Can those who abuse their loved ones be reformed?
It's official. Chris Brown and Rihanna are together again—musically, at least. This week they released two remixed collaborations, fueling speculation they've also reunited romantically, three years after their relationship came to a violent end. Brown's rep has denied the rumors, but it's clear the two are sending mixed messages and fans are concerned. While Rihanna may have forgiven Chris Brown, who pled guilty to felony assault, others can't forget the startling photo of a battered Rihanna and fear it could happen again. Which begs the question, can an abuser really change?
"Abusers can be rehabilitated, but they have to want to change," said Brian Namey, spokesperson for The National Network to End Domestic Violence ("NNEDV"). Though there are batterers' intervention programs across the country that work with abusers to change their behavior, "a very small number actually make that change," Namey said.
"About 95 percent of men who abuse a woman are capable of change. Only about five percent of men cannot change, and are without a conscience," says couples therapist Dr. Nancy Davidson, adding that an abuser must first accept responsibility for the destructive behavior. Relationship expert Dr. Margaret Paul adds that an abuser must be open to healing and change and able to find adequate help.
Rehabilitation for abusers includes extensive education counseling and usually therapy, and results are never immediate, says marriage and family therapist SaraKay Smullens. "This abusive behavior is deep within this person and in intimate moments, it can come out again," she said, warning that anyone who returns to an abusive situation is in real danger. "It's life threatening." "My Sister's Husband Hits Her"
The National Dating Abuse Helpline reports that three women are killed by an abusive partner everyday in the United States. The danger to victims escalates when they attempt to leave the relationship.
"On average, a woman will leave her abuser eight times before finally ending their relationship," said Namey, who describes abusers as often charming and difficult to leave. "[These victims] fell in love with somebody, and it's not easy for anyone to let go of those kinds of hopes and dreams."
For these reasons, critics of victims who return to their batterers should take heed. "Anyone that condemns or judges doesn't understand these exceedingly strong or narcotic relationships," said Smullens. "The majority of these situations involve very dependent women—women who don't like themselves enough and men who prey on them for exceedingly complicated reasons."
According to the NNEDV, it's difficult to morph an abusive relationship into a healthy one with equal power and compromise. Though the physical violence may end, emotional, sexual or financial dominance can continue, all equally devastating to victims. "It isn't always a slap, a push or a kick," Smullens said. "It can be just a slow demeaning process so that you no longer have confidence in who you are."
The late Whitney Houston spoke to this dependency to Oprah Winfrey during a 2009 interview about her drug-filled and at-times, violent, marriage to Bobby Brown: "I was so weak to him. I was so weak to the love. He was my drug." Though Brown was charged with misdemeanor battery in 2003 for hitting and threatening Houston, the superstar stayed in the marriage until the couple finally divorced in 2007. If Brown has battered fiancee Alicia Etheridge, it's been kept out of the public eye. These 7 Celebrities Who Survived Domestic Violence
So how do you know if an abuser has really changed? The Texas Council on Family Violence says signs of progress include an end to violent or threatening behavior toward the victim and others, an acknowledgement that abusive behavior is wrong, an understanding that the abuser doesn't have the right to control or dominate the victim, and an end to the fear a victim may feel.
Dr. Davidson urges the victim to take a close look at the abuser's behavior to determine if there's real change. Is he in a treatment program? Is he going for drug and alcohol counseling? Is he being treated for his depression? Or, is he mouthing off at work and getting into trouble? "You can't just give someone time," said Dr. Davidson. "You have to hear and see and feel change that you can touch."
Victims should not to try to rescue the abusers, who must rehabilitate on their own, says Dr. Davidson. Notably, most experts discourage couples therapy as a means to combat domestic violence. This is contrary to what viewers of the BravoTV series "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" witnessed when Taylor Armstrong sought counseling with her late husband Russell Armstrong. "Often she'll feel better and the abuser will put on a show, but afterwards, she's in great danger for sharing their deep secrets," says Smullens. "The cover that has been blown may lead to physical or sexual violence that has never been there before."
In the case of Chris Brown and Rihanna, it's difficult to say whether he's changed. "It's interesting because for three years, Chris and Rihanna weren't together—so it's not like she rewarded him," says Dr. Davidson, who wonders if he'll take his notorious temper out on her again. "He's got to learn to handle things that don't come easy to him. That takes work, maturity, insight, behavioral change and commitment." Are Apologies Enough After Domestic Abuse?
National Dating Abuse Helpine CEO Purcell said in a statement, "We do not know the status of Chris Brown and Rihanna's relationship. We sincerely hope Chris Brown has taken responsibility for past behavior. People can change and we sincerely hope he has changed …"
Still, Jennifer Craunston, Supervising Attorney for the Pace Women's Justice Center, worries that a reunion between the two may send the wrong message. "I would hate to think that somehow the violence is minimized, especially when you have people in the spotlight that others look up to as a role model."
Expert Smullens agrees. "These are international stars. Most people … want to see the best for them. They want to see that happily ever after," she said, but warns that relationships rooted in the cycle of domestic violence "are never happily ever after."
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please contact www.loveisrespect.org to connect with an advocate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You may also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit www.thehotline.org.