Chris brown is back in the news. I have written here previously about the domestic violence Rihanna experienced at the hands of Chris Brown, and what the reactions to this situation tell us about domestic violence in general. Since then, Brown pled guilty and was sentenced to five years of probation and 1,400 hours of community service (cnn.com). More recently there have been a flurry of other events: a leaked song (Changed Man, of all things!) possibly referring to the incident, an interview and a non-confessional confession on Larry King. I have been struck by how much of the publicity is reminiscent of typical domestic violence perpetrator tactics.
False claims of change from domestic violence perpetrators are part of the cycle of violence and an attempt to maintain power and control over their victim. Minimizing and/or excusing the behavior, claims of not remembering the details, protestations of love for the victim are all standard responses after an incident of domestic violence.
Domestic violence tends to follow a predictable cycle. Older models talked about three distinct phases, calling the period after an incident of abuse the “honeymoon” to refer to the abuser’s attempt to seduce or woo the victim into continuing the relationship. This has always seemed like an ill-fitting term to me, given that the aftermath of violence is anything but a happy, simple time for the victim!
More recent approaches to explaining the cycle describe it as follows:
First, an incident of abuse occurs. Remember, domestic violence is not always just physical. In the aftermath of the abuse, the perpetrator may feel guilt but this usually takes the form of fear of reprisals. Will there be social or legal sanctions? Will they lose power and control over their partner if the partner is able to leave?
The fear of reprisals leads to excuses: rationalizing, minimizing and victim blaming tactics. The key focus here is that some external force is responsible, not the abuser! Abusers may seek to excuse their behavior by citing substance abuse, work stress or their own history of childhood trauma. Most typically the victim is blamed in some version of “You made me do it”.
Next the abuser seeks to maintain the relationship through any tactic possible. They may act as if nothing happened. They may appear apologetic, remorseful and promise all sorts of things. “I have/I will change” being the most common. This period of seeming calm does not last long and as the relationship continues it may get shorter and shorter.
Despite what abusers may want us to believe, violence does not just erupt out of the blue. A period of tension building occurs in which the abuser is planning, contemplating and setting up the victim to justifying his next act of abuse. In ongoing domestic violence relationships the victim is often keenly aware of this feeling of mounting tension and impending attack. The cycle has come full circle.
What are we to make of the claims of change abusers make during the phase of excusing and normalizing their behavior? Of course a partner wants to believe this! And they may be quick to understand and sympathize with the abusers substance abuse history, childhood trauma or work stress. Unfortunately, understanding contributing factors alone is not enough. And nothing excuses abusive behavior.
Can abusers change? How can you determine how genuine their statements and promises are?
As a therapist, I of course belief in the ability of people to change. What I also believe (and have seen over and over in my 20 plus years of experience) is that change, especially of deeply engrained complex patterns like domestic violence, requires time. Usually professional help is needed. And first of all the genuine commitment and willingness to change.
While it does not excuse them of personal responsibility, it has been my experience that abusers have often themselves been victims of childhood abuse or witnesses to abuse of loved ones. ( And no, not all who have been abused grow up to become abusers!) In fact, research indicates that the single common thing domestic violence perpetrators have in common is a prior history of trauma themselves.
Avoid details. The image of Brown pounding Rihanna with his fists and choking her are so horrible that Brown never described the beating he delivered his girlfriend. When Larry reviewed some of the details, Brown stared at the table. Most impressive of all, Brown claimed he couldn’t recall the beating.
Minimize. Although police reported previous beatings he had administered Rihanna, Brown said there were none.
Excuse. Brown referred (as before) to his and Rihanna’s youth, and described how people get angry in relationships but that he and Rihanna had never been taught ways to resolve conflict. (Brown was sitting next to his mom, who I guess he was accusing of not teaching him not to beat women.)
Share the blame. As in the above, make yourself part of a group – youthful men not taught better ways of coping – and gently blame your girlfriend as well.
Addictionize. By “addictionize,” I mean claim that you weren’t in your right mind or able to control yourself – Brown went so far as to say he blacked out.
Love, love, love. Always remember – refer to your loved ones. In this case the love object was also the victim, but Brown said he loves Rihanna and could conceivably spend his life with her.
Just saying “I’ve changed” does not make it so. What would genuine change look like? What can you look for to determine if someone is embarking on this process? What does it take to make this sort of change?
-Accept personal responsibility for domestic violence. Abusers who are changing would be able to own their behavior without excusing, minimizing or becoming defensive. Period.
-Working on one’s own history of trauma (not one or two sessions but sticking with it for as long as it takes) and other factors underlying abusive behavior. Often the most effective treatment for domestic violence is group therapy, where perpetrators learn to confront and hold each other accountable. Seeking treatment would not be externally motivated (for example by court order or to appease others).
-Demonstrate respect for the boundaries of others, even if that means agreeing to no contact with the partner you have abused.
How long does change take? We therapist often caution that change takes time, but how much time? Of course everyone is different! But the expectation abusers seem to have, that they can be violent one day and claim change the next, are grossly unrealistic (or intended to be misleading).
In my experience, healing from childhood abuse and your own abusive behavior should be thought of as a multi-year process. In 12 step programs the newly sober are often advised to wait a year past the point of starting recovery before making any big decisions. Perhaps that would be a good starting point here too. Is an abuser claiming they have changed? To adopt more 12 step lingo, are they walking the talk? Wait and see if they continue therapy and display new adaptive, non-violent behavior for at least a year. The true test of genuine change is whether it is consistent over time.
Dr. Kathleen Young