Can Abusive Husbands Change? [2 of 3]

Will the abuse get better?

Or is it going to stay the same?

Abuse is deeply rooted in belief systems and so we want to talk about recovery rates and how to figure out if you might consider sticking things out or if there is no hope for your husband.

Today we’re going to be looking at what the research says about trajectories of abuse. Meaning: if you learned from the last episode that you are in an abusive relationship, what hope is there for change?

So last week we looked into how to know if you’re in an abusive marriage or just a distressed marriage, and at ways of defining the different forms of abuse. Be sure to give last week’s post a read.

What Research Says About Trajectories of Abuse

A study from 2008[i] looked at physical and emotional aggression and measured them using the Domestic Conflict Inventory— a tool for measuring conflict in marriage that includes elements of physical and emotional aggression which we describe in our previous episode.

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They looked at 118 couples and found that:

    1. Physical aggression significantly decreased over time (43% per year)
    2. Emotional aggression did not significantly change over time. They actually found that husbands showed a 3% increase per year. Just note that this means that 3 or 4 or of the men out of the 118 couples changed.
    3. Longer duration marriages had lower physical aggression.

What we are seeing is that research tends to support these results. Physical aggression changes over time — often decreasing — but emotional aggression tends to remain stable over the years.

Another study from 1996[ii] found that even when the husband’s physical abuse decreased over a 2 year period the same was not true of emotional abuse. The frequency of emotional abuse remained stable even as the physical abuse decreased.

Now, for men that get involved in batterer programs and seek help, more recent research shows that these programs can be effective in helping them reduce aggressive comments and helping them communicate more positively during arguments. Not all batterer programs offer this kind of skills-based training but this does help reduce verbal abuse, but the researchers also noted that good communication skills need to be taught to both the man and the woman to be most effective[iii].

Another thing that is worth noting here is that the abuse interventions need to be seen as an ongoing process, not just a one-time cure[iv]. So men who successfully stopped being violent towards their spouses often stated that they were violent due to patterns of behavior learned from their parents. Or they were violent because it helped them feel more “masculine” and in control. So violence and abuse are deeply engrained into this type of thinking as you might image.

Consequently, you can’t shift this in one intervention.
The change in thinking and beliefs is most successful in men who continually engaged with counseling and intervention such as batterer programs. The men reported that they would sometimes “forget” the right ways of coping with situations when in the moment but that long term interventions helped them become more aware of their own motivations in being abusive, which helped them towards change.

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What I hear when I look into this kind of research is that your husband will do best when he considers himself to be on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth.

 

This, obviously, is going to look very different than him just apologizing, even being tearful, promising he’ll never do it again, and then not actually engaging in any process to help him recover. A tearfully apologizing husband may mean every word he says and genuinely want to change, but that in-the-moment remorse is rarely enough to change long-standing patterns of thought and behavior. So just keep that in mind as you gather evidence about what kind of a trajectory he is on.

How Many Abusive Men Recover?

The answer to this question depends a lot on the type of abuse being perpetrated. Again: higher rates of recovery are found for physical abuse rather than psychological abuse.

A 2003 study[v] showed that men who participate in batterer programs show decreases in the amount of physical aggression perpetrated over the next year, with some men becoming completely nonviolent. They looked at 40 batterer programs and found that 50 to 80% of husbands who completed the program were nonviolent over a 6 month to 1 year period, according to their wives.

However, the researcher goes on to point out that the reduction of other forms of abuse (i.e. psychological) is less clear. One study this researcher referenced showed that about 40-50% of the participants stopped their terroristic threats at a 6 month follow up. That’s a success rate of less than half. They also pointed out that it may be that some men displace their physical abuse into heightened verbal and psychological abuse.

Which is quite concerning. These men might be learning to control their fists a little better, or perhaps how to make their abuse less obvious, but the underlying problem isn’t changing.

Studies I looked at were also observing that stopping abuse is very phenomenological and multiple characteristics of both the abuser and the wife come in to play to influence outcomes. However, studies are also showing that wives are often a good predictor of whether their husband will stop or not.

How Does it Affect Your Marriage?

At the end of the day, all we can research and refer to are statistics. Your marriage is unique. You are unique. So is your husband. So these statistics are not determinative of the course of your marriage.

Also, these statistics do not take into account the power of God working in your marriage. He has, and He can change hearts—yet, I do not know if he will change your husband’s.

I was mulling over Biblical examples and trying to think of abusive men in the Bible. It’s not something I had thought of before. The only one who came to mind at first was Pharaoh: eventually God led his people out of Pharaoh’s grasp. And not before a lot of difficulty. But, that was God’s final solution: an exodus. That may be your final solution as well, I don’t know.

In other cases, I don’t know how harsh or abusive the foreign kings were that led Israel captive towards the latter part of their Old Testament history. But: some of those kinds showed compassion and released the captives. In that case, God’s solution was to soften their hearts.

How does this affect your marriage? Only time will tell. But God knows. And He cares deeply about what you are experiencing today in your marriage.

