Understanding the Difference Between Compliance and Change

Can the abuser change? The short answer: Yes.

Anyone can change. It’s a matter of desire, will and motive. Healthy people are generally desirous of change when they genuinely care about how their actions affect others and will accept an opportunity to contribute to their relationships in a meaningful way.

Does the abuser really want to change? In most cases, the short answer is “No.”

Abusers don’t care if you’re happy; they care if they’re happy. Their control is far more important than your happiness. Therefore, on the occasion where his enabler-victim identifies an area of dissatisfaction or conflict in the relationship, the abuser will quickly attempt to squelch any discontent through verbal jeopardizing, diminishment or yelling.

However, there are times when a victim is committed to requiring that the abuser face and address his offenses and change his ways.   It may require checking his temper, helping with legitimate needs around the house, an increased measure of financial responsibility, or more freedom for a family member to pursue a favorite hobby, pastime or academic objective.  When the abuser feels truly cornered, he may agree to accommodate his enabler’s request.

But is he committed to change? Or is what he offers merely compliance? There is a cavernous difference between them. As enablers, we are often quick to accept the abuser’s smallest measure of movement toward meeting our needs as evidence of sincere change.  But, what is he offering: compliance or change?

Remember, an abuser doesn’t want what is best for the relationship; he wants what is best for him. With this in mind, when you confront him, often he will initially deny there is any problem at all. The problem is yours. You are wrong.

Then, he may become resentful that you are asking him to alter his behavior at all or contribute to a greater degree to the relationship. You are being selfish.

Under pressure, he may concede, if only to get you to leave him alone.  You are willing to accept this concession as a sign of his deep-down love for you.  You tell him how much you appreciate his willingness to help.  You think he will see that such a small gesture makes you happy – and that will make him happy.  In truth, he believes that you are demanding.  You are asking something of him that he does not want to give.  He simply wants to get you off his back.

What happens over time will begin to tell the story.  Here are some clues to tell you if he is intent on changing or if he is merely complying.

  • Real Change is Voluntary; Compliance is Obligatory
  • Real Change is Sincere; Compliance is Half-Hearted
  • Real Change is Lasting; Compliance is Temporary

These stark differences reflect attitude, motive and commitment.


In a healthy relationship, a mature and genuinely caring husband wants his wife to feel supported, fulfilled and encouraged. He wants her to know she is appreciated at home, and he is willing to help her (as she is similarly willing to help him) with the management of the household, children, finances, and the balanced fulfillment of her life’s goals.

When it is understood that there is an imbalance, he will willingly commit to additional responsibility, even acknowledging some inconvenience and flexibility as he adapts to change. If the change is genuine, you will see a positive attitude. If it is merely compliance, his attitude will be one of benign or perhaps even resentful accommodation.


In the days that come, you may see a little extra effort. You embrace it with gratitude and believe that he will see that his contribution makes a positive difference that benefits the household. You are almost gleeful that he is willing to contribute to the relationship in a more meaningful way. Don’t get too excited yet.

An abuser often rejects boundaries or limitations on his life, and views them as unacceptably confining or rigid. Although he may initially conform, his tendency will be to sabotage the change using any number of subtle or not-so-subtle strategies.

He will forget.

He will perform his duties poorly.

He will become frustrated.

He will make excuses.

He will complain.

He will make himself unavailable.

He will fall ill.

He will claim he is too tired.

He will claim he is incapable.

He will decide the duty is “not for him.”

The abuser is determined to find a way to get you to let him off the hook, or conjure up evidence that you’re nit-picky or demanding. This is not change.


Sometimes the signs of compliance may not be so overt. The abuser may initially accommodate your request. It may just be that the “change” is temporary, fading into nothingness over time. You feel obligated to pick up the slack as a means of trying to show that you can be flexible and to set an example of the give and take that is evident in a healthy relationship. You once again assume his share of responsibility, and he readily absolves himself and allows you to carry on. In fact, he seems so much happier when you relieve him of his obligation that you feel guilty asking him to share the burden when other needs surface. The gradual fading away of your original understanding could give way to frustration and anger, yet should you confront him, he will likely assert that:

You’re impossible to please.

