Quick escape (ESC)

How abusers can change

A perpetrator’s use of violent and controlling behaviour rarely just stops. But long-term change is possible if they have the right support and make the right choices.

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Content warning This page involves descriptions and discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

People who use violence and abuse are conscious of their choice to abuse. This means they are also capable of change.

There are several powerful imperatives to seek behaviour change as it:

  • Stops the violence
  • Keeps victims safe
  • Helps abusers heal and recover from their own trauma.

A few sessions of spiritual counselling, or even a new spiritual experience, will probably not be enough to guarantee that an abuser will not resort to power and control tactics again. The reality is that long term intensive treatment will be necessary and, even then, some perpetrators will still not change.

Making abusers aware of their actions is not punishing them or being unkind to them. It is actually needed, for any hope of them stopping using violence and control. Making them face the reality and fullness of the harm they have caused, is actually compassion for the abuser. This is needed for change to occur.

People who abuse need to face the reality of who they are. They need to learn to feel the shame and guilt that healthy people feel when they hurt others. They must start by being honest about what happened. Total honesty is the foundation of all successful behaviour change. Only when there is no denial about their behaviour can any efforts to reduce the violence be fruitful.

Motivation to change

It often takes considerable emotional and attitude change before an abuser takes even the first step of agreeing that the abuse happened. Key motivations for working on abuse and violence might be:

  • A court direction following a breach of a legal protection order
  • Pressure from family, friends, employers or others
  • An attempt to save their relationship
  • A desire to improve relationships with their children
  • Not having contact with children due to court orders
  • A realisation of the unhelpful attitudes, beliefs and behaviour they have exposed their children to.

Domestic abuse behaviour change experts can support abusers to gain insight about the impact of abuse upon their families and themselves.

Resistance to change

Abusers can use denial or be reluctant to look at the impact of their violence due to:

  • Guilt and/or shame
  • Lack of knowledge about the impact of violence
  • Their own childhood trauma
  • Lack of empathy
  • Fear of being judged
  • Not having a connection with their children
  • Being on their own and isolated.

An abuser’s resistance predicts a lack of behaviour change.

Perpetrator interventions

There is much yet to be done in finding workable solutions for protecting women and children from abuse. Specialist interventions that encourage male abusers to face up to their abuse are now becoming a part of the wider system that seeks safety for victims.

In Australia, there are currently limited services available for men who use violence. However, there are some specific programs that help men who use violence. An example of such a service is men’s behaviour change (MBC) programs. MBC programs support men who have used abusive and controlling behaviours towards their partners or family members who want to, or have been mandated to, change their behaviour and build healthy and respectful relationships.

MBC programs are provided by government agencies as well as non-government services. They may be delivered in prisons or in the community, by welfare groups and by counselling services, to men seeking to change their abusive behaviour.

Groups vary in length – from 12 to 26 weeks – and intensity.

MBC programs must always give priority to the safety of women, children and victims of group participants. This means that practitioners are constantly monitoring and responding to any threats or risks to the safety of the partners or children of the men in these programs.

Read more about this type of intervention from the perspective of a Men’s Behaviour Change practitioner.

Individual counselling

While individual counselling is not suitable for addressing men’s family violence on its own, it can provide additional support for men participating in a specialist perpetrator program.

Counselling can offer tools and strategies for coping with intense emotions and making non-violent choices and may further support men to understand and take responsibility for the underlying thoughts and feelings that have contributed to their abusive behaviour.

However, any kind of therapeutic intervention should only be attempted by specialists who are skilled in expert practice and who treat accountability and safety as meaningful concepts for perpetrators and victims alike. The skilled practitioner who works with abusers will always prioritise and focus on the victim’s safety as the primary consideration. This is partly why anger management therapy and couples' counselling is never recommended in family violence situations.

What do perpetrators need to do?

Mensline provides the following guide for anyone who wants to change their abusive behaviour.

Accept that you have a problem

Own your problem of violence and abuse. It is your responsibility to do something to stop the violence and abuse. Calling on other people and resources for support is important, but unless you understand that you must commit to changing, the likelihood of fixing the problem will be greatly reduced.

Stop using violence and abuse

If you can’t do this, then you must ensure that you are no longer in a situation where it can occur. This may mean temporarily leaving the environment where you are causing damage to others, restricting your contact or only being in that environment when there are other people around other than your immediate family or intimate relationship.

Take proactive steps

Usually the best time to start to fix a problem is when things in your relationship are settled and stable, not at a time of crisis or in the middle of an argument. When things are settled, conversations with everybody involved are usually more helpful.

