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"The signs were there." How an abusive childhood can translate into toxic relationships later in life.

May is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month and, at Mamamia, we're sharing women's stories of bravery and courage. If you have the means, please donate to RizeUp to help women and families move on after the devastation of domestic violence.

This post deals with domestic violence and could be triggering for some readers.

I’ve been following the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard saga with intrigue, as I’ve also experienced a toxic relationship. They’ve both revealed they grew up with abusive childhoods, which struck a big chord with me, as I also had an abusive mother. 

My ex partner Jake* was so abusive, I secretly wished he’d leave me for someone else so that I didn’t have to experience the torment anymore. 

Mum had jealous rages towards Dad, just like Jake did with me. Jake’s behaviour got so destructive, with him spitting and throwing things at me, that I had to leave him to stay at Mum’s place for a little while, but I got a little reprieve. She threw a chair at me in anger while I was holding my one-year-old. I can’t even remember what she was angry about. I often can’t remember why Mum had such outbursts because, much like with Jake, they were mostly triggered by something that didn’t warrant such an aggressive reaction. I asked myself, “Do I go back to Jake or stay with Mum?” 

I went back to Jake to see if we could work things out. 

Watch: We lose one woman every week in Australia to domestic violence, but that's just the tip of a very grim iceberg. Post continues after video.


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Things didn’t improve, so I sought assistance from a domestic violence case worker. The lightbulb moment occurred when she said, “You put up with him because he’s just like how your mother was to you.”

My sisters can all speak to Mum’s behaviour too. Growing up experiencing this, we formed the unhealthy idea that this was “normal.”  

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Growing up with Mum.

There are incidents we haven’t forgotten. When I was around eight and my younger sister was seven, we went to the milk bar to buy milk for mum. When we came home with it, we realised the milk bar man had short changed us. She yelled at us ferociously, asking, “Why did you get the wrong change? How could you do this!”, blaming and shaming us relentlessly. She also hit us. There were many incidents like this. 

I seem to have blocked some memories. My sister says that one night, when we were both under five, Mum was hitting and yelling at us so badly that Dad took us away to our grandparents to keep us safe. Dad often had to intervene, telling Mum to stop reprimanding and putting us down. But then, she’d turn on him by screaming, “You be quiet, you don’t know anything!”, and continued to rant at him for the rest of the night, berating him about his flaws and complaining about his mother.

Most times, we couldn’t talk to Dad at the dinner table without Mum talking all over him, not letting him speak. She refused to listen to any point of view and if we put forward an idea she disagreed with, she’d yell at us for an hour. So we learned to shut our mouths as much as we could. It was like walking on eggshells and it had a huge negative impact on our mental health. We became anxious, stayed in our own rooms a lot and I felt worried about coming to the dinner table because most of the time it was so unpleasant. 

I felt I had to find love somewhere else.

I travelled a lot to escape the pain I felt from the dysfunction of our family. In my late 20s, I came to realise I’d been bearing the brunt of my mum’s toxic behaviour since I was little. I was still dealing with the impact and knew I’d have to for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to live at home to witness Mum putting Dad through hell anymore. I felt I needed to find my own life and love.

The signs were there. I ignored them.

I met Jake on a dating app and was drawn to his commitment to me within a few months of dating, talking about our future and already wanting children. After all, I wanted to start my own happy family. At this early stage, there were already very strong and clear signs of jealousy. He threw a vase at me and ordered me out of the room or house, because he thought I’d been looking at or flirting with someone else. I knew his behaviour was wrong, but I stayed. Years later, I could make sense of why I did. Marisa Peer, world renowned therapist, explains, “Children who were abused or not shown love and attention, form a belief they’re somehow unlovable. As adults, they believe love is only available to them in the familiar form of a toxic relationship. They’re unable to spot the red flags of most people who grew up in a more stable household can. They associate ‘love’ with dysfunction. It feels familiar to them so they’ll unknowingly be drawn to narcissists or those who are jealous, can’t control their temper, have emotional issues and poor impulse control.” 

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How mum and Jake were similar.

As our relationship progressed and these incidents of jealousy continued, I realised Jake was doing what I witnessed Mum doing to Dad. She constantly harassed Dad about having feelings for or looking at other women, even though those concerns were unfounded. 

Out shopping one day with Jake, I went to the bathroom, and we had a misunderstanding about where to meet afterwards. Jake started yelling at me, asking where I was, if I went to meet someone else. This was all too familiar, as Mum also had huge outbursts about me if I didn’t meet her expectations or if I made a mistake. One day, when we were primary school age, we got home from the supermarket, with Mum realising the groceries were left at the store. Mum then exploded at us, yelling, “How could you leave it there? You’re so useless!” and this continued all the way in the car back to the shop and back home again. 

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Peer explains this link: “Children take their future social cues from their parents. So chaos and angry outbursts followed by affection are mistaken for love. They have no other frame of reference. I had rationalised Jake’s jealous outbursts, thinking it was because he loved me.

Like Mum, Jake would also have unpredictable rages. Having takeaway dinner one night, I ordered seafood while he ordered lasagna. I felt like having some of his lasagna, too. We would always share food with no issues. However, this time, he snapped, yelling violently at me, “You said you wanted the seafood!”, and threw the food across the room. Similarly, though I can’t remember what we were discussing, when I was in my 20s, Mum got so angry and threw the chopping board with a knife on it at me.

When I left the light-bulb moment.

Just like my relationship with Mum, I couldn’t resolve things constructively with Jake. Every time I tried, he said I needed to stop being a b*tch. Peer clarifies, “Narcissistic or abusive people won’t change unless they recognise their behaviour is wrong. They have a sense of entitlement and even having the temerity to challenge their stance will result in a tirade of abuse.”

Finally, I decided I had to leave Jake. Peer says, “Ask if the relationship gives you positive energy or suck it out of you? If it’s the latter, the destructive behaviour will continue wearing you down until you start doubting yourself. For the sake of your mental health, accept that in these instances, change is not inevitable, and commit to leaving the relationship.” 

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Indeed, over time, the jealous rants, put downs and swearing from Jake, wore down my self-esteem. I was half the person I was when I met him. Just like how mum had ruined my self-esteem from her constant berating. 

How to avoid getting into the same toxic relationship you had with your parent.

Peer recommends, “Firstly, one must be able to recognise their relationships are flawed. Classic signs of a toxic partner or parent include the need to be always the centre of attention, always having to be right, making the other person wrong, controlling behaviours, constant criticism, mood changes, a sense of entitlement and issues with boundaries.

“Self awareness is key, otherwise, you can be drawn into a never-ending cycle of bad relationships. Understanding potential early red flags will help you make healthier choices.”

People in abusive relationships can find healing through therapy like Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT). Peer says, “With a trained RTT therapist, people can understand how their childhood misinformed their beliefs about relationships. Clients can rewire the mind with more helpful, productive patterns of thought, habit and action.”

I still love Mum and understand much of her behaviour stemmed from her grappling with poor mental health while taking care of us, but I only see her about once a month. Peer recommends, “Minimal contact is the next best thing and the start of the healing process.”

Sadly, even though I understand the reasoning now, I still don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to meet anyone again after what I went through with mum and Jake. Perhaps I don’t know how to believe I’ll find a healthy love. Even if it does come by, I don’t know if I’ll feel drawn to it. I might even push it away because it’s not familiar. Either way, I feel safer not to get involved with anyone. I couldn’t go through it all again. I just want peace in my life.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature Image: Getty.