1. Select a discrete app icon.
This piece was originally published in 2016. It was updated in 2022.
Perhaps your partner hit you when they were drunk and has since apologized, promising it will never happen again. Or maybe you found out that your partner used to stalk their ex but swears they’ve changed. Is there any way to tell if abusive behaviors will repeat themselves?
The unfortunate truth is that domestic abuse doesn’t tend to be an isolated incident. It’s exceedingly rare that someone in a healthy relationship would hit their partner out of the blue and then never do it again, or use controlling behaviors on one partner but not the next. Abuse is a choice people make in order to wield power and control over another individual, and oftentimes this starts with nonphysical abuse, such as coercion, intimidation and emotional abuse, before escalating to violence. The difference between abuse and “just a bad argument” with a healthy partner is that abusers repeat their abusive behaviors again in the next fight, often escalating them, and typically don’t accept blame or show remorse.
Statistics around arrests also tend to back this up. While just 10 to 18 percent of those arrested for domestic violence are arrested again within six months, 15 to 30 percent face a second arrest within 28 months, and up to 60 percent are rearrested within 10 years. And it’s pretty safe to say these numbers only tell part of the story, considering most domestic violence is never reported to law enforcement.
Can Abusers Change?
All that said, it is possible for some abusers to change. But it doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes a lot of work—and counseling—to do it.
“In order to change, the abuser has to consciously choose to change and take responsibility for being abusive, permanently,” says Gretchen Shaw, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence associate director.
In other words, someone who hits you and then comes back a week later and says they’ll never do it again is probably not telling the truth. It’s best to move on from someone who’s abused you or a previous partner. However, if you truly think a person might have changed but want to know for sure, here are some indicators that change is possible:
He or she has done more than counseling.
Domestic violence is not something that can be controlled or resolved through therapy because abuse is a choice, not a mental illness. Even though abusers can have mental health issues or a previous history of abuse in their past, which therapy can help them work through, their choice to continue a pattern of abuse toward their partner is something they must be held accountable for.
Many abusers will use therapy as another way to manipulate the partners to stay, promising there is change coming because they’re “getting help.” Couples counseling is not recommended for those in relationships with abusers either because of the high likelihood the abuser will manipulate these sessions for their benefit.
Certain court-ordered batterer reform programs conducted by professionals trained in the dynamics of domestic abuse show a decrease in recidivism for some abusers after completing the course, but this is much different than mental health counseling.
He or she does not badmouth an ex-partner.
If you’re considering a relationship with someone who previously was abusive, examine how he or she speaks about exes. If your potential partner blames an ex for all their problems or calls him or her crazy, take note.
“Slandering past partners is a big red flag that an abuser hasn’t changed,” Bostick says. “That shows a lack of respect for previous partners and isn’t a good bonding technique with a new partner.”
Keep in mind that however someone speaks about an ex is likely how he or she could speak about you one day.
They take responsibility.
Abusers who have changed will see the error of their ways and take responsibility— full responsibility—for their actions. If someone blames their partner for any part of the abuse or begins negotiating his or her part in the abuse, that’s a clear sign he or she is not reformed.
“If there’s any element of blame, including blaming previous partners, that’s a sign that that person may still be abusive,” Bostick says. “Someone being nice or less mean might just be part of the pattern of abuse. And remember that abuse patterns can change, too. Don’t think just because a lot of time has gone by between abuse doesn’t mean it isn’t still there.”
Abusers Usually Escalate
Of course, just as there are signs someone who was violent or controlling at one time changed, there are also signs that the person hasn’t, and that their abusive tactics are actually ramping up. This doesn’t just mean physical violence either—it can mean control, or verbal, emotional or sexual abuse. Here are some signs that mean the abuse hasn’t stopped and is likely escalating:
- Feeling like you’re being controlled. This could include your partner telling you how to dress, who you can see or talk to, whether or not you can have a job, or your partner is restricting your access to money.
- Feeling fearful that your partner might physically abuse you.
- Your partner consistently expresses feelings of inadequacy or powerlessness.
- A sense that your partner is objectifying you, treating you more like his or her property than an equal partner.
- When a partner constantly blames their outbursts, anger or controlling behavior on external circumstances—a stressful job, family drama, drinking too much or just having a bad day.
- When a partner constantly puts you down or calls you names.
- When a partner threatens to leave or take your children away from you.
- A general sense of feeling on edge or not feeling safe.
- Noticing your partner is "overly kind" outside the home with friends, family or coworkers, and changes into a more threatening person with you behind closed doors.
- Physical assaults: Hitting, slapping, strangling or shoving you, or threatening you with weapons
- Threatening to or actually hurting your children or pets
- Threatening to kill themselves or you
- Forcing or pressuring you to do things sexually that you're not comfortable with
Donate and change a life
Your support gives hope and help to victims of domestic violence every day.
It’s important to reach out for help from a trained domestic violence advocate if you notice any of these signs.
The truth is, whether or not someone will abuse again (or in the first place) is a complex question. To learn more, read “Signs of a Toxic Relationship.” And check out “When Abuse Goes From Shouting to Striking” to learn more about how abuse often escalates over time.
Looking for someone to speak with? Enter your location to find phone numbers for domestic violence experts in your area.
Have a question about domestic violence? Type your question below to find answers.