Be Real: Thoughts on returning to a former abuser
Returning to a relationship with someone who has abused you is one of the more common uncomfortable realities of the world of domestic abuse. Domestic Violence advocates generally recommend against it in a blanket fashion, and will tell you that an abuser will never change. And there is merit to their position — most abusers don’t change sufficiently for them to be safe to be in a relationship with. Most of the people who return to their abusers will be abused further, with more intense tactics more likely to leave them dead or seriously injured, and usually requiring them to leave the abuser once again. And advocates know that their recommendation is going to be ignored by many more people than they are comfortable with, so they will hope that those who they are wrong about will be those ignoring their suggestion anyway.
However, this blanket response is less than useful in that it fails to acknowledge the reality that abusers can and do change, and also fails to give the abuse survivor any way of being able to determine whether returning to the relationship is safe, or how to go about the process of building a new relationship with that person.
In attempt to provide some of that, I submit the following exerpt of an email I sent to a reader who was considering returning to a relationship with her abuser.
For folks who are trying to do what you’re talking about trying to do, I recommend a minimum of a year of active DV recovery for all parties, including completion of a good DV perpetrators program (not Anger Management, although most people refer to DV Perp programs as Anger Management) for the abuser before considering building a relationship again with the same person. Note that this is a year of active recovery, not just sitting time and pretending that something is different because everybody involved is a little older, lonelier, hornier or needier. It should be punctuated by major breakthroughs in understandings about relationships and romance and safety and communication and life. There should be substantial changes in behavior that build a track record that is inconsistant and incompatible with abusive patterns. There should be unqualified ownership of the abusive behaviors by whoever exhibited them, with responsibility for those behaviors and their results taken and serious effort extended to make amends for those results. People should be spontaneously saying to each person involved that they have really made some changes in their lives — not changes made to attract attention, but the outward expression of legitimate inner change that is obvious to those around you. Unhealthy friends should no longer be as comfortable hanging out with either of you, and new, healthy and supportive friends should be part of your growing support system. During this year, there should be no sex, no living together, and only brief, rare and non-romantic contact.
That’s the first year, and should all be completed before considering building a new relationship with the same person.
That consideration should be embodied in another good year of continued active DV recovery, with additional couple counseling with a competent therapist who has extensive experience with abuse issues for a minimum of 40 sessions (at least half as a couple) in that year. During this year, there should be no sex, no living together, and no dating behavior that would be inappropriate for a 12 year-old.
The consideration should include some exceedingly frank conversation with that competent therapist, the people involved in the first year’s DV recovery, and respected members of your support systems about whether what you are trying to do is obviously and collosally stupid. It should also include building rules and boundaries for interaction which should be used and refined during this year, and which show fundamentally different ways of interacting. It should include very clear directions about what the consequences of abusive tactics will be.
No decision to cohabit or marry should be made until the last use of a serious abusive tactic is at least a year in the past.
Yes, I know that this is a tough standard. Trust me — it’s far more generous than you’re likely to get from the majority of abuse activists and advocates out there. It’s realistic, and acknowledges that abusers can change. But it’s hard work to do that, and it’s hard to tell if that change is happening for real.