Teach them to feel

For those of you who don’t know, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. I want to be clear here, I know that domestic violence is a many headed monster. It can happen within any relationship construct, be perpetrated by and against persons of any and all genders. However, by enlarge domestic violence, both physical and emotional, is disproportionately perpetrated by (cis)males against their partners. I know many women who have been affected by this violence. I have had friends whose partners come home drunk and swinging, intoxicated with rage, coming after them as the closest punching bag in proximity. I know women who have been shoved down staircases while pregnant with an unborn child. I know women who have had their backs up against the wall as their ex-boyfriend taunted and threatened them with a legally obtained firearm. I know women who have had to rock their baby to sleep on the bathroom floor, hiding behind the locked door from the rants and rage of their partner’s mental instability.

In fact, that last woman was me.

I spent the first few years of my twenties married to a man, the biological father of my son, that suffered from severe drug and alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder. The results of his self medication through marijuana and alcohol meant I was living with a ticking time bomb. Depression or mania could wrap their grip around him at any time, and without a moments notice he would be consumed in a fit of rage, shouting and shaming the person in his path. That person was me.

To be clear, he never once laid a hand on me or my son. I find solace in the fact that the fights and fits often took place after my child was asleep, and from what I can tell through gentle coaxing and the few therapy session he’s had, my son remembers almost nothing of these incidents in his earliest years. I wish I could say the same. It took me a year’s worth of therapy after our separation and subsequent divorce to even begin contemplating allowing myself to be emotionally close to another human again, and to this day I still cower at the sound of a man’s raised voice.

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I pride myself in being a strong woman. Fearless even. But in the midst of his rage, all I could feel was fear. Anger like that in itself is a form of violence, and in my case it felt like something I could never quite escape.

I come from a long lineage of fiercely independent, willful, and courageous women. And almost every single one of them has faced violence in some form at the hands of their partners, many of whom were the fathers of their children. I grew up knowing that history, and determined to break that mold. And yet I found myself a character in the same cyclical story. Within the circle women friends I have had over the years, I know that at least 75% of them have faced similar violence in at least one, if not more, of their relationships.

Think about that.

That is staggering.

In fact, as I reflect even further, I realize that I can only think of two women I know that haven’t told me explicitly about having faced emotional, sexual, and/or physical violence from a partner. I realized I haven’t asked them, and because of that I can’t say without a doubt that they haven’t also been a victim. This violence has touched almost every woman I know.

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How did we end up here? How can we stop this?

I think about these questions more than I’d like to admit. I think about them because I have a five year old son. I think about them because I am trying to do everything in my power to make sure he doesn’t become one of those men.

But as I have thought, and listened, and watched, and struggled with this issue over the years, I have realized that none of these men grew up trying to be one of those men. Don’t get me wrong, there are men out there who got addicted to the high and the power that can come with being violent. I think this is especially the case for men who grew up in a way where someone or something tried to make them feel small. In a way, violence becomes a way to overcome fear and pain, a coping mechanism of fighting back and standing tall. Men like this scare me the most.

And yet, even then, the violence of these men first starts as the result of something else, some other force outside of their soul.

The more I’ve looked, the more I’ve come to find that our society is failing our men. It’s one of those things that once you see it, you start to notice it everywhere. I see it in my relationships, past and present, a long line of men with no proper emotional outlets. I see it in our media, ever stoking and promoting a culture that equates violence with masculinity. I see it in the young men I often share the light rail with on the way home, as the cuss and taunt each other in a struggle for status. I see it in our society’s perceptions and portrayal of men with feelings as being weak, or cissies, or a wusses, or a pussies.

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Do you know what happens to men when they are told they shouldn’t have emotions? When they are taught they shouldn’t feel?

They bury their hurt and pain deep in their gut. The repress sadness and anger until it becomes an aching weight in their chest. Eventually they stuff so much inside they can’t keep in all in. Some men crack and some men explode. Some sink into deep depression, others lash out a spew their suppressed rage on anyone within their proximity. Some men unleash their anger with their tongue, shouting and ranting with the force of every thing they have been holding in. Others can’t even find the words, so they let their fists or firearms do the talking.

Domestic violence is not new. If you look back over the ages, it is there in almost every era, every society. But I would argue that it has increased in it’s reach and deadliness in recent decades due to our culture’s ever increasing projections and promotions of violence in mainstream media and is amplified by America’s increased proliferation and preoccupation with guns.

I’m not looking for a debate here. I’m just going to state the facts:

1. Firearms were used to kill more than two-thirds of spouse and ex-spouse homicide victims between 1990 and 2005. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Homicide Trends in the U.S.: Intimate Homicide (July 2007), at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/homicide/intimates.cfm. ⤴)

2. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm. (Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al., Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study, 93 Am. J. Pub. Health)

3. Research indicates that media violence has not just increased in quantity; it has also become more graphic, sexual, and sadistic. (Violence in Media Entertainment, http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/violence_entertainment.cfm?)

