Working with Resistance in New Ways for Families®

© 2011 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. 

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High-conflict people are highly defensive, so that negative feedback tends to trigger defensiveness rather than insight, and shuts down opportunities for teaching new skills. Therefore, working effectively with “resistance” to any feedback and criticism is one of the central issues of helping high-conflict people. Because of this defensiveness, they frequently deny that they have any problems and resist every effort that counselors and other professionals make to help them – even in their own self-interest.

Rather than engage in the usual “tug-of-war” with this resistance (which the clients are very used to), New Ways Counselors are encouraged to “dance” with the resistance, or to “go with the resistance” – by non-judgmentally exploring and discussing the client’s concerns while providing information, rather than arguing with or confronting the client.

The following dialog is meant to help demonstrate these principles about resistance:

1)  Don’t argue with the client

2)  Don’t try to lead the client to have insights about his or her past behavior

3)  Focus on helping the client learn to use the skills of New Ways for Families in the future

4)  The burden of solving the client’s problems is always on the client, not the counselor

5)  The counselor emphasizes giving information, giving choices and giving encouragement

In this example, Maria alleges that her husband, Javier, beat her up about 40 times during their 6-year marriage. Most recently, she got a scratch on her face and bruises on her arm, which she showed the judge when she obtained a restraining order - and an order for both parents to go through New Ways for Families. They have a son, Ray, age 5. Javier strongly denies any abusive behavior and believes that he should have primary physical custody and that Maria should have supervised access, as she takes medications for depression which he alleges cause her to fall down a lot and sleep a lot when she is supposed to be caring for Ray. Maria is seeking primary physical custody and wants supervised access for Javier with Ray just 2 hours a week.

The following dialog demonstrates some ways of dealing with resistance in this possible domestic violence case during a first session of New Ways for Families:

Counselor:       I’m pleased to meet you Javier.

Javier:     Well, I’m not pleased to meet you. I don’t want to be here. I just want to see my son (5-year old Ray) and my wife.

Counselor:       I see. I can certainly understand that. Now, you were ordered into this New Ways for Families program by the judge, correct?

Javier:     Yes. The judge also ordered me to have no contact with my wife, Maria, or my son, Ray. He’s 5 and he needs me. I should have custody of him, because his mother is always depressed and takes too much medication.

Counselor:       Was that a temporary or permanent no contact order?

Javier:     Temporary. Can you help me get to see my Wife and son? Can you talk to the judge?

Counselor:       Actually, I can’t talk to the judge or to anyone else about your case. I’m not allowed to by court order. But I can help you learn some skills that might help you help yourself in your case.

Javier:     I don’t trust any of you guys. I’ve talked with counselors before and they just blame me for everything. You always believe the woman. I can’t trust you at all.

Counselor:       Well, I can understand that. You don’t have to trust me. All you have to do in New Ways is learn some skills that you can use. And it’s really up to you if you use them in the future. But you have to do the writing exercises in this workbook in order to get your Verification of Completion. That’s what I sign once you’ve come to 6 sessions and done all the writing exercises.

Javier:     I don’t need to learn any skills. I just want to see my wife and my son.

Counselor:       Well, actually learning these skills may help you see your wife and your son. The court usually wants to know that you are good enough at communicating and solving problems, before taking away no contact orders in a domestic violence case.

Javier:     But I never hit my wife. What she said is a total lie.

Counselor:       You might be right. I wasn’t there, so I’ll never know what happened. All I know is that she said on her Behavioral Declaration that you hit her up about 40 times during your 6-year marriage. So you’ll need to deal with that statement somehow.

Javier:     I just need to talk to Maria. She knows she lied and she’ll realize she needs to tell the truth.

Counselor:       You might be right. But for now it sounds like there’s a restraining order not allowing any contact between you. So let’s get started on this Parent Workbook so you can see if these skills will help you deal with your situation over the next 6 weeks. That’s not too long, and you might find something useful in this - or not. It’s up to you.

Javier:     You keep saying it’s up to me! But it isn’t! Everyone else is telling me what to do.

Counselor:       Using these skills is up to you. Filling out this workbook is up to you. Are you ready to get started?

