6. Boundaries and Consequences - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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6. Boundaries and Consequences

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

Conflict, Control, and Out of Control in Couples and Couple Therapy

Whether renegotiation of the relationship is for forming a more egalitarian model or some hierarchal model without abuse, new boundaries and consequences need to be established.  Boundaries and consequences are the only things that can be effective with bullies in school, work, society, and in couples.  Boundaries and consequences may not "work" to change motivation or the compulsive underlying psychic drive of bullying, but works to the extent that the behavior can be blocked and harm alleviated.  The bully needs to get away with targeting someone, and the targeted individual has to be vulnerable to being bullied.  Boundaries and consequences, to the extent possible, however marginally they work can work in couple therapy with a bully.  The therapist cannot enforce consequences (other than those mandated by law, and only then through reporting to authorities) to a bully partner—only the partner can.  The therapist can present, explain, and emphatically recommend boundaries.  However, the partner has to be the one who owns, asserts, and defends them… or permits violation of boundaries.  Only the partner can follow through on most consequences in the relationship.  Legal intervention: arrest and incarceration with domestic violence is an extra-relationship consequence.  When one member gives permission to his or her continued abuse, then the therapist works to have that permission rescinded.

Taking away permission to be abused may be very difficult if the permission for the aggressor is culturally ingrained from childhood and supported within his or her religious, ethnic, or other community or family of origin dynamics.  Often, individuals do not feel that they have the right to not be abused by their partners.  In part, it may be from not having had that right as children to stop abuse.  In many cultures, women and children, as well as males lower in status are considered the property of a patriarch to do with as he pleases.  As a result, female victims in particular do not feel that they can assert the right to feel ok; that they do not feel they can deny the abuser.  In this situation, the therapist must first loudly and unequivocally that abuse is unacceptable.  Its unacceptability may be asserted in terms of American society and law.  Psuedo-therapeutic neutrality about abuse is legally, ethically, and morally unacceptable.  Clarity about cultural determinism and cultural relativism and the functional purpose of culture for survival can lead to a cross-cultural intervention.  Dirk may assert male cultural determinism to justify behavior- "That's how the men in my family have always done it."  Or, may assert cultural relativism to deny clinical, ethical, or legal intervention.  If Dirk were a person of color, he might allude to racial prejudices that challenge his life and affect his mood.  He might claim, "You don't understand how it is to deal with the racial pressures and then have your woman not be there to back you.").  Since cultural attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors serve a fundamental goal of survival, the therapist can challenge determinism and relativism with a functional challenge as to, "How is that working for you?  It appears it is not working well since you are having problems in the relationship."  Handling these client responses skillfully is an important therapeutic challenge.

When the therapist asserts the boundaries against abuse, the victimized partner such as Madeline experiences his or her right to feel good presented and validated.  The abusive partner such as Dirk gets the directive from the therapist about the boundaries he or she must honor in order to have a healthy relationship… or, to continue the relationship.  The victimized partner needs to be supported to enforce consequences upon violations of the boundaries by the abusive partner.  Only if the victimized person or therapist is willing to follow through with consequences, such as leaving the relationship, filing for divorce, or calling the police is there the possibility of change.  Consequences may be explicit (separation, divorce) or implicit (increased coldness, detachment).  Only as the bully experiences his or her behavior, including cultural patterns as not working (not helping him or her survive), will he or she begin to consider changing behavior.  For some individuals, only when consequences are followed through upon, is change considered or starts.  And, for others, severe consequences are not sufficient to motivate change.  Some couples and victimized partners need to experience the abuser suffering consequences and failing to change to move to a final consequence of terminating the relationship.  Therapy may need to facilitate the partners going through such a process of failure.

On the other hand, less rigidly abusive individuals may be influenced by predictions of consequences, rather than needing to suffer the consequences to change.  The therapist can predict the consequences the partner and the relationship will suffer and has suffered with prior, anticipated, and continued violations of boundaries.  The therapist can assert his or her experience with other couples and with the legal system and predict what will happen to the relationship.  Dirk continued to assert that his aggressive and intimidating behavior is and was unavoidable, "What else am I supposed to do?"  He said that this is how his father did it and how it was always done in the old country.  While he remained self-righteous, Dirk also remained unavailable to taking responsibility and unlikely to change.  Madeline had become more and more resentful of his abuse.  As she described the long history of devaluations, rages, and pain, she also expounded upon her changing attitudes and treatment of him.  The therapist could interrupt and ask, "So, have you cut him off sexually yet?"  Madeline might become quiet, while Dirk's mouth dropped open.  "Well," she said, "sometimes, I'm not in the mood."  He would interrupt, "She might as well as cut me off.  For 6 years, she isn't hardly ever in the mood!"    The therapist can then tell him, "Expect it to get worse.  You keep hurting her.  She can't or won't fight back your way, so… expect it… it's inevitable!  It's maybe the only way Madeline has for her to fight back."  It might even be appropriate to add, "Madeline is a more modern woman now- and modern women don't settle for this kind of relationship anymore."  Over the next couple of months, Madeline might become even more detached from him.  Dirk might finally bring this up in session.  He might say, "You were right.  I don't know if I can stand it anymore."  The revealing of the history, the prediction, and his misery can become the turning point of therapy where he began trying to be different... or at least, try doing some things differently.

The therapeutic strategy is based on the individual responding to the consequence of inevitably losing intimacy through continued behavior by deciding to change.  The individual's need for intimacy and the relationship and his or her fear of the loss must be sufficiently compelling for him or her to accept the proposed non-abusing boundaries.  When or if Dirk accepts that their relationship has and will continue to degenerate if they continue as before, he could choose to try to change.  That is, if his need for the relationship is worth it to him.  However, other issues in addition to intimacy and loss may waylay this strategy.  Problematic issues may be more compelling for the individual so he or she will continue if not intensify the abusive behavior.  Dirk could continue as before or get worse- that is, more abusive and perhaps, more dangerous to Madeline.  Prediction, with the other discussed therapeutic strategies or interventions require significant therapist assessment and clinical skills.  It may not be appropriate depending on the therapist's judgment of the abuser's volatility and other characterological issues.  Abuse may be from the abuser's frustration at being cut off (sexually, from the children, socially, or otherwise in the first place).  Prediction thus has the potential to cause the abuser to feel confirmation of his or her mistreatment by the victim.  Deep injuries and emotional or psychological pain may result.  It can further ignite his or her self-righteousness rage and precipitate further abuse.  The aggressive or abusive individual and the couple can vary in important ways from others with abuse or domestic violence issues that determine the propriety of one strategy or another.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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