acknowledges their bias and reconsiders their position, you may want to continue. However, you’ll likely need to call them out more than once. If the therapist acknowledges your wife or girlfriend’s personality pathology is driving the conflict, your wife will most likely end treatment.
What should the couples therapist do when your BPD, HPD or NPD wife says she feels “unsafe?”
Ideally, when your BPD wife tells the couples therapist she feels “unsafe,” the therapist should press pause and ask clarifying questions. Such as has there been any physical violence or threat of violence? If so, who’s the perpetrator? If there haven’t been any acts or threats of violence, then what precisely does NPD wife mean by unsafe?
Presumably, you know how difficult it is to proverbially pin down a word salady, victim playing NPD, BPD or HPD. Thus, the therapist will need to persist until they get what passes for a straight answer with these types. Typically, “unsafe” is used synonymously for “uncomfortable” (like Amber Heard uses pledge and donate synonymously). A former client’s ex actually told their therapist (when pressed), she meant that “[her] heart felt unsafe.” For the record, personality disorder people find accountability very, very uncomfortable.
After which, the therapist should admonish BPD wife to choose her words more carefully. As noted, unsafe is a loaded word that most people will misinterpret to mean at risk for physical violence. And BPD, HPD or NPD wife wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand and get the wrong impression about you, would she?
While this plays out, be proactive. For instance:
- Keep as cool and clear a head as possible.
- Find an attorney who’s a competent advocate with high conflict divorce experience. If you can find one who has a BPD or NPD ex of their own (or any experience with these disorders) extra bonus score.
- If you’re not ready to divorce, at least consult with an attorney about how to prepare for the worst case scenario.
- Learn how to gather documentation effectively and your state’s recording laws (i.e., one party vs. two or all party).
- Get professional individual support. Preferably with a clinician who can easily shift between emotional process work and practical matters. For example, safety issues, emotional detachment and disengagement.
- Choose a person you wholeheartedly trust and tell them what’s been going on. You’ll need their love and support. Also, a safe place to go if you have to leave your home.
- If you own firearms, get them out of your house.
- Visit your local police department. Tell the desk officer you’re filing for divorce and are concerned your wife might make a false domestic violence report. Ask them what you should do if she calls in anticipation of the squad car’s arrival. Your local police department may or may not be helpful. Either way, it won’t hurt matters if you go.
Lastly, stop arguing with Crazy, protect yourself and good luck! If you’re reading this you’re probably going to need it.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals with relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. For over a decade, she has specialized in helping men and women break free of abusive relationships, cope with the stress of ongoing abuse and heal from the trauma. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. If you’d like to work with Dr. Palmatier, please visit the Schedule a Session page or you can email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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