Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Breaking the Cycle of Abuse in a Biracial Family

QUESTION: My daughter's ex-husband is African-American, and she is white. Her interracial marriage was a disaster! He was abusive in every way -- physically, mentally, and emotionally -- to my daughter and their two children. He would not work. He abandoned his family. My daughter had to get a divorce in order to get financial help. How can I discourage my daughter from entering into a second interracial relationship?

ANSWER: Your daughter's problem was not that she married someone of another race. Her problem was that she chose a man who abused her and their children. Rather than directing her away from interracial relationships, turn your energy toward assisting her in finding the help she needs so that she does not repeat this abusive experience.

Interracial marriage presents unique challenges. But in any relationship, couples must work through differences and come together to forge their own unique family culture. Negotiating differences and expressing respect are two characteristics family researchers identify that contribute to healthy family relationships. Clearly, these were lacking from your daughter's marriage.

Why your daughter was attracted to a man who abused her is the question she should be looking into before entering into another relationship. Low self-esteem is a likely culprit, rather than interracial marriage. Without self-respect and the tools she needs to succeed in forging a healthy relationship, she will likely pick another loser, whatever his race or ethnic origins.

Support your daughter to seek individual counseling to understand why she chose to marry an abusive man. Support groups for battered women are also extremely helpful in keeping women from repeating dysfunctional relationships. It is imperative that she get the help she needs, to raise her own self-esteem, before she can truly help her children.

But that's not all you should do. It seems to me that you are reacting out of fear, and blaming the race factor for your daughter's suffering. It is important that you look deeper into yourself to understand what you may be attempting to avoid by scapegoating race for your daughter's problems. It is possible that you are sidestepping the pain of a cycle of abuse that runs through your family, perhaps for generations. Whether it be verbal or physical abuse, your daughter was susceptible to an abusive marriage and did not see the writing on the wall when she chose to marry a man who would harm her.

Research shows that abuse is often passed down through generations in one form or another. Mental, physical, or emotional disrespect for another may not be new to your daughter. The good news is she got out of the relationship. The not-so-good news is that your own tendency to blame race is likely to hurt, rather than help, your biracial grandchildren. As a grandparent, you can be a powerful positive OR negative influence. Stop short of adding racism to the pain they are already suffering. And do not shy away from taking a deeper look into your response to your daughter's anguish.

Look into your own relationships with men, or other relationships your daughter experienced growing up. Consider whether there may have been (or are) patterns of disrespect or disregard for others. Doing so will nurture the effort toward healing in the family. Reflecting on past generations of relationship patterns is likely to be the best recourse in adding to your family's resources, rather than detracting from them.

Helping your daughter onto a path of healing through understanding herself and raising her self-esteem is the best way to break the cycle of abuse. As a grandparent, you have a choice to be a part of the solution. Turn your energies toward the painful task of looking at the cause of the suffering, and at what will keep your daughter out of another abusive relationship.

And remember ... it is never too late for us old grandparents to learn new tricks! We are all blinded by our own upbringing. But life is for learning. Use the pain you are facing now for gaining new knowledge. Refer to my book, Making Healthy Families, for exercises in discovering family patterns and clarifying what exactly contributes to healthy family relationships.

Do not berate yourself for any negative patterns you may uncover. Instead, pat yourself on the back for being willing to learn, change, and reflect at any age. Your positive example can contribute to a healing pattern that stems the tide of abuse in the generations that follow!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com