Can An Abusive Partner Change?

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    I watched my friend Abby hold back tears as her husband told her to, “Stop being such a bitch.” I’d heard him do this before and when I’d ask her about it she’d say, “I talked to him – he said he’d change.” This time, however, she looked at me and asked, “Do you think he can change?” It made me think, “Can an abusive partner actually change?”

    Can an abusive partner change? It’s a question anyone in an abusive relationship has asked and one for which they’d all like a clear answer.

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    It’s not an easy question to answer though, is it? It would be great if getting an abuser to change was as simple as saying, “Please stop. What you’re doing is hurting me.”

    Sadly, it’s almost never that simple. It is, however, often hard and always complicated.

    What it’s not is impossible.

    What You Need To Know About How Abusive Partners Change

    Change in general is tough, but when it’s a deep-rooted pattern of behavior that needs to change it can be very difficult.

    If your partner is abusive and you’re hoping for change there are a few things of which you need to be aware. The biggest of these things is that your partner must feel certain they actually need to change.

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    It can take a lot for a person to recognize a problem with their own behavior, especially someone who’s abusive. Depending upon the type of abuse, they may not even realize that their behavior is wrong.

    If a person grew up in an abusive household, for instance, with parent’s who abused one another or was abused as a child, they may feel like their behavior is normal. Or even if they realize it’s not, they may not recognize what they’re doing at the time it’s happening.

    So, before an abusive partner can change they need to recognize that their behavior is a problem. That, however, is not all your need to know about the process of change for a partner who’s abusive.

    • You can’t make them change. Knowing that they need to change is different than actually changing, and nothing you do can make that happen for them. For an abusive partner to change they need want to and they need to commit to the work required to make it happen.

    • Change won’t be quick. No change in behavior happens overnight, it’s a process and it can be a long one. Change in abusive behavior is also rarely achieved without help. Abusive behavior has an origin and purpose, whether it’s learned, an expression of anger issues, or a product of a narcissistic personality – whatever it is will need to be addressed and that can take time.

    • There will be setbacks. In a perfect world the dial will turn forward and never turn back. But life’s not perfect and the dial will slip backward on occasion. You’ll need to be prepared.

    • Your boundaries and limits are crucial for both of you. When the dial does slip back and setbacks happen, for your own personal health – both mental and physical – you will need to be very clear on your boundaries and what you will and won’t accept. This not only protects your safety and self-esteem, but it also keeps your partner accountable to what they’ve committed to doing – change.

    With their commitment and your realistic understanding of what the process will entail, change in an abusive partner can happen.

    How Does An Abusive Partner Change?

    Behavioral change can take different pathways.

    Some people have it within them to utilize resources like books and studies and access their own personal grit to make the necessary changes. With a strong support system this road can lead to success, but it’s often fraught with pitfalls and wrong turns.

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    The more direct route to change in an abusive partner is through the support of a qualified counselor or anger management classes. The professionals in these environments will be able to provide the tools and training to help an abusive partner enact the changes needed.

    Dr. Kurt works weekly with couples dealing with abuse in the relationship. Sometimes it's the partner suffering from abuse, sometimes it's the abusive partner, but ideally it will be both partners participating. When asked about change in the behavior of the abusive partner he had this to say,

    Behavior can be complicated - not always the actions, but the reasons for them. Although abusive behavior is a problem, it's also a symptom. It's an external manifestation that arises from internal psychological conflict. For instance, for a man I'm counseling right now who can be verbally and emotionally abusive toward his partner, we've discovered that at times he feels betrayed, emasculated, cornered, and trapped. While he feels this way with his current partner, he's also felt similarly with other women in his past. Lacking awareness of these feelings, their origins, and tools for responding differently to how he feels, he resorts to hurting the person he loves to make his own pain go away. This explanation of why he abuses his partner in no way justifies his behavior. But understanding the reasons why someone is abusive is necessary in order to change it."

    The details of programs and tips associated with maintaining and growing change in an abusive partner are addressed in other articles on this site. For now, let’s focus on the idea that an abusive partner can change, and how you can know change is actually happening and whether or not it will stick.

    Indications That An Abusive Partner Is Changing

    Almost anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship will tell you that they’ve heard, “I’m sorry” a million times and “It won’t happen again” a million more. And because they love their partner they try to believe it – until the abuse starts again.

    So, if an abusive partner can change, what does that look like? How will you recognize the progress and know if it’s actually working or all just lip service?

    Look for these signs:

    • Taking responsibility for their behavior. Your partner not only needs to admit their bad behavior (lying, gaslighting, insulting and demeaning), they also need to acknowledge the purpose of the behavior. Most often abusive behavior is about control and masking insecurities. When you ask, “Can an abusive partner change?” you need to also ask, “Can an abusive partner understand the underlying intent of the abuse and take responsibility for it?”

    • Clear understanding of the damage they’ve caused. No one can or should define the damage you’ve suffered or pain you feel but you. A positive sign of change in an abusive partner is their ability to see and understand what they’ve cost you.

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    • Acknowledgement that they have a choice when it comes to their behavior. Behavior and reactions are a choice. Yes, there are times people need better tools to help manage their responses and inclinations, but actively making a choice to seek and use those tools is evidence that your abusive partner can change.

    • No more excuses and no more blame. You didn’t cause them to be abusive. Neither did kids, co-workers, or any other external force. The only person responsible for someone’s behavior is that person. So, an indication that an abusive partner is changing is their willingness to admit that they are the only ones responsible for their behavior.

    • Observable effort at newly acquired skills. One of the clearest ways to answer to the question, “Can an abusive partner change?” is making note of what you see. Are they trying? Is it working?

    • Willingness to discuss the issues that led to abusive behavior. Knowing that you were in the wrong or that you have consistently hurt the ones you love can be really hard to face. Abusive partners often live in denial which makes them unwilling to discuss their bad behavior. But one sure sign that changes are occurring is their willingness to share with you their issues and struggles.

    • Growing respect for you. This is a non-negotiable in any relationship and if your partner has been abusive it’s been severely lacking. Real change requires that your partner show clear and sincere respect for you and your feelings.

    Does seeing all these signs mean they’re fixed, and everything is good? No, not right away at least.

    Change takes time and these signs need to remain regular and consistent in order to become ingrained. And just seeing one or two of these isn’t really enough. All these signs should be observable and regular to demonstrate serious and potentially lasting change is occurring.

    If An Abusive Partner Can Change Can They Also Relapse?

    Can they? Yes. Will they and will it last? Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer to that question.

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    Although abusive behavior isn’t the same thing as an addiction, you can consider these changes in the same light as an alcoholic who’s climbed on the sobriety wagon. Can they fall off? Yes. Is it a certainty that they will? No.

    If your partner has made serious and sincere effort at changing and old behaviors start to slip back in, the good news is you now have precedent for remedying them.

    So, for Abby and any woman or man (yes, women can be abusers too) like her who wants to know, “Can an abusive partner change?”, there is hope. But to be clear – hope doesn’t mean staying in an unsafe situation with your fingers crossed. If they simply won’t make the effort or if you’re in danger you may have no choice but to make the change yourself.

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