Abusive Partners Can Change
We aren't doomed to repeat our mistakes.
Posted November 3, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Jon, a 45-year-old lawyer, reported for his first session in our treatment program for abusive partners desperate to salvage his relationship with his partner, Ann, from whom he was now separated, and their two kids, one a teenager and the other in preschool.
Last week, when Jon and Ann were arguing, she’d said something cutting and tried to leave the room. He blocked her way and assaulted her. Their teenaged son tried to intervene, yelling that he was calling the police. Jon threatened to beat the terrified boy. In the end, the police weren’t called.
After the assault, Jon sagged with shame. His sobbing wife begged him to leave as his children hid in their rooms. He packed his bag and returned to his childhood home.
Jon was self-referred but his participation was anything but voluntary. Jon wanted to return home but until he gets help, his wife won’t consider reconciling.
Jon’s biological father abandoned him when he was an infant. His parents split up shortly after his birth. Jon’s mother was young when he was born and seemed to resent the burden of being a single parent. She eventually married a man who would go on to father Jon’s younger siblings.
Jon looked up to his stepfather, a firefighter. When he was a child, he’d follow him to work, where his stepfather would introduce Jon as “my wife’s kid” … never, as Jon fantasized, “my son.” His stepfather was decent if perfunctory, but Jon longed for his love.
Out of the home, things weren’t easy. Jon was smart and high achieving but also introverted, shy and soft — interested in graphic novels, a heavyset boy who wore glasses and was poor at sports. He lived in a rough neighborhood and was bullied daily. He tried to avoid being noticed, and when that didn’t work, to his lasting shame, he would give away his possessions in a bid for other boys to leave him alone.
As an adult, Jon resented the easy comfort that this wife shares with their kids. When he tried to spend time with his son, he inevitably became critical as he bumped up against his son’s vulnerabilities. He was aware only of his desire to protect and instruct, but ended up punishing his son, shaming him particularly when he became aware that the boy had given away any of his possessions to friends. His family was a source of injury and anxiety. As Jon isolated himself playing video games, he could hear his family laughing and was hurt to feel excluded.
The irony was that Jon is quite well liked in the world. His colleagues find him affable and pleasant and his staff often joke about how lucky Jon’s wife is to be married to him.
If Jon wants to be a part of his family, his work must be both immediate and long-term and the first piece is non-negotiable: He has to stop hurting his family now. If he’s serious about wanting the trust of the people he’s hurt, he has to earn it by doing several things first.
1. He’ll need to sit with his guilt and stop focusing his blame on others.
While Jon came to us full of guilt, this feeling quickly became blame. He finds himself thinking about how Ann shuts him out or doesn’t listen to him. Blaming her helps him avoid his intolerable feelings. Guilt includes the knowledge that we’ve behaved badly — while it is uncomfortable, it is also powerful. We can change behavior and we can try to make amends.
2. He’ll have to expand his understanding of what is abusive.
Jon knew that physical violence is wrong, but struggled to think of yelling, name calling, jealous behavior, or criticizing as abuse. The work here requires us to care about and be accountable for the ways our words and actions hurt others. Jon initially had a difficult time seeing how raising his voice was abusive, but his history of unpredictable behavior meant that Ann was always scared when they fought. When she took the risk of trying to engage him, she needed him to be safe and look like he cared about her, even if he was feeling hurt.
3. He’ll have to learn to tolerate emotional injury.
Learning how stay in relationships with others while feeling hurt is an important skill. Most people who abuse their partners don’t do this well. We think that if someone hurts us, we have to strike back. For many people, this is about early training at home or on the streets which teaches us not to allow someone else to make us look small. But in a partnership, it is inevitable that our significant other is going to sometimes hurt our feelings. When that happens, we have to find a way to hold on to ourselves and not retaliate.
4. He’ll need to to identify and share his feelings.
In his first session, Jon sat in our offices with tears streaming down his face as we talked through what had happened in his family. When we asked him what he was feeling, he told us he was angry. Generally, when men come to see us, there is one emotion they can comfortably express: anger. Anger is almost always a secondary emotion, meaning that there is also a more primary feeling beneath it like fear, hurt, sadness, or shame. This is a critical distinction because what we tell ourselves about how we feel informs behavior. If I tell myself that I’m pissed, then I’m going to act pissed. Anger feels better than hurt or embarrassment but it also sets us up to punish the other person.
5. He’ll need to practice humility.
Jon felt so often humiliated as a kid that he has developed a puffed-up false self that protects against others seeing how small he is on the inside. Injuries to the inflated self, or “narcissistic injuries,” make us brittle and easily offended. The truth about Jon is that he isn’t, as he fantasizes in his most grandiose moments, the nicest guy in the world. He’s also not, as he imagines in his most shame-filled moments, unloveable. He’s just a regular person with strengths and flaws. If he can hold on to that when his wife calls him out, his need to reject her won’t be so great. He can nod sadly and say, “You’re right, that wasn’t nice of me. I’m sorry.”
6. He’ll have to develop deeper empathy.
Jon was so flooded with self-pity about feeling excluded by his wife and kids that he never considered their experience. The story that Jon tells himself about what Ann and the kids are feeling isn’t generous. He tells himself that his wife snaps at him because she’s a cold person. And because this is the story, he responds accordingly — he’s terse and punitive. Jon needs to learn to make an empathic leap. What Jon experiences as his wife looking cold is likely an unconscious armor she has developed in response to his regular explosions. Underneath, she is likely hurt and anxious. If he wants any chance of repair, he has to understand and react to what is behind her defenses. He must respond with warmth to her hurt.
7. He’ll need to be accountable for real change.
At our treatment program, we see evidence every day that our kind of work is made more effective when family systems, faith communities, courts, and workplaces seriously hold people accountable for change. We also know that the reverse is true. Abusive partners should also have access to a program with the expertise and structure needed to help guide them to lasting change.
8. He’ll need to be patient and accept uncertainty.
This problem didn’t get created overnight and it won’t be solved overnight. Initially, Jon’s partner rejected his attempts at making amends. If Jon wants to earn back the trust of his partner, he will have to tolerate that right now she doesn’t ... and probably shouldn’t ... trust him. He hasn’t been trustworthy or safe. If he wants her trust and the trust of their kids, he will have to demonstrate consistently over time that he won’t punish them when he’s hurt and that he will respect their boundaries and their process.
It is also possible that Ann may decide that she doesn’t want to reconcile, that the damage is too great. Jon must be willing to accept this and still do the work to be a decent and respectful co-parent to their kids.