4. By the time the average child is eighteen years old, they will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders. (Facts and Figures About Our TV Habit. TV Turnoff Network)

5. 88.2% of top rated porn scenes contain aggressive acts. In 70% of occurrences, a man is perpetrator of the aggression; 94% of the time the act is directed towards a woman. (Facts & Figures, Stop Porn Culture, http://stoppornculture.org/about/about-the-issue/facts-and-figures-2/)

And the list goes on and on.

The worst part about all these statistics is that they hardly surprise me. I know that we live in a world that is constantly promoting violence, particularly violence perpetrated by men. I also know that we live in a country that is obsessed with guns. Flipping through my son’s Playmobile catalogue recently, I could only find of a handful of sets that didn’t include guns. He recently was gifted a police officer set where each officer came with their very own AR-15 and not one but two handguns.

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What can be done?

For starters, we need to realize and recognize that domestic violence is an epidemic, and that it affects all of us. I have been hard pressed to come across a single person whose life or the lives of their loved ones has not been affected by it. As is such, it is all of our responsibility to solve.

Secondly, we need to stop passively accepting the fact that our media feeds us and our children a constant and ever increasing stream of violence. Just as we all know sex sells, so does violence. We need to stop buying it and stop watching it. Simple conscious and collective choices can stop making the perpetuation of violence as being profitable for mainstream media, and it should be our duty to consume in accordance to our collective values and actively choose to reject violence in media.

Third, we need to create social safety nets. I cannot believe the number of women I know who have stayed, often silently, in abusive and downright dangerous relationships because they felt there was no where else for them to go. We as a country need to invest in proper and protective financial, educational, housing, and child care safety nets to catch these women and to show them there is a safe way out and a path to a better life. We also need safety nets for the perpetrators and victims of domestic violence, and a shared commitment to proper and thorough treatment and counseling so that we can heal the vast majority of the wounds that have been inflicted on them and by them to better our society as a whole.

Fourth, we need to put in common sense gun control laws that eliminate people with a history of violence and/or mental instability from having access to weapons that can perpetuate further pain in this world. Every single study that has been done around domestic violence and mental health has shown that access to firearms dramatically increases the likelihood of murder, homicide, and suicide. There is simply no room for debate here. Putting the proper legislation in place would have one undeniable result: saving the lives of countless innocent victims.

Last, and most important of all, we need to stop the violence before it starts by instilling and encouraging emotions and empathy in our children, particularly our young men. We need to right the minor and major wrongs that have been done to our men young and old who have been faced with the daunting task of growing up in a world that promotes violence and anger as a sign of masculinity. We need to teach men appropriate mechanisms for emotional expression, and show them the value of healthy, stable, respectful, and communicative relationships. We need to model this behavior for our children, and work to undo and rehabilitate past traumas that many of our grown men hold, so that they can relearn how to express themselves and navigate their emotions in the adult world. We need to teach them that it is okay to feel, and to hold them and heal them in a world that has caused so much hurt.

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I won’t claim for a second that I do everything right as a mother. In fact, the majority of the things I do well are simply things I have learned along the way. But there is one particular thing that happens quite often in my life, especially when my son and I are curled up on the couch together, or sometimes it is just out of the blue. He will let out a soft, sweet sigh, and look directly at me and say: I love you, Mama.

Sometimes he says other things like That makes me angry or I’m feeling sad. Recently when spending time with my mom (his “Gigi”), while I was away traveling he asked her about her plans for the week. When she told him she was flying to Nashville to meet me and that he’d be staying with other family members he looked her square in the eyes with tears in his own and said: That makes me feel emotional.

These statements make me feel so deeply proud. I haven’t done everything right as a mother, but I know that I am raising a son that knows how to feel. A child that is comfortable enough to voice his emotions out loud, be they sweet or sad, to those he loves. Teaching him this skill has taken time and patience, particularly when he went through an aggressive phase of biting and hitting (mostly aimed at me) following the separation of me and his biological father.

Having grown up in a reconstructed family myself, I know the importance of making space for his anger. And from my mom and (step)father I also learned of the healing and affirming power of love and proper modeling of communication and emotional expression. It’s something his new Papa and I work diligently to model for him and teach him daily.

Few of us are lucky enough to grow up without some emotional damage or some type of scars. But all of us have the potential to overcome rather than succumb to a cycle of violence and emotional suppression. It is up to us to heal one and other, in our homes and in our culture at large, by teaching each other it is okay to feel, and then being there to catch, and to listen, and hold one and other when we do.