Almost all couples we see in treatment enter our offices literally or figuratively pointing their fingers at each other and pleading, “Make him/her stop hurting me.” They want us to determine which one of them is the villain, while both are insisting that they are the innocent victims of their partner’s bad behavior. This victims and villains method of reliving childhood feelings is a highly common form of marital drama.
It is not difficult to understand why this occurs in marriages. All of us are in fact innocent victims of circumstances in childhood. We have no control over who our parents are and only as much impact over our lives or theirs as our parents allow us to have. So feelings about the powerlessness of the victim that have been stored in our brains since childhood are somewhat inevitable. In addition to issues of power and control, our parents are constantly sending us messages about whether they see us as good or bad people. Victims are “good”; villains are “bad”. The nonconscious portion of our brains compels us to enact these roles to experience the feelings they evoke.
This part of ensuring safety in couples treatment can be very difficult for the therapist and the clients. Therapists are naturally drawn toward protecting the victim and trying to persuade the villain to stop his or her harming behaviors. We humans often believe that the quickest and easiest solution to a problem is to identify and punish the villain. We long for the simplicity of labeling the “good guy” and the “bad guy”, but in couples treatment this is always a rush to judgment that makes the therapy very unsafe and therefore ineffective. It is not safe to either partner to be seen as a victim or a villain.
I will reiterate here something that I stated in my first blog post–if one or both partners are in genuine physical or emotional danger in the present relationship, appropriate and respectful action must be taken to get out of the relationship. Staying in a dangerous situation is the ultimate enactment of childhood victimization. No therapy can proceed in an atmosphere of true present fear. However, I have consistently experienced that couples who want to stay in their relationships and get better can agree to stop dangerous behavior.
Refusing the victim or villain role in the marriage is the only safe position from which therapy can proceed. Victims are by definition powerless; villains are by definition harmful and bad. Discovering and understanding the childhood feelings that are driving these positions, while guiding couples toward relinquishing these roles in their dramas, are essential therapeutic skills in a successful treatment.