There are seven areas that an abuser needs to address to demonstrate repentance (at a minimum)… 1.) They need to be able to respect others’ independence and individual autonomy; 2.) They need to accept full and unqualified responsibility for their own actions and feelings, while having an empathetic acceptance of the emotional and relational consequences of their behavior; 3.) They need to learn to live in truth and be able to doubt their own perceptions; 4.) They need to be able to relinquish forever any perceived right to control anyone, either by coercion or by manipulation; 5.) They need to commit to a life of sacrificial service, especially to those they have harmed (that may mean permanently staying away and not communicating at all); 6.) They need to give up any expectation that they can reverse the damage done, but they need to repair and restore whatever is possible; 7.) They need to give up any expectation that they will ever get any positive return on these actions and be willing to keep doing them anyway.
If an abuser is genuinely repentant, if they are fully committed to do whatever it takes for however long it takes, if they are willing to relinquish all control of the relationship to the one they have harmed, and if they can avoid trying to manipulate the process, it is possible to help them. It may never be possible to restore the relationship, but at least they will have addressed those things that have made them a danger to anyone who loves them. The following is a description, written to the abuser, of what it should look like when they repent. It is written from the perspective that a victim has already left and told the abuser to get help. It is very dangerous to try and help an abuser when the victim is not safely removed from the situation.
We have found that we can help about 1 in 10 abusers. The sad reality is that the vast majority of abusers would rather lose their family than admit that they are abusive and adopt the changes required of them. However, if you have recognized that you have a problem, the following is a description of how you can begin the process of addressing, as much as possible, the damage you have caused:
First, you will need to break off all verbal contact with your spouse. Any required communication should be limited to necessary facts, and it should be done in writing. You will also not attempt to meet them in person or fix the relationship in any way. Instead, you are going to need to accept complete and unqualified responsibility for your destructive actions. This should be done in a hand-written letter, and it should include the following details:
a.) What you did – you need to demonstrate that you understand exactly what you did wrong and what made it wrong. Detail all of it, not just the “big” stuff. Don’t offer any explanations or justifications. There are no excuses that can justify mistreating another person.
b.) Why you did it – you need to demonstrate that you understand that you didn’t do it because of any circumstance outside of yourself. You need to fully confront your own sense of entitlement and control, with detail. The reason you did it is because of you, and no generalities or blame-shifting will be accepted.
c.) Why it is wrong – you need to acknowledge the heart issues at the core of your problem: your own lack of love, cruelty, selfishness, lust, and any other sin that was involved. Do not leave anything out, and make sure you are specific about how your mistreatment was directly connected to the things you did (i.e. “I was cruel and unloving when I…”).
d.) Accept responsibility – You need to express a full and complete acceptance of any and all consequences. This includes accepting that your spouse’s fear is both rational and justifiable. You further accept that it may take a very long time for you to undo the harm, and it is entirely possible that you cannot undo it. In either case, you agree to accept that outcome unequivocally. You also accept that any skepticism or doubt about your own repentance is the understandable and direct consequence of your own repeated mistreatment of your spouse. If there are any legal ramifications related to your mistreatment, you also agree to accept that responsibility as well.
e.) Affirm your spouse – you should admit that it was right for them to take any and all actions that they have taken to prevent you from continuing your mistreatment of them, and you need to include your acceptance of any ramifications of that action. This should include your willingness to respect and comply fully with whatever is needed to provide a sense of safety to those you have mistreated, regardless as to how long it may take or as to whether or not they will ever desire to continue a relationship with you.
f.) Relinquish control – you need to include a statement that says you will take any and all steps your spouse needs you to do in order to feel safe. You will agree to provide adequate funds to support your family with no strings attached. In addition, there will be some other actions your spouse will insist that you take, especially in order to get appropriate help. You will need to agree to do these without modification. It is also important for you to know that getting appropriate help will take no less than 6 months, but you should expect the process to take well over a year or more. You need to acknowledge that you will respect your spouse’s right to control the manner, timing, and conditions for any relational progress. Even then, there are no guarantees when or if they will be willing to make progress.