Now, at this point I want to point something out we’re doing differently. Since January 2017 all of our bonus content has been available to our supporters. However, for this episode we have made a worksheet that gives you the essential information you need to find help when you’re in an abusive marriage. Ethically, there’s no way I am putting that behind a paywall. So this is also available on our Patreon page but it is available for free to everyone.

You just need to go to our supporter page and look for episode 124 to get that free worksheet.

Get It!

Do You Think the Abuse Will Continue?

Statistics and patterns can give you an idea of the general rates of improvement in abusive marriages but they can’t predict the outcome in your own individual circumstances. So are your own predictions at all accurate? A study from 2008[vi] wanted to try to determine if victims of psychological abuse were able to accurately predict their risk for future psychological abuse.

They had participants rate the likelihood that their partner would engage in controlling/dominance behavior or efforts to humiliate/degrade them in the coming year.

Then they followed up 18 months later and what they found was that women were more likely to be right than wrong in their assessments of risk. In fact, almost two thirds (62%) of victims accurately assessed their risk of being psychologically re-abused, either for or against. So if you are in an abusive situation, but you believe you can get through it and that your husband can change, you may well be right.

Now, this is going to be a longer post. Because if you’re a wife in an abusive marriage and you want to keep your marriage but not keep the abuse, I will give you two things to work on. One is a way to cope — you may have figured some of this out already. Another is a way to look at shifting the pattern of abusive behavior.

I have to caution you that this is just a self-help tool and does not replace individual counseling for your situation. Bear in mind that if you attempt to shift things in an abusive relationship, you may put yourself and your children into greater danger. Next week we are going to be talking about when to leave or stay, and if you need leave, how to do so safely. So if you are not certain of your safety I would say hold off on trying anything new until you read that episode or until you do some personal research along these lines.

How to Cope with an Abusive Husband

Your evaluation of how things are going to go with your husband is likely accurate. However, we also know there is no way to predict the future. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself and give your marriage the best chance for healing.

I just want to pause here to really talk to wives where your husband is blaming you for all the distress and abuse that is happening in the marriage. By giving you these skills I am concerned that I might inadvertently be conveying the same message: that you’re the problem here. You are not the problem. You are not the cause of his abuse. He is the source, the cause of that issue. It’s not your fault.

Yet: there are some things that you may be able to do to help yourself cope and to help empower yourself against the abuse and thereby shift your position in the marriage. This may improve your situation and change the pattern of abuse you are living with. That’s what I’m trying to help with.

There are four things to look at. The first three are from a study in 2008[vii] where the researchers interviewed 27 women who had been in an abusive intimate relationship but these relationships had become nonviolent. These three items build on each other.

Counteracting Abuse

This involves actively struggling to survive day-to-day in the context of abuse while exploring ways to change, avoid and/or escape his oppressive behavior. Again, we’ll go through these strategies but you are the best person to evaluate whether they are safe to engage in or not. So don’t just try these because I’m suggesting them. You’re the expert on your relationship and on your husband, so trust yourself to know what may help and what may put you at greater risk.

There’s three ways to try counteracting:

  1. Minimizing. You may be able to engage in a process of reducing the intensity and frequency of abusive attacks by doing what he wants, being careful, and not fighting back. This could be considered “picking your battles” or not making a bad situation worse— it isn’t a long term solution but it can help with reducing immediate danger and distress.
  2. Fortifying. This is about making effort to improve your day to day life. You can cautiously choose to open up to safe trusted confidants, to find comfort talking to others, to engage in work, education and community. You can find comfort in simple individual or community activities. So these are methods to fortify and strengthen yourself— to find pleasure and comfort in other areas of life to better enable you to cope with the awful stress of an abusive marriage.
  3. Breaking free. This involves considering your options and beginning to disengage from the abusive relationship. Considering options means taking an inventory of available resources. This is another way to counteract abuse and it is something we’ll go into more detail on in our next post.

Taking Control

This is the process of initiating action to shift the power in the relationship. This usually occurs in response to a specific escalation or to a cumulative pattern of insidious abusive control that becomes intolerable.

  1. Limiting. This is setting and enforcing boundaries on your spouse’s behavior. Strategies include threatening your spouse and physically separating. Threatening is about pressuring your husband to make a specific change and to identify the consequence if they do not. Physical separation involves relocating with relatives, in shelters, or to new accommodation.
  2. Building personal power. This is about acquiring new personal capacities and resources to facilitate taking control. This looks like getting help, boosting competence, working on your confidence and assertiveness and developing new perspectives.
  3. Renegotiating the relationship. This is a process of agreeing on and living by new standards. You might consider setting up trial periods to see if changed behavior is sustainable or developing formal rules for handling habitually challenging situations. E.g., as soon as he starts to lose his temper, he agrees to go to the garage until he is calmer. The consequence for not doing so is that she will go to her parents or call police or something.

Living Differently

When you’ve taken control so that you’re no longer in a victim position and you’ve been counteracting the abuse, you can refine the shift in the relationship. This is assuming you want to remain in the marriage.

