How Can We End Family Violence?

Return love for bitterness

It was recently ‘White Ribbon Day’ in New Zealand, where the wearing of a white ribbon represents a pledge to end violence against women and girls. Family violence is endemic here, so much so that retiring Governor-General, Dame Sylvia Cartwright, said in her farewell speech in 2006, “I am concerned that these countries that so admire us might soon learn that we have a terrible rate of family and other violence…[that] remains unacceptably high.” While she hoped we could keep our “dark secrets” hidden from international eyes, such secrets also hide entrenched shame that works against our ability to create peace within our homes. Perhaps therefore, it is wiser to flush out the secrets to reveal the extent and seriousness of the wounds family violence has created, which would enable clearer guidance for the action we need to take to heal it.

As I write, Pink Floyd blares across the valley, “Hey teacher! Leave us kids alone…” It takes me back to the day I made the decision to become a teacher after hearing the woman next door yelling at her two small children and seeing the confused “What have we done wrong?” expressions on their faces. That day I made a commitment to do something to change the way we treat children.

However to my horror, the quiet and co-operative child who existed inside my school report cards became an angry, screaming wreck as a wife and mother, and the image of the woman next door I had wanted to change stood in disarray before me. Despite studies in child psychology that taught me how children needed to be treated, in times of stress I automatically reverted to the default programming set by my most powerful teachers – my parents.

Not only did having children begin awakening the anaesthetized memories of the horrors I experienced as a child, but unbeknown to me I was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – usually associated with war veterans. A lowered stress threshold, pronounced jumpiness, free-floating anger and anxiety, irritability, hypervigilance, and disturbed sleep are among its most telling symptoms. There were times it felt like I was losing my mind, unaware of the fact that I was a survivor of a very different war: one waged between my parents within the so-called safety of our home.

When my older child turned ten my marriage collapsed as my parents’ marriage had done at that age – with similar violence and acrimony. The abuse and bullying from which I fled followed like a huge rolling wave through the Family Law Court. My husband had grown up using violence to get his own way. As a young child he had kicked his grandmother in the shins for not buying him a toy. Later his temper extended to kicking in doors. His grandparents gave up trying to replace the kitchen and lounge room doors he kicked in and put curtains up instead. So when he was no longer able to use violence to get his own way with me, he vowed to “destroy” me using our children as pawns in the Family Courtroom ‘game.’

Fortunately fate dealt me a different hand from that of my parents and a ‘disaster’ turned my life around. The 18 metre steel yacht my husband and I had bought to sail the world sank at anchor. The rebuilding she needed became the most powerful new teacher of my life. As I threw overboard all the water damaged electronics, upholstery, carpets and numerous other items, I clearly saw the need to do the same within myself – but with the negative thoughts and embittered memories that had no place in the new life I wanted to create.

After stripping the yacht and pumping the sludge out of the bilges, the cancerous growth of rust confronted me. I remembered the words of a boat builder, “Steel boats more often than not rust from the inside out. The outside can look in perfect shape, but inside…” And it made me think about people and what causes them to ‘rust’ inside.

‘Bitterness’ was the first word that came to me, for I had had many powerful teachers of bitterness in my life. I thought about the busker I met during the custody case I didn’t want to fight. I had just sacked my lawyer because she wanted me to fight bitterness with bitterness and find witnesses to prove that my husband was a bad parent. Although he had physically and psychologically abused me, he was a loving father to our children – or so I thought. The busker came up to me after he finished singing because I was sitting on the pavement with tears streaming down my face. When I told him my story he looked at me with loving eyes and said, “Fight bitterness with love.” Simple words, but a powerful challenge beyond anything I had ever attempted in my life – including rebuilding the yacht, for I made a commitment to return love for my husband’s bitter words and actions.

However it wasn’t until over a year later, when the yacht was back in the water and a police officer acquaintance called in for coffee one morning straight from night shift, that the underlying cause of my own bitterness and anger began to be revealed.

Like a caged animal he paced back and forth across the galley floor, talking about the number of rape and assault on women cases he had been dealing with all night, frightening me with the grim and serious look on his face. At one point he walked up and eyeballed me as if interrogating someone he had arrested. “Why is a beautiful woman like you living on your own?” he demanded.

Before I could answer he continued pacing and said, “Men are animals… Don’t trust any of them. Not even me.”

