Walk With Me (#10): Breaking Cycles of Abuse

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

We’re all just walking each other home. — Ram Dass, image via Pixabay

Dear Asha,

I have been a single mom for 8 years. The last several years I’ve been a solo mom. Though my ex is local, there is absolutely no communication from him. He has never asked if he can help with anything, not even during the pandemic.

My son is a high school senior. By all accounts he is remarkably responsible, respectful and relational. He is getting through the pandemic by working a lot and earning money. He is a sweetheart with his young nieces. Most impressive is his commitment to social distancing in order to keep me safe during this pandemic.

My issue is this: My son’s way of speaking to me often lacks kindness. Many will say that this is the way a young man separates from his mother. This may be a large part of it. But I think there is more. Sometimes my son expresses himself towards me with the same disrespectful attitude that he observed from his (abusive) father towards me. I also know at times he projects his hurt and anger at his father’s neglect onto me.

It is just me and my son in the house. I am already feeling extremely vulnerable and lonely these days. When my son speaks this way to me, I just cry.

My question is this: without another adult in the home to bounce the stress off of, how do I foster my own well being in the face of developmentally appropriate, understandable and projected anger?

Any advice would be a help,

SP

Dear SP,

I am so sorry that you are feeling isolated and vulnerable. Being a single mom, even without a pandemic, is so often lonely. Add onto that stress and isolation a quarantine, and it is no wonder that you are having a hard time of it, nor do I think you are alone in that difficulty.

You write that your issue is your son’s behavior, but your question focuses on your behavior. Though it is certainly true that we cannot, ultimately, control anyone else’s behavior, there is also a tendency in people who have been abused to try and avoid confrontation, to fold into smaller and smaller versions of themselves so that they can have less exposed parts to attack. Part of caring for your well-being is establishing boundaries in which you get to take up space without fear.

So, in deference to how you have framed the issue, I’ll address your stated question first, but we’re going to loop around to the issue at hand after that because I believe we have to. I hope you’ll stick with me.

You mentioned that your son is doing a great job of protecting you in order to keep you safe, but you didn’t say what your particular concerns are in the midst of the pandemic. Do you have a health profile, chronic illness perhaps, which makes you particularly vulnerable to complications from infection? If so, some of this may not apply for you, and I would encourage you to seek out a therapist, or a medical provider to help you strategize in a way that factors in your specific health concerns.

I realize that plenty of people with no prior known health issues have developed COVID-19 and experienced serious complications; some have died. If you don’t have any known health issues and are just proceeding with an abundance of caution, that is entirely fair. You have to manage your own risk in the way that feels safe to you. However, if you are in an area of the country where infection rates are pretty stable, or going down, I do think there are some things you can do safely to take care of your own mental and physical well-being so that it’s easier to manage the stress of solo parenting.

One, get outside as much as you can. If you live somewhere where you can get outside on your own property, you can still be super safe. You can also visit with people outside at home or at a park, as long as everyone stays masked and maintains 6–10 feet of distance. My elderly mother, who lives alone and has barely left her house since March, has friends over at least once a week. They come over one at a time, everyone wears masks, and they sit six feet apart on her porch talking about anything and everything.

If in-person visiting feels too risky, there’s always conversation via phone and text. Do you have a friend you can do a phone or text check-in with at least once a week? This could go a long way towards ameliorating your isolation.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised that you are needing support right now. Everyone needs support right now. We are social creatures and not built for long-term isolation. But you will likely have to ask for the help you need, because social distancing means we’re not all coincidentally running into each other enough for someone to just happen to notice that you’re looking a little stressed and ask how you are. You’re going to have to decide who to tell and then tell them. Please do this.

Taking this initiative also takes some of the burden of connection off of your son, which may reduce some of the tension between you. If he feels responsible for you, not only in terms of keeping you safe, but also providing your sole emotional connection, it would be understandable if he feels a little overwhelmed and resistant. It may feel like the roles are reversed for the two of you, and he’s the parent. They’re not, but it may feel that way for him.

Making sure you’re taking care of your emotional needs separate from him gives him the space to have his own experience of this pandemic, which is incredibly hard for reasons entirely separate from you. He’s at the end of his high school career, and many of the rituals that would have honored this moment aren’t possible. He’s trying to launch into a world on fire, literally and figuratively. That is a lot of weight to carry all by itself.

I know asking for help and support can be incredibly difficult. Talk about feeling vulnerable! But my experience of being a single mom for the last eight years, just like you, is that I cannot survive without my friends. Learning to ask for their help and support has saved my life over and over again.

Also, in addition to getting outside, try and get some daily exercise if you are physically able. A 15–30 minute walk every day can drastically effect your overall mental health. Some simple stretching combined with diaphragmatic breathing can help release tense muscles and settle your overactive mind. If you don’t know how to do exercises on your own there are hundreds of videos on YouTube for free which can guide you through a short routine. Whatever you do, just move a little bit every day.

