Relationships, You & Your Family

Breaking free from a legacy of wrath

Breaking free from a legacy of wrath

In last month’s issue of Methodist Message, I shared about three men seeking to free themselves from the legacy of harsh parenting. In their childhood households, love and care was only shown, if at all, when they met parental expectations. Violence was used to resolve problems. Sadly, although unhappy with this way of relating, they found themselves repeating the same patterns with their spouses and children. This article will focus on how to break free from such a legacy and break the cycle of family violence.

The first step is to recognise it for what it is. Relating to others in an overly controlling fashion and using abuse or violence to get one’s way is wrong and sometimes, even criminal. It is also morally and spiritually unacceptable.

What often prevents us from changing is our denial or justification of our behaviour, such as “I lost control”, “It’s out of (my) character”, “I can’t help it”, or “I’ve been under lots of stress lately”. Calling it a behaviour is to acknowledge that the angry outbursts are neither accidental nor spontaneous. Instead, it is volitional and goal-directed behaviour—either to get what we want or to help deal with unwanted feelings like loneliness or shame.

When I speak with men about this, many protest. They say they cannot help how they feel, for example getting offended or angry when others push their hot buttons. They may also experience quick changes of emotions like being calm one moment and going ballistic the next.

This is when I clarify that feeling upset differs from acting aggressively. The former is an emotion, which occurs quickly and may take a long time to master. The latter, however, is a behaviour. For instance, if a car cuts into our lane we may feel angry and sound the horn or flash our headlights. However, if it is a police car with lights flashing and siren wailing, we usually find it in ourselves to restrain our responses. The annoyance is the same in both cases but the actions very different.

Recognising one’s emotions

The road to change involves recognising when one’s emotions are stirred up and taking action to manage one’s behaviour before it is too late. Taking action involves learning a range of responses that match the intensity of the emotional escalation and one’s capacity for control.

Time out: Move away from the trigger

Very high emotional escalation and low self-control may call for a contingency response. The “time out” response—moving away from what is triggering the emotion and going somewhere to cool down—is best. While this does not fix the problem, it limits further damage. Time out is like applying the emergency brake to prevent a crash. This step of disengagement should be followed by steps to de-escalate one’s feelings.

Active problem-solving

When the emotional state is at mid-range and one has some control, active problem-solving may be attempted. This may involve expressing oneself clearly and offering suggestions to resolve the situation. Before doing this, it is advisable to be calm and think through what to say in a measured way. If the attempt at problem-solving gets protracted or runs into a roadblock, stop before frustration sets in. If the causes of the problems are historical in nature, it may be time to find a mediator or a counsellor. Problem-solving is not about winning arguments and proving you are right. It is about finding a way forward that works for both.

When others’ actions annoy us and we are in a good state, we can choose to ignore them. Using healthy distraction or focusing on what is good in the relationship may be sufficient to diffuse our feelings. We need not fix everything that does not go our way.

Learning to master and apply these three categories of responses may be challenging but it helps to recognise that the journey of change can be long, with ups and downs.

You will notice that the process of change and healing begins with the self before focusing on the relationship. Do not expect forgiveness while the abuse and violence is still ongoing. Full reconciliation is not possible when abusive partners’ actions keep driving the victims away.

Patience from the victims is necessary but should be matched by perseverance to change by the other. If you are living under the tyranny of a person with an explosive temper, do speak with someone for advice on how to protect yourself and once safe, begin the process of personal and relational healing. If you need help to break free from an abusive legacy, speak with someone you respect and trust or call a helpline.

Know that we are not meant to live in such misery and help is available.

Resources for help

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868

Society Against Family Violence: (resources for both men and women)

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.