A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Leslie Vernick and Chris Moles: “Can Abusers Change? And if so, how?”

UPDATE: we published this post in 2014. Since then we have discerned a lot of problems with the counsel Leslie Vernick and Chris Moles are giving about domestic abuse.

Look at our Chris Moles Digest if you want to read our concerns about Chris Moles.
Look at our Leslie Vernick tag  if you want to see all our posts about Leslie Vernick.

Leslie Vernick and Chris Moles discusses the question Can Abusers Change? And if so, how do they make that change? [This link is broken and there is no replacement. Editors.] livestream video, Aug 8, 2014.

Barb’s transcriptions:

16:18 to 18:00   Vernick:

. . . we all do stuff like that. But usually we’re not as blind to it; we’re sort of afterwards we think “I shouldn’t have done that” or we feel sort of bad.  Or if our spouse brings it up to us and says, “You know, what you said was really hurtful; you’re acting like God in my life,”  and we take some time to reflect on that and we think, “That was kind of arrogant; it wasn’t so good.”

I think one of the things that’s really important to understand is that when we look at destructive or abusive marriages or [other kinds of] abusive relationships, it’s when one person refuses to take any ownership even if they’re given feedback that their behavior has been destructive, even when someone says, “You are trying to control me, I don’t want to do it that way, I need to think my own thoughts or have my own feelings” — that there’s this blindness to this oppressive control, this unwillingness to see what you’re doing, that you’re justifying it, you’re minimizing it, you’re rationalizing it, and you’re refusing to acknowledge it. So to me when I work with couples in destructive marriages, that is the defining factor of whether this couple are going to make it or not.

Because I have worked with lots of couples in destructive marriages where it’s bad, I mean there’s bad stuff going on, but if someone can see it and own it and the other person can forgive it and they can work on it and do that together, their marriage can be restored.  But when one person won’t see it, it’s that blindness, not our brokenness, that I think wields the final axe on whether that marriage can be make it, because then there’s no ability to reconcile. Forgiveness can be granted but there’s no ability to reconcile the relationship because no-one’s taking responsibility for what they’re doing and they keep doing it!

20:40  Vernick:

Another thing with men who are abusive: oftentimes I’ll say to them, “How would your handle it if your wife told you your zipper was down?” Most of them would be grateful that she gave him that feedback because they don’t want to walk around looking like a pervert, or worse. Right? So sometimes they receive feedback. Or, “How would your feel if your wife told you that your pants are stained at the back?  Wouldn’t you prefer for her to tell you, than for you to go on in life being unappealing in the way that you’re dressing?”

So when [your spouse] she or he gives you feedback about your behaviors or your attitudes that are harmful to the relationship — certainly wives can do it better and husbands can do it better, and we can learn to give feedback better — but usually when someone gives you feedback there’s an ounce of truth in it, even if it’s delivered pretty harsh. Yeah? The Bible tells us, When a righteous man strikes me, let me not refuse it. And “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”.

So when you receive feedback about yourself that’s painful,  it’s no fun, for sure, but it can be very helpful and constructive. And when you’re living with someone for a long time, no one knows you better than your spouse. So one of the first steps if you’ve been accused of abuse, is that maybe —  they’re right!  And that you need to listen to their feedback because they’re telling you things like “Ouch! This hurts me! This is painful! This is destructive! This is sinful”  — or whatever feedback they’re giving you. And you may not be listening; but if you don’t listen it’s going to hurt your marriage.

31:13  [Barb thinks this bit is very good — this is Barb’s summary of what LV says]

Three heart changes Vernick is looking for:

Pride is replaced by humility and contriteness of spirt.

Willfulness is replaced by willingness:–  willingness to get help, to be accountable, to submit to authority, to experiences the consequences of their behavior without retaliating and punishment,  willingness to take time to rebuild trust.

Entitlement is replaced by gratitude.

39:57  [Barb thinks this bit is excellent]  Chris Moles:

The mistake that we make, is we evaluate a healthy relationship based on the other person. You know: “If they did this and this and this, things would go well!” When really the only control we have over it is — ourselves. So that evaluation process probably needs to begin with the self. Self reflection: “Where am I  submitting? How am I serving? Where am I taking? What do I need to repent of?” — those sorts of things. So that evaluative process probably needs to begin with the self.

But the cheerleader illustration with its take home message:  power under, rather than power over

Leslie’s four points — Clarity, Confession, Community, Consequences — these are good, but I feel they are going to be insufficient. I would have liked to hear more emphasis on telling the truth.

Clarity must mean clarity about the truth; confession must mean confessing the truth.  But  the typical abuser goes straight for community without vowing to be truthful and holding himself rigorously to that vow. So he pursues community readily, but only to recruit allies who will not insist he tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And the ‘accountability’ people he may get alongside him are most unlikely to follow the vital principle that all good batterers program leaders should follow: consult the victim, check in with the victim regularly so that you hear her side, ask her to tell you what her partner/ ex-partner is doing to her. How he is treating her. What is is doing and not doing behind the scenes. The things only she knows about because the abuser is most likely concealing them from the bystanders and the accountability people.

