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  • Steven Stosny, Ph.D.

The Remorse of Abusers

Too much can lead to more abuse.

Abuser Remorse


- It is difficult to tell whether remorse is about the offense or being held accountable for it.

- The brain may treat remorse as something to be hidden, not as a deterrent for future behavior.

- Remorse without compassion can perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

If you’ve been abused or betrayed, you probably want to see a lot of remorse from your offender. No remorse is a hallmark of narcissism and psychopathy. But too much remorse leads to more abuse.

Remorse keeps abusers in a devalued state. Because they don’t like themselves, they’re apt to re-offend. Consider who is more likely to abuse (or indulge in impulsive behavior) the valued self, or the devalued self.

Remorse powers the well-known cycle of abuse, giving false hope to victims:

Abuse-Remorse-Honeymoon-Tension-Abuse-Remorse-Honeymoon-Abuse-Remorse- Tension-Abuse-Remorse-Tension-Abuse-Remorse-Abuse-Remorse-Abuse…

The “honeymoon” phase falls out of the cycle with repetition. Displays of remorse give way to minimizing or justifying abuse. Remorse disappears, but the cycle of abuse often persists:

Abuse-Period of Peace-Abuse-Shorter Period of Peace-Abuse-Brief Peace-Abuse…

How Remorse Leads to Recidivism

Remorse causes shame. The human brain tries not to think about things that cause shame. (The root of the word, “shame” is cover or hide.) Remorse is absent from implicit (autopilot) memory, until more harm occurs. Remorse is after the fact.

People who don’t carry much shame (or who live in denial) may be easily misled into giving too much importance to remorse. If you’ve only done one or two dreadful things, you might associate remorse with the behavior that invoked it and avoid that behavior in the future. But if you’ve done many things that invoke shame, your brain associates remorse with other experiences of shame, not with the behavior that stimulates it.

Eventually, abusers view their shame as punishment and their partners as perpetrators. They interpret their victims’ expectation of remorse as a desire to make them feel bad. Retaliatory abuse seems, in their minds, justified.

The flawed notion that feeling shame about a behavior will guarantee its extinction operates in overeating, over drinking, and infidelity, to name just a few undesired behaviors. “If I feel bad about doing it, I won’t do it again,” leads to binges and impulsive behaviors, not to restraint.

Houston Therapy & Counseling

Compassion as Deterrence

Compassion concerns the victim’s well-being. It makes offenders want to help with recovery and do whatever it takes for as long as it takes. Remorse is self-obsessed, focused on how bad abusers feel. They’re impatient for your recovery so they can feel better.

The experience of compassion puts abusers in a valued state. They like themselves better and are less likely to abuse again. For remorse to deter, it must stimulate compassion in the abuser.

In our boot camps for emotional abuse, we show abusers how to increase self-value through compassion and how to view their shame not as punishment but as motivation to be better persons and partners.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D. - website - books


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