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An Insidious Family Legacy, Part 2

Strengthening family values and quality of life is one of the alleged reasons why faith-based groups and religious institutions do not support divorce – temporary or permanent. The Filipino family, after all, is an important social institution in the Philippines where the mother enjoys a relatively high power within their household. Decisions involving family finances is often the domain of the mother while disciplining children is the father’s swim lane.

Familial Intimacy between parents and children within the Filipino family is high with the tendency for parents to be protective. Thus, it is the nucleus that keeps them together in good or bad times. Domestic violence shatters such cohesion, however, as the traditional roles are upended, and the abuser sucks all the oxygen in the room. The once clear lines of authority, if you will, are blurred and rendered ineffective.

Domestic violence is not genetically hereditary, however, children who were abused or have witnessed domestic violence growing up become part of the cycle of abuse. For how many generations will the cycle entangle, is anybody’s guess. This is key for legislators’ understanding when deliberating the divorce bill now pending before the senate to truly comprehend the complex intersections between parents’ and children’s life experiences, and of how cumulative violence exposure over a lifespan elevates the risk of subsequent generation’s maladjustment.

Intergenerational impacts of violence exposure refer to how parental exposure to violence during childhood or adulthood affects their children. From the age of reason (before seven years old for Catholics) through high school graduation when children are still under parental care, impacts of domestic violence will differ to their experiences when they enter adulthood. As teenagers (13-15 y/o), they go through a rebellious phase when they strive to develop their identity.

The rebellious phase presumes some normality as part of a developmental stage for a teen to assert autonomy against parental influence. In an abusive family relationship, however, such acts of defiance can invite further provocation from abusive parents. The teen’s trauma is doubly painful that cuts deeper because the child’s effort to explore how to become their own person leading to adulthood, is stunted and further affects the child’s mental and emotional growth.

The Philippines being predominantly Catholic, domestic abuse seems an aberration. One would think that religion and spirituality would have a positive impact in the family relationship. Studies have shown that in abusive environments, the opposite is true that religion and spirituality have been positively associated with several mental health problems, including delinquency. This is baffling because organizational religiosity involves the social control theory, which contends that the notion of divine punishment/reward with social support of a formal religion can prevent believers from committing crimes.

Self-control and the rational choice of healthy behaviors and attitudes reflects an internal reasoning and self-awareness that defines intrinsic religiosity. Attending Sunday service exposes the religious to sacred music, texts, wisdom and prayers that many admit help them cope. The continued cycle of abuse, however, points to the fact such features of belonging may be insufficient in some contexts, to help prevent violence. Thus, in addition to divorce, other social guardrails need to be put in place to help stabilize frayed relationships.

In the Philippine setting, dialogues between parents and children regarding their “style” of parenting is almost non-existent because parents will not acknowledge their “faults.” Besides, filial disobedience is viewed as part of the child’s resistance to such traditional parenting that was inherited from their parents. When a teenager starts reasoning about free will, religious beliefs and spirituality, they will be put in place and will be told to “get with the program” or they will go to hell and bathe in boiling sulfur.

The rigidity of living with “unreasonable,” domineering parents and aggressive moral standards (on a punitive concept of God) creates a double personality for the teenagers and young adults. At home, they behave according to parents’ expectations. Outside the home, a different persona emerges for those bent on pursuing independence and autonomy from constrictive parenting. A small number of teens succumbs to suicide for their inability to deal with abusive parents, peer pressure, and being bullied in school.

Permanent divorce is not a silver bullet that can cure the intergenerational impacts of domestic violence. Far from it, but it is a good start. There is no guarantee that being removed from an abusive environment would result in the wife and her children living happily thereafter. Poor families cannot expect child support or alimony in divorce settlements and the saga can continue from thereon wherein the mother now becomes the sole provider.

Divorce decrees should address employment or source of income for the abused spouse and their children. Presumably, the wife (perhaps with the help of an advocate) will file divorce and that entails cost. For low-income households, the Public Attorney’s) Office plays a vital role in ensuring access to justice for individuals who cannot afford legal representation. Access to free legal help in the Philippines, however, continues to be a significant hurdle for victims of domestic violence.

This can be very stressful mentally and financially not only to the abused wife, but it also affects the children who are at high risk of becoming abusers themselves when they raise their own families. They often struggle greatly with being good partners and parents, because they did not have the nurturing or role-modeling that they needed. Trauma begets trauma.

The journey in raising a family is on a trial-and-error basis. Most parents have no experience in parenting and the first child is the guinea pig kid. When abused children become parents themselves, they adapt to their parent’s authoritarian style because being in control is what they know best from experience by repeating behaviors they’ve seen in their childhood and adolescence – it is a learned behavior.

Permanent divorce, as proposed by Philippine legislators, is one opportunity to break the generational curse. Preventing continuation of the cycle of violence into the next generation must also include trauma-focused therapy for the non-offending partner and any children in the family. A community-based approach that offers support reinforcing the resilience of children and educating the public about the causes and manifestations of family violence can change behaviors and attitudes.

For victims of domestic abuse who are now grown-ups, they too can break the curse by empowering themselves to become not only a survivor but a thriving one. Psychologists recommend that for survivors to begin the healing, that they need to explore their hurts and perhaps see a counselor. It would be ideal for the parent and abused child to be both present during counselling, but that may not happen because it is culturally difficult for the parent to face a child in such circumstances.

We often think of abusive parents acting maliciously toward a child but in truth, every parent strives to provide what is best for their children’s welfare and their intentions are almost benign. They just can’t help it.


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