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Can an Abuser Change?

A quarter of all women will experience domestic violence during their lifetimes, and nearly three million men have been assaulted by a romantic partner. Despite its stigma, domestic abuse is depressingly common. What's often left out of the dialogue about domestic abuse, though, is that domestic abusers aren't just monsters with whom a victim lives. They're people who, at one time or another, the victim loved. Leaving an abuser requires immense courage, but also demands that you go through the intense pain of a breakup. Consequently many victims are hopeful that their abusers will change. The depressing truth is that most won't, but this doesn't mean change is always impossible. 

Understanding the Cycle of Abuse

Many victims point to the ability of the abuser to be kind, loving, and extraordinarily gentle as evidence that he doesn't really “mean” the abuse. The reality is that this behavior is a classic sign of abuse. Most experts on domestic violence argue that there are three distinct phases to the abuse: the act of battering itself, which is followed by a honeymoon period during which the abuser will do anything to get the victim to stay. After a while, tension begins building again, and this third and final stage eventually leads to more abuse.

The hard truth is that periodic kindness does not mean your abuser will change. Instead, it suggests that he can control his behavior when necessary, which means he's using abuse to control you. This does not offer much hope for redemption.

 Can an Abuser Change?

  • Domestic violence is not inevitable. There is not an abuser gene, and even the angriest of people can control themselves. This means that, theoretically, a domestic abuser can change. The real question is whether or not he will. For victims of domestic violence, safety needs mean that it's necessary to leave the abuser until he's ready to change. Don't consider taking him back until he's shown the following signs of willingness to change:
  • Remorse for his actions that includes complete acceptance of responsibility. You cannot induce someone to behave abusively by nagging him, belittling him, or otherwise upsetting him.
  • A commitment to understanding why he abuses you.
  • A willingness to respect your boundaries and safety. If you need to move out for a while, he should understand that you're doing this for your safety. If he tries to manipulate you into ignoring your own boundaries, then he's engaging in an elaborate ruse, not dedicating himself to changing.

 What's the Right Approach for Domestic Violence?

Many couples trapped in a cycle of domestic violence seek out couples counseling, but couples counseling will not stop abuse. Indeed, couples counseling can compound the problem because such counseling works according to the premise that both spouses share a role in the problem. Violence is solely the fault of the abuser. While you may have problems that marriage counseling can address, your abuser will need to attend counseling specifically designed for abusers until he can stop abusing you. Then you can pursue couples counseling. While your abuser goes through counseling, it's a wise idea to pursue your own counseling so you can explore whether this is a relationship worth continuing. 

If you are currently being abused, don't waste time debating whether the abuser can change. Get help immediately by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline.