“Can an abuser change overnight?”

19 Apr 2011

Dear Annie,
There’s something I need to know.
Can an abuser change over night? Can an abuser treat one person badly and another person wonderfully well?

Dear Kirstie,

Do pigs fly? Do dogs talk, and frogs turn into princes?

Do you have a magic wand?

Or a fairy godmother?

It’s only in fairy tales that Mr Nasty suddenly changes, overnight, into Prince Charming.

Abusers don’t change over night – not least, because they don’t want to. Although that won’t stop them promising, if they think:
a) they’ve gone too far
b) you’ll listen

Still, as the abuser sees it, he’s the one who is constantly either under attack, or at risk of attack. (It may beggar belief, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. That’s why he can bang on about being your victim!)

So, holding onto as much power and control as he can, feels like the safest, and best, option for him.

But I don’t think that is really the question you are asking me.

I suspect that what you really want to know is this: “Can he still change into the person I think he can be?”

Because, even if there is a 10% chance, you’d be willing to invest more time, trust, and misery.

Now on to your next question: can an abuser treat one person badly and another well?

Can a leopard change his spots?

In the short term, an abuser can ape charming behaviour. That is possible.

But the nub of the question is this: what do you understand by wonderful behaviour.

On a recent teleclass, we spoke about relationship expectations. A lot of us saw – and therefore learnt – in our family of origin that relationships, invariably, run a downhill course.

A lot of us learned that the romance, consideration, and delight in the other person – that is, us – all belong to the first stage of infatuation. Within a couple of years that infatuation wears out, like a 3rd rate carpet, and then familiarity breeds a degree of contempt. It could be fairly low level contempt; or, in abusive relationships, high level contempt.

I told the group it really doesn’t have to be that way.

If abusive relationships are capable of continuous deterioration – and you know for yourself that they are – healthy, truly loving relationships are capable of continuous improvement.

Not only do the respect, love, care, thoughtfulness and intimacy continue, but they go on getting deeper.

An abusive relationship is a vicious circle and a cycle. You lurch from conflict to reconciliation – or, at least, uneasy truce – to the next conflict (or silence, if that is the way your abuser operates).

Nothing is ever forgiven, forgotten, or resolved.

A loving relationship is, at best, a virtuous circle, and cycle. Difficulties are successfully negotiated by both partners – together. (Yes, I am using the ‘t’ word that has absolutely no place in an abusive relationship.)

The relationship, and the partner, are far more valuable than is winning the point, or the battle.

Both partners will treat the other as if they are valuable human beings.

Partners learn how better to relate to each other by working through difficulties, successfully. And the love, trust, and intimacy deepen.

Whereas every conflict, and every harsh word or deed, further damages the – already fragile – foundation of an abusive relationship; every successful negotiation further strengthens the fabric of a healthy relationship.

Loving partners respect and cherish each other. Both partners respect and cherish the relationship.

You can expect both partners to show consistent thoughtfulness, selflessness, empathy and supportiveness

At this point, one of the callers asked, in the small, sad voice abused women always use when they hear something that sounds too improbable to be true: “Do men like that really exist?”

So where am I going with this?

Loving, thoughtful, selfless partners focus on what is best – not just for themselves, but for the person they love, also.

They do not put themselves first, or seek power and control over a partner. They would not, deliberately, wound or humiliate their partner to get their needs met.

In short, a good relationship is not like a bad relationship with the worst bits removed.

A good relationship is a totally different kind of animal.

It is a relationship in which both partners do their part to make the other feel loved, safe, supported, and valued.

It is an environment in which both partners enjoy the space, and the freedom, to grow and thrive.

Now, let’s relate this back to your questions, Kirstie: can an abuser suddenly change his personality overnight?

Can he, in other words, get a personality transplant?

Clearly not.

Can he behave wonderfully to someone else?

Equally, clearly not.

Can you honestly imagine him being selfless, thoughtful, and respectful?

Oh, I know you might say “Yes”, if you’re in self-blame mode. But, still, in your heart, you know he doesn’t have it in him to do that.

How can I be so adamant about that?

People who can make an art form of behaving as badly as he has – not once, but repeatedly, consistently refining his technique, and upping the ante – enjoy behaving brutally.

People who are truly loving and nurturing don’t brutalize themselves, and their supposed loved ones, through brutal words and deeds.

For an abusive partner to undergo profound transformation not only would he have to want it, but he would have to work through it.

Just as abused women have to work through a whole process before they value themselves as much as they value other people.

That process takes time. It doesn’t happen in a heartbeat.

Profound change is not meant to happen in a heartbeat.

It is something you have to work through, in order to reap all the learnings from it.

That applies to your abusive partner as much as it does to anybody else.

So, the timescale of your abusive partner’s metamorphosis is profoundly unconvincing.

And then there is the fact that abusers “playact”, or pretend. They are quite good at putting on a façade – for a short time.

Kirstie, I guess there is always the outside possibility that I will be struck down by a flying pig landing on my balcony. But until that happens, I’ll stick to my guns:
Abusive partners don’t change overnight from Mr Monster to Mr Wonderful.

End of story.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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