Like father, like son: The abusive and helpless sons of battered mothers
She was in her 90s and her sons had brought her in to get treatment for her depression. As her life unfolded with each therapy session, I got accustomed to her life of long-term abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws. This was all she could talk about.
As we further progressed in therapy, she narrated how her sons were terrified of watching her suffer abuse at the hands of their father. One of her sons was scarred for life with severe anger management issues, while the other had a deep sense of inferiority complex despite accomplishing so much at such a young age. They both were scared of getting married, for they were not sure what demons they had inherited from their now deceased father.
The perpetrator had left the world decades ago and yet the after effects of what he did were still very much present. This is the cycle of domestic abuse.
I know that girls are affected as much as boys when they witness their mothers being abused in their own homes. However, the cycle of abuse is mostly either carried forward by sons or it ends with them, since they go on to become fathers and husbands themselves and are considered the stronger gender in this patriarchal society. The helplessness that these men experience as sons remains unprocessed. They simply don’t know what to make of it. Some of them naturally identify with the perpetrator and simply model the behaviours they learned as children from their fathers. Or they become agents of change by identifying with the victim, their mothers. Whatever the case is, they remain in incredible pain throughout their life.
AB was another such person that I came across in therapy. He said one thing that stuck with me forever:
“I can’t hate him, he is my dad. But I can’t love him either. And I can’t forgive myself for not standing up for my mother as a kid. But then again, how could I? He was six-feet and I was so small, so scared.”
These conflicting emotions are very difficult to handle. AB, having so much insight into the situation and with such empathy for his mother, came to therapy because somehow he couldn’t control the impulse to hit his wife of two months. It was like an addiction for him. He knew it was toxic. He knew how wrong it was. He fully sympathised with his battered mother, yet an automatic impulse inside him turned him into someone he never wanted to be – his abusive father.
“I was afraid all my life that I would turn into my father. I was so scared and reluctant that I never dated anyone. I was afraid of ruining somebody’s life even though I was very gentle with my mother, sisters and other women. And somehow, doctor, the moment I got married, my nightmare became my reality.”
He cried like his world had ended. He became everything he despised.
In most cases, there is incredible pain in the backstory of an abuser. Sure, there are no justifications for abuse and there shouldn’t be. But there are ways to psychologically rehabilitate people like AB, who know that it is wrong and yet they cannot stop.
The reason for behaviours like that of AB is mostly childhood trauma that they face in their homes when their mother is battered. How would you process seeing the first woman in your life being helpless like that? What would you do as a child when the father you are supposed to love batters and humiliates the mother you adore? How would you pick a side as a child?
In this patriarchal setup, most men unconsciously choose the perpetrator’s side, because otherwise you are deemed weak and incapable. Majority of such sons unknowingly identify with the perpetrator for that very reason and that results in replication of the same behaviour when they get married. It’s simply a maladaptive ego defence mechanism that can easily be altered with therapy and within a few months.
Therapists help you in understanding and controlling the rage. They help in appropriately expressing the rage bottled up since childhood. Therapy helps with altering the abusive behaviour and replacing it with a constructive one. The learned behaviour of battering is worked upon and therapists help you unlearn that behaviour with various techniques.
I used the group therapy intervention with AB, where he along with four other motivated men gave each other perspective. We designed a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) based anger management intervention that lasted for 10 sessions and improved his behaviour.
Sometimes all you need is processing your childhood trauma of living in an abusive household. Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), Narrative Exposure and Eidetic Therapy do wonders in giving perspective to these painful memories of the past by trying to recall them and slowly building up the courage to face them. CBT challenges the faulty beliefs regarding battering and victimising a woman. Person Centred Therapy helps you grow out of the cycle of rage and abuse.
Change is just a few steps away. You may have felt helpless previously, watching your mother go through pain, but you are not helpless in breaking the cycle of abuse. If you are unable to cope with all of this on your own and feel guilty yet are still abusing someone, I request that you seek professional help.
I request all such men who hold these unsettling childhood memories and pain of their helpless mothers and abusive fathers to seek at least short-term counselling, if not long-term. You can break the cycle by settling your own trauma and making sense of the emotional turmoil that you went through. It is never too late to take a step, you can put an end to this cycle before it slowly consumes your family.
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