Re-establishing Trust and Safety

Jamie knew that he blew it and he was beside himself. He’d lost control of his emotions and had hit his wife—something that he knew he shouldn’t do. Now she’s moved out and has talked about divorce, although she hasn’t filed yet. Is there anything he can do to facilitate reconciliation after domestic violence, he wondered?

Kym was in a similar position. Her boyfriend broke up with her, saying he was done with her controlling and abusive behavior. Kym knew that she could be a control freak, and that she could get downright mean in those times. Still, she loved her boyfriend and wanted him to give her another chance. What could she do to show she’d changed and was worthy?

Is there ever hope for reconciliation after domestic violence?

Jamie and Kym’s questions are good and ones I hear often. Can a relationship survive incidents of abuse? Is there ever hope for reconciliation after domestic violence?

Why domestic violence or abuse is such a big deal

No relationship is without conflict, and no partner is perfect. However, some actions are so ruinous that they are unacceptable. The presence of these very harmful conditions calls for drastic measures, perhaps even separation or divorce.

By the way, everyone who is in an intimate relationship (dating or marriage) should know what behavior is taboo. Check out our Definitions page or this page from the National Domestic Violence Hotline if you’re unsure. Or, consider reading Beverly Engel’s book, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship if you want to go more in-depth.

Violence (physical abuse) can injure someone seriously. Harmful words (verbal abuse) or using some form of power to control a partner (emotional abuse) are very destructive. All of these actions can damage a person’s sense of being a whole, autonomous individual and devastate their emotional wellbeing. The result is that reconciliation after domestic violence is difficult.

Why victims are encouraged to leave

People exposed to ill-treatment are advised to set boundaries and not allow these practices to continue. Good boundaries mean the person creates natural consequences for their treatment, such as separating themselves from the person who is causing harm. If their partner is unwilling to change, reconciliation after domestic violence is not advised and they are often counseled to end the relationship.

In the best-case scenario, this “tough love” becomes a catalyst that causes their hurtful partner to address the behavior and the issues causing it. Some won’t, so that separation becomes permanent. Staying and tolerating abuse is dangerous and it helps no one.

Now what?

What if you (like me) have read the definitions of abuse and you see some of your behavior in those descriptions? Know that you are not only hurting your partner, but also your relationship with him or her. That means those actions are ultimately hurting you.

Abuse doesn’t make you a monster, but you do need to address the issue.

Abuse doesn’t make you a monster, but you do need to address the issue. Make a commitment to change. It’s imperative if you want reconciliation after domestic violence, or if this one cannot be repaired, any the health of any future relationship.

Is change even possible?

One of the myths about domestic violence or abuse is that the person causing harm cannot change. This simply isn’t true—countless individuals have worked to uncover the cause of their behavior and to change it. That’s good news and offers hope. Change is possible!

The bad news is that change is difficult and it requires time, effort, and intentional focus. Not everyone sees their need to change or is willing to devote the time and energy to make it happen. Saying someone can change is not the same as saying someone will change.

What it takes to change

Permanent change comes when the core issues at the root of those violent or abusive actions are addressed. Promising to never do it again, even if you have the best of intentions, is unlikely to be successful. Your best chance of reconciliation after domestic violence requires committing to this work.

Trying hard to not act out is like trying to hold a beach ball under water.

Trying hard to not act out is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. You can do it for a while, but eventually you’ll get tired or distracted and the beach ball will come popping out. Identifying and healing the issues at the root of the problem is like letting the air out of the beach ball.

Getting to the core of the issue

What are the core issues that cause domestic violence or abuse? Psychologists tell us that the things we say and do, especially during conflict or under stress, are driven by our emotions. And, those emotions are created by our thoughts. Often, we are not even aware this is happening in our minds.

Bad behavior—the kind that hurts our partners and ourselves—is usually caused by distorted thoughts. One of those distorted thoughts is when we have an exaggerated sense that our circumstances are threatening. Another is when we have incorrect beliefs about ourselves (better or worse than reality) or unrealistic expectations of others.

Enduring change requires us to discover the thoughts and emotions behind those harmful actions. With better awareness of what’s happening in our minds, we develop better emotional control. That frees us to respond to our partner in ways that will build trust and intimacy rather than just protect our own emotional wounds.

Since this isn’t something most of us are trained to do, it’s wise to get help. Counselors that specialize in anger or violence are a great asset and worth the investment. If you can’t afford counseling, find a pastor, mentor, or group that is focused on this issue. And it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice–these guides are a great supplement to any work you do with a counselor.

How to know if the change will last

Some couples stay together while one works on their transformation. At some point, they’ll have to measure progress and decide if the needed changes have occurred. Jamie’s wife was searching for signs of change and wondering if reconciliation after domestic violence was wise.

There is no measurement or test that will give anyone a guarantee that a person’s change is real and lasting. However, there are some telltale signs. For both Jamie and his wife, it’s smart to look how he responds to situations rather than just crediting the programs he attended.

Here are some questions to gauge if your work is having the desired effect. If your honest answers are all solidly yes, then reconciliation after domestic violence has a good chance. Some or several no’s means you probably need more time.

  • Do you react poorly to fewer situations, catch your reactions sooner, and generally have smaller and less damaging reactions?
  • When stressed, do you look at what’s going on inside of yourself rather than blaming your partner?
  • Do you have an attitude of continuous growth, especially if you’ve slipped into some of the bad behavior from the past?
  • Can the two of you handle stressful situations and resolve conflict in a healthy way?
  • Are you able to calm yourself, think rationally, and disagree without violence, threats, or abuse?
  • Does your partner feel safe, respected, cared for, and a sense of autonomy?

Reconciliation after domestic violence or abuse is a difficult decision. Don’t rush the process and make the determination to reunite cautiously. Change takes time, and the cost of continued violence or abuse is high for both the victim and the person who causes harm.

Reconciliation after domestic violence requires agreement

Remember, too, that your partner might not see your changes like you do. They may still be too hurt, scared, or angry to see you objectively. Or, they simply might not be willing to wait or risk being wrong. Kym’s boyfriend wished her luck, but was unwilling to stick around to see if she changed or not.

Trying to force a partner to stay is the worst strategy possible.

Trying to force a partner to stay is the worst strategy possible. Our desire to desperately hold onto a relationship is really a desire to avoid the pain of breaking up. There is no good outcome possible if we try to pressure, guilt, coerce, or control someone into staying in a relationship with us. At best, we’ll end up with a resentful partner that cannot reflect back the love we really want. At worst, we’ll be in trouble for our abusive actions while continuing to hurt someone we love.

Even if your partner doesn’t give you a chance, that doesn’t mean the work you do is futile. Making changes will benefit how you interact with others, including your children, friends, co-workers, and even strangers. It will also greatly increase your sense of peace and satisfaction with life. Loosing the relationship might not be what you want, but it can fuel your motivation to make your life better.