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When someone in your life claims to have changed and promises to stop behaving badly, have they truly changed, or are they just pretending?

Telling the difference between the actor and the authentic person is vital to avoid the effects of crazy-making. Your sanity may depend on it.

Transcript follows.

In this episode of love and abuse, I want to talk about change and how someone says they’re changing and you’re not sure if that’s true.

This usually happens in emotionally abusive relationships, when you’re with someone that says, “You’re right, I’ll never do that again. ” Or, “I promise I’ll change,” or, “I promise I’m going to therapy tomorrow.”

We get these promises, or declarations, that someone is going to do something, or someone appears to be changing, but we’re not sure if it’s going to last.

In the emotionally abusive relationship, the change is usually dictated like an emotional roller coaster. And that effect of up and down like:

Today they’re nice.
Tomorrow, they’re controlling.
Today, they’re nice.
Next week, they’re mad or angry. Or saying something that’s making us feel bad about ourselves.

This is what happens in the emotionally abusive relationship. We think someone is changing, and then they are exactly who we want them to be for a few days.

Then they’re exactly the opposite and they’re back to their old selves. And we don’t know what to do about it.

When you’re in this situation, it’s hard to tell what changes are real and what aren’t. That’s kind of what I want to address today is:

How can you tell if the change you’re seeing is real?

And I think that’s important to know for yourself because this is how crazy-making happens is that someone says they’re changing, or they appear to be changing or have changed, but you have this little bit of doubt inside of you because you know from experience that tells you, “Well I’ve seen this before. I would love for this to be true. I would love for this person to have changed and realize that they have been mean to me or hurtful to me in some way. But I’m not going to hold my breath, but I want it to be true.”

We put energy into “hope”, “want” and “faith”, and the whole concept that ‘if this is true, this is going to be the best relationship ever. But if it isn’t, I’m going to have a big letdown again.’

This is what victims of emotional abuse will go through. They will harness all this energy and focus it on their hopes, wants, dreams and desires, that the other person will finally show up as the person they once knew in those initial few weeks or months of the relationship

They’ll have thoughts like, “That’s how I want them to show up because I know it’s in there.” Unfortunately, that’s what often happens with these types of relationships. That was “the act”. I’m not saying it’s always the case. I’m saying often, when you have a relationship that is so up and down, there was sometimes an act in the beginning.

It wasn’t all phony. It wasn’t all an act, I’m sure. There were probably a lot of genuine thoughts and emotions and caring and things like that. But when that disappeared, and these other qualities of the person showed up, you end up wondering, “Where did this person come from? Where was the person I met?”

And because you may have developed an attachment, a love, for them, it’s hard to say goodbye to the time and emotional energy that you invested into the relationship.

Let’s get back to “change”. Let’s say that you’re in a situation where you’re with someone who says they’ve changed. Or they say they’re sorry for how they’ve shown up and they realized that their behavior is not good and they’re changing and are convincing you they’ve taken steps toward change already.

How do you know it’s permanent? And how do you know it’s true?

Well, you don’t necessarily always know. First of all, if someone’s trying to placate you or make you think they’ve changed, they can be very good at acting. They can be very good at pretending to change just to make you feel comfortable again. And once you’re in that comfortable space, the controlling person, the manipulator, is going to swoop in and take over again.

I’m only talking about certain relationships that fall into the category of emotional abuse, where one partner wants to control the other partner and make them feel bad about themselves. They want to keep their partner in a constant state of worry, insecurity, lack of confidence, and lack of self-trust, to the point where they really can’t think for themselves anymore.

They become more reliant on the person who’s putting them through this control and manipulation. It’s quite complicated. I talk about it on other episodes of Love and Abuse as well. When you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, this is what can happen. One person will end up being in a constant state of anxiety, worry, or feeling crazy through crazy-making (AKA Gaslighting) and they lose a lot of their sense of self-worth and self-value. They get to the point where they stop being able to trust themselves because they’re told they’re wrong all the time.

And the manipulator, the emotional abuser, is very good at convincing you that you are wrong and that you can’t trust yourself.

Some people don’t know they are being emotionally abusive or controlling. Some have no intention of harming or hurting their partner, but they end up doing unhealthy behavior anyway. A lot of people can do bad behavior unknowingly so it isn’t just people with bad intentions.

