The world a small child inhabits is a tiny one, and each of us grows up believing that what happens at our house happens in houses everywhere. We form our first impressions of how the world works—the larger world outside of the family—from interactions in our little world. If we are lucky enough to be born into a family where bonds are close and ties cemented by mutual support and respect, we form a vision of the larger world that includes kindness, understanding, love, and close connection. We grow up recognizing that that people might not always agree but that there are ways to talk things through; we come of age understanding that love can survive moments of anger and discord, and that mistakes are made and apologies proffered.
The child who grows up in a household that is more toxic than not, where love can be withheld as punishment or must be earned, where put-downs and harsh criticisms are as familiar as the sun-faded wallpaper in the kitchen, where she’s made to feel worthless and tears are mocked as signs of weakness, also thinks that what goes on at her house goes on everywhere. She too takes what she’s learned about relationships in her family of origin and extrapolates its lessons as applicable to the larger world. It’s in this way that unloved daughters (and sons) inure themselves and normalize abuse.
Why it’s easy to normalize abuse
You know that pile of boots and shoes by the front door in winter, or the clothes flung over the chair in the bedroom, or the piece of furniture you moved when the place got painted and you always intended to put back in its original place? The chances are good that if enough time passes, your eyes will simply glide over the pile, the clothes, or that bulky chest of drawers that is nothing more than visual clutter because it’s become a familiar sight. Things in our environment become so familiar—so normal—that we no longer register their presence. And, yes, that’s true of abusive behavior too.
Unloved daughters may discover themselves in adult relationships that are, indeed, familiar and not in a good way either; they may find themselves with partners, friends, lovers, and even spouses who treat them as their mothers or fathers did. All of this happens on an unconscious level as I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, from which the following material is drawn.
Bottom line? In search of the love and connection they missed in childhood, many unloved daughters end up recreating the emotional circumstances they fled. Even worse, it may take them time to realize it, as one reader, now 47, wrote me:
Yelling and screaming were constants growing up, and both parents swatted each other and the kids. Not punches or bloody noses but slaps hard enough so you could hear them and see the red marks they left. I grew up walking on eggshells, trying not to draw attention to myself. When my first husband slapped me for breaking a plate, I didn’t even register it. That’s how used to it I was. But inevitably, it escalated and when he broke my arm, and I saw the look on the emergency room doctor’s face when my twenty-three-year-old self blurted out the truth, it suddenly dawned on me that there was nothing remotely normal about his behavior. I was lucky to see it and I ended that marriage. And got help for myself.
Mind you, abuse need not be physical. Verbal abuse is just as wounding, and sometimes the words need not even be spoken.
4 signs that you are normalizing abusive behavior
Healing from childhood requires that you uproot those unconscious assumptions you learned and replace them with conscious awareness of both your own behaviors and those of others. No, I’m not blaming the unloved daughter for replicating her family of origin but I am pointing out that she needs to take conscious responsibility for her acceptance of abusive treatment. To do that, she –or maybe even you–must give up these four scripts learned in childhood.
- Accepting that you’re “too sensitive”
In many toxic households, blame-shifting is standard fare and being told that you’re too sensitive or can’t take a joke is part often part of the mother or father’s repertoire. Children internalize this information as a supposed truth about themselves if they’re told it often enough by a figure of authority and carry it with them into adulthood. Unloved daughters need to learn the difference between constructive criticism and the highly personal and marginalizing put-down which usually begins with broad statements such as “You never” or “You always.” Personal criticism meant to make you feel worthless is never okay.
- Making peace instead of defending yourself when you’re wronged
Children who grow up with highly combative mothers or fathers or those who are hypercritical or authoritarian may have learned to defend themselves using duck and cover, walking on eggshells, or reverting to pleasing and apologizing in an effort to deflect the parent’s behavior. Again, learning the distinction between someone registering a complaint and someone using criticism to manipulate you is key, as marital expert John Gottman points out. A complaint is highly specific, even if it’s negative, such as complaining that someone didn’t lock the door or fulfill a promise to pick up the dry cleaning; it doesn’t include opening up to broad statements about someone’s character or disposition the way criticism and blaming do. It’s perfectly okay to complain that someone didn’t lock the door; it’s not okay to say that someone didn’t lock the door because she’s an idiot or a hopeless human being and to take that as a jumping-off point for character assassination.
- Your default position is to question your perceptions or the validity of your feelings
Children who have been scapegoated, marginalized, been made to feel worthless, or gaslighted don’t just suffer from low self-esteem; they tend to self-blame and believe that their vision of things is either crazy or made-up. Of course, they’ve been told that over and over so it’s little wonder that as adults, self-doubt and questioning remain the default positions. Recognize the origins of this impulse and counter it with what you heard and saw the other person do. A person cannot manipulate someone who believes in her own experience.
- You rationalize when you’re stonewalled or given the silent treatment
When someone cuts you dead or refuses to answer you, do you immediately revert to self-blame, rationalizing that you should have chosen some better time to speak up or perhaps thinking that he or she is too stressed and that you were insensitive to bring it up? Or make up some other excuse? Children used to tiptoeing around their parents often make excuses as adults when they’re stonewalled by others, including their parents. Stonewalling or being given the silent treatment is highly toxic and manipulative behavior, and should never be acceptable treatment. Your denial of this toxic behavior will not only fuel its continuation but will keep you stuck in the relationship.
Abuse is abuse. Make sure you’re not contributing unknowingly to the dynamic. The way to healing and healthy relationships is forged with conscious awareness.
Photograph by Aniruddha Bhattacharya. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com