Facing Abuse: Can an Abuser Ever Really Change?

If you are a victim of abuse, it can be painful to come to grips with the truth, especially if you have been abused by someone in your family, or someone you’re in a romantic relationship with.

This person cares about you, and you about them. But something has broken, and you’ve been hurt. I understand the question: Can abusers change? The answer is complicated.

Here’s what I’ve learned after many years of talking to people in abuse recovery on my radio show. It’s important to look at the whole picture when it comes to abusers changing behavior. Above all, it’s important to prioritize your safety and wellbeing so you avoid repeating the cycle of abuse.

Anyone Can Change

It is true that anyone can change. I’m a firm believer that people can be redeemed, and that people can be forgiven. I believe that God is the only one who knows what is really in our hearts, and He is the only one who can help us overcome the most painful struggles of our lives.

I believe that God loves everyone, no matter what troubles are in their relationships. But I also know He cares about people who are in pain, and that godly love is not a love that is rooted in fear.

In short, I do think abusers can change. But I am convinced they must take responsibility for their actions and change their patterns of behavior. And they are the only ones who can make those critical decisions

Change Likely Takes Decades

It takes many years to form abusive patterns. They are similar to addictive behaviors in that the abuser has to engage in their own “recovery journey” to correct the harmful thought and behavior patterns that lead to abuse and control.

This is what life in recovery looks like for an abusive person, according to author Lundy Bancroft, who has written extensively on abuse and healing after abuse:

  • Full admission of what they have done
  • No more excuses/blaming
  • Accepting responsibility
  • Recognizing that abuse is a choice
  • Identifying their patterns of controlling behavior
  • Identifying their attitudes that drive their abuse
  • Making amends for past wrongs
  • Not demanding credit for improvement
  • Not using improvements as a reason to minimize abuse (ex. “That wasn’t such a big deal, and besides, it was a long time ago”)
  • Developing kind, caring behaviors
  • Sharing power and responsibility in your life together
  • Changing their responses to your emotions, especially when you’re angry or upset
  • Changing how they act during a conflict

Source: National Domestic Violence Hotline resources

An abusive person who is engaged in their recovery has accepted that the process may take years, or even decades, before non-abusive patterns become their habit. Their change is not your responsibility, it is not within your control, and it could be very frustrating or upsetting to watch someone struggle to change unless you maintain distance from them and define strong boundaries in your relationship.

Your Healing Comes First

The bottom line is, both you and your abuser have healing work to do, and the only healing you can take charge of is your own. Making your safety and well-being a priority is key. Your support system, whether it’s an organization that provides resources for abuse support, a therapist or a faith leader, will understand the particulars of your situation and your relationships. They can help you navigate some of the difficult decisions that come with creating space for you and the person who abused you to heal and recover.

If you don’t know where to begin, we can help. Talk to a HopeCoach at TheHopeLine to find support resources, get encouragement, and help plan for your next steps. We believe in you, and you don’t have to face this journey alone.

If your friend or loved one has been abused, it can feel impossible to know how to help. Here are tips and resources to help a friend escape abuse.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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