But the problem is that so many people can pretend to change. And I think it’s important to know the difference between true change and pretend-change.

And I’m going to define true change for you, at least the way I define it. I want to convey to you what real, genuine, true change is so that when you see it in someone that you’re with: your partner, your family member, etc., when you are with someone who says “I’m changing,” or “I have changed.”, you will know when it’s true.

Here’s my take on true change:

Truly changing requires an empathetic perspective of how you are affecting the other person. It makes you humble and careful because there’s a genuine realization that your behavior was unhealthy.

It puts you into introspection and reflection mode. You become introspective because you actually want to learn, heal, and grow from who you’ve been. There can almost be a sense of self-disgust and shame that you would ever treat another human being like that.

You become reflective by thinking about all the times that you were a certain way to someone. And you have a sense of pain and regret that you ever showed up that way in the first place.

True change makes you more receptive to how you should behave differently. You stop claiming to know better, and you become a bit more submissive and willing to learn and change other things about yourself.

When someone truly changes, all of that, or at least most of what I just said should be true.

I remember learning that I was being emotionally abusive during my marriage. Near the end of our marriage – for the very first time – I realized, “Oh my God, my behavior is making her unhappy. That hurts me. It hurts me to see her unhappy.”

And it hurt worse to know that I caused it. It was the first time I took full responsibility for what I was doing to her, and actually had an empathetic connection to her emotions regarding how I was treating her.

It was a moment of enlightenment I’ll never forget. And it changed who I was forever. I developed an empathetic perspective.

It made me humble and it gave me a genuine realization that my behavior was unhealthy. I reflected back on all the times I treated her badly. And I did feel disgusted in myself.

I felt a sense of shame that I would ever do what I did to her. I felt awful that I would ever treat her that way. It gave me pain and regret that I showed up that way.

From that point forward, I became more receptive to her words. That realization made me understand that her emotions were important. I stopped claiming to know better. I started taking responsibility that I didn’t know everything. And accepted that what I thought I knew better, I didn’t

I became more submissive and willing to learn, and also change other things about myself.

I kind of repeated what I just said about change, but I went through that whole process. And she saw it! She recognized it. But by that time in our relationship, she’d already fallen out of love with me so it was too late for the marriage. But it was the perfect event that could have happened because it changed who I was and how I showed up.

It made me change my behavior because I no longer wanted to control her, I just wanted to heal. I realized that I was unhealthy for her. That was a true realization… that was a true change.

When somebody you’re with mistreats you, and they realize that their mistreatment is very unhealthy behavior, they’re likely to take a step back and go, “Whoa! What am I doing? This is awful.” And “I’m so sorry, I don’t ever want to do that to you, I feel so bad. I need to look inward. I need to figure this out. I need help.”

This is the kind of response that really starts to point to genuine and long lasting change.

On the flip side, you can also recognize change for show – When someone’s pretending to change.

Here’s what it can look like:

  1. It appears that they’ve stopped the behavior like they’ve turned off a light switch. And the behavior only seemed to have changed due to a threat of accountability, like you threatening to leave or threatening a loss to them of some sort.

    To me, this isn’t change. If they say nothing but, “Oh my God, I’ll stop the behavior,” that is not really them wanting to connect with you emotionally. That is just them protecting themselves.

    They may think, “What do I have to lose here? If I have something to lose, I’ll change my behavior. But since I don’t, I won’t.”

  2. When they apologize (which they probably will) their apologies don’t seem to include an empathetic connection to what you went through.

    They may say things like, “I’m sorry for what I did, ” but nothing along the lines of, “I realize that my behavior was awful, I realize this now. And I’m so sorry that I’ve been acting this way. I feel so bad.”

    Now even that can be faked. Even that response might not be a genuine comment. But when you put all these things together, like the other things I mentioned, then you’ll be able to tell if the change is real or not especially if you get the sense of them stepping back out of themselves.

    I don’t know how to explain that any better, but when someone really realizes that their behavior was bad, and they know they need to change, not for you, but for themselves, it’s like they’re stepping outside themselves and they’re looking at themselves from a different perspective.

    They might say to themselves, “Wow, look at you. Look at what you’ve done.” They’ll talk to themselves as if they are judging who they are: “Look at what you’ve done. How could do this? What kind of person are you?” They have that type of perspective going on inside their head.

