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Therapy Programs May Gaslight Domestic Abuse Victims

Why some therapy programs for divorced couples silence victims of abuse.

Key points

  • Disputes often continue after divorce and pose a significant challenge to children's well-being.
  • Some therapeutic programs show promising results in easing post-divorce conflict.
  • When the reality of abuse is ignored, the victim is silenced.
  • It is essential to meet the challenge of dealing with post-divorce abuse.

Even highly experienced therapists, with long track records of effective work with families and children, are flummoxed by couples whose disputes and hostility extend beyond their divorce. They describe this persistent animosity as “one of the most complicated areas of their practice.” Frustrated and apparently powerless, therapists themselves feel caught in the bitter ‘middle’ and withdraw their efforts not only because they do not see any benefit from their work, but also because children, in the course of this therapeutic work, show increased symptoms of distress. This is probably because, through therapy, children become more aware of their very difficult, divided emotions and their own helplessness. Seeking their parents’ help with their own needs, these children realize, would only serve as fuel in the war between their parents.

Parental conflict can seem essential to parental protection

Post-divorce conflict has increased and intensified over the past two decades. Some therapists believe this results from the well-meaning and largely positive practice of assigning legal parental authority to both parents. When one or both see the other as toxic, they may be convinced that making peace is at odds with protecting their child. Failing to resist, dispute, or impede the other parent seems, to them, like child abandonment. These children are then trapped in a terrible middle and suffer a range of symptoms, both mental and (apparently) physical.

Recent research, however, shows promising results with hostile and quarreling post-divorce couples. The program, called No Kids in the Middle by Justine van Lawick and Margreet Visser, the therapists who devised it, offers eight group sessions aimed at re-focusing on the child’s needs, reaching out to wider family networks, stimulating curiosity, dialogue, and “openness to the unexpected, responsiveness, spontaneity and creativity.” [1]

The monster parent: an internal construct or an actual threat?

The first hurdle to overcome, the founders of the program note, is the ‘demonization’ of the other parent. Such demonization is common, they argue, when the traumatic discovery that the partner you thought would always understand you, be on your side, and love you, leaves you in a state of profound confusion and distrust, alert to danger and primed for self-defense. In this context, neither listens to the other while each tries to convince the other that they are right and the other wrong. The eight sessions in the No Kids in the Middle program shift the defensiveness of each parent to a new openness as they consider their quarrels from the children’s perspective, hear a range of possible solutions to the crux of their arguments and welcome “the unexpected, responsiveness, spontaneity, and creativity.”

But here lies a glaring and potentially damaging omission. What if one parent is abusive in some way, whether through physical violence, control, coercion, addiction, or chronic irresponsibility? In such a case, the abused would, in this program, be deprived of voice. Central to this program is the model of how a ‘monster partner’ is created via the sense of betrayal and abandonment. In short, the monster is a feature of one partner’s internal world, not a feature of the other partner. Labels such as ‘narcissist’ or ‘sociopath’ or ‘autistic’ or ‘delusional' or 'addict', it is argued, do not help explain abusive dynamics but bolster an internally constructed image of the person in whom one is disappointed. [2] This demonization is then conveyed to the children, in part to make them one’s allies and in part to protect them from the monster parent’s harm.

I do not dispute that this program; using this framework, can be effective in some cases where each member of a divorced couple is more or less equally engaged in hostilities. What I find utterly disturbing is that it fails to address the issue of actual abuse. Instead, in the name of therapeutic validation of everyone’s view, the experience of an abuser is presented as a figment constructed by the victim. The victim is framed as the one responsible for creating the abuser.

An essential challenge: Including domestic abuse in therapeutic programs

With nearly 900 thousand domestic abuse-related crimes investigated by police in the UK [3] and over 2 million in the US [4] and, it is estimated, double those numbers unreported, such cases cannot be treated as exceptions or outliers. Omitting them from discussions of so-called high-conflict couples puts potential participants at risk. Abusers tend to be adept at framing their behaviour in innocent terms: They do what's best for the children or act in reasonable self-defence. Therapeutic programs must avoid playing into the hands of the abuser, endorsing their sense of innocence and foisting the abuser’s perspective onto the abused.


1. Justine van Hawick & Margreet Visser. 2015. No Kids in the Middle: Dialogical and Creative Work with Parents and Children in the Context of High Conflict Divorces. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 36, 33–50.

2. N. Alon & H. Omer. 2006. The psychology of demonisation: Promoting acceptance and reducing conflict. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

3. Office for National Statistics, Domestic abuse in England and Wales overview: November 2023. Data and analysis from Census 2021.

4. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization, 2022 (NCJ September 2023).

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