You can’t fix an abuser.
Over the years that I have travelled alongside and helped women who have been subjected to some form of abuse in relationships, I have heard the same thing from almost all of them: “I thought if I loved him enough he would heal and then he would change”. But you can’t fix an abuser.
It’s beautiful; this idea that love heals everything. That we can fill gaping chasms and black holes and a wretchedly sad angry emptiness of another person with just enough love.
Unfortunately it’s nonsense. You can’t fix an abuser.
If you listen to the Savage Lovecast, a sex and relationship podcast presented by Dan Savage (and produced by Nancy Hartunian who sometimes weighs in on the answering in particular in response to women’s questions), you’ll know where I got the title for this blog post.
A few heartbreaking questions that I have heard recently on the Savage Lovecast that have sparked the ‘your vagina can’t cancer cure’ response have been along the lines of:
- ‘My boyfriend broke my finger while biting it during sex. How do I let him know to be more gentle?’
- ‘I’m in a relationship with a guy who dumped me the first time because I wasn’t nice enough, then when we got back together he broke up with me again because he thought he was gay. We’re giving it a third try, and I’m trying to be supportive of him and help him through all this stuff, but now he’s saying I have jealousy issues. How can I help him see that I do really care about him?
- ‘I’ve been seeing this guy, and the last time we slept together he was too rough. When I called him on it afterwards, we ended up sitting up all night and talking about his terrible past, but then he got angry, burning a cigarette on me and saying I’m just like all the others. How do I help him?’
So on and so forth.
It’s very hard when we hear these stories not to go to a place of judgement:
Honey, why on earth would you EVER put up with someone who broke your finger (I mean, can you imagine how hard it would be to actually break someone’s finger)? Who dumped you 2 times and is still accusing you of being the problem? Of thinking you’re helping some guy who just put a cigarette out on your bare skin?
But there’s so much more to it than that.
These calls to the Savage Lovecast are all versions of the same theme I’ve heard many times from women with huge hearts: ‘How Can I Help Him [show him that he is loved enough to come to terms with his awful past]’?
I’m pretty sure if I could gather up the voices from almost every single woman I have ever worked with and who has moved away from another’s choice to use ANY kind of abusive behaviour to control them, they would collectively say these fine words:
YOU CANNOT HELP HIM. YOU CAN’T FIX AN ABUSER. YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS CHOICES. YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
Or something like that.
This is completely DIFFERENT from ‘he cannot change’ or that people are not able to disentangle and heal from abusive childhoods or bad relationships.
But they really have to want to.
They have to believe that they are responsible for their own behaviour.
Sure, we can’t help how we feel. Feelings are just that: feelings. They rise and fall as we ebb and flow in relation to one another and the world. I’ve known many people who have suffered at the hands of others, and yet make the choice every day not to harm people because of their own pain.
But we are ALL responsible for how we act.
Love is an action.
Love needs to flow both ways.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you think loving someone (who believes they have never been loved and is also abusive) will heal them and stop them eventually from being abusive?
- Have you ever, after a person has chosen to abuse you and you have called them on it, fallen for the words: ‘This is hurting me so much, I’m suffering’ ‘I can’t handle this pain you are causing me [by leaving me or being angry with me]’ ‘I love you so much it hurts me when you turn away from me, I’m breaking up inside’…? Notice how these words are all about how the person using abuse feels, and not at all acknowledging how what they did made YOU feel, any suffering they have caused you. It’s a slippery slope from here.
- If The Relationship was a thing unto itself that requires both people to contribute reasonably equally to keep it flourishing, is there a fairness (acts of love can look different, but are there equalish acts of love happening)?
- Are you in fact doing 95% of The Loving in the relationship?
Sadly, it is pretty much impossible that a person will change simply because you are loving them. And why would they want to? You’re making it so easy for them to stay the same, doing all the heavy lifting, trying to fill cavernous bottomless pits with your heart.
Unfortunately women in particular in our society have been given the false message that we ARE in fact responsible for other people’s feelings and that we can heal with the power of our hearts. But you can’t fix and abuser.
We are fed this idea over and over from childhood: that it is our job to give and give, to love others enough to save them. That the power of our love can overcome any pain and suffering another person has experienced. If we just love them loud and hard enough then they will burst through this ‘painful place’ they live in.
That they will eventually believe that they ARE loveable. If they just believed that I do truly love them, that will stop them from hurting me, and we will have that fairytale life I’ve always dreamed of.
I really do wish this were true.
The truth is more like this: If your vagina can’t cure your lover’s cancer, why do you believe your heart can cure their damaged soul? You can’t fix an abuser.
A very wise woman once said to me: You can’t date someone’s potential.
If the person you are giving your love to is ALL potential with a big side of harmful hurtful abuse, then please don’t give them your heart.
Honey, your heart is so much more precious than that. It’s the most valuable and most darling thing that you have.
It may not be able to cure cancer and it may not be able to heal someone’s pain-filled backstory, but it is yours and it is truly wondrous. Your heart allows you to open yourself and enwrap another within the warm safety of your ever-loving arms.
Make sure you share it with someone who is capable of sharing themselves.
If you don’t believe you are worth more, then please do seek a helping companion. An ally to walk with you on a journey of uncovering your skills, your unique offerings, your values in life and most importantly your value as a human being.
I promise you that you don’t have to keep pouring yourself into an empty vessel in order to fit in, to be in relationship, and to only hope for love without any genuine outcome.
Your heart desires to be loved so badly. Honour its wishes.
Please share your comments and experiences below.
If you’re looking for a counsellor, please do reach out to me here. I’d love to help you. If you’re looking for more information like this, then sign up for the blog and get irregular but meaningful posts in your email. If you aren’t sure what abuse IS, then the DVRC has some fantastic resources and lots of compassion.
Main image by Sydney Sims on Unsplash