Families, abuse, & hope

Political systems have always been a facsimile of the predominant family dynamics

Parenting for a Peaceful World, Robin Grille

I’m about halfway through this incredibly challenging book. The most difficult and interesting part has been reading through a brief history of different approaches to children and child raising. The brutality and disconnection is truly horrifying. At one point Grille notes that the hysterical dissociation cases so common in the Victorian era are far less frequent now, probably due to very different child raising practices. Yet, I work with many people who’s childhood experiences were neglectful and abusive in probably very similar ways. Each family is like a tiny culture of its own, a mini country with its own customs and political structure. It’s interesting to also consider the reverse – looking at complex politics through the lens of a family. The same questions that can be useful to consider on the small scale are also relevant on the large – who exercises what kinds of power, and how? What is the cost of being the least powerful, or out of favour? How safe are the most vulnerable members?

Rose and I are talking a lot about families at the moment, as we plan our own. I find it interesting that our broader culture structure is capitalist, while our private family structure is closer to socialist, with much unpaid labour and sharing of resources. There’s a tension as we move between these frameworks in public and private spheres of our lives. So we have significant labour such as child raising, or caring for family who are sick, disabled, or frail aged, going largely unrecognised as they have neither job title nor a decent wage attached to them. Family power structures can be fascinatingly complex and subtle. Those who are obviously in power are sometimes only figureheads. Oppressed and brutalised family members are often the most brutal themselves in their enforcement of family traditions and rules. Families create their own mindsets, a framework through which members learn to view themselves and the world around them. When this framework is destructive, “You’re an idiot and you’ll never amount to anything”, “The world is dangerous and will eat you alive”, it takes massive effort to mentally and emotionally challenge these beliefs, break free of their hold, and construct new frameworks. Children basically grow up inside the ways their parents view the world. Many adult children of destructive families find that while they are trying to find their power to built and maintain their own beliefs, they are highly vulnerable to having their frameworks ‘switch’ to those of the family culture whenever they are anxious or in contact with them. Some families navigate such challenges with growth and new connection, others have harsh, rejecting, or even violent responses to what is essentially a war of ideologies. It can be a big challenge to maintain an individual perspective that does not mesh with the family perspective.

A task I once found incredibly helpful was to sit down and nut out the ‘rules’ of my family of origin – not the spoken ones, but the actual way we functioned. Sometimes these align, sometimes they don’t. This isn’t always a bad thing – in the case of a family with avowed ideals of patriarchy or harsh punishments, the reality may be modified and softened by genuine affection and care. No family gets it all right, and many have a combination of generous and altruistic practices mixed in with selfish and cruel ones. Those who have been raised with harsh practices may enjoy ‘their turn’ at exercising power rather than dismantling the abusive structure. But the process of deliberately choosing to observe the dynamics, to note the rules and the roles was extremely helpful for me. For example, many families have a role – the ‘lightning rod’. Whoever is in this role is available to be put down, made the butt of jokes, talked over, doesn’t get to make choices, gets less access to family resources, has to do the worst jobs or so on. This person is targeted as the source of family stress and they are available for the most powerful (not necessarily physically, but politically) family member to work out their frustration on. In some families the lightening rod is always the same person, in others it’s a shifting role as people go in and out of favour. In some families, being able to discharge tension in this way is the sole prerogative of the most powerful member, in others everyone must show their loyalty by treating the out of favour person badly. Sometimes there are factions and more than one lightening rod, with vulnerable members trying to maintain neutrality across all the teams and not find themselves in the least favoured role.

It can be useful to ask questions such as “Who gets their needs met?”, “Who has the most powerful vote?”, “Who’s plans get disrupted when something goes wrong?”, “Who does the most jobs they don’t like?”, “How safe is the least favoured family member?”. And then comes the most interesting part – how would you like your family to function? What rules did you wish your family really worked by? Many of us with challenging upbringings want to do better and can eloquently name the things we hated that hurt us badly – shaming, beatings, emotional detachment, poverty, and so on. Figuring out what we don’t want to repeat can often be much easier than figuring out what we’re going to do instead. For me, one of the things I really wanted my family to be was a nurturing place, somewhere it was safe to come home to when you were sick, hurting, anxious, or had failed at something. I want it to be normal for family members to be kind to each other, to help each other out, and to listen to each other. I sat down and nutted out a bunch of other values and ideas that are also really important to me. I found that they were pretty similar between family and friends too.

The next thing I found helpful was to start acting as if these values and ideas were normal in my family. Instead of instinctively obeying unwritten rules, I chose over and over again to operate from my own values. In my case, I had to do this with my eyes wide open because sometimes the results of breaking these rules were violent. People are often very invested in ‘the way things are’, even if they are suffering under it. Sometimes there’s a lack of hope, sometimes people are trapped by beliefs such as ‘If I was just a better person, everything would work out’. It can take time and coaxing for people to see that there is freedom and kindness possible in change. For those the current dynamics suit – those who are getting most of their needs met, or are comfortably placed within the power structure, or are so entangled with their own demons that they need a painful and chaotic environment around them – the protests can be intense. In some cases, change can expose people to life threatening consequences. This is one, of many complex reasons, that abused partners stay in relationships where they are suffering terribly.

