Can Abusive Men Change?

In my previous article on whether people can really change, I stated that people can change habits and behaviors but our personality tends to be rather fixed. But what about men who are either verbally, emotionally, sexually or physically abusive toward their partners?

One of my professional roles is that of a domestic violence counselor who treats the perpetrators of abuse. The training that I received indicates that change is possible but uncommon. Abusers not only have a behavior problem but more important, a “thinking” problem. Thinking problems are exhibited as denial, distortion, and lack of accountability. They also have a personality problem in that they perceive themselves as entitled to power and control over their partner. They will not change at the request of their partners – they don’t respect or value their partner’s opinion.

An excellent resource for understanding the mind of the abuser is “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. His book begins with a section on myths: abusers are not crazy, they don’t have low self-esteem, they don’t abuse because they were abused as a child, they don’t abuse because of alcohol or drugs, they don’t abuse because their previous partner hurt them or are afraid of intimacy, or because he has an anger control problem. These are all excuses that he gives for his behavior. He would prefer to focus on these tangents rather than deal directly with his abusive behavior. He abuses for power and control because he thinks he is entitled to do so.

Abusers who demonstrate significant change are externally motivated to change, rather than internally motivated. External motivators may come from a wife who will definitely leave them if they don’t change, or a tough probation officer and threat of jail. Internal motivators such as remorse do not lead to lasting change. Remaining abusive is easier than changing, and more rewarding for them.

If you are in an abusive relationship, don’t blame yourself. You didn’t cause it and you can’t cure it. Seek help. If you have a friend who is being abused, be patient. On a community level, challenge the thinking of men who exhibit less than respectful attitudes toward women. It takes a village.


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