I talked to a guy the other day who is at the beginning of his quest to stop his acts of domestic violence and abuse. Now that he’s realized the impact of what he’s done, he’s highly motivated to be different. What worried him, however, was that he’d read time and time again that domestic violence offenders don’t change.
He wondered “is this my fate as well? Is there any hope for my transformation?” These are natural questions. And the answers have far-reaching implications for the people and relationships affected by domestic violence or abuse.
I assured him that change is possible. However, I also cautioned him that there is a big difference between saying someone can change and saying they did change. It’s possible for us to do many things in life, but that doesn’t mean we’ll actually do them.
Why we hear that domestic violence offenders don’t change
If you haven’t noticed, most of the books, articles, websites, and resources on domestic violence are geared toward victims. One of the most effective ways to help those wounded by violence or abuse is to get them out of that relationship. Much to advocates’ frustration, however, victims often don’t want to leave. They simply want the abuse to stop so they can resume the good parts of the relationship.
In response, advocates have perpetuated the myth that domestic abuse offenders don’t change. Sometimes it’s phrased as perpetrators won’t change or they can’t change. They’ll describe a path to change that’s a lifetime long—check on them again when they’re dead. Or, change requires a degree of perfection that’s humanly impossible to achieve.
I understand their frustration and the temptation to spin circumstances in the most negative and convincing way possible. However, the hopelessness of don’t/can’t/won’t is not the truth. Nor does it help those seeking change to find the path and take those first steps. In fact, saying domestic violence offenders don’t change fails both them and those that have been harmed.
Success is the absence of failure
Back when I did business consulting, I found studies on why businesses fail to be some of the most informative guides to success. In business, there is no guaranteed track to profit, but there are definitely some roadblocks to steer clear of. These mistakes nearly always doom an entrepreneur’s otherwise good ideas and hard work.
Likewise, for those working to stop their acts of domestic violence or abuse, there are several dead ends to avoid. While dodging these traps doesn’t guarantee positive results, it will certainly help prevent you from getting stuck. Regardless of what the statistics or “experts” say about the likelihood of changing, your odds increase dramatically by eliminating these mistakes.
1. Thinking you don’t need to change.
This is single biggest hazard on the road, and the #1 reason domestic violence offenders don’t change. It can take the form of minimizing the harm being done, blaming our partner, denying our contribution, or justifying our actions. One way this plays out is assuming our bad behavior was a one-off situation and it’s not going to happen again.
Domestic violence and abuse have very serious consequences for your partner, your relationship with them, and you. If you’re not sure if what you’ve done crosses the line, check out some definitions and honestly compare them to your own behavior. It’s painful to see ourselves in those descriptions, but avoiding the truth hurts us more.
2. Waiting for your partner to change. Or, thinking that things will be different with another partner.
I know your partner isn’t perfect—no person is. In fact, they might be downright difficult or even abusive themselves. If you’re waiting for them to change, however, be prepared to accept that it may never happen.
While that may seem discouraging, it’s actually empowering. It frees us to focus on ourselves and what we can do to change the dynamic of the relationship. It only takes one person to step out of an escalating argument and wait until things cool down to improve conflict resolution. That person can be you.
3. Believing that you can’t change.
You’ve (wrongly) concluded “that’s just the way I am” and decided there’s no point in trying to change. You’re damned to being like this and facing whatever consequences that fate brings you. Often, this attitude is really a mask for our deep fear that we might try to change and fail.
Don’t buy into the lie that domestic violence offenders don’t change. The truth is, change is possible. It happens the same way we learn anything—we’re given new information, then we practice it until we’re successful. Others have done it, so you can too.
4. Relying on willpower to stop abusive actions.
Vowing to yourself (and your partner) to never do it again sounds good. However, even when we’re sincere about our intentions, it seldom works. It’s not that we forget our promise or that we never mean it. The oath fails because it ignores how our brains respond when flooded by negative, difficult, and uncomfortable emotions.
