Will my abusive partner change?

We must stop pinning our hopes on false promises, because most abusive individuals are incapable of change.

Women going through domestic violence adapt as a survival strategy, and in so doing can lose sight of what really needs to happen to end the abuse. When caught in the snowdrift of domestic violence, we often believe:

  • If I do what he tells me, or change everything about me that bothers him, he won’t hurt me again
  • If I become supportive and understanding of his problems, he won’t get angry anymore
  • If I encourage him to to get the professional help to quit drink / drugs or to deal with his anger / trust issues / rough childhood, he’ll stop being abusive.

I thought this way too. This caused me to contort my psyche and inhibit my life in an attempt to prevent more abuse. For example, my partner regularly blamed abusive incidents on how other men behaved with me. His friends were flirting with me. One of his staff blew me a kiss. I had male colleagues. That guy in the bar touched me. I had friends who were men. Homosexual men were staging an elaborate act to get close to me. This became a deluded insistence that I had a secret lover.

I attributed this to extreme jealousy, and I tried to put his mind at rest. His friends were simply being friendly. My colleagues were just workmates. The guy in the club was just trying to get to the crowded bar. My gay friends had boyfriends. It never worked, though, because once he had thrown himself into jealous monster mode he would carry right on until he escalated into an orgy of accusations and acting out.

He went after a guy with a steel wrench, started fights in clubs, installed a CCTV camera in our living room, turned up unannounced at my workplace, and sobbed at my perceived betrayal. He screamed at me, hit me, smashed up my phone, and subjected me to strip searches.

Photo by Studio Cl Art
In response, I stopped going out without him, apart from to go to work. I called him whenever I had to go somewhere. He told me not to speak to his friends, even when they were in our house. I did as he said. He told me not to answer the door if he wasn’t home. I did as he said.

I stopped communicating with male friends, knowing my phone and social media accounts would be scrutinised. Outside the house, I avoided eye contact with male passers-by. I tried to be more supportive of his struggle with the green-eyed monster, and encouraged him to get help for a drug problem which I thought fueled his delusions.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know that my survival strategy had three major flaws:

  1. It focused on changing my behaviour, not his
  2. It made me responsible for the situation, not him
  3. It treated jealousy as the cause of abuse, not the symptom.

Unsurprisingly, the more I changed to meet his demands, the more confident he grew that his methods of control were working. The abuse didn’t stop. It got worse. Why would it? He got exactly what he wanted, without having to change at all.

Why abusive people do not change

It is now nearly two years since I escaped the chaos of domestic violence. In that time, I have spoken with many people who have been through domestic violence, as well as professionals who deal with the devastating impacts of abuse. I’ve yet to find anyone with a success story, in which an abusive individual has truly changed – but plenty tell of the hollow promises perpetrators routinely trot out.

Many abusive, violent men frequently apologise and promise to change. It’s part of the domestic abuse cycle of pain, reconciliation, calm and tension-building toward the next incident. However, we shelve our doubts because we so badly need to believe that ‘this time, he really means it’.

Domestic violence cycle.

Domestic violence cycle.

We can derail the cataclysmic cycle by understanding that change is impossible in all but the rarest case. A total personality transplant is needed for an abusive individual to fulfil the key factors that are vital to the change process:

  1. RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCEPTANCE: They must accept responsibility for their actions and the negative impact they create. Abusive people blame anything or anyone else for their behaviour. It’s your fault he gets angry, because you break his rules. He has a stressful job, or a drink problem, or his ex wife betrayed him. Watch out for the excuses that are attached to any apology he makes. If he dodges responsibility, shifts blame, or minimises the impact of the abuse in any way, he will never change.
  2. INTENTION AND ACTION: They must genuinely intend to change and take concrete steps to do so. He needs to seek help from someone other than you. He needs to want to change for himself – not because he’s afraid you’ll leave him. Has your man taken any proactive steps toward change, to address his abusive behaviour? Has he joined a perpetrator programme?  If your man does not follow up expressed intention with decisive and committed action, he has no intention of ever changing. He just wants you to believe he might, so you’ll stay. Abusive individuals rarely not want to change, because abuse gives them the power and control they crave.