His demonstration of disgust and disdain for violence pushed me headfirst into the legacy of violence I had run from, and the keeping of secrets that had created my painful present situation. I was one of those women who, as a child, had learned to bottle up anger and turn a blind eye to violence. Growing up within a war zone of domestic violence, trauma, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment and betrayal of trust was all I knew. I had nothing to get angry about, I was repeatedly told. What I saw or experienced was a ‘figment of my imagination.’ But the pain of my early experiences forced the child I once was to create a fairytale image of my father to hide the truth I could not face.

Rebuilding the yacht challenged me to make a commitment to learn to love myself as part of my own rebuilding process. It involved facing the fears and pain of my past by dismantling the fantasies that hid the truth of my childhood.

It was a long time before I learned that fairytales and silence enabled the violence to continue. Over the years I learned how huge the personal cost of violence is. Not only does it have an ongoing impact on my emotional and physical health and well-being, it has caused years of distress, financial hardship, and failed relationships. There was also the excruciating pain of seeing my own children suffer as I had after their father won the custody case.

By playing down the violence in my life and pretending everything was okay, I not only endangered myself, I endangered my children. Last year I received a heartbreaking email from my son, now in his thirties, telling me of the abuse, abandonment and neglect he suffered at the hands of his father, and that some of it began even before our divorce. He now also has PTSD and struggles with it every day, trying to make sense out of how someone he once dearly loved could do so much harm.

Although New Zealand’s “It’s not OK” campaign informs us that family violence is not okay after hundreds of years where we believed otherwise, it does not raise our awareness of the underlying causes of violence that now need to be addressed, and the action required to end the many ways we harm others – even unwittingly through ignorance and lack of awareness. Some children have been so brutalised that they grow up lacking any ability to feel empathy.

The root causes of family violence are deep and largely unidentified, thus enabling it to become a cancerous growth hidden within fantasies of ‘living happily ever after,’ or in secret shame of believing ourselves ‘unlovable’. Defensively we protect violence from prying eyes behind closed doors, terrified of having our lies and secrets exposed. Or many women hide it behind romantic fantasies that they can change the behaviour of abusive men they have already tried in vain for years to change or ‘fix’.

Exploring why men batter women would be the subject of another article, but my experience counselling adults trying to heal the wounds of childhood abuse has enabled me to identify some contributing factors:

  • An insecure attachment to a mother or primary caregiver, coupled with emotional abuse and/or neglect.
  • Physical abuse – usually at the hands of the father.
  • Sexual abuse – about one in eight to ten boys have experienced sexual abuse.
  • Insecurity and low self-esteem.
  • Feeling powerless and unable to change a life situation.

Chief Commissioner for the Families’ Commission, Dr. Jan Pryor, said in press release in 2009:

“How we treat our children impacts significantly on how children handle conflict as adults. Our ability to control emotions and impulses is programmed into our brains in our formative years. If children grow up in a deprived and/or abusive environment, where that early learning does not occur, they may be unable to set limits on their behaviour, or be incapable of empathy.”

While Dr. Pryor makes it clear that childhood deprivation is not the only cause of violence in adults, and that not all deprived children become violent, research shows that it is a significant cause of family violence.

Jocelyn Scutt writes in Even in the Best of Homes: Violence in the Family that when a wife batterer was asked why he “subconsciously wanted to dominate his wife, he replied, ‘I expect it would come down to whether you’re frustrated because you haven’t got any power in any other field, because in the work environment I have no authority… It comes back to the concept of power… A guy’s home is his kingdom or something like that. That’s why I want to dominate in that area, although I know it’s crap.’”

But perhaps the most insidious and hidden contributing factor in domestic violence has come from soldiers returning from the First and Second World Wars with undiagnosed PTSD, known then as shell shock or battle fatigue. Studies now show that there is an increased risk of family violence with Iraqi soldiers returning home with PTSD. In July this year, a 350 page commissioned report was released by the US Army, titled “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention,” noting that there was a 177 percent increase in the number of soldiers found to have committed spouse abuse and child abuse and neglect over the past six years. It is unlikely, therefore, that we gave little thought to the mental health of soldiers hailed as heroes as they returned from the two World Wars. Yet how many soldiers brought their experience of war home to wage against their own families in times of stress and financial hardship, and then withdrew into the silence of shame because these are not the actions of heroes? And could this have created our deeply imbedded intergenerational violence that no one talks about?