    That’s what I suggest you look for to determine if someone has truly changed: If you can see them almost stepping out of themselves, look at themselves and imagine they are thinking, “Whoa, I can’t believe I’ve been this way. Wow. I need to work on this,” then that might be a good step in the right direction.

  3. They become angry (again) when you continue that threat of accountability; that threat of the same loss you mentioned to them before.

    For example, if you said, “You know what? I’m going to leave. I’m going to stay with my mom (or dad, sister, friend or whatever), ” and they go, “Okay, I’m sorry. I’ll never do that again. I promise. You’re right. Everything I was doing was awful. And I’m so sorry,” let it sit for a few days. Let the conversation and negativity settle down.

    After a bit, everything will probably seem copacetic again. Everything will seem comfortable again. But the issue may still exist. But instead of just letting it go hoping everything will return to normal, you bring up that same threat of loss again almost like a test to see how they’ll respond. It’s that same threat of accountability to show them that you are serious about what you said previously.

    You do this to find out if that same stimulus makes them act badly again. For example, if you said “I’m going to stay with someone for a week,” and they say, “You’re right. You should. I’m so sorry. And you know, I’m going to work on this while you’re gone. I’m going to work on this, ” that’s a good sign!

    I’m not saying that you’re home free 100% now. After all, some people are very good actors. But if you take all this other stuff into account, and you introduce the same accountability, the same action that you were going to take to make them accountable for their behavior by saying, “Look, I’ve thought about it, and I still want to go away for a week,” you’re going find out if what they originally said about them wanting to change was true.

    If what they originally stated about them wanting to learn and grow from their behavior is true, they’re going to fully support whatever you need to do for you because they love you and because they want to support you because they realize they’ve been mistreating you. You’ll be able to see that all they want to do now is make sure that you feel better because you feeling better makes them happy.

    That’s another sign of true change:

    You feeling better makes them happy.

    Reintroducing the original stimulus, the original threat of accountability will help you see if their bad behavior returns. If it does, then they were just waiting some time to return to a place of control to get what they want from you.

    You being in an empowered space is a threat to a controlling person. If you decide to honor yourself by staying empowered and letting them know that you are serious about the accountability for their bad behavior (which, in a healthy relationship should be fully supported by both partners in my opinion), and they felt threatened by that, like they were going to lose control of you, then you will see that they weren’t trying to change at all.

If you’re wondering if they’re changing, if they’re going to change, or if this change is going to last. replay this episode and take some notes because there’s some important information in here.

I don’t want you to be on the emotional roller coaster!

Roller coasters at a park are supposed to be fun. But emotional roller coasters are the worst thing you could possibly experience.

There’s never any closure.
There’s never any comfort.
There’s never any semblance of balance.

You just never get into a homeostasis that feels relaxed, balanced, and comfortable. It’s always up and down. It’s just too much to handle. No human being can handle that.

They can learn tolerance. They can learn resilience. They can learn coping skills. They can learn survival skills. But you can tell when human beings can’t handle something. When we’re in anxiety states half the time and then walking on eggshells another portion of the time, and then maybe for a few days we are comfortable and relaxed… that up and down bipolarity of an emotionally abusive or manipulative relationship is just too stressful on our system.

It’s too stressful for your psyche. It’s too stressful for your body. It’s too stressful for your mind.

And even though you may think, “Hey, I’m getting through this relationship. I’m surviving it,” it’s taking its toll.

If you’re in this type of relationship, it does take its toll. So, just like I say in The M.E.A.N. Workbook, you need to start rebuilding your self-worth, your confidence, your self-trust, and your ability to make decisions.

Just start rebuilding these things. It’s all “self” focused. It’s all about you.

Don’t make your self-growth and self-improvement about the relationship. Make it about you. A healthy relationship supports each person improving themselves the way they want to improve themselves.

That’s how you can tell it’s a healthy relationship: There is support from each side, showing the other person that “I care about your happiness. I want you to be happy. I feel good when you feel good.”

Those are great goals for any relationship.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Paul Colaianni is a Behavior and Relationship Coach, and the host of The Overwhelmed Brain and Love and Abuse podcasts.

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