“I promise I’ll change.”
These are four words most people in a relationship with an abusive partner have probably heard. Longed-for yet dreaded, the words can offer both hope and disappointment. Hope that things really will get better this time, and disappointment when, inevitably, the abusive behavior—whether emotional, physical, or verbal—begins all over again.
We’ve all heard that a leopard can’t change its spots. But what about an abusive partner?
Are Abusive Partners Capable of Real Change?
Many experts say it is possible for abusive partners to change. Yet false promises to change are often a way to keep victims in abusive relationships. So how do you know when a pledge to change is real—and when it’s just an empty promise?
The truth is, there’s no magical formula to make an abusive person change. And as much as you may care about your partner and wish things were different, no one can “make” anyone else change at all—they have to do that for themselves. But there are signs we can look for to tell a false promise from a real effort. Ultimately, real accountability begins when the abusive partner acknowledges their abuse, genuinely commits to changing, and prioritizes the feelings, experiences, and desires of their victims over themselves.
While change is possible, it’s hard to do and it takes a lot of time. If you’ve been in an abusive relationship, remember: You deserve safety, respect, and love. You can’t make anybody else change. But you can care for yourself. You can decide what you need to lead a happy, healthy, and free life, including whether, when, and how to leave the relationship. And you can love yourself with all the patience, passion, and ferocity with which you love others. You deserve it.
Promises and the Cycle of Abuse
If someone is cruel or violent to you all the time, it’s easy to recognize that the relationship just isn’t right. But what most people who haven’t been in an abusive relationship fail to understand is that abusers aren’t necessarily cruel or violent all the time. They can also have moments where they act charming, sweet, and kind — one of the reasons why abuse victims stay.
The promise of change can fill the abused partner with hope that maybe, this time, things will get better. Hope is a beautiful thing and wanting a relationship to get better isn’t foolish or shameful — it’s a testament to your optimism and resilience. But sadly, without serious intervention, no matter what the abusive partner promises the cycle of abuse will likely continue.
That’s why it’s important to focus not only on what abusive partners say, but what they do. Change is possible, but it’s hard. When an abusive partner continues to put themselves first, blame you, or put you down, unfortunately their promises to change are just a way to maintain control. And your love, optimism, and resilience may be better spent on yourself, by giving yourself all the love, care, and promise of a healthy future that you truly deserve.
How to Recognize an Abusive Partner’s Commitment To Change
So when can real change happen?
Abusive behavior is learned over time, often having to do with past trauma or childhood role models who were abusive. And especially for men, dominating and violent behaviors are rewarded by society at large through toxic masculinity. Unlearning these behaviors is difficult, and it only happens when the abusive person fully commits to giving up their abusive patterns and learning new ones.
The first sign of a real commitment? Abusive partners stop centering themselves and start feeling true empathy for their victims. They will genuinely recognize the harm they caused to another living, breathing human being, will take responsibility for the abuse, and will participate in any process the victim wishes to enact for accountability — or respect the victim’s desire for no contact at all. Finally, the abuser definitely won’t expect any kind of reward or commendation for “good behavior.” After all, not being abusive shouldn’t win you a medal — it’s basic human decency.
But just wanting to change isn’t enough. The process of genuinely changing harmful behaviors is long, slow, and difficult. It takes a lifetime to learn abusive behaviors, so unlearning those behaviors — while totally possible — takes a heck of a lot of work.
This work can happen in intervention programs specifically designed to help abusive partners recognize their abuse patterns and learn new, healthy patterns. Abusers who really want to change will also address other problems — like depression or alcoholism — by seeking real, long-term help.
The Survivor Comes First
Sometimes pop songs are right: Love really can feel like a battlefield. But it shouldn’t have to. While it’s totally natural to want to help abusive partners change, the truth is that victims can’t bear such an unfair and exhausting burden. Because love shouldn’t be a battlefield or even a cold and broken hallelujah, it should be a source of support, joy, and nourishment in a difficult world.
So wherever you are in your own relationship, remember that you deserve all good things and more. You can’t make anyone keep their promise to change. But you sure as heck can keep a promise to love, honor, and care for yourself.