You need to accept him as he is.

He did what you asked.

It’s your job, anyway.

You’re a nag.

You have learned that it is simply easier to do things yourself to shield yourself from the anxiety and disappointment, even while recognizing that the imbalance remains. Best of all (for him), the abuser got what he wanted, which is not to have to do what he doesn’t want to do.

My former husband was habitually late to virtually every commitment and appointment. I once asked him why he never made an effort to arrive on time, and he responded quite matter-of-factly, “Because no one is ever going to tell me when I have to be anywhere.” From what I have been able to tell, that attitude is pretty indicative of an abuser’s mindset. It makes no difference to him whether what he is being asked to do is helpful, cooperative, considerate, beneficial or necessary. While he may comply for a time, there may be an air that betrays that he is, in fact, resentful.

Unfortunately, the abuse victim may have difficulty grasping that the abuser doesn’t want to contribute anything unless he is assured of a direct and immediate benefit as a result. Even though an abuse victim has witnessed – perhaps time and time again – the deterioration of what she had optimistically embraced as evidence of change, the abuser’s initial effort is enough to keep her hopeful.

True, the abuser didn’t meet her expectations in this particular instance – or did so only temporarily.  But surely his fleeting consideration must be a sign that somewhere deep down he is genuinely receptive to her needs and desires, right?  Or perhaps it is too much trouble to even beg for his attention.  Instead, she may do her best to accommodate her abuser’s every whim and live in his shadow, ever hopeful that one day he might want to change while history cautions that compliance may be all she ever gets, if that.

Clearly, compliance and change are not synonymous. Do not confuse the two.

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9 thoughts on “Understanding the Difference Between Compliance and Change”

  1. As the founder of a non-profit against domestic violence, Wild Heart, I have done ALOT of research on abusers, therapy, etc. My 29 year old daughter was shot and killed by her husband. As you know, most abuser/killers are linked to their victims through the domestic violence tagline. Children do learn what they live. Research reveals that over 85% of all abusers do not change even with therapy and mentoring. Give me a break….really…mentoring! In our case, never a “I’m sorry”or any remorse shown. It took us over 5 years to get a solid sentence only after him plea bargaining down and down…You are right, abusers want total control and will keep it at any cost. My daughters two little girls were close to the execution style murder which forever will affect them the rest of their lives. Thousands of children are abused or witness domestic abuse each year. Stopping the cycle while they are forming relationships is the major hope of stopping the cycle. If they live it, it becomes embedded and a part of their behavior as they grow into adults. The cycle will continue which will affect communities. I lost my daughter but it could be anyones sister, mother, niece, grand-daughter, etc. Our organization gives many outreach presentations in hoping to bring awareness and prevention for others. It is sad but away of life that there are just mean and cruel people who live in our society, we have to figure ways to protect ourselves, the weak, and the young. The justice system does very little to truly help the victims and their families. We know, we lived it. We also concentrate on contacting politicians and legislators to drive action for stiffer sentencing and accountability of the abusers and perpetrators.

    1. Thank you for taking the time so offer your feedback. Wow, what a powerful story you have to share. Certainly painful, and I am so sorry for all you have been through. Nevertheless, you are educating and empowering others to see the dynamic and hopefully escape before it takes such a terrible toll. God bless you for your contribution to this very common problem.

  2. Please join my blog to help me reach out to encourage others to get out of their abuse. In my blog it tells of my 25 years of abuse and the mental illnesses I had suffered stemming from this including they way I have secluded my life from wanting to leave my home due to agoraphobia. Noone should have to live the way I had. I really want to make a difference by inspiring others to be survivors of this vivious cycle that is plaguing in Gods world,

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