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Can A Verbal Abuser Change?

Can a verbal abuser change? You will only know if he or she shuts up long enough to prove change is happening through their actions - not his or her words.

Can a verbal abuser change? I’ve heard that question so many times and it is always delivered with a longing tone. Verbal abuse victims very much want their abuser to want to change. Some verbal abusers honestly do want to change. I don’t know how rare those types of abusers are, and there’s no way to know if your partner wants to change by listening to what they say because it is so easy to lie.

Can A Verbal Abuser Change Without Saying A Word?

A verbal abuser who wants to change will not have to say a word. He or she will, however, prove that change is happening because the abuse will end. Eventually. It is a good idea to have individual therapists at this point, not marital counseling.

Abusers want you to pay attention to their words, not their actions, because

  1. their words can be so sweet and convincing (causing you to stay) or
  2. so hateful and mean (causing you to doubt your perceptions and abilities).

Diverting your attention to what they say over what they do keeps you under their control – that is how verbal abuse works and why it is so effective. Proof of change is in their consistent action and behavior. You can simply ignore their words.

When you point out discrepancies between what they say and what they do, the ones who do not plan to change abuse you more. The abuse can be sugar-coated lies that sound like apologies or it can be a thundering accusation about how you never give them a chance. No matter how the abuse reveals itself, the point is to put you back into your place as the unquestioning partner who shuts up and acts how they’re supposed to act.

Testing To See If Your Abuser Can Change

Can a verbal abuser change? You will only know if he or she shuts up long enough to prove change is happening through their actions - not his or her words.I spent many years going back and forth in my head between wondering if he was the problem or if I was. Or if he had a mental disorder or if I did!

Finally, after realizing I was dealing with domestic violence and abuse and not a mental disorder, I decided to follow Patricia Evans’ advice in her book The Verbally Abusive Man: Can He Change? I prepared a contract similar to the one she prescribes, then gave it to my husband.

The first test is to see if your partner is willing to work with you on the contract.

  • If they are not willing, you’ll know they won’t change.
  • If they are willing but does not hold up their end of the contract (through their actions and behaviors), you’ll know they won’t change.
  • Or, if you see definite signs of change in their behavior, then the miracle of miracles, they could change.
  • On the other hand, they could change for just long enough for you to think they’ve changed, then revert back to abuse. At this point, believing there was real change, you will feel more confused than ever and probably immediately start to blame yourself for their abuse (again).

The contract I made doesn’t exactly follow the plan in Ms. Evans’s book because I’d already left my husband when I wrote it. If you want to see it anyway, you can view it here.

My ex-husband took it and read it. When I saw him next, he said, “I will never go to counseling.” That was that. The divorce proceeded.

Can You Change Your Noble Desire To Help Your Abuser Change?

In earlier days I may have continued trying to convince my husband to go to therapy, believing in my heart that it was in his best interest. This time, after studying domestic abuse and analyzing his answer with my brain, I decided to believe him when he said he would never go to counseling.

Everything he had ever done (his actions) supported his statement. There was no reason to disbelieve him. And if he couldn’t accept outside help for himself or for us, then I couldn’t continue the relationship.

Some decisions are absolute deal-breakers. (Example of a deal-breaker? See What is Battering?)

I wish I could tell you a sure-fire way to get from thinking you know what is best for your partner and believing that they know what is best for them. That thinking leans toward co-dependency and is an attempt by you to control the abuser. Sure, your motive for wanting to control them is noble, but giving your partner the ability to answer and you believing their answer is just plain smart. (If your abuser constantly lies, believing the lies and going on about your business will confuse him or her for a change!)

In fact, everyone, even mean nasty abusers, deserve to lead their lives as they see fit. Who are we to tell them otherwise? Leaving or staying with an abusive partner boils down to giving them control over themselves only. To do that, you must believe them when they say “I like who I am.” Then you have to decide if you can live with your partner just as s/he is, or if the behavior is a deal-breaker for you.

You can find Kellie Jo Holly on her website Verbal Abuse Journals, or social media on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.

42 thoughts on “Can A Verbal Abuser Change?”

