"People will ask me, 'Do you think he can change?' I say, 'Yes, it’s possible, but you can’t do anything to make that happen.'" Credit: Jess Benjamin

is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Luana Lienhart, 39, a domestic violence counselor.

An alarming number of my clients, 30 percent at least, were in an abusive relationship and didn’t realize it. One was upset that her partner had changed something on her Facebook page. I said, “How did that come to pass?” The partner said, “Oh, I’ve got her password. I’ve got all her passwords. I’ve got to make sure nothing funny is going on.”

When that happens, I’ll say something to the effect of “It seems to me you would benefit from each having individual counseling,” and I’ll keep one client and refer the other to a colleague. That works out probably 10 percent of the time. The other 90 percent of the time, the perpetrator says, “There’s nothing wrong with me. Just fix her,” and the victim will continue in counseling, and the perpetrator will not follow up. When I have that next session with the victim, I’ll say, “This is why I did this. Does your partner do anything else that makes you feel unsafe?”

People will ask me, “Do you think he can change?” I say, “Yes, it’s possible, but you can’t do anything to make that happen.” They’re told so often by their abusers, “If you didn’t do this, I wouldn’t have to hit you,” that they think they can also affect their behavior for the good—that if they love them enough, they can be better. I always stress, “If you could change his behavior, you would have done that by now.” But it’s tough. It’s really tough. Their self-esteem is so low that they think this is what they deserve.

And usually by that point the abuser has systematically cut them off from their support system. A lot of times abusers will sabotage their victims from working outside the home or being financially independent in some way. Sometimes the abuser will destroy passports or photo IDs. So when people say, “Just go!,” it’s like, “Go where and do what? With what money?”

In one case, the abuser was undocumented, and the victim was afraid of him being deported and her children not ever being able to see their father. Once I reassured her that her leaving the relationship or getting a protective order would not put him in danger of deportation, she began that process, and he was mandated into perpetrator intervention counseling. I don’t know what the catalyst was that helped him see the light, but he was able to identify that he was abusive because he grew up watching his father abuse his mother, and that’s what he learned being a man was supposed to be about.

He was in counseling for two years. His wife, to her credit, would not allow him to move back in until a year had passed after counseling without there being any kind of abuse. Fast-forward three years, and I was shocked to run into them together. They explained that he had moved back in, and they were just remarkably different people. His whole demeanor, everything about him had changed, and she was visibly more comfortable asserting herself and speaking her mind. That can happen. It’s a unicorn thing. It’s not even statistically significant enough to be studied. But it does give me hope.   v

The YWCA Evanston/North Shore Domestic Violence Program’s 24-hour hotline can be reached at 847-864-8780.