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How to Determine Whether An Abusive Partner Has Changed

When you are tempted to take an abusive partner back.

Key points

  • A clear-eyed view of what real change looks like and the steps an abusive partner needs to take to change.
  • Questions the abused needs to ask themselves to help them determine whether their former partner has actually changed.
  • Steps that an abused partner needs to take to successfully determine whether an abusive partner has changed.
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Source: Lightfieldstudios on 123RF

Most abusive partners will continue to put pressure on their previous partners to take them back. As strong as you are, as determined as you have become to resist this pressure, it can be difficult, especially if your former partner promises they have changed and they will never abuse you again. The following suggestions can help you make an informed decision based on evidence of change instead of giving into his or her charm or promises.

  • Make a list of the behavioral changes you need your former partner to make. Take your time making this list and be very specific. Instead of listing, “I want him to treat me with more respect” I suggest you state something like, “I need him to listen to my ideas and not always discount them.”
  • Also, make a list of the specific actions you need your former partner to take. Again, take your time with this list by thinking carefully about what you need to feel like he or she is committed to change. For example: “Start and continue individual therapy with someone who specializes in treating abusers.” “Go to AA (or NA) and continue going indefinitely.” “Apologize to my parents for yelling at them and keeping me away from them.”
  • Ask your former partner to make his or her own list of the changes he or she needs to make. Make sure that his or her plan for change includes individual therapy. Note: Couples counseling is not recommended for couples where abuse has occurred.

Most abusers suffer from chronic shame and they need to heal this shame if they are going to be able to stop being abusive. Addressing chronic shame requires the person to engage in ongoing, intensive psychotherapy. This form of therapy includes developing a meaningful relationship with a therapist and this means the abusive person needs to develop enough trust in the therapy and the process to let down their defensive wall and become vulnerable enough to show their true self to the therapist and to themselves.

Unless your ex-partner engages in this type of therapy, with a professional who has worked successfully with abusers, there is little to no hope for real, lasting change. Even if you observe some changes today, these changes will not likely last long term. They are behavioral changes rather than changes that come from a deep understanding of themselves. In addition, most abusers need empathy training since many lack this important ability.

The Specific Changes to Be Made

If you feel stuck about what changes you need your ex-partner to make, the following should offer you more clarity. These are the specific changes your ex-partner needs to have made to no longer be a threat to you. Some of the items listed below are adapted with courtesy from Why Does He Do That? Although Lundy Bancroft wrote this about physically abusive men, much of it applies to emotional abuse as well. I suggest you read his book to get a better understanding of the dynamics of an abuser.

  1. He needs to be able to admit to you that he was emotionally abusive toward you (and or your children) and be able to state clearly how he was abusive (specifically what forms of abuse he was guilty of). He needs to be consistent about this; no backtracking, minimizing, discrediting your memory, blaming you.
  2. He needs to exhibit empathy toward you and others harmed. This means he needs to show that he has been able to put himself in your place and has begun to truly understand how you felt when he acted in abusive ways.
  3. She needs to understand and acknowledge to you how her abusiveness harmed you (and or your children). She needs to be able to name in detail the short and long-term effects that her abuse has had, including fear, shame, loss of self-confidence, loss of trust, loss of important relationships, loss of freedom.
  4. He needs to be able to do the above steps without feeling sorry for himself or talking about how hard the experience has been for him.
  5. If she has a personality disorder, such as borderline personality or narcissistic personality, she needs to admit this to herself and to you and seek professional help. Specifically, she needs to come to realize how her disorder caused her to be emotionally abusive, even if she didn’t intend to do so.
  6. He needs to accept the consequences of his actions, including you leaving him. This includes stopping blaming you or whining about his losses, or the problems he has experienced as the result of his abuse (loss of the marriage, your loss of desire to have sex with him, money problems).
  7. She needs to make amends for the damage she has done, including giving you a meaningful apology.
  8. He needs to be able to understand and talk about the underlying beliefs and values that drove his abusive behaviors, such as viewing himself as superior to others, considering himself entitled to constant attention or special treatment, or believing that women can’t be trusted.
  9. He needs to have developed respectful behaviors and attitudes to replace his past abusive ones. You should be able to notice such things as him listening to you more, not always having to be right, not blaming you every time something goes wrong in his life, not becoming possessive and jealous when you venture out in the world or make new friends, and carrying his weight in household chores and child care.
  10. She needs to have replaced her distorted image of you with a more accurate picture of who you are, including recognizing your strengths, abilities, and achievements.
  11. He or she needs to commit to not repeating abusive behaviors. This needs to be done without conditions such as promising to stop calling you names as long as you respect him. He or she needs to back up their words of commitment by seeking counseling or entering into a treatment program.
  12. He needs to accept that overcoming abusiveness will be a lifetime process. He can’t announce that he is “cured” and that therefore you should take him back.
  13. He or she needs to stop pressuring you to go back or to make a decision. This in itself can become abusive. If you need time to decide whether to go back or not, he should be able to give you that time—without threatening you, without trying to make you feel guilty.

This article is an excerpt from Escaping Emotional Abuse.

References

Bancroft, Lundy. (2003). Why Does He Do That? New York, NY: Berkley Books.

Engel, Beverly. (2020). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don't Deserve. New York: NY: Citadel Press.

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