  1. I have been verbally abuse on and off for 20 years to my wife.she filed for divorce 6 months ago and now i am in therapy and do not drink any alchol at all.I am treating her kind but she is very distant and i think she is going to go through with the divorce. i think the drinking was a part of the problem and my lack of understanding of the damage verbal abuse could do. also im pretty sure she is off and on with some guy. iwish a had woken up along time ago!!!going to continue to work on myself and improve! dont know what else to do we still live in the same house . im 55 and im sure now sober and in therapy i would be much better but she doesnt want to go to counseling with me..she said shes fine.. i love her but i may have done too much danage for now im giving her her space as per therapist suggestion. any suggestions ive always worked and made a good living..sometimes she does talk to me but not often

  2. I had a ex i been with for 4 ½ years until i couldn’t take it anymore and finally broke it off March 15, 2016. We broke off it before of last year when i almost jumped out of a moving car just to get away from him and end my life. He was trying to keep and take me far out to where his family was and have me stranded because i didn’t want to be with him anymore. I realize now that i was in emotionally abusive relationship but and i knew something wasn’t right. I had my share of warning signs from this guy and thought “hell he will get better, i am only tripping about this”. No i still recalled the first night where he was putting me out of his mother’s house because of what i’ve done or said to him so i told him i am leaving and he slam me against the toilet stall and sink choking me out. And from that night i knew it wasn’t right but i stay and i ask myself why. And i answer saying because i love him and i am going to make this work even though sometimes i wanted to give up but i needed him for some strange reason. He apologize to me when he choke me but i was scared of him.

    He embarrassed me so badly in front of his family while i lived there at the time when we got into arguments or when i told him something, he says something that hits below the waist. My feelings are hurt from this. He ripped my clothes, through my stuff out and called me a bitch, that i am fat and ugly. He could do better, i am broke and nothing, he can have a better type of woman than me and says my attitude is the worst and no other man is going to put up with me and if i do get a man he gonna abuse me and treat me like trash but in the back of mind that’s happening now. He had snappish ways if i was to tell him eat a sandwich or if i’m out with family and there was no room i told him to sit on the floor he gotten real upset with me and when he got me alone. He made me feel worst.To make matters worst he was an ex gang banger, so the story he told i thought about too.

    Don’t get me wrong he has a good ways but the bad ways over power it so much i forgot it. If i needed anything he would do it, jump up per say. I give him that but it wasn’t right for me. As the time being in relationship i had health problems dealing with over excessive bleeding with top of something else but i was in a dark place from that and i thought he understood it he showed it and told me he did. But i was wrong. He made me feel so dirty about myself. I had semi confidence about myself but it was shattered by being with him, to the point if you tell me i am beautiful i do not believe it. Cause he made me feel real low about myself. He compare me to his past relationship, he wanted to change who i am and said i was trying to change him but all i wanted to do was help him and love him the way i could. Yes i admit i am not affectionate but i was willing to learn that but i was playful and silly so i was showing my affection through that. I guess that wasn’t enough. I been depress so much while being with him while being scared. He threaten me if i was to leave him and said i wasted his time but only to have me beat up so badly. So i was afraid to leave and i couldn’t even believe i was letting him do this to me because this is unlike me, i am strong but that went out the window being with him.

    Are arguments are so awful he says a lot of hurtful things to me and all i would say okay deshawn you are digging yourself into a grave. I told him i even gave him warning signs if i go back to my old self you not going to like it. He’s born again christian and told me several times he spoken to God about us and he sees what he is doing wrong but only reverts back to his old self. He stay judging me and others around him because he went to church. But i started to fight back after he choke me again for saying something hurtful to him but i wanted to show him what it feels like saying hurtful things to me but i got hurt in the process. He never once punch me only choke me but that is still wrong.

    I haven’t told my parents everything about it because i know i don’t want to give that bad of image of him. So i keep protecting till this day. In the midst of him trying to fix himself to be better he was trying to rush me to get over the pain and suffering he cause and i told him it doesn’t happen that fast. Until one night he stop pressuring it and i told him we gonna do better. Why did i keep lying to myself. I didn’t’ want to be with him anymore, i don’t want a relationship anymore. I was struggling with that for a long time. All the while he kept saying i’m going to change then with back and i started to believe less and less on what he said.

    Now my heart is cold and i am trying to forgive him, i told him i will remain to help him get on his feet because he disable now. Why i keep worrying about him? I guess it’s because of my conscious i still want to be there for him but i don’t want him around me anymore because i need to heal. Even though we not together anymore we still have fights and i cry because he keep asking for another chance. And i don’t want it. I told him i don’t want you anymore. He realize the damage he done and wants to fix him but wants me to be with him and i don’t want too. I need to fix me and i’m slowing going back to me once he is completely gone.

