Sunday, September 12, 2010

Can He Change?

The question of whether a person can change or not is a very common one when working with difficult and/or abusive relationships.  It's one of the first questions that comes out of a spouse's mouth, simply because it is a huge deal breaker if the conclusion is reached that the person you care about can't or won't change. As compassionate human beings, we want to believe the best about another individual; especially about the person we have committed our lives to.
As relationships reach critical mass, one person usually begins to evaluate the pros and cons of what is happening, trying to come up with a game plan.  During this phase, the question "can this person change" inevitably comes to the surface.  Unfortunately this is the wrong question to ask.  The more appropriate question would be "will this person change?".  No matter who we are, as human beings we have the capacity to change things about ourselves, where we live, what we do for a career, how we choose to behave and even how we choose to feel given any particular situation.  The question then becomes will we?  
In 1982, James Prochaska and Carlo Diclemente developed a model of change. This model seems to reflect a very good "road map" of how the human being relates to change and how they navigate through it.  The authors make a case that it is quite normal for people to require several trips through the five stages to make lasting change. So in this sense relapse is viewed as a normal part of the change process, as opposed to a complete failure.  This is a good way to look at the process and it gives us the basic idea that change is a process as well as being more complicated than simply making a decision to go from one behavior to another.  Their original road map suggests that there are 5 basic steps that need to be made in order to get from a place where you are even thinking about the consideration being presented, to the place where you have completed the tasks and have made the desired change.  Since then they have expanded to 6 steps, but for the sake of this article, we will consider the original 5.   Sounds simple right?  Not so much.....just ask anyone who has tried to stay on a diet, or made a new year resolution to exercise more.  Just making a decision doesn't always work.

The ability to make a change depends on several factors.  First, it will depend on whether the person making the change is flexible or rigid in their thinking patterns.  People who are structured or rigid find it very difficult to cope with change.   The ease with which we change also depends on how deep seated our behavioral patterns are and how strong our belief systems are.  For example, a person may find it very easy to change the route by which they come home from work on a daily basis, but might find it more difficult to discontinue stopping by the grocery store to pick up a beer if that has been their pattern with every job they have had since they were young.  The Christmas holiday is another very good example.  Families usually share the Christmas holiday with each other each year according to traditions that have been established over many years.  What happens to the family when the kids grow up, develop families of their own and those family traditions are challenged?  There are some in the family who will adapt, they can accept the change...then there are those who are more inflexible in their thinking and require those traditions to remain the same.  

So, how does this effect the abusive relationship?  Most abusive patterns are deeply ingrained and sometimes are even a part of the abuser's personality.  Abuse that is passed down from generation to generation is a learned pattern, a conditioning that not only appeals to a person's habit patterns but affects their thought processes and belief systems.  Abusive patterns are fueled by fear and enabled by denial which makes them very difficult to change.  Often, an abuser creates a point of crisis by their behavior patterns resulting in a decision by the other person in their life to leave.  They will then decide that what they did was wrong and express that it will never happen again.  Unfortunately it isn't nearly as simple as that, but the abuser is sincere in the moment and expresses to the victim what they want to hear so the crisis passes until the next time and no change is effected.  

So what are these stages, you ask?  I will list them below in the order that they occur.  Please be aware that these stages are fluid and individuals often go back and forth between them many times before getting through the cycle.

  • PRECONTEMPLATION STAGE. We enter the stages of change from a state of precontemplation-- during which the idea of change is not seriously considered.   It is in this stage that we find the abuse victim consistently asking the abuser to change their behavior.  Often victims will describe the abuser in this stage by saying things like, it's like they don't even hear me....he doesn't hear a word I say....
  • CONTEMPLATIVE STAGE Secondly we contemplate the need for change; but take no active steps.   This is the place where abuse victims find themselves after the abuse has happened and the individual has promised to change.  They think about it, but there is no action taken.  Many victims confuse this stage for the action stage and they are very different.  This stage is all about talk and this is often the stage where most abusers stay.  Victims must learn to identify this stage because if they don't, their circumstances will not change until the abuser decides to move forward.  The cycle of abuse, which I have written about in previous blog entries revolves around this second stage of change and often does not move out of it.
  • DETERMINATION STAGE Thirdly we determine to take action. eg we buy walking shoes, join a gym or discover a local swimming pool, but we take no action.  As it applies to abuse, what we see in this stage might be the abuser looking for a counselor, but not ever making an appointment; talking about going to an AA meeting or getting rid of the alcohol in the house but keeps purchasing it.  This is movement forward that gives hope to the abuse victim, but should not be looked at as concrete evidence that the person has change, because they haven't.
  • ACTION STAGE Then action is initiated. We walk regularly; go to that gym, have eggs instead of muesli for breakfast ......This is actual action that is being taken to solve whatever the problem might be.  The person actually attends the AA meetings, goes to the counseling sessions, shows concerted effort to stop swearing, getting angry.  This gives more hope to the victim and is a good sign that the abuser may be taking the situation seriously enough to make the changes that need to be made.
  • MAINTENANCE STAGE Finally the action is maintained for several weeks. But most having maintained the change, whether in diet, smoking habit, exercise or whatever, will sooner or later fail and revert to the first or second stage. Then comes the verdict that is most helpful; namely TO FAIL IS NORMAL!!!  Unfortunately this is true and when we look at it through the eyes of failing at a diet or failing to quit smoking it is a rather benign failure and we can pick ourselves up and start over again with the support of our loved ones. 