Judge his behaviour, not his words – and remember, if something feels ‘off’, it probably is.

Maybe your partner is a unicorn, a rare breed that does demonstrate the factors required for change. Be careful. There is no way of knowing whether he is simulating remorse and simply going through the motions. Genuine or not, he needs MOTIVATION to change.

And, believe me, the threat of you hitting the exit is not enough. You’ve said that countless times before, right? He cannot and will not change if you stay, because he needs to know that:

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton’s Third Law

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton’s Third Law

He needs to experience the consequences of his abuse. You’ve been fielding the flak he throws your way – don’t protect him from the thing he most needs to trigger the seismic change required.

The consequence he (and you) need is for you to end the relationship. Not half-heartedly, not ‘taking a break’, not still going on occasional dates or chatting on the phone. He needs to lose the crutch that has been supporting him – and that’s you.

butterfly_quoteGo No Contact, get yourself safe, work on your recovery. Give yourself space to heal so you will, in future, be ready for a healthy relationship – just not with him. You’re worth a zillion times more than that. So make change happen, for you.

Handful of stars

Photo by xJasonRogersx

Do you think abusive people can change for the better? Has your abusive man become a reformed character? Have your say and share your experience in the Comments.

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8 responses to “Will my abusive partner change?

  1. Nope, not that I’ve seen. My ex is blaming me in court for his abusive behavior. I sure hope the judge sees passed it. The ex is a good liar and manipulator. Such a person has no interest or capability to change.

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  2. No, they cannot and do not change. They see nothing wrong with themselves or their behavior. “If only… the sky wasn’t so blue, the neighbor’s dog wasn’t barking so loud…” or “I was having a really great day, and then this guy cut me off in traffic while I was rushing home to you”- and somehow the fact that this random guy cut him off in traffic turns out to be your fault. The thinking and “logic” underlying the abuse does not change, it is part of who they are.

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  3. One thing is for sure and certain: nobody ever changes until staying the same becomes costly. Like you said, they have to see consequences for their actions. I am glad I read this tonight because I had been thinking of trying to reconcile with someone who has treated me badly in the past, and this has made me realise that by doing so I could well be setting THEIR recovery back, if recovery they even seek.

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  4. Simply an amazing post! You put this struggle so clearly into words.. it is hard for me to read, and separate my own emotions and memories while reading. I did the exact same thing(s). I noticed that the only person who’s life was changing, was my own. I know what it’s like to hermitize yourself, thinking that “patience” and “love” would eventually bring the magical change in him. Eventually it becomes a survival tactic, instead of a hopeful one. Keeping the peace at all costs, is a montra/lifestyle that we cling too, in order to quell the beast. I can imagine how hard this was to write, for you.

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    • Hi lifebegins45, and thank you for sharing your experience here. You’re right, it was hard to write this post because I had to think analytically about issues I’d only really ‘felt’ not ‘rationalised’ before. I think part of it is like a person addicted to gambling. They don’t see it as throwing good money after bad, because they so desperately need to believe that next time they’ll hit the jackpot.

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  5. I used to be of the ilk that everyone had the ability to change if they just wanted it badly enough or if they had some kind of life-altering experience that instilled divine perspective into their brain which caused them to see the suffering they’d caused.

    I’ve been writing and researching about narcissism for almost three years now – and have worked with victims of this kind of abuse. To date, I’ve not come across a single case where a narcissist changed into a decent, caring, remorseful person. The sad fact is that the way they deal with their partners works out rather well for them because they have no accountability and, in most cases, they live out their lives as if they are single. It’s because of the lack of empathy and self-entitlement – they simply don’t WANT to change, nor see a need to.

    Great article!

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    • Thanks for sharing your wisdom here, Kim. Like you, I’ve never encountered an abusive /narcissistic individual that proved capable of change – no matter how much we may want to believe change is possible the evidence suggests that they won’t.

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