“It is better to be from a broken home than to live in one.”
I wish I knew the name of the pastor I heard on the radio who offered up that stunning statement. I’ll admit my surprise knowing it was a pastor who said it. I remember smiling to myself and exclaiming aloud, “Thank you.” For what he shared is something rarely heard.
For an abuse victim who dares to reveal to her friends and family members her inclination to leave her abuser, she often hears something quite different than what the pastor asserted. She will more likely hear, “What about the children?”
There it is: an emotional trump card, a ticking time bomb. Any convictions about escaping the emotional harm she and her children might face on a daily basis are at once upended and she finds herself catapulted into visions of an unavoidably disastrous future. Could it be that perhaps separating from the abuser will only make things worse? Is it true that a child is better off in an abusive household where both parents are present than in a broken home?
Today, a full decade after signing off on my divorce decree, I have to say from my experience that the pastor’s sentiment makes perfect sense. Having seen both sides, being from a broken home is far superior to living in one. I also recognize that some will contest that statement and insist that a life of separate households and the blow of a severed marital relationship are somehow more destructive. That is someone else’s story to tell. This is mine.
When I finally left with our four children, the kids were between the ages of 6 and 13. My relationship with my husband had deteriorated to such a state that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The five of us lived in a constant state of fear, and the children struggled with various degrees of depression, anxiety and anger, which was most evident in the two eldest. I had done what I thought was right to maintain some semblance of normalcy, stand up for the kids when I caught my husband being overly harsh with them, deflect his anger to myself, and try to create a “happy” home. The abuse had increased so incrementally over time that I had a hard time seeing the magnitude of the dysfunction, the massive weight of oppression under which we strived to survive. Maybe tomorrow things will be different, I used to think. Maybe tomorrow he’ll care. Tomorrow never came. All of my good intentions failed. Our lives never improved; in fact, they became increasingly worse.
Looking back, I can see how each child responded uniquely to the abuse, the separation and our recovery based upon their ages, personalities, perceptions and history. We have all had to work hard to reclaim our value and rebuild our lives individually and as a family. The life we share now is healthy and safe, nothing even remotely like the hell we were living in before we left.
There were several things I was able to do for my children to help them get from that place of brokenness to a place of emotional health and stability.
First: I had to admit to the harm.
In most cases, while trying to live in an abusive relationship, our tendency is to overlook, minimize or blatantly deny the abuse. We rationalize that our abuser’s actions are simply consistent with male or fatherly behavior. We remind our children that their father really loves them or attempt to diminish their anguish by using pathetic excuses like, “He doesn’t mean it,” or “He’s just going through a hard time right now.” What we are really saying is that our children’s feelings are not as important as their father’s right to treat them badly.
Once we finally break out and acknowledge to ourselves the depth of the harm that has been done, it is vital to affirm the truth to our kids; not to burden them with our stories (which should not be borne by them), but to acknowledge theirs.
The night my kids and I left, we hurriedly packed up our most vital possessions and loaded up my van. I came out with a last armful to see the kids all sitting in their seats in silence, tears streaming down every child’s face. So, I stopped everything, and we went inside and sat down together to discuss the answer to the unspoken question: What was happening to our family?
After explaining briefly why we had to leave, I asked them what was going on with them. One by one, they timidly began to share their own experiences, things that had happened in my absence, terrible words that had been said, secrets they were expected to keep. As each child shared, they all became empowered to speak up. After they finished, I simply said to them, “I am so sorry. That is abuse, and it’s wrong. We are not going to live that way anymore.” The words absolutely seemed like too-little-too-late, but on the other hand, I suppose it was more akin to better-late-than-never. The admission was critical, and I saw in their eyes an immediate response, visible evidence of hope.
Second: Give them a voice.