However, and I put a real emphasis on that word....abuse, especially physical abuse, falls into a very different category.   These stages of change are very real and when applied to the category of abuse, we have to weigh in factors of safety for the victim and for any children in the situation.  Can he change?  The answer is yes.  Will he change? Statistics show a very low percentage of abusers who make it past the Contemplative or Determination stage.  Moving past these two stages is a matter of free will....we always have the choice but we may not always choose to do the work that it will take to be successful or achieve the goal.  The question then becomes, do I stay or go?  With that question, we have to consider safety, both physically and emotionally.  Is it safe to stay?  If there is physical or sexual abuse, no....absolutely not.  Depending on the level of emotional, verbal or spiritual abuse, that is a personal decision but the person has to weigh the destructive effect on the self esteem and inappropriate modeling of behavior, trauma effects etc. in the light of day rather than making excuses, minimizing or denying the effects. It is also important to assess how many times you have been through the pattern and make a choice as to how many more times you want to go around the mountain.  The truth is, anyone can move through the stages of change and they don't need their abuse victim to be part of the process.  In fact it is NOT appropriate to ask an abuse victim to be the emotional support of their abuser as s/he moves through the stages of change.   Change is a personal decision brought on by personal motivation.  Any victim who believes that they are in any way a part of that change is kidding themselves.  Relationship breakdown is a normal consequence of abuse.  Victims do not have to be and should not be in the lives of their abusers in order for the abusers to heal and change.  I know that sounds harsh, and I also know that individuals can heal certain wounds in relationship to other people, but those people do not have to be the very ones who have been abused by them.  The risk is too great and the cost is too high when failure occurs.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Take a Mental Vacation - Dancing at the Movies

Thought I would share with you just a little bit of happiness!  Sometimes the info on this blog can be somewhat daughter shared this with me last night and I wanted to share it with you....feel free to watch it whenever life gets overwhelming.  We need those mental vacations!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Cycle of Abuse/Domestic Violence

