When Relational Abuse Happens in Therapy

Relational Abuse

Relational abuse is any behavior within a relationship that intentionally and/or repeatedly harms. Strictly defined, abuse is any misuse of person, place, or thing. Human life is meant to be respected. Self-serving behavior toward another human being that inherently harms or done with indifference to possible harm is abuse. And sadly, in character-impaired times, abuse of various types is all too common. Even more sadly, some of the worst kinds of abuse occur within our most important relationships.

In large measure, human life is all about relationship. And nothing has the power to help us grow and prosper like a healthy, loving relationship. So, it’s hard to overestimate the damage inflicted by a toxic, abusive relationship. Survivors of such relationships know how hard it is to recover, pick up the pieces, and move on. (See, also:  Moving On After An Abusive Relationship.) Experiencing abuse within any relationship is inherently traumatizing. And trauma survivors inevitably find it difficult, if not impossible to overcome the wide-ranging negative impact of their experience. (See also: Trauma Recovery and the Present Moment.)

When Abuse Occurs During Therapy

Nothing is more important in therapy than the relationship between therapist and client. But unfortunately, relational abuse can occur in therapy, too. And it mainly happens in two ways. An unscrupulous therapist can exploit the therapeutic relationship for any number of self-serving and harmful purposes. Fortunately, such mistreatment is relatively rare. But even decent, ethical therapists can unwittingly inflict harm on a client already deeply wounded by abuse they suffered in the past.

Perhaps the most insidious way relational abuse occurs within the context of therapy is when a misguided therapist wittingly or unwittingly allows “business as usual” to transpire between a couple whose relationhip has been characterized by disrespect and abusive conduct. Too many toxic relationship survivors have shared such stories with me. They finally coaxed their abusive partner into treatment, thinking an astute therapist would spot the abusive dynamics they’ve long endured and properly intervene. But sometimes, even a seasoned professional can be bamboozled by a clever manipulator and skilled impression manager. And when such a cunning character plays the victim role and exerts sway, the real victim rightfully feels abused (and unsupported or validated) all over again.

A Wider Discussion of the Issues

Recently, I guested on one of Dr. Ross Rosenberg’s (author of The Human Magent Syndrome) podcasts. And we talked a lot about relational abuse of various kinds, including therapy-induced (i.e. iatrogenic) trauma. We also talked about the way some concepts and terms helping professionals commonly employ have actually done unintended but significant harm.

You can watch and listen to the interview on my YouTube channel, along with the other Character Matters podcasts. The interview is in two parts. Part 2 will post next week. Access part 1 using the following link:

Drs Simon & Rosenberg Talk Codependency & Narcissism Pt 1

And I extensively discuss what to look for when seeking help in my book Character Disturbance.




One thought on “When Relational Abuse Happens in Therapy

  1. I also think certain support groups can be toxic. There can be narcissistic individuals who have a way of gaining power in the groups and can wreak their havoc on others. A person goes for support and instead gets beaten down by game players and those out to be “on top” unfortunately. If you are not aware of the narcissistic character its easy to fall victim to their manipulationsc even when you are aware it takes a while to figure out whats going on.

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