It is nearly impossible to have a healthy relationship if you don’t know what one looks like. If a child grows up in a home with abuse and chaos, it will be difficult for her or him to then seek out a healthy partner and establish a healthy relationship. One woman told me that she wondered how she ended up “loving the man she hated all her life.” She grew up with her step-dad beating her mom and then ended up with a violent partner herself. She hated her step-dad and didn’t understand how or why her mom stayed with him. She thought she’d make different choices.
A grown man told me the story about how he learned that affection and suffering are two sides of the same coin. He grew up watching his dad beat his mom. He saw, heard, and absorbed the experiences over and over and over. Sometimes he listened in his bed and hoped it would be over soon. Sometimes he tried to help her. He learned that he was powerless to help, except when he could comfort her after the hurt. The love comes after the beating. Dad goes to sleep, gets arrested, passes out, runs away, slinks to shadows and her little man is there to comfort her. And she to comfort him. It is a temporary fix, a calming balm, but never to last because mom never picked the boy over the dad. The boy learned that affection and love are conditional, temporary, and go with hurt and abuse. He didn’t know he learned this lesson until he was a grown man.
He remembers the day he learned that love and affection are separate from pain and can be given and received freely. He went to the home of a friend and saw how the family hugged and greeted each other. His first thought was that “something bad” must have happened because affection comes after hurt. He asked his friend what happened and was surprised to learn that this family always greeted each other in this way and that it was possible to express love without paying the price of suffering.
I had the chance to talk with a mom who’d previously been in a violent relationship and had gone through a counseling program. She said that it was nice for her and her kids to hug because they loved each other, not for comfort, not following a beating.
The greatest gifts we can give our children are the knowledge that they are loved, valued, and safe. Being safe includes discipline, order, and consistency. Not only is it damaging to experience home violence for a child, they are often learning that abuse must be tolerated. They learn that if someone hurts you, it is OK to put up with it, to stay with that person because people who love you are the same ones who hurt you. And, perhaps more insidious, that to get to love you must go through pain.