Children who experience domestic violence often grow into adults who have difficulty with authority figures.
It is important to remember, when frightened, as a first course of action, primates turn to each other rather than on each other. We do not burrow holes or hide or climb trees to escape. When we cannot turn to a bigger, stronger person for protection and support, it raises anxiety and fear in us.
Domestic violence poses a complicated problem because when a caregiver is frightening and violent it undermines our hard-wired need to connect. When our earliest caregivers are unapproachable we develop strategies to avoid them because they elicit disappointment and fear in us. One way to cope is to learn to become angrier and more violent than they are. Another way to cope is to flee or become avoidant. With no safe way to protest, children learn to “flee” by hiding their feelings out of fear of reprisal from a parent they believe will retaliate violently against them.
Families have emotional display rules. I grew up in a household with parents who graduated from the “old school” when it came to parenting. Don’t talk back. Don’t argue. Don’t question, or I’ll give you something to be angry about. What I’m referring to here is an ass whipping. All that style of parenting does is drive behavior underground. It also forces the locus of control outside the child. Remember the preacher’s kid? That dude would behave flawlessly while in church or in his parents’ presence, but once church was over, and he was no longer within the sphere of parental influence, he’d run amok.
Parents are our first authority figures. As we grow older, teachers, bosses, and intimate partners become our authority figures. Children who grow up afraid of their parents, often grow into adults who learn to hide their feelings or act out behind their perceived authority figure’s back. That is not to say they don’t also turn into perpetrators of violence themselves, but my aim here is to highlight a subtler effect of domestic violence on children.
Many adults with the type of childhood experience described here grow into adults who find it difficult, if not impossible, to articulate their feelings. When avoidance becomes the norm, any number of compulsive self-defeating behaviors can be used to hide vulnerability. Passive aggression is a huge problem in a great number of relationships.
The inability to voice disappointment leaves one in a double bind. On the one hand, one can’t explain the problem and get the other person to change their behavior, and on the other hand, one also has to endure their own wounding negative self-talk for not behaving assertively, or what Buddhist refer to as “the second arrow.”
Unhealthy relationships are marked by the partners’ inability to voice displeasure, express uncomfortable feelings, and work together to solve problems. Relationships are doomed when the atmosphere is not conducive to open communication. It’s hard to solve a problem you cannot discuss. In a healthy relationship, both parties are free to express themselves, empathy, understanding, and forgiveness are possible, thus enabling both parties to increase communication, resolve problems, forgive, and move forward.