Put in effort

Changing long-term patterns of behaviour can take considerable time and effort. Be prepared to work on the problem for a while to reduce its impact on your relationships and be ready for challenging times when your commitment will be tested.

Get assistance

Few men are able to change these patterns of behaviour and thinking without ongoing support. It is important to find someone who has an understanding of the issues you are facing and can help you think through reasons for your behaviour and plan strategies for managing it in the future. Call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 for information, support and services in your local area.

Develop strategies

Gain an understanding of situations and circumstances when violence and abuse has occurred in the past. Find ways to avoid or better manage these situations and create positive strategies to deal with arguments or conflict. Learn the right time to step away from a situation to give yourself time and space to think clearly so the situation doesn’t get worse.

Work on associated issues

Make a commitment to understanding and working on all of the factors that led to the behaviour occurring, not just the immediate signs.

Christians, avoid this temptation

Church communities often hope for immediate or miraculous change. Since everything is possible for God, we often expect in faith to experience miracles when we invite God to intervene – even in situations that seem impossible.

What kind of change should we expect when we discover a church member is abusing their partner?

As in all areas of personal growth, becoming like Jesus is a long, slow process of transformation. Spiritual maturity is neither instant nor automatic, but gradual and progressive and often takes a long time... even a lifetime. We often try to rush things due to our own impatience, insecurities and fears, but the process of change must be respected. Someone who walks slowly on this path will be more likely to see lasting growth. There is less resistance to change when we take it slowly, and in small increments.

Be patient in the process of change. It can be useful to reflect on how the victim experiences the abuser’s behaviour – if you as a leader are getting frustrated, annoyed or despairing about the possibility of change – it can be helpful to think about what it is like for his partner and their children. Also, remember the abuser’s choice in all this. As a leader, your role is about connecting him to those choices – what he does with them is up to him.

When it comes down to it, a perpetrator needs to do two things:

  • They must address the underlying causes of the problem
  • They must have the self-discipline to persist with making these changes.

Communities of faith need to remain open to a range of outcomes, particularly for any family seeking to reunite through professional family resolution work. Risk is inherent in any intervention, abuse cycles can re-emerge at any time, and sometimes the harm caused by the past abuse is simply too great for either spouse to overcome.

Is he likely to change?

“I now know that what I did was wrong and I am confident I will never do it again”

Much kudos can be given to a man who has completed a behaviour change program, but what does ‘completion’ mean for the future safety of family members affected by his abuse?

A perpetrator’s use of violent and controlling behaviour rarely just stops. A perpetrator might be quite sincere when he promises it will never happen again. Unfortunately, most abusers find that they cannot keep such promises without support and assistance and accountability from others.

Participating in a specialist perpetrator program is, of itself, no guarantee of change. Change is very difficult as it requires a perpetrator to allow their belief systems to be challenged and for him to identify the ways in which he gives himself permission to be violent and abusive. Research shows that short term group treatment alone is not likely to be sufficient alone to end violence in a relationship.

Some men do give up controlling their partner and stop their use of violence. Sometimes men receive inappropriate therapeutic interventions. Others might stop their use of physical violence but continue other more subtle forms of abuse or control. Men who attend a perpetrator program, but do not really make an effort, might not change their behaviour at all. Or others might take a long time to change, or change for a while but then later slip back into their old ways.

It doesn’t matter how good or changed a perpetrator might feel having finished a program. The real litmus test of whether or not an intervention program has been effective is whether their partner feels safer.

Many women become hopeful that once their partner starts attending a program this will bring an end to all the violence and abuse. It is estimated that a woman is eight times more likely to return to their former relationship when their partner attends a specialist perpetrator program. Therefore, timing, pacing and readiness are vital to ensure that victims are not placed in situations where they are re-abused.

Ultimately, the survivor is the best judge of whether their partner or family member is changing. They should make that judgment based on his actions, not on anyone else's hopes.

How will you know if he has changed?

Abusers are notorious for making false apologies and it can be hard for a victim to discern whether or not they are being genuine.

Some indications an abuser is changing his behaviour and taking full responsibility for his actions are:

  • Being non-violent, not using violence, abuse, intimidating or controlling behaviours
  • Taking responsibility and not blaming anyone for choosing to use violence or abuse
  • Not making excuses for behaviour such as saying he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or blaming other factors such as loss of employment or other financial pressures
  • Acknowledging past use of violence and admitting being wrong
  • Communicating openly and honestly about his behaviour
  • Supporting his partner's goals and aspirations
  • Respecting her right to her own feelings, friends, activities and opinions
  • Valuing her opinions
  • Not pressuring her to make decisions quickly or to try to take him back.

For more on this, Ashley Easter examines the key signs of a genuinely repentant abuser.