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6 September, 2015

Sexual abuse survivors tend to make themselves subservient to men, and to choose controlling men as partners*. As children, they were controlled through domination effected by everything from favoritism to beatings and death threats.

Group therapy can be a powerful antidote. We found it useful to have a male and a female as co-therapists – sort of a new mom and dad pair. It was not uncommon to have a group member look at me (the male) and raise her hand if she wished to speak or ask a question, even to use the bathroom. Early in the history of the groups we ran, my female co-therapist, on observing such incidents, would interject “Hey – wait a minute – why are you asking HIM?” Not only was that a powerful message but it got group members to think about the myriad ways in which they gave power away to men.

The real gold, however, came when a longer-term group member who had picked up on that and, herself, would interject with the same question: “Why are you asking him?” Seeing a fellow survivor challenge not only the behavior of giving away of power but the assumption of male authority behind it was a very powerful thing to behold. Group members challenged in this manner would typically look at the challenger with an open-mouthed, “are you nuts?” look. Such interventions even went beyond just giving away power. They got such women to think about issues of assertion in general.

Some people might even think that I, the lone male leader of the group, would be uncomfortable about having his assumed position challenged, but those incidents tickled the hell out of me.  In group therapy, members tend to adopt a specific pattern of who sits where, always arranging themselves the same.  Wise co-therapists position themselves where they can easily see each other in order to pick up on clues/signals when one or the other wishes to follow a particular thread.  In one group, one day, the members conspired to make sure someone sat where we co-therapists usually sat.  It was a marvelous display of autonomy and playfulness.

For the most part, the men chosen by survivors tend to be controlling and mock macho. However, they are usually entirely inadequate as functional males outside of the relationship. Though that’s usually the case, once in a while an adequate, truly caring man comes along and can, if* the survivor hangs on to him, be a healing force. Though not quite entirely spot on, Willie Nelson’s song Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground captures that dynamic.

(I will probably never forget the change in one client I worked with in individual therapy.  Her husband was incredibly controlling, going so far as to leave her lists of things to be done and admonishing her if she was even a bit late returning from errands.  By the end of a year, he was depressed and sleeping in the garage while she, on the other hand,  pursued her daily activities with complete autonomy.  That led to him seeking therapy, and progress in the relationship that led to more equality, and to more of the teamwork that marks a good marriage.)


* I say “if” because survivors tend to find nice guys boring and to drop them. One psychological tactic survivors use to keep their attention away from their symptoms and suffering is creating situations guaranteed to keep drama in their lives. The catch 22 is that the drama is stressful, and stress backfires because it increases the likelihood of having symptoms. There’s a saying among those in the helping professions: One thing about your troubles is that they keep your mind off of your problems.

More than a few survivors revealed in group sessions they had found a good man but had dropped him as being boring.

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