Non-Violent Resistance in Therapy
Mahatma Gandhi and later, Martin Luther King, brought the principles of Non-Violent Resistance (NVR) to the imagination of people around the world. Faced with oppression and systematic control of basic freedoms and rights, they carried whole communities, even a whole nation with them, to a preferred future of hope, respect and reconciliation.
Readers may struggle to readily connect the issues of widespread racial abuse and prejudice, or occupation of a country by foreign rulers, with the tasks faced by clients who attend for psychological therapy. Yet in my experience, issues of control, dominance, submission and flattened self-esteem are common factors in the anxiety, mood and sleep disorders that many clients present with. Various habits, including obsessive rituals, self-harm or disordered eating can arise when a person does not feel in control of their own destiny, fears for their safety or is trying to manage trauma experiences.
Whilst NVR could be applied to helping individuals struggling with these issues (primarily by helping clients take a non-violent or non-judgemental approach to themselves), it really comes into it's own within relational work, whether it be with couples or parent-child systems. It is here that NVR can help people rebuild a sense of safety, regain their voice and sense of personal agency, rediscover supportive networks and effectively resist harmful behaviour from their partner or child.
A key aspect of the approach, is to help clients (often each of the parties who have become stuck in harmful or hurtful interactions with each other) activate the internal and interpersonal resources needed to move to a new way of being together.
In any hurtful interaction pattern, it is necessary to address submission to unreasonable demands, or unwanted behaviour. It's also important to side-step what therapists call 'symmetrical escalations' in control i.e. where emotionally aroused responses to one experience of feeling controlled or hurt, causes the hurt party to retaliate with control or hurtful approaches towards the other. NVR helps individuals to de-escalate conflict, overcome submissive response patterns and introduces reconciliatory interaction. Above all, NVR helps all involved to be more confident in their entitlement to be respected and treated properly, reducing the sense of helplessness that can easily become established, and helping them to live in an environment free of coercion or fear. In place of this, NVR supports partners and parent-child systems to develop more respectful and mutually caring interaction styles.
Gandhi famously took the Indian nation on strike, refusing to cooperate with British rule which was being experienced as tyrannical and exploitative. The country literally came to a standstill. Through NVR, the refusal to cooperate with hurtful behaviour is one way that a partner in a couple relationship, or a parent with their child, can communicate that things cannot go on as they are. As routine 'services' are withheld, the hurtful partner or child can be supported to be more self-sufficient and autonomous, until their behaviour changes. This should never be a manipulative or tit for tat approach, but rather a mature and open communication that too much has been taken for granted.
NVR also guides the hurt party to 'strike when the iron is cold'. This is clearly the opposite of what we usually hear, when this term is used. The message is that when emotions are aroused, and arguments are likely to escalate, this is not the best time to change anyones behaviour. Rather, step away, preserve your sense of safety and wellbeing and revisit the issue some hours or perhaps even days after the event. This ensures the hurt party responds rather than reacts, and has had time to reflect upon their situation, and all that has transpired.
What NVR advocates is a 'formal announcement' to the hurtful party, delivered in a calm and non-confrontational manner, that the hurtful behaviour will no longer be accepted. The announcement conveys the concern about the hurtful behaviour, the fact that it will be resisted from hereon, and other adults may be involved in this resistance. Who are these other adults? For a parent, it may be the other parent/carer, a professional such as a Psychologist or Family Therapist and in some cases extended family, neighbours or even a teacher at school. For a couple, the hurt party may announce that from hereon any repeat of hurtful or destructive behaviour will lead to the involvement of friends, extended family or their therapist, in order to stop that behaviour being repeated. The announcement may be declared in writing, aswell as verbally. It is almost always helpful to include within it, the vision the hurt person has for their preferred version of family/couple life, which is free of violence, hurt or control.
NVR can be at it's most challenging, and thereby also at it's most effective standpoint, when the hurtful person is spoken to about their behaviour. The hurt party may be supported by their therapist to invite constructive dialogue about what is happening, why it must stop and what needs to occur instead. The hurt party is supported to share his/her view in a quiet but determined manner, refusing to be drawn into confrontational exchanges, which may often be triggered when any abusive behaviour is called out for what it is. This is not easy, and avoidance will be the immediate pull. However, nothing can resolve itself if it is simply ignored, buried or suppressed. How to have this conversation in an assertive and safe manner, is key to plan before the event. I often tell couples that when one partner shares a grievance or declares their hurt, it is a sign of how important the relationship is to them. It is a communication of their hope for change, which should not be ignored, and certainly not rejected as a personal slight or criticism.
What I value greatly about NVR is that it encourages an end to speculations about the negative intentions of the other party, and also steps away from the idea that there is something intrinsically flawed or dysfunctional in the hurtful person. "The problem is the problem" - it is the hurtful behaviour, the disrespectful words or whatever else is happening within the relationship that is the issue, rather than some unchangeable character trait of the individuals themselves. NVR encourages acts of reconciliation, and supports a change in how parties represent each other. It's about seeing the person behind the behaviour, and letting go of negative internal representations. When this happens, and is transmitted to the other, the quality of interactions can change for the better.
Of course, there may be times that the mental health or trauma history of the hurtful person is too significant for this kind of approach to work, such that issues need to be addressed and resolved through individual therapy. NVR does not advocate that a person remains in a domestically violent or traumatising relationship. In such circumstances, separating and having space in which to feel safe, may be indicated. In some instances where children have become destructive, aggressive or highly threatening in their approach, they may need to be removed to specialist foster care or to live with extended family, with the plan that the family may be reunited once the challenging behaviour (in such circumstances extreme and unrelenting) can be addressed. This is always a last resort, and services should work hard to avoid this outcome. In the case of couples where domestic abuse is at play, there may also be a need to separate, with the understanding that their future depends on making important changes to the hurtful pattern that has emerged.
So, whilst NVR is not a panacea for all relationship problems, it does offer some very helpful guidelines and structures within which relational issues may be worked upon. If you are reading this and need to consider next steps in your interface with your partner or perhaps your child, contact a local provider of mental health services or consider local relationship counselling centres for advice and of course speak with your GP. There are a host of statutory, voluntary and independent providers out there, who can guide and assist. Above all, don't accept things as they are. This does you, and those you love, a great disservice.
Dr Bobby Sura BSc Hons, PG Dip, DClinPsy, CPsychol
Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist