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Authentic Repentance vs Another Smoke-Screen: Is His Change Real?
How to tell if his change is real, or if it's another manipulation.
How can you tell if your abusive partner is authentically changing?
Short answer: You can’t. Until you can.
Okay, so that’s not exactly helpful—but it’s the truth. I could end this article right here—after all, what more is there to say? I can’t provide you a definite, concrete answer to this dilemma, especially since everyone’s situation is different—and everyone’s partner is different. However, I can at least provide solid guidelines that will help you discern true change from more manipulation.
First, a bit of a history lesson. Metanoia is the ancient Greek word that we translate into English as repentance, and it means “a change of mind, change in the inner man.” In other words, someone has to have a complete turnaround in their attitudes and beliefs in order to be truly repentant. They have to change interiorly—and thoroughly.
Authentic Repentance vs. Smoke-Screen Apologies
True repentance doesn’t consist of words. Sure, a heart-felt apology is necessary (or, more likely, a series of apologies that show honest empathy and remorse). However, the words of someone who has betrayed and chronically lied to you don’t count for much. It’s his actions and attitudes that will be the true sign of whether or not he’s changing.
True repentance consists of actions. It’s a reformation of core beliefs, an understanding of the deep-rooted nature of abuse, and an admittance of why he uses abuse in his relationships.
True repentance is the acknowledgement that he needs to “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). And he must live up to that.
“You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.”
What are the fruits of his remorse? Is he thoroughly repenting of the evil actions of abuse and reforming his life? Is he taking concrete actions to help himself realize all he’s done and what he needs to do to be a better person?
Signs of true repentance include:
Honesty. And then, more honesty! He needs to reveal everything—and I mean everything—according to your wishes. If there’s something you don’t want to hear because it’d be too much for you, that’s fine. Trust yourself and take care of yourself. Everything else, though—all the things you want him to reveal and be honest about—must openly be discussed, without anger or accusation. If he’s not willing to do this, then he’s not willing to change.
Avoiding “the near occasion of sin.” This means avoiding each and every trigger that may tempt him to lash out with abuse. Such triggers can include (but aren’t limited to) pornography use, hanging out with unhealthy friends, alcohol or drug abuse, and allowing himself to give in to negative self-talk, including the desire to play the victim.
He enrolls in an abuser intervention program, without you having to constantly insist that he do so. You can suggest it once, and even do research to find a qualified group, but once is enough. If he doesn’t do the rest on his own, he’s not serious about change.
He’s shattered over what’s done. And that’s a good thing. Your spouse should show signs of how broken he feels about damaging someone so precious. He should feel immense sorrow and guilt. However, guilt doesn’t need to be toxic. Toxic guilt is a different matter altogether (in fact, toxic shame is one of the primary contributors to the development of a narcissistic personality). Healthy guilt takes broken feelings and transforms them into healing actions—actions that propel him with a determination and strength to never abuse again.
Spiritual help and guidance, with an emphasis on prayer, becomes a top priority. Seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation is only the first step—but a crucial first step. Without God, the folly of human nature will falter. Your partner must actively cultivate his spiritual life, including steeping himself in prayer and reading Sacred Scripture and, if at all possible, finding a qualified spiritual director to help him on his journey. Studying the Psalms can be of particular benefit.
Patience is a virtue. He has to be completely patient with your healing process, no matter how long it takes you to trust him, love him, or feel comfortable around him again. If you’re separated, he has to be willing to remain living apart for however long you feel is necessary. You’ll need at least a year in order to determine if his change is real and permanent, but if you take longer than that—even several years—he has to understand this and not pressure you to “hurry up.”
Empathy. Is he showing genuine empathy toward you, your emotions (including justifiable anger), the damage he has caused you, and everything else? I’m not to talking lip-service here. “I understand how you feel,” doesn’t cut it. He needs to show in concrete actions that he understands how you feel.
“For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great … Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your merciful love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
(Ps. 25:11; 51:1-2,10)
Signs of a manipulative and inauthentic promise to change include:
He admits things to you … well, kinda. Lies and deceptions—through half-truths and empty promises—are typical of individuals who use abuse as a way of manipulating their relationship. Always remember: a half-truth is a no-truth. If he’s not being completely transparent and totally, authentically honest, he’s not changing.
He says he’s sorry … but … An apology followed by a “but” isn’t an apology at all. A typical example of a non-apology goes like this: “I’m really sorry I called you a terrible name. I didn’t mean it, but I’d had too much to drink. I’ll try not to drink again.” Listen closely to his words. If he uses any excuses whatsoever, he’s not apologizing. And again, remember that a true apology doesn’t merely consist in words, but in authentic and empathetic actions. “I’m sorry you feel hurt,” is also another example of a false “apology.” Seriously, what does that even mean? Nothing. Nothing but empty words. It’s great if he truly feels sorry that he’s damaged you, but what is he doing about it?
He’s still going out to bars, hanging out with unhealthy friends, or engaging in any other behaviors that signify he’s still well immersed in his previous life. If he’s attached to a certain lifestyle that’s unhealthy, such as drinking too much, hanging out at bars, watching sexually-explicit movies that may trigger his desire for pornography, or any other unclean behavior, then he’s not changing.
He refuses to join an abuser intervention program, or does so only to please you but without any active engagement. If he claims he doesn’t need such a program, won’t benefit from one, or if he goes but doesn’t participate, then he’s not making an authentic effort to improve himself and reform your relationship. A helpful and solid abuse intervention program will make sure you, as the victim of abuse, are their top priority. The facilitator should be contacting you periodically to update you on your spouse’s progress. Does he attend every meeting and if so, is he always on time? Does he show signs of drinking during the meetings? Does he participate in the discussion in a fruitful and helpful manner, or does he just sit there, relatively unmoved? These are answers the group facilitator should be providing to you. Do not take your partner’s word for it. Abusers lie. At this point, he hasn’t yet earned your trust. And for good reason.
He’s disrespectful of your boundaries. You should be setting firm boundaries, and you should be insisting on them. If he crosses those boundaries in any way—overtly or covertly—and if he tries to pressure you to do something you’re not ready to do yet (sleep with him, trust him, spend the day with him, have a talk with him that you’re not yet ready to have), then he’s setting up a smoke-screen to fool you into thinking he’s changing. Crossing any of your boundaries is a sure sign of lack of change.
Those who are truly repentant are easy to talk with. I know, this may sound like an unrealistic hope. After all, his anger and circular talk are things you’ve come to expect, even if you’ll never grow accustomed to them. In the past, any slight comment, look, expression, emotion, or …. well, anything at all could set him off.
But now should be different. You should be able to be raw. Totally open. You should be able to say anything you want, including fully expressing your hurt, anger, regret, the full extent of the damage he’s done to you and your family, or anything else you need to discuss.
And he should listen. Without anger. He should not only listen, but reciprocate, and communicate his feelings—again without anger, but also without excuses or blaming anyone except himself. Abuse is his problem. No one and no thing caused it.
Abusing you was his choice. Not to abuse you needs to be his choice, too.
There’s a great deal more I could discuss on this topic, but I think I’ve said enough for now. If you’d like to read more articles on how to discern true change and what that may look (and feel) like, please comment below or contact me privately.
Consistency, permanency, empathy, patience … These are all primary traits of those who are willing, eager, and desirous of true change. It takes time—and a lot of it—to discern whether or not these things will become solid new traits in your relationship.
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