The dance of dysfunction continued for many more years, even after John moved out and the kids and I moved home. John’s hide-the-ball attempts to address his addictions, abuse and his wandering eye failed, largely because my children were now empowered to share their experiences with me. They began to tell all, and when they talked, I listened, and they appreciated that I took their complaints seriously. Even my youngest daughter, only 6 at the time, didn’t hesitate to say, “Mommy, I need to talk to you about something.” It gave the children value and the freedom to identify actions and situations that they knew were clearly inappropriate.
It meant a lot of confrontation between their dad and I, and he hated that his coerciveness had been exposed, but now the kids and I were all working together to acknowledge the truth and speak the truth so that I could better confront it. I got all of the kids into counseling, so that they could also speak to someone objective about their experiences and even share their disappointments about me as their mother, which they had every right to work through. In many ways, I had absolutely failed them. Whatever was necessary to achieve their healing and restore their sense of their own value; I wanted them to have it.
One woman who was trying to escape an abusive marriage told me how her teenage daughter was acting out and doing poorly in school, and the woman just wanted her daughter to knock it off, and she asked me if I had any suggestions. I asked my friend if she had spent any time with her daughter to find out what was going on in her daughter’s life, knowing that perhaps her daughter was struggling with what was going on at home. My friend looked at me like I was from another planet and dismissed my question completely. I fear the poor girl is simply begging by her actions to be seen and heard. Unfortunately, it seems that her mother simply doesn’t want to be bothered.
Third: Help them to feel secure and loved.
I always wanted them to feel safe at home, but that whole dynamic had been obliterated by the abuse. For example, on Saturday mornings, the kids and I would get up before their dad and have a great time eating cereal, sitting in the family room together and watching cartoons. When we would hear his footsteps on the stairs, I think a tremor of anxiety ran through us all, and we would go silent. Sure enough, upon descending, John would begin barking orders to the kids and tell us to turn over the remote, because we had had enough fun, and it was his turn to watch what he wanted.
I never wanted them to feel that way again. We had to rebuild and reclaim what we had lost.
Although I worked full-time, I arranged an adjusted schedule so that I could get home earlier to have more of an evening with them – to converse over dinner, help with homework or be available to talk. I basically cleared my calendar. Other than lunch with friends from work or going out for coffee occasionally, my very purposeful intent was to restore their sense of security by being available to hug, help and hear them – to remind them daily for as long as necessary that I wasn’t going anywhere. It was time and energy well-spent.
I have heard of some parents who, upon separating, immediately move into the singles scene, or live their lives as though nothing traumatic has occurred. The children are left in a state of constant doubt as to what is going to happen to them and whether the custodial parent also intends to leave. And we wonder why they become depressed or anxious or sick or end up on drugs or alcohol or become promiscuous or end up with an eating disorder. They simply need to know they are secure and loved. If you have the opportunity to give that to them, please make every effort to do so.
Fourth: Walk toward a new and better life.
We talked about our future. We all knew where we had come from. Now we needed to decide where we were going. In the end, what we wanted was a healthy, happy family where everyone felt safe, respected, accepted and supported. We had Friday family movie nights and watched Disney movies and ate pizza and microwave popcorn and laughed and sang along with the songs. We went out of town on vacation, if only for a couple of days, just to rediscover what it meant to drive a long distance and listen to whatever music we wanted to hear on the radio, to not live by one person’s schedule, to really relax without pressure or drama or guilt. All those simple things were so healing. My kids were free to claim and live a life that they all wanted. And I wanted that for them.
It has been a long, winding, rough road chock full of pitfalls and imperfection and struggles. The children still smart and grieve from many of the wounds they carry that were inflicted when their father lived with us – and since. But what we have accomplished together, and the healing and faith and strength and wisdom and character and growth in my kids’ lives in the past ten years have been worth defending, worth striving for.
So what about the children? That question caused me to doubt my instincts and live in fear of the future for too long. In hindsight, seeing what my children endured, I have far more guilt for the years we stayed than for the years since we left. In truth, once we left, we stopped living a lie and embraced the truth: It is far better to be from a broken home than to live in one.
Cindy Burrell www.hurtbylove.com
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