Can he change? Putting hope in treatment for the abusive partner

It can be tempting to think that treatment (or anger management, AA, substance abuse treatment) holds a magic cure for their abusive partner.  “If only he would go to treatment, things would be fine.”  Abusive men are not bad men; they aren’t abusive 24 hours a day and they have many qualities of strength, intelligence, virtue.  There are endless reasons a woman might think the relationship will work and is worth saving – if only the abuse would stop.

There is not much known about outcomes in men’s domestic abuse treatment.  What studies have been done are less than optimistic.  The general consensus among people working in the field is that abuse will not just “go away”.  Unless there is some kind of intervention (arrest, jail, counseling), the abuse usually increases in severity over time.  It doesn’t seem to be true that men can’t change, but that they won’t. The patterns are too effective, the benefits too powerful, the difficulty of change and the pain of taking responsibility make it much easier to stay the same than to radically change one’s way of thinking, acting, and feeling.  The further fact that abuse is minimized and condoned by much of our culture means that the victims carry more of the cost than the abuser ever will.  Not only can he get away with it, he can also get away with it with someone new if his current partner decides to leave.  The fact that so many women (some estimate one in three) experiences abuse in an intimate relationship does not imply that one out of three men are abusive: it simply means that some men are getting away with it, over and over again.

Some estimates suggest that, of the few abusers who enter some kind of treatment program that lasts at least 2 years, some 98% will continue to be abusive.  2%, then, manage to measurably change their behavior.

Women have reasons to put hope in treatment; but they should also be aware that treatment may or may not work for their partner.  Changing abusive behavior is a long-term and difficult process.  It’s a process most don’t complete.  Change requires a major commitment, and a willingness to evaluate deepset patterns of thought and feeling.

For women whose partners are or have been in treatment, it is important to use your own judgement and instincts about your partner’s progress.  Your insights and feelings have guided your ability to survive in the relationship this far.  The decision to stay or go is incredibly complicated and can only be answered for yourself.  These gut level beliefs and intuitions can and should be trusted.  The information your gut gives you can be paired with your increasing knowledge of abuse, an active support system, and a safety plan.

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