When I think about my own experiences with domestic violence it’s never just the moments, I was harmed that play out in my brain. It’s like watching a movie where there are flashbacks of childhood in-between moments of my early adult years then sharp cuts to the present moment where I can see in perfect clarity what led to many of the patterns and triggers, I developed. Many of us who experienced domestic violence from a partner didn’t suddenly have an experience of this. Many of us, like me, grew up witnessing it or experiencing other violence towards us. Generational trauma that includes witnessing violence in partnership isn’t always an indicator that we’ll grow up to experience it too but it’s definitely more common than I wish.
There are a few moments that stand out harshly for me when I think about my relationship with my daughter’s father. My mom is narcissistic as hell, but she was never the only one making the home I had with her unsafe. My stepdad was also a source of danger for me and at times he scared me more than her. When I was at my mom’s house on her days (my parents had joint custody) I frequently had a babysitter at night. I loved my babysitter Kari so much that I told my third-grade teacher she was my mom. But Kari watching me meant a certain type of night was ahead. Kari and I would hang out, she’d take care of me, put me to bed, then at some point I’d be awoken to hear the screaming and bodies thrown into walls and furniture. It was so normal that my small mind prepared by lining the edges of my little bed with my stuffed animals thinking they’d protect me from the inevitable violence I’d wake up to.
The ways my mom and stepdad would throw each other around frightened me but one night, in particular, was so bad that I woke up to hear my mom being thrown into the bathroom mirror with glass shattering everywhere. I came out to see her naked and him in his underwear trying to get her to have sex with him. I was only six, but I learned a lesson at that moment: relationships were dangerous. My dad only dated up till I was eight because he apparently kept meeting women just like my mom and once was enough for him. My only long-term example was violence. My only example included learning that violence was acceptable and the ways I was harmed didn’t matter. Even when my stepdad and she got sober they were still horrible. He tried to an extent but he’s a misogynist asshole and my mom is still a narcissist. They were still shit people and people didn’t even attempt to repair the damage caused to me for witnessing and even being put in the middle of the violence. On top of everything else, I experienced growing up that taught me violence was normal and I deserved to be treated like shit, that my safety, feelings, and well-being didn’t matter.
Skip forwards many, many years to the day my ex chased me up the stairs when I was trying to call the cops to get him away from us. He was smarter about the physical acts; he never left marks and would always make it sound like he was “just playing around”. He knew how to toe the line enough to not get in trouble and at that time emotional and emotional abuse wasn’t something you could press charges on. So, on a day when I developed a bit of courage, I went for the house phone. He ripped the cord from the wall, and I ran for his cell phone while holding my daughter, only a few months old at the time. He came after me then and chased me upstairs where I tried barricading us in the bedroom while he slammed the door causing a full-length mirrored nailed to it to dislodge and nearly stab my daughter in the head. I was trying to get help, but the cops wouldn’t do anything. He was working security at the time and buddied up to them when they got there. I was told since I didn’t show enough physical evidence it was my word against his and not worth it. Everything I learned as a child was reinforced and while I planned to get out which took another 8 months the messages were still ingrained.
I went on to date more men that were emotionally abusive, and narcissistic, and made me feel like my safety, well-being, and feelings didn’t matter. It wasn’t till my daughter was in high school that I broke the pattern and while I wish I’d done so sooner because even if most of it was kept out of view from my daughter, they did witness my depression, lack of self-esteem, and self-worth. Thankfully they have therapy as well but still, all my pain was witnessed and had an effect that I regret. None of it just started and when we learn from a young age that we don’t deserve those very basic human needs we often learn to accept that until we get the help to stop the pattern, stop the cycle. One of the trickiest parts of the healing can be feeling guilt and shame, even anger at ourselves for perpetuating the very pattern we swore we’d never live through; we’d never accept. It was even harder because my mom was both a victim and perpetrator of violence and harm, she played equal parts and when I looked at why I attracted abusive partners it was hard for me to fully be angry at her for a while. I felt the anger but my inner six-year-old could remember being afraid for her mom as well as being yelled at by her for trying to step in. That’s a very confusing thing and just as I do with my clients, I had to learn to allow my inner six-year-old to feel anger, hurt, and everything in between. I had to let her scream, cry, and internally hold her and tell her it wasn’t her fault and that she deserved better.
Many of my clients have endured some variation of relationship abuse just like me and they all ask why they have accepted it over and over or for so long when they know better. I explain every time it’s because a child version of them learned that was normal and acceptable and a child version of them may be still trying to repeat the pattern hoping for a different outcome. Until that child releases all that and learns to trust that they deserve better, they are worthy of more the pattern keeps happening. When we don’t understand that and we’re carrying not just the trauma from our adult experiences but the generational ones as well it’s so hard to break the cycle. But when we do break it a little piece of finally gets everything they needed from you.