Remember, if your letter lacks specifics it doesn’t count; if it blames others it doesn’t count; if it retains any control it doesn’t count; and if you skip or short-change an element it doesn’t count. You will be able to find people who think that the above advice is too much to ask or that partial compliance should be sufficient, but that advice would not be sound. There is hope, but it will require a lot of work on your part. So, at this point you have recognized that your spouse rightly considers you abusive; you are now separated; and you have written the letter. At this point you have only just begun, and you need to know a few very important things.
The first thing you need to know is that your spouse is not willing to restore your marriage to how it used to be. That was a destructive way of life for them, so any attempt to go back to the way it was will be rejected utterly. If you want to repair the damage you have done, you are going to have to learn a new normal. That means you need to recognize that you are going to be drastically changing your life, from the inside out. Once you have addressed your own heart issues, you are going to be learning new ways of thinking about and managing your relationships. You will have to grow as an individual to the point that your spouse may begin to suspect that you might be serious about changing.
At the same time your spouse will also be learning a new normal and new habits that will help them recognize and reject abusive patterns before they develop. If all goes as it should, your spouse will be a completely different person, stronger, independent, and impossible to control. They will also be encouraged to maintain a healthy skepticism for a long while. If you do not make the corresponding changes, then there will be no possibility of reconciliation at all.
If that bothers you, then you will not likely succeed. If this all sounds like too much and too hard, it is because you are not going to be able to do it by yourself. You will need a lot of help, and you will need the kind of help that has experience in dealing with abusive relational systems. Your spouse is not to be your helper or your support, in any way, along this journey. In fact, that is never going to be their responsibility, and you need to understand that making it their responsibility is part of what created the problem in the first place.
So you will need several kinds of help:
a.) The kind of heart change that you need will require a work of God in your heart. It will be miraculous, and you will need to beg God to change your heart and grant you repentance. If you think you can do it on your own, with your own self discipline, then your pride is going to lead you to failure and there will be no hope for your relationship. Your spouse is going to be helped and encouraged in such a way as to make certain that you are not being superficial. If you are faking or merely going through the motions they will sense it, find out, and your attempts at reconciliation will probably be forever cancelled.
b.) Find a community that will hold you accountable for your actions, and be honest with that community (as per the letter you have written). Look for at least some kind of 12 step program, like Celebrate Recovery, or the best option (if you can find it) is a church that understands abusive relational systems. Your spouse will need to approve the church or group you attend. If you are not wholly honest with this community, they will end up making that obvious, and your attempts at reconciliation will probably be forever cancelled.
c.) Find a batterer’s intervention program that is a minimum of 6 months long. The best ones take a year. Enroll in that program and do not miss a single session. Not only are you going to have to convince them that you are a safe person, you are going to have to prove, by your actions, that you have actually learned from this process. Your spouse will be educated on what this program is teaching you, and if you try to bypass or ignore this education, it will be obvious, and your attempts at reconciliation will probably be forever cancelled.
d.) Your spouse is going to find a counselor for you who is licensed and who has experience dealing with abusive systems. You will need to give them written permission to contact your spouse to check up on you, share the content of your counseling, and get any information that might correct your own misrepresentations of yourself. Your spouse will not trust your own report on any of the work you are doing, so you will need to make sure that all your helpers are speaking with them. Also, you need to know that your spouse will not accept a verbal repentance without corresponding actions, proven over time. If you attempt to change counselors, quit meeting with them regularly, or if you are lying to your counselors, your attempts at reconciliation will probably be forever cancelled.
e.) Until your spouse is confident that they can confront your abusive behavior safely, there will be no discussion of a process of reconciliation. Contact with them must be limited strictly to what is required by law and/or limited to information only. Any more contact than that must be first initiated and invited by your spouse and will only happen when they are confident that you will respond well to their confrontation. You need to know that they may never get to that point, and you are going to have to be ok with that. If you attempt to force, rush, or ignore this requirement, your attempts at reconciliation will probably be forever cancelled.
Your job, at this point, is to leave the future of this relationship between God and your spouse. For your part, you are going to need to demonstrate that you are serious about dealing with your own heart and life. That your spouse is even willing to entertain the improbable possibility of genuine repentance is a special grace that God is showing you through them. Be thankful that you have this opportunity. Do not trust your own perceptions as to how you are doing. Have the humility to listen to others and get the help you need. You will find that the process is well worth the effort.
