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Hope for Abusive Relationships?

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistDecember 10, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

You know your relationship is far from healthy – perhaps even abusive – but you stay in it because you hope your partner has – or will – change. You sometimes still see signs of the man (or woman) who you first fell in love with. So, despite friends (and that small inner voice) telling you to leave, you hang in there. Still, you wonder if there is hope. You wonder, “Has my boyfriend really changed?”

Unfortunately, there is a good chance that the signs of promise you see in your partner are, in fact, part of the cycle of abuse. It is very common to see the following basic pattern in domestic violence situations:

Tension-building period: Stress builds, the abuser shows anger, the victim concedes, and communication breaks down.

Escalation period: Verbal, psychological, and physical abuse increase. The abuser attempts to dominate and control their partner.

Honeymoon period: The abuser might express remorse, apologize, and promise never to harm their partner again. They might also deny or minimize the abuse, or they might blame the victim.

Calm period: There is relative calm and peace with little or no abuse. Both partners might believe or act like the abuse is now only in the past.

When your partner is acting in a more loving way, consider whether it is occurring during the honeymoon and calm periods. If you still have hope that the change is real, there are some clues to help you decide:

  • An abusive partner who has really changed takes responsibility for their actions. They apologize, and they are open to listening to the pain they have caused. Rather than becoming angry or wanting to just leave it all in the past, they are willing to truly listen to you and comfort you.
  • An abusive partner who has really changed displays their anger and other emotions in a healthy way. Habitually denying or ignoring emotions often leads to those emotions building until they burst out in unhealthy ways. When someone who has historically been abusive learns to relate to their emotions in a positive way, they will be able to talk about their feelings without blaming them on others. They are able to discuss their struggles and are open to differences of opinion.
  • An abusive partner who has really changed is patient as you work through your mistrust and fears. The partner understands their own part in instilling these struggles and so is supportive as you work them through.
  • An abusive partner who has really changed – or who is open to change – will be willing to go to therapy. It is often advisable for an abusive partner to get therapy for anger management and their abusive behavior before doing couple therapy with their partner. The reason for this is that couple therapy cannot be effective if one partner lives in fear of the other one.

If you believe you are in an abusive relationship and want to try to repair it, consider whether you see signs that this is possible. In many situations, it is very helpful to get guidance from a trained professional. You can do this by seeking out a therapist or reaching out to domestic violence services in your area. You might want to check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). In the end, it is up to you to decide whether to stay or leave. But if you decide to stay, make sure you think carefully about your choice. Make sure that there are real signs that your partner is open to making constructive choices to nurture a healthy relationship together.

Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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