Monday, 20 May 2013

Learnt Behaviours

In my previous blog on ‘Attitudes’, I highlighted the need for positive role models of BOTH genders in support services.  This blog on ‘Learnt Behaviours’ naturally follows on because people do tend to mirror the behaviour of those around them, but the issues I want to explore go deeper.

One of the factors that kept me remaining in my abusive marriage was my personal fears about the impact my leaving would have upon my children.  I felt I could protect my children from the abuse if I was present.  My ex-wife was never physically abusive towards the children although they witnessed several of her assaults on me.  Although she would still not recognise it, she was emotionally, psychological and verbally abusive towards the children.   I would try and minimise the effect by telling the children that ‘their mother wasn’t well – only she didn’t realise how ill she was – and we all had to try and stay calm to help her.’

A huge turning point on my recovery journey was when the youngest child threw dinner all over me.  This was something that my ex-wife had done a few days earlier and I realised that I wasn’t really protecting the children if they were seeing such attacks and coping them because they were beginning to see them as ‘normal’ family behaviours.

I have spent considerable time reflecting and trying to work out why my abusive ex-wife behaved towards me in the fashion she did.

I have to confess that I knew very little about her childhood and, in the years we spent together, she didn’t talk or wasn’t prepared to talk about it.  From what little I knew, I assumed it had been a difficult time so didn’t probe too much.  Her mother and father had met quite late in life and her father had died while she was in primary school education.  She had been raised by an elderly mother which couldn’t have been easy.  Her mother died just before we got married.  I did meet my mother-in-law but didn’t see in her any of the behavioural traits that would lead to me being domestically abused.  However, my knowledge of my ex-wives’ family was restricted to holiday visits as all her family lived on one of the offshore islands of the UK. 

The only time I was able to see a brief snapshot inside her childhood was when I received an email from someone that had gone to school with my ex-wife and wanted to make contact.  This person knew that she was a church minister and had sought to contact her through the church.   In the email, this old school colleague apologised for her treatment and the group bullying that took place towards my ex-wife.  She said that she’d experienced a traumatic life since school but had subsequently become a Christian and wanted to put things right.   I passed the email onto my ex-wife, but she didn’t want to know, screwing the paper that I'd printed the email on , up and throwing it away.  I suggested to my ex-wife that just out of common courtesy she should reply, but she just wouldn’t entertain the notion.   It was as if any sort of childhood experience/memory was a closed book and she wanted to keep it that way. 

I am convinced that some trauma(s) occurred to make her behave in the manner in which she did.  I can only speculate to the nature as she always refused to talk: was her own father abusive towards her mother?  Was her mother abusive towards her?  The email certainly suggested that she was seriously bullied at school?  

Is this my problem now that we are divorced?  Blocking out the childhood trauma (whatever it may be) may be her coping strategy, but the learnt behaviour from it led to an abusive marriage and emotional and psychological damage to our children.  Continued failure to deal with the past  will eventually affect any new relationship she may enter into and continues to impact the relationship she has with her own children.

The worrying thing for me now is that occasionally I see the children behaving in a manner reminiscent of their mother.  How do I handle this and break the possible cycle of abuse?  My children won’t enter into conversation about this and refuse to accept me comparing their episodic conduct with that of their mothers.  “I’m not like her!” “Don’t compare me to her!

While the dynamics in a parental relationship is different and the fall-out may get attributed to common teenage stroppiness etc., it does concern me that these examples of learnt behaviour could be destructive when transferred over into the intimate adult relationships that my children will form one day.  As a responsible and caring father, how can I change this?  I have spoken openly and honestly with my children about what happened but this doesn’t seem to be enough when I observe the same behavioural traits in my children that I witnessed in their mother.  How can I repair the damage that has already been done so that history doesn't repeat itself?  I wish  I knew.


  1. As you may know from my website and the ODA model; traumatic childhood experiences and particularly, the loss of a parent at a young age; can lead to anti-social coping strategies. The fear of loss, rejection and abandonment, result in controlling behaviours. The individual needs to control those closest to them; in order to have control over their emotions and fears. These fears generate a state of anxiety, panic and paranoia (for example). In order to alleviate these intense emotions; the individual becomes desperate to feel secure, safe and reassured. At times when the relationship is calm; controlling behaviours still exist in more subtle ways; which promote feelings of security (or control). If a fear is triggered; more frantic attempts to gain feelings of security occur; often resulting in outbursts and/or violence.

    You may find research on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) useful and i highly recommend 'Understanding the Borderline Mother' by Dr Christine Lawson.

    Your children may be exhibiting similar behaviours because anti-social coping strategies or BPD can be inherited (not genetically). Rather than learnt behaviour; this may be resulting from some of their own needs not being met; such as feeling safe and secure, changing rules or boundaries, self-esteem etc.

    Dr Lawson highlights that children can overcome their difficulties when they are afforded a consistent, reliable care giver or mentor, who validates their experiences and encourages feelings of security and self-worth. I believe you are a consistent, loving snd supportive presence in their lives and you fulfuill this role.

    There are self-help exercises in my book which may be useful for you to explore and introduce into every day situations.

    It may not be appropriate for you to post their ages here; though i would be interested to know how old they are; particularly in terms of the best way to offer advice.

    Regards as always

  2. Hi Claire,

    Thanks for posting this, it is really useful. I'm currently in the process of reading your book which I highly recommend to everyone (The Origins of Domestic Abuse & the Release Programme Theory available from Amazon) and exploring this more.

    Best regards,