How many accountability people in churches have the training and nous to do that? VERY VERY FEW, if any. I would suggest that only fully trained batterers program leaders have that training and nous.

Chris’s point that often clarity comes after consequences — [that’s very good].

57:40  Chris reads out a question from a listener:

“When I ask my husband what he is angry about, he denies his anger. He blames me for the way he treats me and demands unconditional love. He gets very anxious when I use the word ‘abuse’, and claims he has no problems. How do I tell him he needs to deal with issues that he’s not willing to accept or we cannot continue to be together or possibly not be married?”


I have a couple of chapters on how to do that in my book, so I’m not going to be able to cover that in detail. But let me just say that I think this illustrates how unaware abusive men are. So she’s telling him, “You’re angry: the veins on your neck are popping out, your eyeballs are ready to pop out of you head, your fists are clenched, you just screamed at me, and you’re angry.”  And he’s telling her “I’m not angry!”

I would tend to believe him that he’s so unaware of himself that he doesn’t even realize how he’s coming across. So,  it’s not possible to help someone be aware who’s not willing to be aware.

It’s sort of like holding someone in front of the mirror, James says when they look in the mirror and turn away immediately they forget what they saw. So it’s that kind of man who does not want to see. And not every abuser will change because the first step is clarity, that willingness to see. Jesus said if your eye is healthy your whole body is full of light, and if you eye is dark your whole body is full of darkness. But the third category is actually the worst — the person who thinks they have light and they really are dark; Jesus says that darkness is really really deep.  So person who thinks they see clearly and they are not seeing clearly, is the one who is most in trouble. So, your husband is in that place.

So I would use some of the things in my book; but I would try to speak to his fear. I would say something like: “You know honey,  I know that you’re really scared, and I know that you are not always sure how to handle that. But the way that you’re handling that”  — and I would describe behaviors, I wouldn’t talk about him being angry, so I would say — “When you scream at me, when you hit me, when you throw things at the wall, you scare me so much that I can’t continue to live with this until you get some help to stop.” So you’re not going to say that he’s angry because he’s denying that, but he can’t deny his hole in the wall or his actual behaviors.

Chris Moles:

I think you’ve handle that really well; but I would maybe include that, oftentimes, clarity may come after consequences.

01:00:22  Another question from a listener:

Chris Moles says he would not use the word abuse because

Chris Moles tells abusers: A half truth is a whole lie.

1:12:34  Qn: “Am I abusive when I shut down after being abused? I get quiet and withdraw.”

Chris Moles:

I would be quite and withdraw. That’s how I would respond too, I’m sure. So, is that abusive? I know Leslie you’ve talked about this — in the idea of controlling abuse versus reactive abuse, maybe?


And even indifference, where people don’t care, you know, they just get shut down. I don’t think it’s abusive to shut down when someone’s abused you, I think that’s normal. But I do think that if you’re doing it to retaliate and punish, so that if that shut down stays shut down for days, and we don’t talk for weeks, and I won’t talk to you when you try to approach me, and I won’t engage because I won’t forgive you, then I think it can be abusive. So I think it’s a continuum.

When you said walking out. Walking out is not necessarily abusive, walking out can be a time out to cool yourself down and make a different choice versus throwing the water bottle against the wall. So it might be a better choice; it might not be the best choice long term, but it might be a better choice until you learn how to make different choices. So we have to understand that change is a progression, it’s not night and day. It’s taking baby steps and moving and building on those baby steps.


I think resistance is good to oppression; but we need to resist well, and Christ is the perfect model of that. I think the misconception that we have in the church is that Christ was somehow milk-toast, he was somehow weak, when he allowed the Romans to crucify him. But in that process he continually resisted: he confronted Pilate, he wasn’t violent, but Pilate had to make the choice to crucify an innocent man, there was no doubt about it.  Just like when Jesus taught us about leaving the courtroom naked, or turning the other cheek, or going the extra mile: it’s always to confront the oppressor with his oppression.


versus being passive and scared


Absolutely. Yes. So the idea of resistance is good but we need to resist well.  And if we resist poorly — which we do a lot of, I understand that, we get angry, we want to retaliate, we want to get vengeance — but who is better at justice? Us or God? God.


So to answer the question “Is that abusive?” — not necessarily. But it could lead to it, if the abuser tries to make amends, tries to ask for forgiveness and you’re still shut down and unwilling to talk, then that’s where you could be abusive  in a different way, more of a passive abusive but it’s still abusive because he is trying to be reconciled.  Not just “I’m sorry let’s get over it,” but “Truly, I’m sorry. Let’s make amends. Let’s talk about it. I’m wiling to do what it takes.”

1:15:37  Moles:

Can destructive people change?
The overwhelming answer is Yes!
We have to say: Yes, destructive people can change. Will they change? ? ?


How many of them change??!!


That is a totally different question!