    I am 26 now, just graduate from college and i am proud of myself for pushing forward and trying to get back to normal. I realize i am strong for what i been through and fought to keep myself from going under. I do know the healing process starts once i completely get rid of him but didn’t really think i was in emotionally damage until i answer some question. I just wanted to share what i been through since being in a 4 ½ years relationship and breaking it off since this year. It’s hard but i am making it and will continue to push forward.

  3. I feel like this is the first useful article I found on this topic. I am with an abusive boyfriend. It is a LDR that started off really amazing. We met each others families and friends and managed to bridge the distance for almost 5 years now. I know from his actions that he loves me, but his words say something else.

    Lately it has gotten worse and during our relationship I got more and more depressed. This only shows though, when we argue. “Argue” means he hurts my feelings and verbally and emotionally abuses me. He says things like I am “not worth changing” and that he could replace me anytime. Then the next day he will write the sweetest messages, like I am the perfect girlfriend and the best girlfriend he ever had. These mixed up signals really mess with my head. He broke up so many times with me but he always comes back (after I beg, I must admit).

    This stress has taken such toll on me, that I started hurting myself and contemplated suicide. He literally drove me insane. In the beginning he was understanding and wanted to help me. He was very supportive. We both thought this was the damage from my past engagement that was showing. Now I’ve come to realize this has all to do with him.

    I will finally go for therapy. I realized that my happiness is solely dependent on me. I want to break up with him and hope it will make him change and come back. If not, I don’t know how I will deal with the pain. I feel we invested so much in this almost impossible LDR. I once suggested therapy for him too and he was open for it. But nothing happened.

    I am scared that if I break up with him he will abuse me again. I also have to add that he is a narcissist, and he openly admits it. I never met a meaner person in my life, but on the other hand I do know for a fact that he loves me dearly. Otherwise he would be long gone. Should I just end it with him or try to work it out on terms of a contract? I feel in our case it is more difficult but we are currently 6000 miles apart. If I end it it might be easy for him to not come back and forget his feelings for me. This is the hardest decision of my life. We have/had something so good…

    1. If you reread your comment, you’ll see that his actions do NOT show that he loves you. His actions, all things abusive people can do, include coming back after you ask him to (I bet you “behave” the way he wants you to after he returns for a while). If you break up with him, he will not change – he admits to being a narcissist (diagnosed or not) and promised he’d go to counseling but lied about it.

      With everything I read in your comment, I suggest you leave him. A contract with him will be a lie, no matter what he says or if he signs it.

      The only “good” you’ve experienced with this man is when he’s honeymooning you, setting you up for failure.

      Here’s a list of what you do now: http://verbalabusejournals.com/how-stop-abuse/first-steps-abuse-victims/

  4. Great article Kellie,

    Few people are aware of how much words can hurt someone who is suffering from illness like depression. Some peoples realities are more sensitive to changes and fluctuations in the environment and I believe that you are promoting a higher consciousness by encouraging people to be more aware of the language they are using to communicate with others. Let’s continue to use words to do good to others and hopefully we can avoid from hurting each other’s feelings too much. =p

  5. I am an emotional abuser of my wife who has recently left me. We were only married for a little over two years and quite frankly after reading some of the replies on this post. I’m glad she left me. I regret everyday that I treated her the way that I did. I always blamed my behavior on childhood traumas, intoxication and current stressors in life. She has moved out of our apartment but is still in constant contact. I love this woman and I do want her back in my life as soon as possible but I also know that I most likely won’t be ready to give her what she needs. I’m afraid that she will find someone new and the same time I am relieved that she would be able to find some calmness in her life. I know I have ruined her emotionally by my constant acts of manipulation and attempts at controlling her. I am looking to take anger management, have not used liquor to cope (as this further exacerbated the abuse while we were together), speaking to a therapist but this does not change what damage I have done to her. Are there any self help books for abusers? Should I cut myself off from her? What can I do to help her regain back the confidence and happiness I took from her? What type of changes can I do in order to gain back her trust and ability to love me again?

    1. LGO,

      There is no way to control her feelings for you. You must do what is right (get yourself straight) and release her. By releasing her, I mean admit to her you know what you’ve done, apologize and tell her exactly what you’re doing to end the behavior. This doesn’t mean she will or must forgive you – you must give up on the idea that you can “fix” her. She must fix herself. IMO, counseling for you (NOT marriage counseling) is great, and you’re already doing that. Consider a sobriety program, and think of ways to reduce your stress levels daily, not just when they’re building. Doing this alone, meaning without her in the home, will help more than with her there.

