Abuse cycles – from macrocosm to microcosm

If you observe an abuse cycle in a family – e.g., “Mom abuses her kids because her dad abused her because his mom abused him” – you’re lucky if you can trace it back more than a few generations. Which always leaves me wondering: where did it begin? And how? Did this family have one rotten apple who decided to be an asshole even though no one had ever taught him or her assholishness?

I said in an earlier post I was going to write someday about how poverty leads to abuse within families. Now I’ve refined that idea: I think abuse cycles can start with large scale civil oppression and filter down to individuals in families taking out their frustration on whomever they have at their mercy. To use an example that’s been around forever: someone decides they want some cheap labor. Depending on the mores of the day, they may force some people into slavery or simply manipulate the conditions facing a group defined by location, race, gender, etc. so that those people are desperate for wages of any sort. Now whoever wanted the cheap labor has what they wanted, and the people who are doing the labor are depressed, angry and/or traumatized. And “management” clamps down hard on any attempt at solidarity or community among these people, or seeds the would-be community with issues of distrust that keep everyone divided and therefore conquered.

For a while, maybe some of the laborers have some optimism. But God never helps. Society never helps. Even those who come in blazing with heroics turn out to be all about the glory and not much for the human beings who have more to contribute than cheap labor, or who just want to be able to determine their own fate through their own endeavors. The frustration, anger and depression grows into a deep cynicism – trust no one. There is no hope.

Eventually, in one generation or another, some of the laborers decide to take out their frustration on whomever they can. Usually, it’s men harming their families. Sometimes it’s people engaging in criminal activities. Some just internalize it all – not hurting anyone, perhaps, but not setting a great example for the kids, either. Some drink themselves to death. What else can they do? They’ve been shown over and over that no matter what they do, they are going to get up again the next day and help build that pyramid or plant that cotton or go down into that deadly mine. They could cure cancer, score off the charts on school tests, write a symphony – nobody cares. God doesn’t care. Society doesn’t care. Even the hero types really don’t care.

I think it’s much easier for a group to get together and abuse another group than it is for one person to abuse another. Groupthink makes individual responsibility fuzzy. It’s that sense of individual plausible deniability that enables people to call for burning someone at the stake or hanging them from a tree. A lynching mob could conceivably be comprised of no individuals capable of doing such a thing on their own. But get them together, and it’s mob psychology. And what you’ve done as part of a mob may not seem so unthinkable to go home and do to someone there.

Another way that large scale social oppression could filter down to familial abuse cycles is via emotional abuse. Women, legally and practically restrained from taking care of themselves for centuries, got very good at manipulation on the whole. We had to; how else could we survive? We didn’t have brute strength over many men. We didn’t have a political voice. Hell, we weren’t even classified as people. Of course we learned manipulation. Girls are still taught to hint instead of coming right out and saying what they want, which is pure manipulation. Don’t take this as support for the stereotype that all women are manipulators – most of us aren’t, and many men are manipulative as hell. I’m just saying it’s a survival skill, and if you deprive a group of the right to ply any other survival skill, what do you think they’re going to do?

A frustrated or desperate woman who’s good at manipulating might well decide to subtly control everyone around her – and she might succeed for the most part. Men have been trained not to expect to need their brains when dealing with wives, and children lack the life experience to protect themselves from headgames that jerk them all over the place. Emotional abuse can replicate itself or lead to physical abuse – both of which are equally wrong and potentially lethal (emotional abuse can lead victims to suicide).

Why do most people caught in an abuse cycle (social or familial) not pass it on? I don’t know, but I think the root problem is insecurity – real fear of survival. Some personality types may be inherently better at optimism and self-confidence than others. It takes a lot of confidence to blame the person or group who deserves the blame, because you can’t touch them. If they so much as see it in your eyes that you blame them, who knows what they’ll do to you. And so you turn those feelings elsewhere – on yourself or on those around you.

I’m always revising my ideas – this is just what’s making sense to me now.


  1. says

    The idea that group violence can train people for individual violence makes a lot of sense. And it makes sense that older individuals would use group violence to train younger individuals into being more violent. (“Welcome to the club.”) Not something I would have thought of.

  2. says

    “Why do most people caught in an abuse cycle (social or familial) not pass it on?”
    They either: fear social rejection (which many strive for since they probably didn’t get it at home/the workplace), turn their anger inwards, get help, tell themselves that they’ll be better- that they’ll never do what their parents/the world did- often just to spite their parents/the world, or [insert another reason I don’t know here].
    I’ve been guilty of the first four, actually.

  3. Phred says

    Speaking from my own family experience, it’s hard to trace back more than 3 generations in large part because that third generation isn’t around anymore to share stories – and the sorts of stories I’m curious about are not the ones they’d be all that likely to share. I have no idea what made my grandfather the emotional abuser that it’s becoming more and more obvious to me that he was.

    I’m one of two kids that my mom had. She’s one of three kids her parents had. Her father was emotionally abusive – and mom’s still in denial about it, Her older brother had a mental breakdown in boot camp after he joined the army – and he returned home and lived with his parents until they could no longer care for him, then lived in a VA assisted living facility for the rest of his life. Mom’s younger sister never had children. My brother and I are both child-free.

    So – one child had little to no opportunity to pass on the behavior. Another child may have consciously (or unconsciously) chosen a way out by marrying someone who didn’t want any more children. The third perpetuated the cycle (though perhaps not as extremely, based on some of the things I’ve heard…). I’m on record at age 17 stating that I was not sure I wanted to have kids – I blamed it on the state of the world in general at the time, because that sounded like something people would understand, but inside I just knew that I didn’t have it in me to be the kind of parent that I wanted to be – or the kind of parent that I wanted. Somehow, I just knew I was damaged enough that I’d likely damage any kid I had. And I didn’t want to do that.


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