13. Do Abusers Change? — Chris Moles answers that question with a mixture of truth and foolishness.
Chris Moles is well aware that most abusive men do not apply themselves to the hard work of reforming their characters. He claims that he’s seen a few abusers reform. I personally think Chris is spiritually blind and isn’t able to discern reformation from the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of pseudo-reformation.
When reading Chris’s book, you have to get to chapter eight (half way through the book!) before he talks about an instance where he pulled the plug on counselling an abuser. In that passage he mentions that it’s not unusual for abusive men to fail to reform. But look at how the context in which he says this. The following quote is taken from ch 8 of Chris’s book. Boldface added by me.
Change is hard but it is not impossible. This truth plays out in the lives of men who are receptive to change. Time and truth have a way of wearing on a man’s hardened heart like a trickle of water works its way through stone. However, there are times when a man’s heart is hardened and his resistance and arrogance make change and peace impossible..
One evening in particular stands out as incredibly frustrating. My counseling partner Kim and I had begged and pleaded. We tried everything we could think of to call the man in front of us to repentance. Unfortunately every request was met with resistance and every appeal with hostility. He would not budge. He was convinced his destructive behavior was necessary and that his wife deserved all she received. A recent incident, in which his wife resisted his demands, only solidified his position. “I’ve got her now!’ seemed to be his key motivation. Finally I put an end to the struggle realising we were getting nowhere. I told him that he was free to continue down the path he was walking, but that I had no doubt it would lead him to self-destruction. Kim and I assured him that we were willing to help but that our primary concern was for his wife and children. A few ultimatums and conditions were given and we parted ways. I thought, “How can he not see what he is doing to his family and himself?” Sadly this is not an unusual occurrence, and some men will not accept responsibility and will not change their behavior. (M 85-86*)
So Chris only gave his first mention of how abusers usually don’t change halfway into his book. He should have stated that right at the beginning. I believe it was unethical for him to not put it on the back cover blurb, and in the first chapter of his book.
If we believe his testimony, Chris seems to be having a few successes with abusers reforming their abusive mindset and patterns of behavior. Here is what Chris says in one of his presentations to Christian leaders (Z 1:32:18):
On average from a criminal perspective, in the large groups I lead (those groups are mandated for eight months) [Chris is speaking about the groups he leads for the government] I’m just trying to get acknowledgement. It’s a wrestling match. When I first started this work I thought, “Here’s the goal: everyone’s gotta be an advocate and champion for women!” Now: they just gotta move!
Everybody I’ve ever worked with changes. Guys either become more obstinate and more defiant, which is rare. Honestly, if you spend enough time, if you can can institute accountability, you see movement. A lot of guys make just enough movement to be safe and not be hassled: behavioral change – I’m not a big fan. I’m okay for safety reasons, but I’m not a big fan. It’s like taking apples off the tree and stapling on bananas. It’s not going to last.
And lastly, there’s guys who experience transformation. And that’s the winner, right? That’s what makes it worth coming back for. But those are rare, they really are. We’re not hitting home runs in this work. …
The research and reports I have read all point to the fact that programs for abusive men are not effecting positive change in the men who are at the more entrenched end of the spectrum. And no research yet shows that the positive changes made by men who go to such programs are long-lasting.
As Christians, this should not surprise us. Evil men shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived (2 Tim 3:13).
The psychologist Dr George Simon, who is an expert on character disorder, says:
Heartless characters can be largely born the way they are. That is, the most disturbed among us have an innately impaired capacity to care. But folks lacking in empathy also tend to think in certain ways. And those ways of thinking lead them to form problematic attitudes and patterns of behavior. Moreover, engaging in those patterns both engenders and reinforces heartlessness.
Heartless Characters Think Differently
Pastor Jeff Crippen, who used to co-lead this blog with me, says —
These kinds of wicked people, these “domestic abusers” (or sexual abusers and others) who generally parade as Christians…are members of churches. Sometimes they are pastors or church leaders or missionaries.
And all the while, for years and years and years and years and years, they have been wickedly being who they really are. Behind the scenes they have been destroying lives. They have heard God’s voice time after time after time, but they have hardened their hearts against Him, time after time after time. And they still don’t repent. Yet people like these “experts” at ACBC claim that such people are to be “redeemed.” That through counseling, they can be fixed. That we should never give up hope.
The prevalent false gospel among us – “No one is beyond God’s mercy”
In winding up the final chapter of his book (M 125-7) Chris says:
Can they change? Of course they can. …. Anyone can change but the potential for change does not guarantee that it will happen.
