My thirteen-year-old son Joe had been yelling at me for nearly 90 minutes when I snapped. The nightmarish feeling he had turned into his sometimes-terrifying father drove me over the edge.
When he kicked a hole in the kitchen wall I lost it: “Get in the car! You’re going to live with your dad!” Joe towers over me and outweighs me by 20 pounds. For a moment I was afraid.
In an instant, his face crumbled. For a moment I saw my baby behind the tough guy. But I could not go back there. I could not go back to the place where love allows the unacceptable to continue.
The inter-generational nature of domestic violence is played out around treatment center tables, in church basements, in high school multi-purpose rooms every single day in every imaginable support group.
What works? How do we reclaim our behaviors from a family dynamic where rage is a tool–even after the abuser is gone?
A July 31st press release from the University of Houston touched a raw nerve. The study claimed to “change perpetrators’ psychological abuse during arguments rather than addressing his sexist beliefs”.
According to the researcher, Julia Babcock, “There is a lot of research that studies the victim of intimate partner violence, but not the perpetrator. The predominant model for… intervention is based on what was gleaned from women in battered women shelters and focuses on men’s patriarchal attitudes about power and control.”
Where are these fictitious feminist support groups who view domestic violence through the lens of patriachy? On the edges of Washington, D.C. at the House of Ruth Maryland–one of the country’s oldest and largest domestic violence shelters–we don’t talk about gender politics.
The women in my group force us to recognize our own patterns–-even when it feels impossible. A typical session includes encouragement like “girl you don’t have to TAKE that!” “Next time he says that you call me.” “I’ll watch your kids while you go to court.”
But, most of all, our peers force us to look the beast in the eye and name it.
“What do you mean, your story isn’t as bad as hers? A month ago you said that man grabbed you by the neck!”
Without this strong team behind us, we simply cannot untangle the truth from the desire to keep our families intact and the love we hold for our still beloved husbands. We cannot overcome the gaslighting–our own desire to believe this is somehow our fault, and therefore fixable. We have to completely change our thinking, to re-program family dynamics encoded in the DNA of multiple generations.
The only feminist concept that resonates around these tables is that abuse is NOT okay, something that was unthinkable only a few decades ago.
When we got to my ex’s house, we knew we were in trouble. Roy leaned into Joe’s car window, his muscled upper body filling the small space. Joe glanced at me, terrified. I swallowed, wondering what I’d gotten us into.
The University of Houston therapist says her work seeks to “change how the communication goes during an argument with the batterer and his partner. The findings indicated the batterers could learn communications skills and when they applied them in an argument with their female partners, the argument improved and the participants felt better about the argument and more understood.”
“Yes, communication skills are important,” says Elissa Levine, who runs the House of Ruth counseling program. She understands the point and she stresses: “But abuse is much deeper rooted in personality, and indicates great pain and insecurity that takes years, with participants willing to work hard, to overcome.”
My ex became a drill sargeant – “Joe! You are NEVER to speak to your mother like that again! When I was your age I got kicked out of my mother’s house for hitting her. And it started just like this–thinking I could say anything I wanted to. Well, you can’t. She’s your mother. And I DEMAND that you respect her!”
Roy’s face relaxed for a moment, and love for our son flooded his features. His voice softened, and he clapped Joe on the shoulder. “You’re better than this, man,” he said.
Joe looked at his father the way he looks at his baseball coaches, the way a dog looks at his master. More than anything, a boy needs his father to teach him what a man is.
Roy had been through nearly fifteen years of drug treatment and anger management and just about everything in between. A man constantly filled with anger and resentment whose takeaway from court-ordered treatment was initially “baby–you should HEAR the shit these men do to their wives–you don’t have it bad at all.”
Roy had lost his career and family in his struggle and his multiple mis-steps. But he saw his own son and he saw himself at that age. For a moment he was able to own his past. His son needed a man, an honest man, a man who could acknowledge his past and say “don’t go there – you’re better than that.” And, for his child, he stepped up.
Joe is still with me. We have the normal ups and downs of teenage living. But I only have to remind him of the day we drove to his father’s to calm things down.
Babcock further describes her study “Whereas most therapies are built top-down from theory, [this] allows us to build a therapy package–technique by technique–from the lab up.”
Levine argues, from her perspective of decades counseling couples in abusive relationships, “There are some really wonderful couples counseling techniques that are out there that focus on communication and getting to the root of what is really going on–Emotionally Focused Therapy, Imago, Gottman, and others. But unless the abuser is ready to look at their own pain, take responsibility for their part in the relationship, and want to do something about themselves, it doesn’t matter how many social skills they learn, abuse will eventually rear its ugly head again.”
I’ve heard so many stories. The father is an alcoholic, the son is a heroin addict. The mother had to hide in a shelter from her husband, but when her boys were teens she had to take out protective orders against them.
They are stories that tell, over and over and over again, that our children learn right at our knees. Joe grew up hearing his father yelling at me. And he grew up watching me take it.
Only when we are honest with ourselves about what is unacceptable can we find the courage to move on. And yet, we have these children who have learned their behavior at our own kitchen tables.
As Levine says, “it is not easy for women to take a stand and say no to abuse, especially when there are children involved and qualities in the abusive men that we love. But it is also critical, for the sake of everyone in the family, that women do say NO, so that the cycle is broken and true change, if it is going to happen, will be able to occur.”
So, yes, we need research about what works for men as well as women. But mostly we need help as entire families in how to untangle this thread. Because we have all learned that some limited form of love is enough. And the very last thing we need is the tired shibboleth that feminism needs to somehow be proven wrong.
Tips if you are living with – or thinking of leaving – a domestic violence situation: http://www.hruth.org/creating-a-safety-plan.asp
Statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence: http://www.americanbar.org/groups/domestic_violence/resources/statistics.html