If you have made it this far, you are very unusual. Most give up within a few months, so you may be feeling that you are doing well. It will be tempting to rush forward and declare the problem solved, but that would be unwise. At the most, you have begun to undo destructive patterns of behavior, but you haven’t spent sufficient time on an appropriate replacement.
Abuse is a deep and profound failure to love your spouse. Rather than being easy to deal with, you have been hard. You haven’t encouraged growth; you have crushed your spouse’s spirit. Where you should have been sacrificing your own interests on behalf of your spouse’s good, you have elevated your own interests and neglected theirs. You have behaved in ways that served to tear down and leave your spouse discouraged, broken, and miserable. You have failed to serve your spouse as Christ loved and serves the church, and you have used spiritual sounding excuses to do so.
The only way forward is to deepen your understanding of what Christ’s love should look like in your life. God’s grace has allowed you to begin to see this, but there are some important steps that you are going to need to take to demonstrate the sacrificial, servant love of Christ.
First, if you haven’t already done so, you need to take care of your financial obligations, and your own financial needs and goals will need to be set aside until your family is properly funded. You need to know that if any reconciliation is going to be possible, it should be at least 6 months after you have first started doing this. This will require you to adopt a lifestyle that prioritizes the well being of your family. You need to accept this hardship as a necessary element of your rehabilitation.
At the same time, your spouse will be getting their own bank account and separating their finances from your influence and control. This account will never be a joint account and it will continue to be kept as their own independent account, even if the relationship is restored. Should your relationship be restored, you will continue to fund this account without any attempt to know what is in the account or control how those funds are being used. If you try to regain control of this account, your spouse will assume that you are trying to re-establish the destructive patterns of the past.
Second, you will need to learn to trust God with everything, and especially everyone, you have previously tried to control. Love is the opposite of the kind of coercive control that you have been exercising. Christ does not love and lead us through control, so it makes little sense to think that you should or even could try to do so righteously. In replacing your own entitled control with a Christlike love, there are a few essential elements.
You will need to encourage your spouse to have whatever relationships that they would like, and you will not try to interfere, in any way, with those relationships or to control what is shared with them. You are to accept and respect their absolute freedom and independence from you. At the same time, you are to consider yourself their servant in every way, without any expectation of reciprocity.
You will need to accept total responsibility for the harm you have done and be attentive to your responsibilities as your spouse’s servant. In order to begin to do this, you will need to undo the damage your lies have caused to your spouse’s relationships, admitting to others your own faults and deceptions. Every person you used to undermine or hurt your wife needs to know the truth: that your spouse was right, and you needed to be confronted. You do not need to have contact with your spouse to begin loving them in this way.
Your sacrificial love is to be focused on making sure that your spouse is the full beneficiary of your efforts, and you are especially going to need to learn how to be truthful with yourself and with others, even if the truth goes badly for you.
Finally, it is your coercive habits that have made your entitlement and control especially dangerous to the wellbeing of your family. For this reason, it is important to have an absolute commitment to never use coercion / force again, in any way. This means that you will never threaten or intimidate anyone with your voice or your body. If you feel angry, you need to be able to recognize it as your own problem and withdraw until you can respond with the grace of a Christ-like love. You must not react. If you are not sure that you can do this, you should not try to re-start the relationship. You cannot succeed if you cannot control yourself in this way.
You will need to start taking these steps before you attempt any sort of reconciliation, but along the way you may wonder when you can start the process of reconciliation. You cannot; that will be up to your spouse. However, the above steps can and should be taken, even if they have been hurt so badly that reconciliation is impossible. The moment you demand progress, you prove that you do not yet understand, and you set yourself back at least 6 months.
If you have come to recognize that your spouse is correct in naming you as an abuser, you know you have a problem, and you have written the letter we described earlier, then you have taken the steps described above, and you have stayed away from your spouse and are respecting the process…if all of this is true, you still cannot guarantee reconciliation. Sometimes the damage you have done is too extensive, and you will need to be content with the knowledge that repentance is about your relationship with God, not your relationship with your spouse.