Obeying abusive family dynamics will almost always require a person to violate their own morals and beliefs in some way. It might force someone to be a bystander when they find that intervening makes the situation worse. It might be that blaming and hurting the most vulnerable family member was the only way to be safe. There are often complex trade-offs where children may submit to abuse in the hopes of protecting their siblings, wives to rape in the hopes of protecting children, men to beatings in the hopes of protecting the women and so on. A complex network of attempts at self protection and protection of other family members often results in deep shame and a sense of failure. People in this position are embedded in the family dynamics and take on a sense of responsibility for them. With shame and guilt eroding their confidence in themselves, deep beliefs in their own worthlessness and incompetence, and a powerful and justified fear of the consequences of breaking the rules, it takes extraordinary means for people to start building new frameworks and escaping old dynamics. In some cases people will be harassed or rejected, in others they will be beaten, raped, or killed. In many situations I’ve observed, those who protest these changes do not even understand their rage, there is simply for them a sense that they are less safe, and they use whatever power they have to make themselves feel safer.

None of us is immune to this dynamic, and any of us who exercise any kind of power must consider this if we wish to handle it ethically. Even good intentions can take us down bad roads when we run solely on instinct and the desire to be safe.

The good news is that even the tiniest of gestures to break away from abusive dynamics start to generate a sense of identity and personal power. Within even profoundly abused people, a will to survive and to maintain identity is extremely strong. The entire ‘child abuse survivor’ movement is testament to that – as are the statistics on people – including children – who flee abusive families. While most will return more than once, within the deep conflicts of fear, hope, despair, and bonding, a desire for freedom remains intact. It may not be the most powerful voice, but it is still present. In violent families this change might be done entirely in secret – public obedience, but private kindness. It might be sneaking food to the child denied yet another meal, it might be covering for someone so they don’t get punished. Even secret collusions erode abusive power. They create a sense of personal agency that obedience to the rules takes away, and with that agency comes an awareness that you can and do disagree with what is happening. Environments that strip us of power and choice also reduce our possible responses to two options – we can comply, or we can rebel. In situations where the cost of rebellion is unmanageably high, most people will comply. In situations where the price of compliance is almost or is as severe as the price of rebelling – most people will rebel. Many of us actually alternate between the states, often instinctively trying to find a mid-line where we get the benefits of compliance such as approval, access to resources, protection from violence, some affection, and the benefits of rebelling such as freedom, the opportunity to connect with people outside this dynamic, and a sense of personal power and identity. Like abusers who do not understand their rage when change threatens, most of us engage both submission and rebellion instinctively and are confused and frustrated by our own drives for both.

Being able to truly disconnect from abusive dynamics is about being able to make room for a response outside of the submit/rebel dynamic. Some families (and other institutions for that matter – psychiatric hospitals spring to mind) make this extraordinarily difficult because every action of the members is conceived in a black and white framework of loyalty/disloyalty. They are for us or against us, they are one of us or not one of us, they are a good kid or a bad kid. For me, it helped to be aware of this framing of my choices, and not to mind them. While I engaged conversation about them, I did not initiate them, and I did not expect to persuade anyone. I simply identified what I wanted and acted from that. I wanted a family that was fair, so I resolved to treat members fairly, irrespective of whatever else was going on. This meant my actions were constantly misconstrued, because of course everything I did was interpreted through the framework the family was using. If I gave a gift to a powerful family member it would be assumed I was being compliant and currying favour, if I gave the same value gift to a disgraced member that was likewise a political act. This constant misunderstanding is often exhausting and debilitating to those who are trying to change the way they engage, and if their goal is to persuade people to a new framework, they can become deeply discouraged and give up, or increasingly defensive and get into massive rows. In situations where the stakes are high it’s important to be aware of the politics without subscribing to them. If an act could put you at risk of violence, homelessness, loss of job, custody, or other catastrophes, acting without thought for consequence is foolish. This process of being aware of possible or probable consequences can be immediate in some cases – “Father has always said if any of us drop out of school we’ll be kicked out of home” – in others it’s a slow process of observing the ways the stated rules “In this family we all love each other” and the actual rules “We don’t talk about your brother since he outed himself”, differ. Processing the reality when we’ve been fed a lot of lies and spin can be extremely challenging and confronting, and people are good at obeying unwritten rules while paying strong lip service to the written ones.

However, the freedom to choose your own response is powerful. Instead of merely reacting to what is present, you actually bring into being a new framework of your own, and live from that as best you can. This might cause minor friction or it might involve running to shelters and setting up new homes in new cities. Some of us pay much higher prices than others. Even with the best of intentions, you will at times fail to live up to your own values and standards. But the more you have set them for yourself instead of having them imposed upon you, the more congruent your beliefs and actions become, and the less internal struggling and weakening of identity occurs. It’s a powerful, gradual process, where the first tiny act can be nightmarishly difficult, but each subsequent one a little easier. Instead of being a pawn for the use of the more powerful, you become a player in your own right, exercising freedom of choice over your own actions and accepting the prices if you think they are worth paying. This may be profoundly unfair, involve intense grief and loss, and it can be extraordinarily difficult to maintain a minority perspective in the face of massive opposition or total indifference, but it can be done, and the gains are massive. Being able to have complex, deep, authentic relationships instead of living under the yoke of roles is an amazing experience. Claiming freedom to create a life that is personally meaningful is profound.

Learning to see the giants of our childhood as people who themselves live with the ghosts and shadows of childhood, is a perspective we can only reach when we have somewhere safe in our heads to stand. It can help move us away from attraction/repulsion, submission/rebellion, and into a place where we can see the people behind the roles. This is a much safer place from which we can feel the compassion for vulnerability and loss that may previously have trapped us or exposed us to harm, or likewise the judgement of narcissism or brutality. We can be freed from the black and white thinking where we can perceive only with compassion or only with judgement, which means our actions are more informed by the whole complexity that makes up a family, and less the instincts of ourselves as a stressed child. It can be the start of breaking away and getting out, or the start of reconnecting and making something real – or sometimes both at the same time.

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