Although the cycle of abuse is more difficult to see when inside an abusive relationship, it is so common that volumes of books have been written about it and it is as predictable as the change of seasons.  It will change in some respects due to the uniqueness of the people within the relationship, however the fundamental characteristics remain the same.  In abusive relationships, men can be the victims as well as women, but because of the larger number of male abusers and female victims, I will refer to these roles in like manner.
There are three stages in the cycle, each fueled by the denial of both parties involved.  Some of this denial can be seen in mothers and/or fathers who don't think that their children are effected by the abuse that goes on, they aren't effected by seeing their primary caregiver hit, called names or disrespected to the point of tears.  Other places of denial can be found in addictions, self blame, minimizing what is happening within the relationship.  I hear the comment that "he only hit me once".....isn't once enough?  Or, "if he does it again, I'm going to leave"....why does he have to do it again, didn't this time count?  Those are the most obvious places of denial, but it exists in more covert forms as well.  Victims of abuse deny their own power in saying no.....they give in to isolation or control because it is "easier" to do so, or because it "keeps the peace".   
The first stage is the tension building phase.  In this stage the victim may deny what is happening and excuse behavior as coming from some outside stress like work; she will blame herself for her abuser's behavior and deny that the abuse will worsen.  The abuser denies by blaming the tension on the victim, work, the traffic, the children or anything that might serve as a plausible reason for the behavior....getting drunk denies responsibility for the actions taken.  This stage is filled with minimizing and justifying behavior.   
At this point the abuser is moody, nitpicking and he attempts to isolate the victim.  He withdraws affection, yells, puts down, drinks, threatens, destroys property, criticizes, is sullen and is overall rather crazy making.   The victim's response to the tension that builds is filled with attempts to calm the abuser, nurturing him, staying away from family and friends, keeping the kids quiet, agreeing with him, withdrawing, many attempts at reasoning with him, cooking his favorite dinner and just a general feeling of walking on eggshells.  Abuse victims hesitate to place the responsibility where it belongs because they are becoming uncertain of their own judgments....perhaps the abuser is right, perhaps it is me.  If I was just a better wife, a better daughter or son....perhaps if I just get dinner on the table when he wants it he won't get mad...if I dress a certain way, have sex every time he wants it....if I just do those things he'll be happy.  Unfortunately the victim begins taking on responsibility for the feelings and behavior of the abuser and in all reality, the victim cannot control those things...only the abuser can.   
The second stage is the explosion.  At this point the abuser has reacted, whether it be violently or has emotionally or verbally wounded the victim and then mocked her for feeling hurt.  This is the event that encapsulates the most destruction whether it be hitting, choking, beating, humiliation, imprisonment, rape, verbal abuse or destroying pets or property.  The victim usually responds by protecting herself any way she can, police may be called either by herself, her children or a neighbor and again there may be many attempts to calm the abuser or reason with him.  In some cases the victim may fight back or even leave.  Even if she does leave, in this phase the victim will probably deny any injuries she has received, calling them minor and saying "I bruise easily" or "I ran into a door", "it wasn't that bad".  If the injuries are not physical, the victim finds it more difficult to identify the wounding as injury so minimizes it and tries not to feel the hurt.  She denies it by blaming the tension on work or minimizing what happened because it didn't require police or medical help.  If drinking was involved the excuse of "He didn't know what he was doing" is often heard or a wife doesn't label sexual assault as rape because it was her husband.  The abuser will always blame what happened on the victim, on stress...anything but taking responsibility for what happened.  
The third stage is the honeymoon phase.  This phase is characterized by the abuser profusely apologizing, begging forgiveness and adding promises to get counseling, go to church, go to AA, send flowers etc.  He will promise never to do it again, declare his love for the victim, cry and even enlist the support of the family if the victim decides to leave.  In most cases, the victim will agree to stay or take him back, attempt to stop any legal processes that have been put into place, set up counseling appointments for him and end up feeling happy and hopeful about the future.   She will often minimize the injuries at that point, saying it could have been worse, she believes this is the way it will stay, she now has the man of her dreams and she believes his promises to change.  Interestingly enough, the abuser also believes that it won't happen again....until it does.
This cycle repeats over and over.  With each cycle, the intensity will usually increase and the length of the honeymoon phase will decrease.  The end result can be one of several outcomes....1) the victim will leave, 2) the victim stays and her will and self esteem becomes so worn down that she doesn't protest against the control and domination, she just accepts it...becoming more depressed and more lost as time goes by, or 3) the victim is killed or critically injured.  
Often victims stay in these types of relationships because they lack the strength of personal identity and value.  An abuse victim loses the will to fight back and their confidence becomes so eroded that they question their own thought processes and give in to whatever the abuser wants, mainly because it is more safe to do so.  Yes, there are those women who will fight back, but when both sides are violent the home becomes a war zone for any children who may reside there.  
The key to breaking the cycle is found in breaking the pattern that has developed within the relationship.  A victim who has lost her value and her identity will need help and support in regaining her perspective.  That error in perspective may have been what allowed her to get into the relationship to begin with so patience is needed in the long journey back.  Abuse counselors are effective in helping victims take their lives back and become confident in themselves and their decisions again.  Personal identity is a major source of strength when recovering from abuse of any kind.  Understanding who you are, regaining your voice and becoming the person that you want to be can help heal years of abuse and provide hope for the future.  Abuse steals those things away from its victims and even though it may seem like the right thing to do when choosing to stay, the price is incredibly high.  
I am often asked if abusive and/or violent men have the capacity to change.  As human beings, I believe we all have the capacity to change and grow.  However the question is not do they have the capacity to change is are they motivated to change?  Does this person even understand what kind of work it is going to take to deal with the issues that have made them abusive to begin with?  The road back from being an abuser takes much more than self will and determination.  It means taking a long hard look at yourself, your family dynamics and the patterns in the home where you grew up as well as accepting complete responsibility for the actions that have been taken.  It means developing a heart of empathy that truly understands the destruction that has been perpetrated on the victims and truly repenting of those actions.  Women make the mistake of believing that an abuser will change overnight...that they have the capacity to make these fundamental changes in their lives without outside help.  They also make the mistake of believing that they need to stay and help their abuser to heal.  If an angry and/or violent person truly wants healing, they will take the steps necessary to find help, they won't ask their victims to do it for them.  They will commit to a process that will go on whether the victim stays in their life or not; because they know that they need the help and truly want to become a better person.  They realize that their present relationship may be irretrievably broken due to their actions and accept responsibility for that.  If a victim understands these things, they will know that the person cannot change just by saying they will.  
Denial is the devil's dessert after a meal of your soul
Emotionally healthy relationships allow both individuals to grow, the relationship sustains life and provides a platform from which each draws support.  If your relationship does not give you life, it should be re-evaluated.  There are those who will stay in a destructive relationship because the thought of being alone is more traumatizing than the negative connection that they presently have.  Although no one likes to be alone or wants to be alone, loneliness is more a state that one passes through than a place where one lives.  
If I can encourage you at all, I'd like to leave you with this thought:  The world looks more hopeless from within an abusive relationship than it truly is outside of it.