How many more years will men wear white ribbons as a token gesture to show disapproval of violence against women while the number of domestic violence incidents police attend continues to escalate unabated? And while we remain ignorant of the full extent of its cost on physical and mental health, the economic cost – even a conservative estimate – is staggering.

In 2000, Judy Lawrence, Chief Executive, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, participated in a panel on “The Role of Men and Boys in Ending Gender-based Violence” in which she gave an address that included the annual cost of domestic violence in New Zealand for 1994 to be at least NZ$ 1.2 billion, which was about 2% of New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product at the time. Ms. Lawrence pointed out that this was “more than our wool export receipts, and as much as we paid in unemployment benefits in that year.” Further she said, “The NZ$1.2 billion estimate is based on very conservative assumptions. More realistic assumptions lead to an estimate of NZ$5.4 billion.”

Over the course of ten years of steadily increasing family violence, what would it be costing us today in economic terms? Given that we now run the risk of a potential sovereign credit rating downgrade if the government cannot reduce the deficit that is spiralling out of control, how many billions could we save by reducing family violence? And what of the hidden costs it has on our health, undeveloped potential and talents, lives lost to suicide because of unrelenting abuse, the waste that occurs in education when teachers can’t teach because there are too many disruptions from traumatised children and teenagers, and the people languishing on benefits for years struggling to make sense of it all and get their lives together again?

Not reckoned into the cost of domestic violence is the impact of violence on the children who witness it, which may not show up for decades – as is often the case with PTSD. In 2008 alone, police recorded 72,482 occurrences of family violence at which 74,785 children were present. We need to be concerned because domestic violence is equivalent to living in a war zone for children, and seriously traumatises them. And since family violence is a high risk factor for PTSD, classed as an anxiety disorder, it is feeding the ever growing problems with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, and obesity. The sad truth is that many people unaware they are suffering with PTSD are self-medicating their anxiety with alcohol, drugs, and food. And the ripple effect spreads out to encompass all the problems within society this creates…and more.

From all I have seen and experienced, I now know that mouthing flat platitudes against domestic violence is destined to fail, for it does not call for affirmative action. Being against something seems to further entrench it – like our war against drugs for instance. Being for creating family peace and harmony begs the question: “What action do I need to take and how can I change myself in order to create peace and harmony within my home?”

Perhaps removing the rust of negative thinking is the first essential step we all need to take towards finding inner peace and creating outer harmony. And perhaps the most precious gift we can give ourselves and others this Christmas is to exchange bitterness for love.

Related Reading:

Domestic violence schemes don’t work, says judge
Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier told a hui for anti-violence providers in Auckland yesterday that too many offenders were dropping out of anti-violence programmes, possibly partly because of the current “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Leave Abusive Relationships, Women Told
Don’t stay in a bad relationship because of the children – leave for them. That’s the message of an Auckland woman who endured years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse from male partners… Murray Edridge, chief executive Barnardos, said domestic violence was occurring daily throughout New Zealand. He said, “Many children who witness domestic violence are constantly in a state of heightened anxiety. They may have trouble sleeping, have low self-esteem and behave in ways that are challenging both at school and at home.”

Health Impact of Domestic Violence and Abuse
Did you know that many victims of violence and abuse—even years after the abuse ends—are still suffering from severe health consequences of that abuse? These consequences include many common, sometimes severe, health conditions, such as chronic pain, headaches, stomach and cardiac problems, anxiety or depression, and gynecological disorders. These conditions can be so devastating that many victims are disabled and no longer able to work fulltime.

What drives a child to commit sexual abuse?
A unique insight into why young children sexually abuse other children is to be revealed in a ground-breaking study. The research, which has yet to be formally published, was on boys aged 10 or under who have molested siblings, classmates, or friends. It found that they are invariably born into families in which abuse, violence and neglect has become routine over several generations.

Police tips to avoid the stress of the Christmas season:
Set aside money to cover bills in January and February.
Don’t spend more on Christmas than you can afford. Christmas is about spending time as a family, not expensive presents.
Moderate alcohol intake – drinking to excess is not needed to have a good time.
Don’t drink and drive.
Take time out if things become heated or stressful. Go somewhere for a few hours to let things calm down.
If custody of children is shared, come to an agreement before Christmas so children spend time with each parent.
Most importantly, call police if there are fears over the safety of anyone.

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