1:18:20  Leslie:

I think the stats say that most abusive men don’t change; and the more abusive they are, the less likely they are to change. That doesn’t mean that some don’t. And we don’t want to give hope to the hopeless.  I think though, that what you want to understand is the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  So don’t believe the words: look at the behaviors. John the Baptist said it best when he say: prove that you have turned from your sins by the way you live. The new actions, not the fancy words that “I’m different.”


  1. Suzanne

    There are people in the world who will never admit they are wrong and won’t repent. I believe that the majority of abusers fall into this category. The things they gain from abusing others are more important to them than anything or anyone else in their lives.

    I speak from personal experience, having, without success, used the strategies listed here to persuade my abuser to change her behavior. I believed that if she only knew how much pain her words and actions caused she would stop and find a new way to relate to others. It was useless because, like most abusers, what she did worked for her and she didn’t care who was hurt in the process.

    I’m not opposed to trying to persuade someone to look at their behavior in a new way. But for most victims of abuse that isn’t going to stop the pain. We need to be aware before we start that it may not lead to a better relationship and have a plan B. For many of us that is to leave the abuser and never look back.

  2. Maryann

    Good discussion. Back to telling the truth. It is not something abusers do well, if at all. They will go through the “I’m sorry” routine when an abandonment trigger is pulled. For example, if a spouse wants to bring in another voice / person to help with the finances, or a therapist for hurtful behavior, or an accountability partner at church to sort out the disagreements or relationship responses, the abusive spouse continues the aggressive behaviour even though he will say words that he will stop. He says he will stop in order to not have his sinful ways revealed in public. It makes him look bad, and he can’t handle that. He lies to others, himself and to God.

  3. leaningonhope

    this unwillingness to see what you’re doing, that you’re justifying it, you’re minimizing it, you’re rationalizing it, and you’re refusing to acknowledge it. So to me when I work with couples in destructive marriages, that is the defining factor of whether this couple is going to make it or not.

    This comment really struck a chord. This is where my husband is, in the way he relates to me. And, like Maryann referred to in the previous comment, he can’t handle – he doesn’t like – when I (or another person like our counselor) brings to his attention that his words and his actions don’t match. He is very good at “saying” all the right things when we go to counseling – he “loves” me, he wants to work on things, pats himself on the back to give himself recognition for the “good” things he’s doing for “us”. But it’s like I’m dragging him to the principal’s office, like he’s a kid in school who got caught and has to answer to the principal. He will seem remorseful, say all the right things, placate me / counselor, and as soon as he leaves the office he forgets what he said, doesn’t care about what he said, he’s content to just keep pretending that our marriage is fine. After raking me over the coals he acts as if all is well between us, and can we make love later? Meanwhile, he is secretly making plans to leave, to separate, on his terms, when timing and circumstances are best for him. (I found evidence and he has almost said as much).

    So I guess my question is, like what was stated in the post (at 57:40), referring to: “how do I tell him to deal with things?”. Well, I’ve tried and tried to convince him of all the benefits is dealing with things, but he won’t hear me.
    So here’s MY question – how do I tell him it’s time to go?

    This is my biggest struggle right now. I don’t want this for myself nor my marriage. Yet I don’t want the marriage continue in its present condition. But, I need to give him a deadline. I feel like I’m dishonoring myself to allow him to just use me as a cheap-easy living arrangement. With benefits. I feel like he’s using me as a squatter….”I’ll just stay until something better comes along….” is his mentality. I don’t want to be treated this way.

    And I can type out all this here in this comment string….and then it’s so hard to actually say it to him. When I’m with my husband, the words don’t come. The timing, my mind might be jumbled, there might be distractions, etc.
    I am slightly afraid of the backlash. He has been violent in our house. I’m afraid of what the selfishness could possibly turn into.

    • Hi Leaningonhope,

      Firstly, if you tell him it’s time for him to go, he is very likely not to go….just to spite you. If he has decided to go at a time that suits him, then he is probably going to stick to that idea of his and will not be swayed by your request or your preferences. The chances are, if you tell you to go, he might well dig in his heels just because he knows that will most annoy you.

      Secondly, while he is planning to leave ‘at a time that suits him’, he is very likely setting up things behind the scenes so he can gain the most financially and strip you financially as much as possible.

      I think it is wise for you to start doing some secret planning of your own, to prepare for any of the horrors he might well be planning to cause you havoc. Here are some links that will probably be helpful:

      Safety Planning

      Questions to Ask Before Retaining a Lawyer if you are a Victim of Domestic Abuse

      Financial abuse from intimate partners — a lament, stories and tips to protect oneself

      Deciding to stay or leave

      And I think your fear of his backlash if you tell him to leave is very realistic. He has been violent before. He could easily be so again. And there are cases where a man who has never been violent to his female partner before, kills her around or soon after the time of separation. Separation is a high risk time. Therefore, safety planning is important.

      And you can start doing safety planning well before you actually separate.

      You do not have to tell your husband what you really think and feel. His pattern of conduct towards you shows that he will only use what you’ve told him as info to further abuse you.

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