      I see you had childhood trauma, and it’s important to discuss those with your therapist. I suggest you also ask him/her for some cognitive behavioral therapy so you can catch yourself thinking the thoughts that lead to abusing.

      I recommend Patricia Evans book, “The Verbal Abuser: Can He Change?” solely for the contractual information. You could make a contract with yourself – it would be great guidance for you. If your wife doesn’t take you back, you’ll be a more loving man for someone else in the future. (Don’t rush into another relationship – it will likely have the same dynamic as the one you experience with your wife).

      Besides that, doing a search on “how to stop abusing my wife” turned up quite a few reputable sites. Always check where you’re getting your information – you want the good stuff. You can also visit http://thehotline.org and call or chat to find programs near you meant for batterers (not that you hit her, but that the info would be helpful). Verbal abuse, in time, always leads to physical violence.

      Good luck to you. I’m happy that you recognized and admitted your problem. That’s always the first step to any solution.

  6. I have been a emotional abuser to the women i love we are no longer together just recently and i fill horrible about what i have done. I have my first counseling session this week i wished she would have stayed so i could prove it to her. It is a hard realization for me because i wasn’t aware of my behavior but i will change i can’t do that to someone i care about i understand why she left I’m not mad at her 1 bit i hope she is okay i know she is dealing with depression and that’s my fault i was supposed to be the one who builds her up not break her down so Lorin if you come across this just know I love you and i will change and I’m sorry

  7. Thank you for showing me the light! My boyfriend and I have dated on and off for over a year. During that time, we have broken up over some very bad, volatile (once semi-violent) fights. After the semi-violent one, I told him if he ever did that again we were completely through, so since then I have not felt at risk. But when we argue and fight, he plays dirty, and says the most hurtful things, and I have begun to retaliate and say abusive things back, which I hate about myself. I have recently become pregnant, and after the last fight where he told me to get out and he accused the baby wasn’t his, I left. He called me a couple of days later wanting to get back together with some ‘conditions’, so I gave him some ‘conditions’ of my own, which is where your lovely website has come in to help me set my boundaries! I wrote up a relationship contract that was modeled after yours. He immediately said, “Why is all of this in your favor?”…I’m like what? It’s for us to have a healthy relationship, where we BOTH do the behaviors. Now he is trying to change things on there, saying just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s abuse. What should I do? He says he wants to work on this relationship and himself, but he will absolutely NOT go to individual therapy (we are currently in couple’s therapy). Should I give him another chance or just cut ties, because I’m just getting exhausted over this… why am I trying argue and convince someone to treat me respectfully?! I don’t want my baby to think it’s ok to take verbal abuse or dish it out, but I also want it to have a father…ugh so overwhelming. 🙁

  8. Thanks so much, Kellie Jo! You are a wise woman! 🙂
    I read your contract and found it very inspiring. And obviously very effective! Yes, I’ve read both of Patricia Evans’ books, but while they were eye-opening in many ways, they still left me confused and undecided.
    I like the idea of a year apart and have already considered suggesting something like this. Unfortunately, however, there are two major reasons that speak against this.
    For one, I fear it would upset and confuse our adolescent kids, who could get quite destabilized by constantly wondering whether their parents will stay together or get divorced. I feel we owe them clarity, not more confusion (because they are, of course, already aware that something isn’t right).
    Moreover, we don’t have the money to sustain two separate homes, and since my husband is the main breadwinner, and vehemently opposed to separating, he would simply refuse to help pay for a second place.
    Anyway, I obviously don’t expect you to resolve my problems — I’ll have to think this over for a while longer and consider my options. (God, I’m so fed up with losing sleep over this marriage!).
    Thank you very much for your input and for this fantastic resource, which, I see, has been very helpful for so many of us!

