The question “Can my partner change?” is undoubtedly at the front of a person’s mind if they’re in a relationship with an abusive partner. There are many obstacles to leaving an abusive relationship, or reasons to want to stay, so it only follows that we often desperately hope our partner changes their ways. While there’s no consensus on whether or not abusive partners can truly change, we know that some people do, but only when they genuinely want to change and devote themselves to doing so.
The other big question is “How?” Most states offer classes or intervention programs on changing abusive behaviors, and what states call these programs varies. For abusive partners who haven’t been mandated to enter into an intervention program, choosing voluntarily do so on one’s own is a big first step toward initiating change.
Many people assume that the best course of action is an anger management program, but this is often not a good option for a domestic violence situation. People who are abusive often express anger toward their partner, but having an anger problem means they would also behave the same way toward friends, family, co-workers and others – not just their partner.
Anger management focuses on that person’s inability to control their anger and what triggers these emotions, and this can be counterproductive for an abusive partner. Examining what triggers their anger can reinforce the idea that the victim is responsible for the violence. This takes the abuser off the hook for their actions.
Anger management courses do not address issues of power and control within a relationship, which are the source of domestic violence. A better option would be an intervention program that does focus on these issues, which are often referred to as Batterer Intervention & Prevention Programs (or BIPPs).
Batterer Intervention & Prevention Programs
There are a few types of services and interventions in the U.S. for those who may identify as abusive. Batterer Intervention & Prevention Programs (BIPPs) are the most widespread, but they aren’t available everywhere.
A BIPP is different than other counseling and intervention programs in that it centers around complete accountability, victim safety and education about the behaviors that likely brought participants there in the first place. Certified batterer intervention programs have a wide range of durations, varying from a weekend retreat to 52 weekly meetings. They’re generally offered by a few professionally-trained facilitators, and usually have eight to ten participants.
People enter into BIPPs for various reasons. Many are required by judges to attend as a condition of probation or as part of a sentence. Others enroll to try to save a relationship and keep their partner from leaving. The best reason for joining a BIPP is genuine desire to change.
These programs teach all about abuse: the range of coercive or abusive behaviors, common abusive tactics and the effects that abuse has on partners and families. Participants learn about healthy relationships and non-violent behaviors. BIPPs also challenge pre-existing beliefs that abusive partners might have, such as entitlement/ownership and gender roles.
The program should be structured around a clear understanding that abusive behavior is chosen, and that while substance abuse or mental health issues can occur simultaneously, they should be addressed through separate services.
As a result of attending this type of program, the abusive partner would ideally learn how to:
- effectively communicate with their partner instead of being emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive
- support their partner’s decisions even if they disagree
- encourage their partner to spend time with friends and family
- build trust and empathy within the relationship
- refrain from using coercive actions to control and intimidate their partner
- identify ongoing harmful behavior
- behave respectfully toward their partner
Do You Want to Change?
If you think you may be mistreating or hurting your partner, call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Our advocates can discuss the differences between healthy and unhealthy behaviors. If you’re at the stage where you know you want to seek help, our advocates can also refer you to resources in your area. As always, it’s important to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight — it’s an ongoing process that takes work and willingness.
If your partner is abusive to you, it’s important to note that addressing the abuse with your partner may not always be safe. You know your situation best, so if you feel that discussing the abuse with your partner would escalate his/her abusive behavior, listen to your instincts. You can always contact the Hotline to talk about ways to have this conversation safely or other strategies to explore your options.