The answer is absolutely!
Growing up in a home with domestic violence, one’s perception of a healthy, functional relationship becomes greatly skewed. Instead of seeing adults who are loving towards one another, respect each other’s needs and boundaries, and work together to resolve problems and differences, these children witness a myriad of negative feelings, words, and actions between their caregivers that are traumatic and damaging to their own sense of self and how they learn to relate to others. They may witness anything from name-calling to physical violence with severe consequences. Even if the child is not physically in the room to see the violence, they can still hear it. They can still feel the tension before, during and after. And this is a never-ending cycle that keeps looping throughout their childhood.
If this is the primary example of a relationship in a child’s life, they often grow up thinking this is the norm and many end up in unhealthy relationships themselves, because they’re simply mimicking what they learned as children. According to the American Psychological Association (Violence and the Family: Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family), “a child’s exposure to the father abusing the mother is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.” Jeff Edleson, Director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse says, “what is clear is that children who experience domestic violence are 2-3 times more likely to repeat the cycle of violence in adulthood, as the victim or the perpetrator.”
It can take years before many grown children of domestic violence become fully aware that their own relationships have followed the pattern of violence they dreaded as children and they’re now passing on the same abusive legacy on to their children. Others don’t repeat the violence necessarily, but rather experience fewer, unsuccessful, or short-lived relationships, finding their efforts to discover “true love” frustrated, as they’re unable to fully trust others with their love or feel unworthy of love themselves. They often prefer to retreat into themselves, leaving the rest of the world behind as they hide in their protective shell, only feeling more alone and isolated from others. According to author Brian Martin in Chapter 5 of CDV’s upcoming book, “studies clearly show that they have fewer relationships than others and have far more difficulty as adults in achieving intimacy. They find it difficult to make strong emotional connections.”
Former children of domestic violence often falsely believe it’s safer and easier to be alone. Brian Martin goes on to say that “they learn that life is easier and better when they keep people at a distance and their feelings locked away.”
Another LIE the book exposes is the overwhelming feeling of being unattractive or self-conscious that often plagues these individuals, making relationships seem even further out of their grasp. Martin reveals in chapter 10 that this “stems from all the toxic opinions we have absorbed from childhood. We may try to fight the relentlessly negative inner voice with superficial fixes with clothing or makeup, or trade sex for a brief sense of pride.” But overall, the feeling of being unattractive to others keeps these individuals distant and makes meaningful relationships harder to attain.
Growing up with domestic violence also created the false belief of being absolutely unlovable that persists well into adulthood. Brian Martin in chapter 11 writes, “Without any consistent source of love, you give up hope that you’ll ever have it and, like a prisoner hungry for crumbs, you take whatever you can get.” They settle for bad relationships because they believe they’re not worthy of good ones.
One of the first steps towards having a healthy relationship is to recognize that one’s perception of the Truth – what is normal – is in fact abnormal. It’s difficult after only seeing, and knowing only unhealthy relationships to identify or accept a healthy one. At first it may seem foreign and uncomfortable, because it’s completely different from what one is familiar with.
According to chapter 11, Brian explains, “those of us who grew up experiencing childhood domestic violence missed learning some important lessons about love – some of the fundamental building blocks about how loving people treat each other. Most important, we missed out on discovering that we are worthy of love! We never really had the chance to discover what’s so great about ourselves through someone else’s eyes.”
But the key is to open yourself up to the TRUTH and allow it to replace the false beliefs you learned as a child about yourself and others in your life. You need to understand that it is not normal to live in a constant state of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, or expecting verbal or physical “punishment” for expressing personal thoughts or feelings. In a healthy relationship, disagreeing is normal and it is acceptable to disagree without fear and work to find harmonious compromises that are mutually rewarding.
In order to facilitate change, one must want to change, seek out and learn what a healthy relationship entails, and then learn how to model that in everyday life until it becomes habit and replaces the skewed sense of “normal” that has existed for so long. That begins by gaining a healthy sense of self before you can truly allow others in. Loving yourself allows you to wholeheartedly love somebody else.
Former children of DV must truly understand that they do deserve to be loved, treated with respect, and cared for – that it’s their birthright, not a privilege. They deserve to be loved fully, openly, and most importantly, unconditionally, and that they shouldn’t feel guilty for being loved and treated well.
Unlearning what was learned in childhood and learning anew what constitutes a healthy relationship is not easy. That I can attest to personally. It takes time and a lot of patience from both parties. What I learned is that acknowledging one’s apprehension and confiding in one’s partner will help lead to a deeper understanding and help the former child of domestic violence work through their thoughts, feelings and fears more effectively by verbalizing and acknowledging them. It also bring the two partners closer together and the support of the other person helps give the former child of DV greater confidence, further validating the new sense of “normal” they are working to adopt.
It can take years to work through the trauma and false perceptions of “normal” that plague these individuals’ adult relationships. It took me a long time to come to terms with the impact of my childhood and begin to reverse the damage. It resides so deep within that it’s not an easy fix. Even when you think you’ve worked through everything, years later, a trigger may send you back to that dark place of negativity.
That’s ok. It happens, but as long as you learn to identify, acknowledge, and work actively to resolve it, there is a clear path to getting past it. I did. You can too.
It is never too late to unlearn the false lessons of the past and learn anew. Good, healthy relationships are too rewarding and important in life to let your past overshadow them. You deserved them and with the right mindset and proactive approach, you can have them.
Contributed by guest blogger Michelle Larouche
(Personal blog: http://amomslifeafterdomesticviolence.wordpress.com/)