Changing The Abuser

Posted on March 28, 2013


Q: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Only one, but the bulb really has to want to change.

Most mornings, I enjoy the comics page while eating my Honey Bunches of Oats (it is much more enjoyable way to begin my day than reading the front page).  Among the comics I have been reading for years is “Luanne” by Greg Evans.  The title character is a girl in high school.  She has an older brother, Brad, who is a firefighter.  Brad has a girlfriend, Toni, who is also a fellow firefighter.  In a recent storyline, Toni bumps into her ex-boyfriend Dirk while in the grocery store.  Dirk was previously controlling and abusive and had issues controlling his anger.  He now is all smiles as he is married and has a baby.  He explains that he had taken anger management classes that helped him change.  When Toni is discussing the situation later with Luanne, they talk about how the love of a woman can change a man.

To my mind, this is a risky thought pattern.  While it is true that the love of a woman can be a powerful force for change for a man, the reality is that he has to choose to change.  Her love is not enough to force change upon him.  Here are some of the risks of thinking that your love can change someone else.  First, it can cause a woman to stay in an unhealthy and perhaps abusive relationship.  If she has hope that if she could just love him well enough that he will change, each time he pledges to change she will want to take him back.  It is unlikely that an abuser will ever change without some therapy.  Anger management programs can teach one skills for coping with anger in less destructive ways; still it is only part of the solution.  For him to get healthy, he will need to get some healing around the emotional wounds and trauma that are causing the overwhelming feeling of anger.  Second, it shifts the responsibility for the abuser’s anger from him to her.  This thought process makes it her responsibility to love him enough to bring about the change.  This is classic codependent thinking (much as I hate labels).  One person tries to compensate for a partner’s under-functioning by over-functioning.  It is a formula for frustration that in some cases can be dangerous.  Third, it opens the door for self-blame if the relationship ends, and further self-condemnation if he gets his act together later.  “Why was I not enough?  Why was he able to change for her but not for me?” are common questions.  In all probability, he probably had to hit rock bottom before he was forced to take a look at himself.  Just as addicts often need to hit bottom before they admit the problem and get help, an abuser may require the same impetus for change.  Alternatively, he may not really have changed, but you might not have a view to what is really going on in the new relationship.

An important question (as posed by those great philosophers, The Clash) is, “Should I stay or should I go?”  I can’t answer that for you, but I can give you some things to consider.  The first consideration is your safety (and perhaps that of your children).  An escalating pattern of abuse is potentially dangerous and not to be ignored.  If thinking about this is kicking up the anxiety, find a therapist who can help you sort through the issue and come to your own decision.  Also if you do decide to stay, you and your therapist can work out a safety plan.  If there is child abuse involved, your therapist is mandated by law to report it.  Do not let that keep you from getting the help you need.  Second, is he willing to go to therapy himself?  I am not just talking about agreeing to one appointment, but will he do the work?  It can be a painful process to take a look at himself and come to grips with his own issues and past traumas.  It takes courage to do that.

My starting point for this post was a storyline about an abusive male.  The fact is that the abusive partner is not always the man.  Though men have a greater tendency than women do to take out their anger with physical violence, this is not always the case.  I have actually worked with more couples who are recovering from domestic violence where the wife was the aggressor than where the husband was the aggressor.  Sometimes the danger has been that when she hits him, he hits her back causing greater injury because he is physically bigger and stronger.  No matter who is the initial aggressor, physically attacking your partner is not okay.  If things seem so overwhelming you have ended up in a physical confrontation (or even been close), it is a good idea to get some help for yourself and for the relationship.

Love can be tremendously transforming.  But if you try to take responsibility for your partner’s change, you will only drive yourself crazy (proverbially speaking) and potentially put yourself in harm’s way.  It speaks volumes if the abuser will go to therapy.  Beware of pledges to change that are not accompanied by the action of getting help with the underlying issues.  If your partner won’t go to therapy, then go by yourself.  Where both partners are willing to work on getting healthy, there is good hope for the relationship to again become safe and satisfying.  How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one, but the bulb has to want to change.