– from Lundy Bancroft, “Why Does He Do That; Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men”

No one is in a better position that the abused woman herself to distinguish genuine progress from window dressing. A woman may call me after her partner has been in my program for a few weeks, her voice edged with anxiety and hope, to ask: “So, how is he doing? Do you think the program is working?” She’s counting on the abuse expert to look deeply into her partner’s eyes and read his potential. But I can’t do it. I have to push the umpiring back to her.

You are the only one who can judge your partner’s change. There are men who join my group and become model clients, getting the right answers and showing the appropriate emotions, yet when I talk to their partners I find out that life at home is business as usual or has maybe gotten a little worse. And I work with other men who are cantankerous during meetings, but the report received from the front lines are that their treatment of their partners is noticeably improved. What a client shows me matters little.

There are two main things to keep in mind when deciding how much potential an abuser has to become a kind, respectful partner in the long run:

  1. He cannot change unless he deals deeply with his entitled and superior attitudes. No superficial changes that he may make offer any real hope for the future.
  2. It makes no difference how nice he is being to you, since almost all abusers have their nice periods. What matters is how respectful and non-coercive he chooses to become.

Holding on to these fundamental points, you can use the following guide to help you identify changes that show promise of being genuine. We are looking for “yes” answers to these questions.

  • Has he Learned to treat your opinions with respect, even when they differ strongly from his?
  • Is he accepting of your right to express anger to him, especially when it involves his history of mistreating you?
  • Is he respecting your right to freedom and independence? Does that include refraining from all interference with your friendships and giving up the demand to always know here you are and whom you are with?
  • Has he stopped making excuses for his treatment of you, including your behavior as and excuse for his?
  • Is he being respectful about sex, applying no pressure and engaging in no guilt trips?
  • Has he stopped cheating and flirting with other women, or using other behaviors that keep you anxious that he will stray?
  • Does he listen to your side in arguments without interrupting, and then make a serious effort to respond thoughtfully to your points, even if he doesn’t like them?
  • Have you been free to raise your grievances, new or old, without retaliation from him?
  • Has he stopped talking about his abuse as if it were an accident and begun to acknowledge that he used it to control you?
  • Is he actually responding to your grievances and doing something about them (for example, changing the way he behaves towards your children)?
  • Has he greatly reduced or eliminated the use of controlling behavior (such as sarcasm, rolling his eyes, loud disgusted sighs, talking over you, using the voice of ultimate authority, and other demonstrations of disrespect and superiority) during conversations or arguments?
  • When he does slip back into controlling behavior. does he take you seriously when you complain about it and keep working on improving?
  • Is he being consistent and responsible in his behavior, taking into account how his actions affect you without having to constantly be reminded?
  • Is he acting noticeably less demanding, selfish and self-centered?
  • Is he being fair and responsible about money, including allowing you to keep your own assets in your own name?
  • Has he stopped any behaviors that you find threatening or intimidating?
  • Has he significantly expanded his contribution to household and child-rearing responsibilities and stopped taking your domestic work for granted and treating you like a servant?
  • Has he begun supporting your strengths rather than striving to undermine them?
  • Have you had any major angry moments with him in which he has shown and new willingness to conduct himself non-abusively?

“No” answers to any of the above questions are signs of work that your partner still needs to do. If he is committed to changing, he will take you seriously when you voice your continued concerns and he will acknowledge that he needs to continue working on his attitudes and habits. On the other hand, if he is impatient with or critical of you for not being satisfied with the gestures of change he has already made, that is a sign that his overt abusive behaviors will be coming back before long. My experience with abusive men is that small or even medium level improvements generally slip away over time. The man who actually maintains his progress is usually the one who changes  completely even thought that process tends to take considerable time. Thus, when you are attempting to preserve a relationship with a man who has abused you, you need to some extent hold him to an even higher standard than you would a non-abusive partner.

Sometimes when a woman reports to me that her abusive partner has been doing better, it turns out that he hasn’t been doing anything at all.He isn’t swearing at her or scaring her, but he also isn’t spending time with her, talking to her, or showing her any affection. He’s avoiding abusiveness simply by disconnecting from the relationship. As a partner of one of my clients said to me: “It’s like he’s got two gears: angry and neutral.”

Distancing himself can be worse than avoidance; it can be a way of punishing you for putting your foot down about the way he treats you. A certain number of my clients leave their partners once they realize that their abuse isn’t going to be tolerated anymore. But the more typical approach is to remain physically present but to re-tool the machinery to churn out passive aggression rather than open hostility. He learns to hurt her through what he doesn’t do instead of what he does.

The previous questions can help you distinguish between genuine change and an abusive man’s usual pattern of going through a “good” period. Partner’s of my successful clients say they feel almost as though they were living with a different person and that now they sense a deeper change that involves a real shift in attitude rather than just his usual use of superficial sweetness to smooth things over.

Clear Signs of Who Isn’t Changing

Your partner can make several statements or behave in several ways that clearly indicate he isn’t making progress:

  • He says he can change only if you change too.
  • He says he can change only if you “help” him change, by giving him emotional support, reassurance, and forgiveness and by spending a lot of time with him. This often means he wants you to abandon any plans you had of taking a break from him.
  • He criticizes you for not noticing how much he has changes.
  • He criticizes you for not trusting that his change will last.
  • He criticizes you for considering him capable of behaving abusively even though he in fact has done so in the past (or has threatened to) as if you should know that “he would never do something like that” even though he has.
  • He tells you that you are taking too long to make up your mind, that he can’t “wait forever” as a way to pressure you not to take the time you need to collect yourself and to assess how much he’s willing to change.
  • He says, “I’m changing, I’m changing” but you don’t feel it.

Be Straight With Yourself

To use good judgement and make wise decisions about the prospects for the change in your abusive partner, you need to be honest with yourself. Because you love him, or you have children with him, or leaving him would be difficult for other reasons, you may be sorely tempted to get overly hopeful about a small concession that he finally makes. If he doesn’t budge for five years, or twenty years and then he finally moves an inch, your exhaustion can make you think Hey! An inch! That’s progress! You may wish to overlook all the glaring signs indicating that his basic attitudes and strategies remain intact. Beware of his deception and your own self-deception. I have heard such heart-rendering sadness in the voices of many dozens of abused women who have said to me: “I wish I could somehow recover all those years I wasted waiting around for him to deal with his issues.” Save yourself that sadness if you can, by insisting on nothing less than complete respect.

For more information, call the Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance in Cave Junction, Oregon; 541-592-2515