Sleep enough, eat a balanced diet on a consistent schedule, avoid alcohol and other drugs, make time and space for creativity. I’d also encourage you to make a telehealth appointment with a therapist, if you don’t already have one, and can afford it. If you’re part of a religious community you may be able to get spiritual and emotional support through your pastor, rabbi, or imam.

The steps to well-being now are not really any different than they always are, they just have to be undertaken with social distancing. However, none of them are quick and easy fixes. They will work, but only with repetition, consistency, and focus.

Even if you do all of these things to care for yourself, though, it will not necessarily “fix” your present issue, because what you’re dealing with is a relationship. There are two people involved, and both people are going to have to work together to address the problem. You are going to have to engage your son about his behavior and its effect on you, but he is old enough to handle it. I truly believe that.

You are right, some of the unkindness that your son exhibits towards you may be a developmentally appropriate attempt to individuate. Still, I don’t think that his need to individuate, which is healthy, gives him license to be shitty to you without consequences, which is unhealthy. No one should get to be unkind to someone else without consequences. Without consequences for hurtful behavior a person cannot learn how to balance feelings and accountability, which is absolutely essential for healthy connection.

If he is being unkind to you, tell him to stop. Acknowledge that this quarantine situation is incredibly stressful. His feelings, whatever they are, are legitimate and he gets to have them, but he doesn’t get to inflict them upon you. He is old enough to take responsibility for his effect on other people, and find ways to care for his own well-being so that he can be kinder.

When you all are not in the midst of a disagreement, talk to him about what he needs in order to take care of himself right now. Set some boundaries around how he can communicate with you, and then help him make a plan for how he will care for himself in order to adhere to them.

Then you will have to hold him to those boundaries, and I realize that’s the hard part. Emotionally, it’s really challenging for you, I expect. Also, seriously, what kinds of consequences can you reasonably institute with a young man that is practically grown? You can’t make him sit in the corner or send him to his room, like you could when he was small. You may not even be able, in these pandemic times, to take away access to phones or vehicles or the internet.

Your only leverage, really, is his love for you. He does not, ultimately, want to hurt you. He also likely doesn’t want to be an asshole with the people that he loves. So maybe when things are heated between the two of you, you agree to mutual time-outs, and then you agree to come back together to apologize and work things out when everybody can be respectful to each other.

Even if he agrees to something like this when he’s not upset, he may not have the wherewithal to adhere to your agreement without prompting when he is upset. You will likely have to insist on adherence to the agreement, and be willing to bear the brunt of his increased frustration in the moment if he pushes back. In the short term it may feel like you’re advocating primarily for yourself, but you are in the long term advocating for him, for the man he can become. Remember that.

There is another thing that I think you should consider as well. I know that we are told never to talk about our children’s other parent in a judgmental or angry way, but your son is old enough to have some realistic conversations about your family history. You can talk about how your ex behaved without making statements about who he intrinsically is. There’s a difference between saying, “When your dad and I were together he was abusive towards me” and “Your dad was an asshole” (though the latter may very well be true, in my opinion).

Abuse, like addiction, often has at its heart generations of family patterning. Our parents grew up watching one of their parents abuse the other, so they learned to choose the role of the abuser or the abused. We watched them play out that dynamic and then manifested it in our own relationships. Our children will, through no character flaw of their own, likely confront those same dynamics in their own relationships. That’s how generational trauma persists.

The only way we break those cycles of abuse and trauma is to confront them, openly and honestly. I’m not saying it’s an easy conversation, but I have to believe that not having it and then finding out our kids have inherited our abuse and trauma baggage is harder.

Talk to your son about what he witnessed between you and his dad when he was a young kid. Ask him to reflect on what he learned about communication and relationships from that experience. Encourage him to think about how that might be playing out for him now, with you. Challenge him, gently and with tremendous compassion, to make different choices. Challenge yourself to insist on always being treated with respect and kindness, because you deserve that.

Remember that you are both learning to break cycles here. It’s a team effort, and everybody on the team has to understand and commit to the goal— relationships free of abuse and trauma.

If you don’t feel like you can navigate those conversations with him on your own, you may have to bring in a third party to help you, preferably a trained therapist. Couples counseling isn’t just for romantic couples. It could really help you all work through these issues together, and figure out how to transition to the next stage in your relationship.

Being abusive isn’t inherent. It’s learned behavior. It can be unlearned, but you have to do that unlearning on purpose. Try your best, on your own or with the help of others, to help him begin to learn instead how to manage feelings and conflict in a way that honors both of you. It will likely be an learning process that lasts a lifetime, but laying that foundation now will help him build a great, loving life over time.

You can do it, mama. I believe in you.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Want to walk further together? A new Walk With Me is published every Wednesday at noon (EST). You can also catch up on recent Walk With Me columns below.

Walk With Me (#9): Raising Feminist Men

Walk With Me (#8): Abortion & Trust

Walk With Me (#7): Teaching Beyond The White Gaze

Walk With Me (#6): Teen Girls And Sex

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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