Do they change? Yes…Well, kind of…It depends. I’ve been doing this work for many years and I have seen many men make changes. Sometimes those changes are radical and transformative. … I’ve also seen many men make some necessary behavioral changes to avoid consequences or pain. This may make things safer in the short term but lacks the power that the gospel promises. Lastly, I’ve seen man attempt to manipulate everyone with superficial changes designed to deceive others into leaving them alone. … They change when they choose to, but motives are important in understanding the validity of these changes.
Will they change? Do you have someone in mind? … I do not know if the person you love will ever change. …we know that change has occurred when change occurs. Change is possible, but change is hard.
At one of his lectures at the Institute of Biblical Counseling and Discipleship, Chris was asked a specific question by a female counselor. (E 58:46) —
Woman: I have limited experience in this but I find that these marriages that are like 20 years plus – that these are church going people, committed to Christ – this is very tough for them then to be willing to submit – to even begin a process of considering responsibility. So I guess my initial question to you in the local church (not to those you minister to in the jail) – do you see people coming to repentance?
Chris: Yeah; I’ll tell you a couple of things that I try to keep in mind. By the time an individual gets to me through the court system … having escalated that far (and some of the men I’ve worked with having been in the system since they were teenagers, having been violent for 20, 30 years, some of them having learned more violence in jail) – we look for small victories. So sometimes the victory is acknowledgment and that’s as far as we get. And so we rejoice in that. At least he recognizes it. But we might not see repentance.
The second thing I would say is that with the guys that I get early – especially individually – who come to me recognizing [i.e., self motivated]. They’ve filled out an application, they’ve called me, they try to get a hold of me. They say, “Chris, I’m abusive. I didn’t know it. I’ve read your book. I read Leslie’s book or the Holcomb’s book. And this is me. I’m in trouble. My family’s in trouble because of me.” The chances of success there are a lot higher. …
I get asked the question a lot “Do guys actually change? Do people change?” Especially in this work because really the culture, secularly, …The reality is that a lot of unbelievers and experts believe that we’re futile in trying this.
But here’s my response when people say, “Do men actually change? Do people change?” I say: Everybody changes. Everybody. All the time. Some of the men I work with become more obstinate, more arrogant, more ugly. They change. Some of the guys I work with make just enough changes to not get in trouble. And I don’t like [that]; but we can rejoice that people are safe. We can be happy that they have made some changes in their life. But there’s no transformation. And then some people, some, experience the life-changing power of the gospel, and they’re transformed. For the sake of the few that fall in category three we continue to do the work.
I agree with Chris that everybody changes.
I also agree with him that some abusers become more obstinate, arrogant and ugly. It is very clear to me from survivors’ testimonies that as abusers practise their abusive conduct, they become more skilled abusers and more controlling. The abuser might slow down somewhat as he gets old and frail; but that only limits some of his tactics, it doesn’t change his abusive heart. But Chris says ‘some’ change for the worse, whereas I would say that the vast majority of abusers change for the worse.
I agree with Chris that some abusers make just enough changes to not get in trouble. They do this to avoid legal penalties or to avoid coming in sight of the radar of authorities. However, unlike Chris, I don’t rejoice about that at all! I don’t think it makes victims more safe: it quite possibly puts them in greater danger. The abuser is now practising more subtle, covert, less criminal types of abuse.
Most victims say that the subtle abuse is the worst: the emotional, verbal, gaslighting, the mind control, the covert sexual abuse and the spiritual abuse… all those things are much harder to recognise. And they take much longer to recover from.
For Chris’s third category, “some who experience the life-changing power of the gospel, and they’re transformed,” I am sceptical that Chris actually has had any in this category. His understanding of the doctrine of salvation is so poor that I’m not confident Chris (or the pastors and counselors he is friends with) could tell whether an abuser has been regenerated. (see part 12 in this series)
Citations in this post are shown in grey, with each item designated by a capital letter. The Chris Moles Digest gives a link to each item cited by a capital letter.
For further reading and viewing
Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men — video presentation in which Lundy Bancroft says:
The great majority of abusive men can change. And the great majority don’t. And the reason they don’t is not because they can’t, but because they’ve figured out that they don’t really have to.
NB: while we think Lundy Bancroft says some accurate things about abusers, we caution survivors against attending any healing retreat he runs, or getting involved in any face-to-face mutual support group that is set up under his Peak Living Network.