Question: What is the likelihood of a narcissistic abuser making an about face? My divorce has been finalized and my ex husband was diagnosed with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and narcissism. I mean, do you know of any cases where the abuser has truly repented and the relationship was truly restored? I’ve had several friends tell me they are praying that God will change his heart. That’s been my prayer for YEARS until it became too dangerous. Recently I heard of a marriage being restored after infidelity, but when it comes to abuse- verbal, emotional, sexual, and physical, how can one be sure of a true heart change? I know nothing is impossible with God, but I was wondering if in your experience you have seen that?
Answer: I remember asking myself and others this question so many times about several people, in my life, years ago. The reason we hope and pray is because we have heard incredible restoration stories (especially on popular marriage blogs) and because we WANT our marriages to work. For a lot of us, we were raised to believe that divorce is not an option. That further exacerbates our frustration, and even that belief can be used against us. We feel like we have failed because we cannot hold our marriage together. And our strength begins to wane because living with someone who is diagnosed with these disorders can be hell. You never know what to expect; you are always being drained; you are running on empty; you are walking on eggshells. No one can sustain a lifetime of this. I want you to know, friend, that we do not judge you. You did the only thing you COULD do, for your safety and sanity. And we honor that.
The thing is . . . abusers live as abusers. David and I (my wonderful husband) have hurt each other, now and then, as all married couples do. It causes us to ache, feel disconnected and pretty much ruins our day. We do not go long before asking forgiveness and feeling that closeness again because we love each other. Abusers hurt constantly and all the time. In fact, their aim and their goal is to “keep you on your heels”. They remain in a posture of hatred and abuse toward their targets. You know the routine; you’ve seen the patterns, abuse wheels and so on. They live in that place and it does not ruin their day. There is a difference between the occasional selfishness of all human-kind and the perpetual, intentional lifestyle of the abuser.
I will address both personality disorders below.
First, Borderline Personality Disorder (a cluster-B disorder) is hard on everyone — the disordered AND their families. Black and white thinking, crazy-making, angry outbursts, violence, yelling and confusion seem to reign. Personally, I believe that BPD can be overcome. I firmly believe that going through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy can help those who suffer with this disorder. In my humble opinion, there is little else that CAN help. The hard truth is that those with BPD usually do not see the need for help. They blame everyone around them for their pain and are not normally self-aware enough to realize that they are the problem — or, that they are contributing to the issues around them. I have exactly one friend who used to suffer from BPD and went through DBT and she is amazing. But, of all the people I hear about or know who are diagnosed with this disorder, very few get the help they need and they wreak havoc on those around them for decades.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (also a Cluster-B disorder) is related to BPD but is still a different beast. This disorder is marked by grandiosity, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration beyond everyone’s normal need for esteem. Yoked together with BPD is a recipe for emotional and mental calamity. Many abusers fall in one of two categories: they are either NPD or they are Sociopaths. Both of these character disorders are near-impossible to cure. My limited understanding (I am not a licensed therapist) is that psychodynamic therapy would be needed for an NPD to recover. This is a lengthy and expensive process and, once again, most NPD’s do not even want therapy. They are just fine how they are (in their opinions) and are so entitled that they will take down anyone in their path before admitting they have a problem.
Most abusers have one or both of the above disorders and may be Sociopaths, as well. EVERYONE with these disorders will be surrounded by (and will perpetuate) unhealth. People are there to be used. Period. Indeed, people are not even seen as humans to most abusers but as something from which to draw supply. Having a love-filled, honest, vulnerable, mutual and beautiful marriage is literally impossible with someone with either or both of these disorders.
Being the bearer of bad news is a terrible thing. And I hate having to admit that I have never seen, in my own life, an abuser change. But, if anyone does not believe me, I would hope they would believe Lundy Bancroft, who has spent decades counseling abusive men. He has very few (if any?) success stories. His reason? Because they like how they are. They want to stay how they are. They are feeding that selfish little beast inside of them by using everyone around them and they do not want to give that up!
For an abuser to make lasting changes, he has to work on himself very hard, and he has to completely stop blaming women for his behavior. He has to stay in an abuser program far longer than the minimum time that the program lasts; something more like 18-24 months, not 3-6 months. And it’s very hard to get an abuser to stay in a program that long, because deep down he blames his partners, current and past, for everything he does.
Don’t let too much of your life slip away, hoping that he’ll change. Over the past three decades I’ve heard a hundred or more women say, “I wish I could get back all those years I lost trying to get him to work on himself.” But I’ve never once yet heard a woman say, “I gave up on my abusive partner too soon. I wish I’d given him more of a chance.” ~ Lundy Bancroft
So, from my understanding, readings, education and counseling, an abuser never changes, with one caveat: Jesus can do anything. And a caveat to that caveat is this: an abuser can only change if he wants Jesus to change Him. We who know Jesus have His power in us. But, we don’t have the power to change anyone else around us. Only they have the God-given free will to want that change to happen. It would take a miracle. And then, common sense and the orderliness of this life and world would dictate that it would take several years of hard work for an abuser to become a different person. By then, so much damage to wives and children can happen . . . and worse than that, as we have all seen the horror stories on television and social media describing the death or near-death of victims of abuse.
I have known of many women who have gone back to abuse, only to leave again later, under, heightened and worse circumstances. I wish that were not the case. I know the feeling of grasping to try and find one ounce of compassion and kindness in a man . . . to hope that one thing could come out of his mouth that is not manipulative. It was like constantly digging around in an empty bucket, hoping to come up with something substantial and having your expectations dashed, every time, as you only drew air. Is there simply nothing there?!
These truths are what CS Lewis might call “a severe mercy”. They are severe because they bring a flood of tears. They are merciful because once we realize that our circumstances will not change (IF we realize that), we can make plans and move forward without the toxicity. Remember, Jesus masterfully either avoided or confronted toxicity during His days on this earth, depending on the situation. He did not try to live with toxicity or convince people to change, as His was on an urgent mission and He knew His days on earth were short. We have that same urgency . . . to raise our children in godliness to the best of our ability. We have so few years with them at home. In a blink of an eye, they are grown. Will we stay, in hopes of our abuser changing? Or will we get the children to safety and sanity, get them counseling and teach them that our Loving God is not like an abuser? What makes more sense?
That is your choice, dear reader, and we would never infringe anything upon you or judge you for leaving or staying. But, it is very important to be educated on these things and to be SAFE. My heart aches for the beautiful woman who sent us this question because she still wants her marriage to work or come together. And I get that. She still hopes. And that is beautiful. My advice to her is this: Hope is good . . . but check on what you are hoping for. Are you hoping for a restored marriage? Is that possible? Or are you hoping for health for the father of your children, in the near future? Is that possible? If these things seem to be impossible dreams, than hope that he eventually learns truth and beauty. Hope that you and the children can move forward into health. Hope that he will get the therapy he needs. Hope that you can break any trauma bonds. Hope that you all become beauty from the ashes. Hope for laughter and joy, in the near future. Hope in Jesus. Close the door on what needs to be closed, in your life, and open any doors to new opportunities to grow into the woman God desires you to be. That is my prayer for you today.
Megan is President of Give Her Wings, Inc., and is a Pastoral Counselor (MAR), certified in Crisis Response with the AACC.