Thursday Thought — What does the process of change look like for an abuser? Can an abuser change? – Insights from Bancroft and Crippen
Lundy Bancroft provides some insight into what it looks like for an abuser to do the real work of changing and why it seldom happens.
Well, he can change, but what ends up mattering much more in the life of a woman who has a destructive partner is “Will he change?” And we know that he won’t change, for example, unless he completely admits to all the things he’s done. If he’s continuing to deny a lot of the ways he has torn her down, or the ways he’s been violent or the ways he’s bullied her about sex — if he’s still denying part or all of what he did he’s not going to change.
And he’s not going to change by some sort of overnight realization that what he’s done was bad and he doesn’t want to be that way any more. That kind of epiphany change never goes anywhere. And he’s not going to change if he’s still abusing alcohol and he’s not going to change if he’s still finding different ways to make everything her fault. The change only comes if he starts to really take her seriously and respect her. And what I hear so many times — more times than I can possibly count from the stories of abused women — is the time when the guy says, “Oh, I feel so bad. Oh, I realize what a jerk I’ve been. I’m going to treat you really good from now on.” That never goes anywhere. That, unfortunately, I can tell you never goes anywhere. The only thing that does go anywhere is deciding to get really serious — saying ‘Yeah, I’ve got a real problem here. I have had real issues for a long time in how I’ve been behaving and I have to really look at this.” And then more importantly sticking with it for a long time — two or three years of working really, really hard on himself. So if she thinks a few months have gone by and he’s so changed — it doesn’t mean anything.
And women struggle a lot with the question, “Well, does he mean it when he says he’s sorry? I have trouble telling. He’s apologizing, but I have trouble telling whether he’s sincere or not — whether he really means it.” It doesn’t make any difference. This is what I’m eager for women in these kinds of relationships to understand. It’s not even worth putting a bunch of energy into trying to figure out if he means the apology or not. Because the real sincere apology and the fake apology are worth the same amount. They both go to the same place — they both go nowhere. The only thing that matters is does he get down to doing the work.
Unfortunately most abusive guys don’t really get down to doing the real work. There has to be a whole bunch of action over a substantial period of time that backs up the words. . . It only matters if he gets consistent about it. For an abuser to have sort of a period when he’s really generous and really focused on doing things for her is no different then how he always is. Like I’m sure at the beginning of the relationship he went thru a period when he was super focused on doing things for her. I mean all abusers have these phases when they’re doing things for her. And it doesn’t mean anything.
So again — does he get consistent about it? Does he stick with it? Does he start to actually see that what she needs is just as important as what he needs? And that’s where these guys tend to fall down. Pretty soon they’re back to “No, it’s what I want — me, me, me.”*
When Lundy says that the abuser needs to work really, really hard on himself for at least two or three years, Lundy is not talking about the abuser working through some self-help book and using his buddy as an accountability partner. No, the work is going to have to be through a program that is specifically designed for abusers and run by trained professionals who really understand the mentality and tactics of abusers. But yet there is still no guarantee the abuser will change. Lundy explains one problem with abuser programs:
I have not had a lot of clients make really significant changes. Now I’m not the world’s most stellar abuse counselor, but I was pretty good at it, so I don’t think that it was lack of technique. There are people who are definitely better at it than I am, but I was pretty good at it. But you don’t see huge rates of change in any really chronic destructive behavior pattern. In an abuser program we expect in the state of Massachusetts abusers to go once a week for 40 weeks. A substance abuser which is no more serious a problem, in some ways I would say it’s easier to overcome substance abuse problem than a woman abuse problem — a substance abuser is expected to go on the order of 150 – 200 meetings just to be considered to have made a good start towards sobriety. You do three, four, five meetings a week for a year and you’re considered to have made some significant beginning — you’re not considered to have done your work — you’re considered to be significantly out of the starting block. And yet after 40 meetings for someone who has been physically violent to women and this whole pattern of behavior that I have been talking about, we somehow think that in 40 meetings he has done his work?**
Christians need to be cautious of what we might call an “either/or” error at this point. Here we see Bancroft, a non-Christian, speaking about real change requiring hard, hard work over a long period of time. As Christians, we believe that what is really needed is a genuine new birth through faith in Christ. But holding to that biblical truth, we must not somehow think that the gospel negates the hard work Bancroft is speaking of. That is to say, we must not start thinking that faith and works are two different ways. Genuine faith and repentance will evidence themselves in the kind of hard work that Bancroft is talking about. I think that some Christians start thinking that “we will just pray that he gets saved and then instantly the whole thing will be fixed” and so they wait and wait and pray and pray for some miracle “zap” from the Lord. Rather, what we should say, and what is perfectly consistent with Bible doctrine, is what John the Baptist told the hypocrites – “bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.” Show me an abuser (I have yet to meet one) who claims a new faith in Christ, who claims repentance, AND who has done the work Bancroft is speaking about, and I will say “now, perhaps, maybe here is a man who has made a good start toward reformation.”
And by the way, such a man will fully agree that his previous victim need not have any relationship with him ever again.
***IMPORTANT NOTE: While we endorse Lundy’s writings about the dynamics of domestic abuse, we do not recommend anyone attend the ‘healing retreats’ Lundy Bancroft offers or become involved in his ‘Peak Living Network.’ See our post, ACFJ Does Not Recommend Lundy Bancroft’s Retreats or His New Peak Living Network for more about our concerns.