Javier:     Oh, all right!

[Workbook Pages 3-6:     They talk about his goals for New Ways and hurdles that might get in the way of doing the writing. Javier reluctantly writes answers in his workbook. Then they talk about his strengths and positive qualities. He likes this part. Then he gives some background history of his family situation. Then, before his counselor talks about homework:]

Counselor:       Now, before we talk about what to do in the coming week, there’s a short, 5-minute statement I’m supposed to give you whenever someone alleges domestic violence in the family.

Javier:     I told you: there’s no domestic violence in our family – except for the couple times she’s hit me.

Counselor:       I understand. Like I said, you might be right. I’ll never know and it really doesn’t matter if I ever know. What matters in this counseling is that I teach you these skills and help you practice them so much that they’re easy to do. And they might help you in court and with your son, too. So let me tell you about some patterns of domestic violence.

Javier:     I’m not going to listen!

Counselor:       Well, that part’s up to you. I’m just required to tell you about these different types of domestic violence, so you’ll know about them.

                First, is what’s called “battering,” where a person hits the other person – and it could be a man or a woman, although its more often a man – from time to time throughout the relationship. It really is a pattern of behavior that doesn’t change, unless the batterer practices different ways of solving problems over and over again. Sometimes, this pattern is based on wanting to feel connected to the person and not wanting to lose them. Other times, this pattern is based on wanting to control someone and no wanting to lose the feeling of control.

Javier:     I’m not either of those types.

Counselor:       Good! Even if you were, you could still change. It just takes a lot of practice, which can’t really be done alone, so there’s batterers treatment groups that help men change this behavior and help them have more successful relationships. I’ve had several clients go to one of these groups and they said they were really surprised at how much it helped them in every part of their lives. Even people who said they weren’t batterers got a lot out of it. The judges often orders people into these programs if they have concerns that battering is going on in the family.

                Anyway, there’s a couple other types I want to tell you about. One is “situational violence” where there’s pushing and shoving, maybe throwing things, because neither person knows how to stop an argument or resolve a conflict, so both get involved in this violent behavior.

Javier:     That’s Maria. She’s attacked me a few times and then, when I push her away, she blames me for scratching her or bruising her arm. And you guys always think it’s just my fault.

Counselor:       Like I said, I’ll never know. And the last kind is what they call “separation violence,” when there’s never been violence before, but there was an incident when the couple separated.

Javier:     That last one might be what Maria was talking about when she got her restraining order. She was real upset and wanted to leave the house, but I could see that she might get into trouble if she tried to drive, so I held her arms to keep her from leaving until she calmed down. But she wiggled and fell down. That’s when she scratched her face and bruised her arm. I was just trying to protect her from herself.

Counselor:       Okay. Well, whatever the case, there are these patterns of battering and situational and separation violence, so that things will happen again in the future if you have one of those patterns. You can’t just turn it off, without practicing new ways of managing problems. So if you have one of these patterns, you are encouraged to get some treatment in one of these groups. Otherwise, the judges often like to leave long-term restraining orders standing if they fear that these patterns will continue.

                So that’s my 5-minute statement about this. Do you have any questions?

Javier:     No.

Counselor:       Okay, then let’s go to the next subject in the workbook. This is where we talk about homework for the coming week before our next meeting. All you have to do is see if you notice any all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behaviors in anyone. You don’t even have to write these down.

Javier:     That sounds stupid. Since I can’t see Maria or Ray this week, I’m just going to be watching wrestling on TV. How can I look for all-or-nothing thinking with that?

Counselor:       Well, you might notice if they just react, or if they seem to be thinking about their strategy and using flexible thinking in deciding their next move. Or notice if you think their behavior is extreme or moderate for the circumstances. Just notice everything around you and see if anyone does any of these three things: all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behaviors. Then we’ll talk about it next week.

Javier:     It still sounds stupid.

Counselor:       That’s okay. It’s up to you whether you want to try noticing these things. You don’t have to do any homework between sessions if you don’t want to.   

Javier:     Good!

Counselor:       Try to have a good week! See you next Tuesday.