Reconditioning the Abuser

Is there such a thing as a reformed abuser? Can someone who physically or psychologically abuses other people actually be treated successfully? Find out.

Important Comment

Most abusers are men. Still, some are women. We use the masculine and feminine adjectives and pronouns ('he", his", "him", "she", her") to designate both sexes: male and female as the case may be.

Can abusers be "reconditioned"? Can they be "educated" or "persuaded" not to abuse?

As I wrote elsewhere, "Abuse is a multifaceted phenomenon. It is a poisonous cocktail of control-freakery, conforming to social and cultural norms, and latent sadism. The abuser seeks to subjugate his victims and 'look good' or 'save face' in front of family and peers. Many abusers also enjoy inflicting pain on helpless victims."

Tackling each of these three elements separately and in conjunction sometimes serves to ameliorate abusive behavior.

The abuser's need to control his environment is compulsive and motivated by fear of inevitable and painful loss. It has, therefore, emotional roots. The abuser's past experiences - especially in early childhood and adolescence - taught him to expect injurious relationships, arbitrary or capricious treatment, sadistic interactions, unpredictable or inconsistent behaviors, and their culmination - indifferent and sudden abandonment.

About half of all abusers are products of abuse - they have either endured or witnessed it. As there are many forms of past mistreatment - there are a myriad shades of prospective abuse. Some abusers have been treated by Primary Objects (parents or caregivers) as instruments of gratification, objects, or mere extensions. They were loved on condition that they satisfied the wishes, dreams, and (often unrealistic) expectations of the parent. Others were smothered and doted upon, crushed under overweening, spoiling, or overbearing caregivers. Yet others were cruelly beaten, sexually molested, or constantly and publicly humiliated.

Such emotional wounds are not uncommon in therapeutic settings. They can be - and are - effectively treated, though the process is sometimes long and arduous, hampered by the abuser's resistance to authority and narcissism.

Some offenders abuse so as to conform to the norms of their society and culture and, thus, be "accepted" by peers and family. It is easier and more palatable to abuse one's spouse and children in a patriarchal and misogynist society - than in a liberal and egalitarian one. That these factors are overwhelmingly important is evidenced by the precipitous decline in intimate partner violence in the United States in the last two decades. As higher education and mass communications became widespread, liberal and feminist strictures permeated all spheres of life. It was no longer "cool" to batter one's mate.

Some scholars say that the amount of abuse remained constant and that the shift was merely from violent to non-violent (verbal, emotional, and ambient) forms of mistreatment. But this is not supported by the evidence.

Any attempt to recondition the abuser and alter the abusive relationship entails a change of social and cultural milieu. Simple steps like relocating to a different neighborhood, surrounded by a different ethnic group, acquiring a higher education, and enhancing the family's income - often do more to reduce abuse than years of therapy.

The really intractable abuser is the sadist, who derives pleasure from other people's fears, consternation, pain, and suffering. Barring the administering of numbing medication, little can be done to counter this powerful inducement to hurt others deliberately. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies and Transactional Treatment Modalities have been known to help. Even sadists are amenable to reason and self-interest. The pending risk of punishment and the fruits of well-observed contracts with evaluators, therapists, and family - sometimes do the job.

More about what the victims can do to cope with their abusers - here, here, and here.

But how to get your abuser to see reason in the first place? How to obtain for him the help he needs - without involving law enforcement agencies, the authorities, or the courts? Any attempt to broach the subject of the abuser's mental problems frequently ends in harangues and worse. It is positively dangerous to mention the abuser's shortcomings or imperfections to his face.

This predicament is the subject of the next article.


next: Reforming the Abuser

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2009, October 1). Reconditioning the Abuser, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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