  9. I have been in an emotionally abusive, sexless marriage for 21 years. It took 20 years of constant criticism, belittlement, name-calling, word-twisting, blaming, etc. for me to realize that I was being abused! I just thought that difficulties were “normal” in long-term relationships, made allowances for my husband’s traumatic childhood, and kept telling myself that if only I could be the perfect wife and mother, our relationship would improve. (Classic co-dependent pattern!)
    The reason I put up with this situation for as long as I did is that we have 3 children and I am financially dependent on my husband. (I shouldered the vast majority of the child-rearing and home-making responsibilities, so was unable to also earn a decent income.)
    Last summer — after a year of individual counseling made me realize just how destructive my marriage was — I told my husband I was leaving him because I couldn’t bear the abuse any more. We did 10 sessions of marital counseling, which stopped the hostility (apart from occasional flare-ups), and he started seeing an individual therapist 2 months ago. He is also seeing a therapist with our eldest son, whom he had also damaged with this abusive behavior.
    He is now much calmer with me and our children and is even taking care of occasional jobs around the house. He has apologized for the abuse and has promised to work on himself to become a kinder, more loving partner. However, while I used to be endlessly forgiving for 20 years, I now find myself unwilling to reconnect and get closer with him, despite his repeated assurances that he is changing, and his pleas for a second chance.
    Why is it that, after wanting him to be a loving husband all those years, I am now not willing/able to give him another chance? I am trying to let go of the past, forgive and forget, but the hurt runs so deep that I find it impossible to trust him and to believe that he will really, truly, fundamentally change. The only way I feel comfortable relating to him is at a great distance (I have been sleeping separately for 8 months and we have hardly any interactions), and the thought of letting him back into my heart, or returning to his bed, sends shudders down my spine. Am I a vengeful, cold-hearted bitch? Or are my instincts (which I ignored for all those years) right in telling me that he will never fundamentally change?

    1. Carrie, I believe in your instincts. 20 years of trying to be the perfect person and ignoring your instincts is causing you to doubt yourself now.

      Here’s the thing. Some people will change, fundamentally and permanently. Your husband’s willingness to go to individual counseling is a good sign, but then it’s been only 2 months. The counseling with your eldest son is a good thing, too.

      Unfortunately, all of these great changes could be a scam. He could be acting nicely because he’s setting up for divorce behind your back. He could be setting you up with the longest “honeymoon” period he’s ever given. There’s no way to know.

      How about a compromise with yourself for the time being? No one says you have to be physically together while he works out his issues. The trust is broken, you’re still walking on eggshells and you haven’t yet seen for yourself any real change. What is 2 months of being “good” to 20 years of abusing you? You say you’re only comfortable from a distance, so get some more distance. If he is truly working with his counselor, he will understand why you want to “get away” from him for awhile. Tell him that you want a year (or whatever time you decide) apart, separate houses, and then make up your mind if the relationship can work.

      All I’m saying is that you’re 50% of that relationship whether he wants you to be or not. You figure out what is good for you. You are not a cold-hearted bitch. That sounds like something he would say to you. I’d bet on your instincts any day.

      If you haven’t read it already, Patricia Evans wrote a book called “The Verbally Abusive Man: Can He Change?” In it, you’ll find a contract of sorts you can present to him. It worked really well for me – not because my husband agreed to do it, but because he didn’t take it seriously.

  10. I am glad to have found this websight with other women going through what I’m going through. We are a partially emty nest now. When the 2nd left, it was just me and him. I did not like who he was anymore, without distractions of kids around!!! A very rude awakiening and soooo lonely I was. Many incidents happened that I could not forgive. I started researching and now know it has been verbal abuse He has never been physically abusive to me. Since the kids are out mostly, he hates his job, the people he works with, and so many little things blow up into huge things. It got so bad that last spring/summer, I said he go to counseling for his anger or I didn’t know what our future would be. He agreed. I saw improvement very quickly! I had hope. Now, things have slipped and he is right back. This past week, so many incidents happened, for example, he is controling, telling me I’m going to hit someone with a shopping cart in the store, when I was not! He has told me when to cross the street. He gets angry at things having a fit, then saying I take it personally and it had nothing to do with me. He gets very impatient very quickly. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells, and even on a hike, he blamed me for walking in front of him (a few yards) and that’s why we missed the other path. I was like, am I really hearing this? He blamed me for not telling him the salmon was not farm raised and that’s why it was “tough”. Huge argument at the table. I mean little things turn into huge things. If we ask him something, he can get very mad. He has anger problems. But he thinks it’s everyone else, not him. He is not like this all the time and can be very nice and sweet, taking care of everyone. But I’m so sick of the unpredictable behavior. How can you love someone in a consistant way? He thinks that to treat someone with a mutual respect and kindness, that’s asking way to much and he won’t do that. That means I want him to be perfect. I want a “perfect” man. It’s irrational. no one is perfect. I set us up with a marriage cousnelor next week. I’m afraid of his negative reaction…. I am on the fence with the marriage and am so scared to be alone at 55.

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