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.


Anonymous said...

I can't understand why my partner has for many years wanted so badly to change and is frustrated that he has not changed, or that God has not changed him. He has gone through a lot of counseling (albeit most of it under pressure and duress) and received a lot of help from the church pastor and friends. He has also prayed very hard and is desperate to be a person people can trust and accept. Why is he not able to see when he is doing something not acceptable? He is often shocked to be told after an event that he had crossed the line.

Gr8mochas said...

It is hard to say with any certainty why a person doesn't understand the consequences of their own behavior. However you said something very telling in that "He has gone through a lot of counseling (albeit most of it under pressure and duress).."

When someone has to be pressured into helping themselves it generally means they are resistant to the help. If someone goes to counseling because someone else wants them to, generally that person doesn't have the motivation they need to address their problems. If they did, they would want the help, welcome the help and do whatever they could to make the changes in their lives that they need to make. People in this place have a lack of insight into their issues and therefore stay in that contemplation stage.

He has not moved out of that stage because he doesn't want to, he doesn't see the need to. That is why I said that many times the cycle just repeats over and over because people get stuck there. He must think that there is some magic wand that will accomplish the changes he needs for him. He hasn't taken personal responsibility for his behavior even though it looks as though he has. Change is a matter of the heart and his heart has not moved so chances are he will stay where he is until something drastic moves him into a place of more responsibility and insight into his own behavior.