Yes, of course, any of us can change. The question is, do we acknowledge that we have a problem and that we need to change? If so, how hard and for how long will we be willing to work to make this a permanent life change? Abusers who do this will have to work on this problem everyday, all day, for the rest of their lives. If they also have a drug or alcohol problem, then they have two separate (but equally serious) problems that will need daily attention. The person must be willing to accept complete responsibility for the abusive behavior and agree to be held accountable. Since abuse stems from a person’s belief in his superiority, it is really a “thinking problem” more than an emotional problem. This is why ‘anger management’ is not the answer. After all, anger is just an emotion. It’s normal and healthy. It can’t hurt anyone. But abuse and violence are behaviors. That’s why we call our groups “Batterer Intervention Programs”. Unfortunately, the statistics are not very encouraging. Most abusers are never caught. Until they are caught, they will not be held accountable and will continue to blame, minimize and deny their violence. When a person “owns the abuse” and stops blaming his victim or other factors (stress, alcohol, a bad temper, etc.) for his behavior, then change can begin. But it’s a long, hard road. In the meantime, the victim is usually no safer. Sometimes being held accountable can even cause an abuser’s violence to escalate. It’s vitally important that we remember this and stress this with victims. Survivors and helpers tend to assume that things will probably get better if he’s in an intervention program or seeing a therapist. This is sometimes true, but very often it’s not. You know that an abuser is probably changing when he focuses more on the damage he has done to others than on how he has been impacted – by his arrest, losing his partner, having a restraining order placed on him, etc.
I have known and worked with some so-called “former abusers” who, after becoming professional abuser intervention workers and “poster boys for change” later put their wives back in the shelter. Because of this, I am now very cautious. If I see an abuser taking complete responsibility for his violence, expressing genuine empathy for his victim, agonizing over the damage he has inflicted, focusing completely on himself, leaving his victim in peace to heal as she chooses/as long as she chooses and then asking for the establishment of an ongoing system of accountability for himself, then I feel hopeful. But he will always be a recovering batterer. We have to remember that.
Survivor and Domestic Violence Advocate, Charlotte, NC
Men who abuse their partners come from all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, areas of the world, educational levels and occupations.
They often appear charming and attentive to outsiders, and even to their partners, at first. Many batterers are very good at disguising their abusive behavior to appear socially acceptable. Once they develop a relationship with a partner however, they become more and more abusive.
Can Abusers Change? Yes, but progress will depend on recognizing they are abusive and being prepared to work hard at being non-abusive for a long time, without expecting rewards or support for their efforts. Change does not occur overnight, if it occurs at all, and many group members drop out along the way. Long-term improvement in behavior is more likely for a group member who has a personal investment in making changes and completes a full batterer intervention program, but even that is no guarantee.
Many abusers continue to be violent and controlling after attending batterer intervention groups. Abusers may pressure their partner to stay with them while they attend a batterer’s program; this is a tactic of abuse and control. If they are serious about changing, they will respect their partner’s wishes within the relationship.
It is common for abusers to be apologetic after being abusive. But there are concrete ways that demonstrate change that involve saying more than “I’m sorry.” Victims are the best judge of whether their partner is changing or not. If they feel that there is no change, trust them regardless of other signs. Unfortunately, abusers are very good at manipulation, and may be showing signs of change without actually having made any, or may be trying to make it seem like they have changed, but have not.
Many abusers have a repeating cycle where there’s a stage of increasing abusiveness, then an incident of violence, and then a period of worry over being caught and attempts to make up. They may try to use apologies and promises to get their partner to take them back, to drop a restraining order, or to drop criminal charges. This stage of avoiding consequences is just another way to abuse and control, and does not lead to any lasting changes.
Some possible signs of change
- Has your partner completely stopped saying and doing things that frighten you?
- Can you express anger without being punished for it?
- Does it feel safe to bring up topics that you know your partner disagrees with?
- Can your partner listen to your opinion and respect it, even when disagreeing with you?
- Does your partner argue without being abusive or having to be right?
- Does your partner respect your wishes about sex and physical contact?
- Has your partner stopped expecting you to do things that you may not want to do?
- Can you spend time with friends or family without being afraid that your partner will retaliate? Can you do other things that are important to you, such as go to school or get a job?
- Are you comfortable with the way your partner interacts with the children?
- Do you feel safe leaving the children with your partner?
- Does your partner support you and give compliments?
- Does your partner listen to what you have to say?
Michael Sexton, Charlotte, NC
If and when they are ready to take full accountability for their actions and alter their thinking patterns and internal agreements that drive, support and allow them to minimize their abusive behaviors.
Nancy Gause, Director, Circle House, Columbia, MO