Breaking the domestic violence cycle

Breaking the domestic violence cycle

by Dave Dunaway

SAFE San Juans Executive Director.

I never met my grandma Ruth. The only pictures I have of her are as a nurse during WWII and then of her posing in front of her west Texas farmstead many years later. Her slight frame seems to hide the anger that knew no bounds. I see myself when I look at pictures of her face, but I know we are different because I am not consumed by rage. Badly abused by her father (my great-grandfather), she chose marriage as a way of escape. Sadly, her husband and two children suffered at her hand as she too had suffered. She hated marriage and hated men. At 18, Dad left home. Shortly thereafter, his parent’s marriage ended in divorce. I read the divorce papers. They were simple and awful. Grandpa chose words like “cruelty” and “emotional abandonment” to describe his experience. Dad rarely talked with us about those days; the pain of his childhood was something he didn’t want his children to carry. But, when he did talk, “cruelty” summarized his memories of a mom he hadn’t seen for decades.

Behaviors are learned, patterns are reinforced, cycles are repeated. I don’t know the family history beyond my great-grandfather, but I do know that what we call domestic violence was deeply entrenched in my family by the time Dad had his own choices to make. That I didn’t experience abuse at the hand of my dad (or mom) is a miracle. Dad attributed it to three things. The first was his own dad who treated him kindly. The second was another family that took him under their wings and included him as one of their own. The third happened around the time he married my mom; he learned about the love of God displayed in the person of Jesus. It was a message that convinced Dad he was loved and he mattered. When it was his turn to relate to a wife and children, Dad chose the path that matched his new sense of personal worth. He chose to love and shattered the cycle of abuse in his family. Dad liked to explain what shaped his decisions, but whether a person will be abusive or kind towards their own family is a choice that cannot be blamed on or credited to anyone else. Each person is personally responsible for how they treat others, and a history of experiencing abuse is no excuse for continuing it.

We will all be remembered; those who follow behind will consider the outcome of our lives and decide if our choices are worth repeating. Dad died in 2017. Shortly before he died, my Dad’s medical partner of over 40 years told me, “Your dad is the most loving and grace-filled person I have ever met.”I agree. Dad was highly successful too, but the memory I carry is of being loved by a kind and grace-filled father. His family was never his problem; we were always his joy. We did not stand in the way of his success; we were a measure of it. Our needs were not a burden, he delighted in supporting us and seeing us thrive. Dad chose to see every person through the same lens he saw himself — loved and they mattered. In the many decisions I must constantly makeover how to treat my own family, I consider the outcome of Dad’s choices and find them worth repeating. As I work alongside SAFE San Juans’ staff to carry out our mission of seeing domestic violence end, I find hope pointing towards Dad’s example and saying, “Be like him.”

Domestic violence is deeply rooted in the dynamics of power and control. Perhaps it makes more sense to look at it in reverse. In order to maintain control, people will exercise whatever power is available to them; if someone gets hurt, then so be it. But, love is rooted in the desire to seek the welfare of another person even at one’s own expense. Domestic violence demands control; Love shares. Domestic violence is intensely self-centered (as is sexual violence); Love is intensely other-centered. Domestic violence displays power; Love requires the courage to set aside power. Domestic Violence asks, “What can I take from you?”; Love asks, “What do you need from me?”Domestic violence is destructive (even to the abuser); Love builds all involved. There is a choice to make. Don’t just choose to not abuse – Choose to love and show others they are valued human beings who matter. Men are not the problem when it comes to domestic violence – and neither are women. Attitudes that devalue others and seek to control them are. The response to violence is to change how you see yourself and others. I find it helpful to point to those who have chosen the better path and say, “Be like them.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. The staff at SAFE San Juans want to hear from you and honor the people in your life who chose to treat you with dignity, respect, and love rather than violence. Let’s hold them up as examples to follow. Do you have a story to tell? We would love to hear it and help you tell it. To talk with someone from SAFE San Juans, call 360-378-8680 or visit us online at