To outsiders, it seemed Mario grew up in a perfectly normal, happy family. Sadly, the reality was much darker. His mother, an alcoholic, emotionally and sometimes physically abused him. Mario swore he would break the intergenerational cycle of abuse and never cause the same pain and fear in his own family. But when he married Deb and had kids of his own, he often found himself slipping into rage and behaving just like his mother.
Many of us have seen, and research has shown, how abuse passes from generation to generation. But why is this the case? Mario knew that his mother’s actions were wrong and hated that he was following the same path. How could he end the intergenerational cycle of abuse and become the loving father and husband he wanted to be?
Where the cycle begins
The intergenerational cycle of abuse begins when we witness or experience abusive behavior in our early life. This may be physical or emotional abuse, like the treatment Mario suffered. It includes sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, or being rejected by our parents and family members, too. Even receiving constant criticism and shaming, instead of positive messages, can have big negative impacts and set us off on a troubled path.
Mario’s mother was one of the two people that should have shown him the most love in the world. But instead, his mother’s actions—neglecting him, berating him, shaming him, even hitting him—had the opposite effect. It made him feel stupid, bad, afraid, unloved, and unworthy. There was no one big defining event, just incidious neglect and poor treatment.
These “traumas” of mistreatment and abuse leave us with deep emotional wounds, like a car crash can injure our physical body. The injuries are especially damaging as children because we’re forming what we believe about ourselves from how we’re treated by others. Unlike physical wounds, however, emotional wounds or “core hurts” don’t get better on their own. Unless we intentionally heal them, they fester and infect our thoughts, feelings, and actions for a lifetime.
How core hurts drive the intergenerational cycle of abuse
For Mario and those of us with unhealed emotional wounds, life is a lot like navigating a crowded room with a broken collarbone. The smallest bumps that wouldn’t bother other people cause us unimaginable pain and bring out over-the-top reactions. This not only hurts us, but also hurts our relationships and our loved ones.
As Mario carried these wounds into adulthood and his roles as a husband and father, the inevitable bumps happened. If Deb disagreed on something, Mario saw it as her not respecting his judgment or valuing his opinion. When his daughter flunked a class, it seemed to confirm his fears that he was stupid and passed the trait onto his daughter. Mario’s shame-filled self-beliefs of not being smart, good, worthy, or lovable turned molehill issues into mountains.
When we have a headache, it’s difficult to treat others kindly. Similarly, if we’re constantly feeling hurt or threatened by the people and circumstances around us, our over-the-top self-protective actions end up hurting those nearby. The catch-phrase used to describe this phenomenum is “hurt people hurt people”.
For Deb and the children, Mario’s rage over tiny things felt like they were not allowed to have their own voice. They lived in fear, learning to be careful to avoid getting hurt. Moreover, they wondered if he really loved them.
Notice how these are the very same emotional injuries Mario sustained in childhood? If his children carried these wounds into their own adult relationships, they were at risk of behaving in hurtful and abusive ways themselves. This is the intergenerational cycle of abuse in action.
Breaking the intergenerational cycle of abuse
For Mario and his children, the intergenerational cycle of abuse is not inevitable. Breaking the cycle, however, required his brave and intentional action. And, it was hard work.
Mario started by discovering his insecurities and healing the core hurts behind his big reactions. His self-talk that said “I’m not smart”, “I’m not good enough”, or “I’m not lovable” were lies created by his past traumas. Once he identified those areas where his self-esteem tank wasn’t as full as it should be, he worked to fill it.
As he healed, those same situations that previously made him angry no longer held so much power. Not only did his wife and children’s lives benefit, but Mario experienced more peace within himself and enjoyed his relationships more.
Help from role models
Like many of us trying to break out of the intergenerational cycle of abuse, Mario knew he wanted something better than what he’d grown up with. However, he didn’t have any other role models to show him what “better” looked like. A big part of his change process involved seeking out people who had the skills he’d missed out on.
He gained a lot of wisdom about emotional regulation from his counselor. He joined a small-group at church where he listened to others whose marriage he admired talk about communication and conflict resolution in their own relationships. If he found himself backsliding, he could also call on this support network to encourage him.
Avoid the blame game
Mario experienced a lot of grief and anger as he realized how much his mother had hurt him, and how things could have been different. This is very common for those of us who have found ourselves stuck in a intergenerational cycle of abuse. But fixating on blame and victimhood do not help us heal—in fact, it keeps us stuck.
Eventually, Mario learned that resentment is almost as poisonous as the wound itself. None of us ask to inherit our parents’ baggage, but it is our task to clear it up and break the intergenerational cycle of abuse. Nothing and nobody else can do it for us. Why cling onto our pain when we, and our children, can have something so much better?
Having a relationship with God is perhaps the best tool we can have in our toolbox. First, it provides us with proof that we are inherently worthy and good. Why? Because God created all of us specially, and loves each and every one of us.
God is also our heavenly father—the best parent we could ask for. If our earthly parents messed up, a relationship with God provides us with the gentle guidance, encouragement, and love we need and may have missed. When our inner flame has been snuffed out by the hurts inflicted on us by others, God strikes a match.
Finally, God reminds us to give grace. This is especially important when we’re trying to escape the intergenerational cycle of abuse. He helps us to forgive those who have hurt us, and to forgive ourselves for causing hurt. Forgiveness clears the way to make change possible.