Faced with similar circumstances the next time around, our reactions will follow the same well-established path without us even realizing. Different responses require intentionally uncovering distorted thoughts and replacing them with more truthful stories. Using willpower alone “in the moment” is not going to cut it.
5. Thinking there is a quick fix or easy solution.
Sometimes I meet people who are looking for a simple technique to apply that will change them. One man adopted a pithy quote, carpe diem (seize the day), as his personal mantra and was convinced it would be the difference-maker. A woman in one of our groups bowed out because she decided to take up yoga instead. Another guy was convinced that if he just focused on his job, he’d act differently in the future. None of these solutions work, of course.
The causes of our bad behavior are complex, and domestic violence offenders don’t change by applying quick, easy, or simple solutions. We have to dive deep into our psyche to discover the core hurts driving our actions. Healing these wounds takes both vulnerability and strength. Keeping our attention on light surface matters won’t provide a permanent solution.
6. Thinking you need to learn some skill or make some lifestyle change to behave differently.
Maybe you and your partner just need to communicate better, you think. Perhaps you need to manage your stress better. If you only had a job, cut back on drinking, or moved to a nicer neighborhood, then none of this would happen again.
Sure, better communication and stress management skills help. Unemployment, alcohol and drug use, or your environment can all contribute to conditions that make domestic violence or abuse more likely. The reality is, however, that without good emotional control, we’ll never be able to apply new relationship skills effectively. Eliminating contributing factors is good, but it fails to reach the root causes of our problem.
7. Not devoting much time or effort to the work.
It’s tempting to stay busy with work, family activities, hobbies, and your social life so you don’t have time to think, reflect, or journal. Some reasons I’ve heard for why people missed group sessions:
- I was busy planning my sister’s baby shower.
- The session lasted until 10:30 PM and I’m usually in bed by then.
- I totally forgot about it.
Staying busy is a sign of numbing—burying our heads in the sand to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Change requires commitment and sacrifice. Even after discovering distorted thoughts and core hurts, we must formulate new behavior and practice it until it becomes habit.
8. Giving up when you mess up.
You’ve been doing the deeper work and are becoming more aware of what’s going on in your mind when you behave in harmful ways. You think you’re making progress, then something slips and you end up repeating behavior you were trying to change. Argh! It’s SO frustrating! Is there any hope?
Change is not a one time, one try, process. We don’t learn to walk on our first attempt—we fall and get back up, again and again. The same applies to this transformation. Progress is not always forward, and backsliding happens. Learn from your mistakes, make amends if possible, and keep working. Tenacity is key.
9. Only being motivated to change in order to save a relationship.
Or, relying on your partner to notice and appreciate the work you are doing and the changes you make.
Wanting to reconcile with a partner is a very common motivation for people to begin their journey of change. Some relationships can be saved. But sadly, others will not survive, regardless of our efforts and progress.
A better motivation is to do this work for ourselves. Becoming more emotionally healthy is our best shot at saving a relationship, but it also positions us for success in any future relationship if our current one fails. Needing validation from a partner is a tell-tale sign that we’re giving away our power and expecting too much from them.
10. Not being teachable.
You’re an adult now. You have a few years and quite a few experiences under your belt. You’ve developed your own philosophy on what it takes for relationship and life success. What is anyone, whether a counselor, pastor, or group, going to teach you that you don’t already know?
Thinking we already have all the answers is perhaps the second biggest reason domestic violence offenders don’t change. In truth, acting as if we have nothing to learn is often a defense mechanism—we don’t want to admit what we don’t know. Being humble and vulnerable, and asking for help, is hard. But it’s this growth mindset that allows us to improve and sets us apart from those who stay stuck.
The bottom line is, all of these pitfalls are avoidable. None of them have to stop you, especially now that you’re aware of them. If you’ve tried to change but feel your progress has stalled, which trap do you think you’ve fallen into?