One of the most common questions I receive from readers consists of a mere three words, but three crucial words:
This is an unanswerable question, since everyone’s relationship is different. All I can say for certain is that for most abuser types (excluding Type I, generally violent/antisocial), change is possible. After all, everyone has been given the gift of free will.
The true question is: How will they use their free will?
Change isn’t common—but it can happen.
In Acts chapter 9 we read about the abuser Saul, a persecutor of Christians and a man complicit in murder. He hated the followers of Christ and sought to purge them from the world.
But then something happened. Something immense, something dazzling, a soul-expanding experience that left Saul prone on the ground with newly awakened love, humility and understanding.
On the Road to Damascus, Saul the abuser began his journey toward becoming St. Paul the Apostle:
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord … approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him, and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
After his Road to Damascus conversion experience, St. Paul used his God-given free will to authentically remove the abusive patterns in his life so as to completely reform. He gave up his control, his power and his position, all for Christ.
The Road to Damascus is the road to clarity, honesty and self-examination. In order for a man to become a truly self-giving spouse, he has to fully acknowledge all of his abusive behaviors. He can no longer try to gain empathy with victimhood stories such as “it’s because of my rotten childhood,” or “my ex was crazy, she cheated on me and abused me”—which, according to domestic violence experts such as Don Hennessy and Lundy Bancroft, are two of the most common excuses abusive men give for their toxic behavior.
If your spouse is still in denial or making excuses, then he’s not changing.
Again, in order for an abuser to authentically and permanently change—and the only way you should begin to slowly and carefully trust him again, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and deep prayer—is if he experiences a heart-centered conversion. I’m not talking about mere words or promises to get help, but a true spiritual and psychological transformation.
Please understand one thing: this is a very long process. It can begin with a sudden realization, but that’s not a sudden fix. It’ll take years of extremely difficult, self-reflective work—including prayer, intense therapy, spiritual direction and a complete restructuring of attitudes and thought processes.
It’ll take immense patience on his part—and yours, if you’re willing.
And if you’re not willing, the main thing to remember is that you’re a child of God who deserves love and respect, not abuse.
To quote St. Paul, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor 13:4-5).
I would add one more element to his list:
Love doesn’t lie.
Abusers are very talented liars; they can appear honest and vulnerable while weaving the most intricate tales—or they may use half-truths as a gaslighting tactic designed to manipulate the situation.
If any secrets or lies remain in your relationship—any at all, no matter how supposedly “small”—then there’s been no change, and trust would be unadvisable.
Dr. Christauria Welland-Akong cautions, “Learning how to be non-violent is a specific set of skills [that cannot be achieved] unless he gets domestic violence counseling.”
Full confession of his abusive behavior. If he tries to explain with excuses or blame, that’s a sure sign he’s not changing.
Accept and admit that his abusive behavior is evil. We’re all made in God’s image, and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (Gen 1:26; 1 Cor 6:19). Abuse doesn’t “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20)—in fact, it does the opposite. The abusive man isn’t just violating you, he’s violating the temple of the Holy Spirit and even Christ Himself, who lives within you through your pure and honest reception of the Holy Eucharist.
Recognition of the devastating effects the abuse has had on you, and maintaining empathy toward your healing process. No matter how long it may take for you to heal, he can’t complain or try to rush you. Remember, “love is patient and kind.”
A willingness to confess all of his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Make full reparation to everyone he has hurt, damaged, or betrayed.
Recognize and replace his twisted thinking and the ways he’s distorted his beliefs about you, your relationship, and about your past together.
Develop the determination not to repeat any abusive behaviors—and he must stick to that promise.
Discontinue all friendships with toxic people. If he has unhealthy companions, they shouldn’t be his friends any longer.
Fully respect your boundaries—at all times.
Continually work on himself to ensure that he never again says or does anything abusive toward you or others.
Every one of these criteria must be consistently and thoroughly met over a long period of time before trust and intimacy can even begin to be rebuilt.
Additionally, your spouse must be willing to attend a qualified abuser’s intervention group program, and stick with it for the duration of the program period, attending and actively participating in every meeting.
This program must involve you, by keeping you up-to-date on your spouse’s progress—whether or not he’s showing up for meetings, as well as their general assessment of his attitudes, changes and behaviors. A good place to find a qualified program is to ask for recommendations from your local domestic violence shelter. Make sure to research the qualifications of the leaders of the program, find out exactly what will be taught and how, and any other questions you may have.
It’s also crucial to keep in mind that couples counseling isn’t recommended. This type of counseling is for non-abusive relationships only.
Abuse isn’t a marriage issue—it’s an abuser issue. Marriage counseling does more harm than good in abusive relationships, because the manipulative partner will likely charm the therapist while placing the blame on you, using circular talk as a coercive technique to make himself sound credible and even victimized.
You might have to face the possibility that change may never happen. The transformation from an abusive person to a trustworthy, loving spouse can take place, but often a manipulative individual doesn’t want to go through the immense work it takes to travel along the path of healing. This is a possibility all individuals in abusive relationships must come to terms with, through prayerful discernment. Sometimes we have to stop waiting for a fairy-tale ending. Sometimes there is no happily ever after.
Then again, sometimes there is.
The key takeaway is this: Perhaps your partner will change, or perhaps he won’t—but regardless of his choices in life, you can make your own. “All shall be well, and all manner of thing will be well,” as St. Julian of Norwich taught us.
No matter what happens, you can move forward—as God wills (Isa. 64:8).