  1. Start by simply looking at coexisting. This is living separately but together day by day, with your husband abiding by the conditions negotiated in taking control. This will work best if the physical abuse has stopped and you feel you have enough control of your life. See if your husband can actually stick to the new terms of the relationship and whether you think long-term change is achievable.
  2. Reinvesting. This is looking to your husband to rebuild the relationship and change his behavior. Combined with the wife’s increased personal power this may result in a shift towards reinvesting in the relationship.
    Now I know that talking about the wife having control is not what you’re used to hearing in the context of a traditional or complementarian or even an egalitarian relationship. But when you have abuse going on, the normal Biblical or Christian ideals for marriage are already so completely violated that you have to position things now in defense of the wife’s safety. At least until such a time as she feels enough trust and safety in his proven reform that she would be willing to return to sharing power and control as equals in the relationship. Even then, he needs to know there are some boundaries. You mess up, we’re back to the wife establishing control etc.
  3. That leads us to reconfiguration. This is setting things up for the present and future. Trust is a prerequisite for this. This is the part where you set tentative standards for the present and the future. I say tentative because you’re saying, this is how we’ll live as long as it is safe to do so. If the abuse re-initiates, you get to re-evaluate. Reconfiguring is about saying: we’re not going back to the way it was, the old configuration. We’re going to create something new, together, that is founded on trust and respect. You might find it helpful to look back on our episode about rebuilding trust in your marriage.

Find Support

So you have those three things. And I said there would be a fourth. This is running on a separate track from the first three and comes from a different source. But it addresses coping. So it’ll help you more while you’re in the process of working on the other three. I’d like you to consider getting involved a support group[viii].

These groups can really help you to spot and challenge the signs of abuse. They also provide a valuable opportunity to compare notes with other women and to begin to challenge, in a safe way, the behavior of the abuser. The support here may not help you solve the abuse. But it can help you to cope and it can give you a reference point, especially for the crazy-making that happens in psychologically abusive situations. Just make sure that the group you join is going to support you and make it clear that abuse is not the woman’s fault. That’s a notable caveat.

Next Time

We’ve looked at some tough issues today. We’ve seen how some marriages can recover from abuse— particularly physical abuse— and given you some practical ideas on how to cope with abuse and re-define the terms of your marriage once you’ve started taking back control. But we’ve also seen that, according to the research, a significant portion of abusive marriages never get better. And that won’t be easy for you to read if you’re in this kind of situation.

As I mentioned before, statistics and research do not predict the outcomes in your individual circumstances. And of course, we believe in a God who is bigger than statistics and bigger than abuse. We fully believe that God can intervene in marriages and situations that would otherwise be beyond saving. But while you may believe that staying in your marriage and waiting for the miracle is the right thing to do, I think it’s important to consider your own safety (and that of your children) first. In a previous episode I said that no marriage is beyond recovery…but you need to establish your own safety before looking at rebuilding an abusive marriage. Struggling on in unendurable circumstances doesn’t sound like God’s idea of marriage, or his idea of what’s best for your life.

Should you stay or should you go? In the next episode, we discuss when to stay or leave an abusive marriage. We’ll be talking through that in the context of honoring Christian values around marriage, so that’s sure to be another challenging one. Listen now!


 

References

[i] Katrina A. Vickerman and Gayla Margolin, ‘Trajectories of Physical and Emotional Marital Aggression in Midlife Couples’, Violence and Victims, 23.1 (2008), 18–34.

[ii] N. S. Jacobson and others, ‘Psychological Factors in the Longitudinal Course of Battering: When Do the Couples Split up? When Does the Abuse Decrease?’, Violence and Victims, 11.4 (1996), 371–92.

[iii] Julia C. Babcock and others, ‘A Proximal Change Experiment Testing Two Communication Exercises With Intimate Partner Violent Men’, Behavior Therapy, 42.2 (2011), 336–47 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2010.08.010>.

[iv] David Morran, ‘Desisting from Domestic Abuse: Influences, Patterns and Processes in the Lives of Formerly Abusive Men’, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 52.3 (2013), 306–20 <https://doi.org/10.1111/hojo.12016>.

[v] Edward W Gondolf, ‘Evaluating Batterer Counseling Programs: A Difficult Task Showing Some Effects and Implications’, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9.6 (2004), 605–31 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2003.06.001>.

[vi] Margret E. Bell and others, ‘Assessing the Risk of Future Psychological Abuse: Predicting the Accuracy of Battered Women’s Predictions’, Journal of Family Violence, 23.2 (2008), 69–80 <https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10896-007-9128-5>.

[vii] Judith Wuest and Marilyn Merritt-gray, ‘A Theoretical Understanding of Abusive Intimate Partner Relationships That Become Non-Violent: Shifting the Pattern of Abusive Control’, Journal of Family Violence, 23.4 (2008), 281–93 <https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10896-008-9155-x>.

[viii] Emma Williamson and Hilary Abrahams, ‘A Review of the Provision of Intervention Programs for Female Victims and Survivors of Domestic Abuse in the United Kingdom’, Affilia, 29.2 (2014), 178–91 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109913516452>.

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