Women and men remain in – and return to – abusive relationships for many reasons. For example, it is not uncommon for victims of abuse to remain in the abusive situation because they believe that the abuser will change. This is most common in situations where the abused individual has a great emotional investment in their abuser (i.e. dating or marriage relationships). They love their abuser, despite the violence, and so they hope that some day the abuse will stop.
Is that false hope? Do abusive people ever stop? Violence is a learned behavior and, thus, it must be unlearned.
Before answering the question, “Can an abuser change for good?” we should consider two illustrations of abusive behavior*:
1) The Cycle of Violence represents the three most common stages of the abuser-abused relationship. These stages repeat over and over until either the abuser chooses to stop, the abused leaves safely, or outside intervention occurs. The three stages are commonly referred to as
2) The Cycle of Abuse pertains to multiple individuals. The three stages of abuse come into play here but the cycle of abuse, when intervention or purposeful change does not occur, has the potential to continue for generations. History repeats itself. Things cannot get better without serious change on the part of the abuser or the removal of the victim.
While growing up in an abusive home does not guarantee that a child will become abusive it does increase that likelihood. Men and women can become abusers just as men and woman can become victims. Furthermore, a girl who grows up watching her father abuse her mother is more likely to enter into the cycle of abuse in future relationships. Likewise, a boy who watches his father abuse his mother is more likely to continue that cycle. Like the wheel on a bicycle, the cycle of violence cannot stop until someone pulls on the breaks or something obstructs the path ahead.
Children watch their parents and other trusted adults. That’s how they learn their social clues, their coping strategies, their reactions to stress, the appropriate behavior toward other people. When all a child has seen is abuse, it is natural for that child to grow up to display those same violent tenancies. It is not an excuse for their actions (there is NEVER an excuse for abuse) but it does explain the psyche of some abusers and it is a starting place for that abuser to learn new patterns of behavior.
Keep in mind that, just like an abusive person can grow up in a loving and healthy environment, so can a non-abusive person grow up in an unhealthy and hostile environment. Abusers abuse first and foremost because they desire to exhibit power and control over another, usually weaker or vulnerable, person.
I have had victims ask me if I think their abuser will change. I hesitate to offer my own opinion of anyone’s situation simply because I am not that person. I’m not there to witness and experience what they do on a daily basis. I don’t want to give false hope (“He/She will definitely change.”) anymore than I want to be discouraging to someone who loves their abuser (“What makes you think he/she would ever change? I don’t see that happening!”) It’s not a bad idea to keep your opinions to yourself when supporting a victim of sexual or domestic violence.
That being said, it is possible for the cycle of violence to end. It is possible that the cycle of abuse can end. All it takes is one person stepping up to say “I will not behave this way anymore” or saying “I’m leaving” or saying “I’m going to help you”. It isn’t that simple. A victim of domestic violence is at their greatest risk for violence and homicide when they are preparing to leave and in the act of leaving (click here for an exit plan to keep yourself and your children as safe as possible when leaving an abusive relationship). It’s not something to assume can happen overnight.
Most abusers will apologize for their actions at some point (and blame the victim for causing those actions): the honeymoon stage. This gives many victims the false hope that change has occurred and that the relationship will now progress healthily. Then, when the abuser again acts out (the tension and violence stages), it becomes all too easy for the victim to blame themselves for starting the cycle up again.
It is never the victim’s fault. Abusive people choose to act in abusive ways. The actions of another person are not sufficient cause or reason to be violent through words or actions.
Note that a change in an abuser’s behavior ought to be obvious and should be observed for an extended period of time. The abuser should be able to demonstrate that he/she has formed and will follow completely new habits of behavior. It is not cruel to keep your distance until your abuser can prove to you without a doubt that they have chosen to alter their behavior and their mindset toward you. Your safety is your first priority.
DomesticShelters.org (linked above) provides this list of actions that can indicate that an abuser has really, truly changed and is willing to work on their behavior to benefit their family and others around them.
- Admitting fully to what he has done
- Stopping excuse-making
- Making amends
- Accepting responsibility and recognizing that abuse is a choice
- Not declaring themselves “cured,” bur rather accepting that overcoming abusiveness is a decades-long process
- Demonstrating respectful, kind and supportive behaviors
- Not blaming their partner or children for the consequences of their actions
- Changing how they respond to their partner or former partner’s anger and grievances
- Not demanding credit for improvements they’ve made
For more information, read:
*Note that the terms “cycle of violence” and “cycle of abuse” can be interchangeable and were assigned specific definitions to avoid confusion for the purpose of this post.