When I was a little boy, my mother and father used to argue a lot. Some mornings, I would wake up to the alarming sound of my parents arguing loudly. The disagreement would continue until my father would yell with finality, “That is it! I’m not talking about this anymore!” The dispute would end right there. My mother never got the last word.
My dad’s yelling made me shrink in fear; I wanted to do something to make him stop raging against my mother. In those moments, I felt powerless because I was too small to confront my father. I learned early that he had an unfair advantage because of his gender. His size, strength and power intimidated my mother. I never saw my father hit her, but I did witness how injurious his verbal jabs could be when they landed on my mom’s psyche.
My father didn’t always mistreat my mother, but when he did, I identified with her pain, not his bullying. When he hurt her, he hurt me, too. My mother and I had a special bond. She was funny, smart, loving and beautiful. She was a great listener who made me feel special and important. And whenever the going got tough, she was my rock and my foundation.
One morning, after my father yelled at my mom during an argument, she and I stood in the bathroom together, alone, getting ready for the day ahead of us. The tension in the house was as thick as a cloud of dark smoke. I could tell that my mother was upset. “I love you, Ma, but I just wish that you had a little more spunk when you argue with Daddy,” I said, low enough so my father couldn’t hear me. She looked at me, rubbed my back and forced a smile.
I so badly wanted my mother to stand up for herself. I didn’t understand why she had to submit to him whenever they fought. Who was he to lay down the law in the household? What made him so special?
I grew to resent my father’s dominance in the household, even though I loved him as dearly as I loved my mother. His anger and intimidation shut down my mother, sister and me from freely expressing our opinions whenever they didn’t sit well with his own. Something about the inequity in their relationship felt unjust to me, but at that young age, I couldn’t articulate why.
One day, as we sat at the kitchen table after another of their many spats, my mother told me, “Byron, don’t ever treat a woman the way your father treats me.” I wish I had listened to her advice.
As I grew older and got into my own relationships with girls and women, I sometimes behaved as I saw my father behave. I, too, became defensive and verbally abusive whenever the girl or woman I was dating criticized or challenged me. I would belittle my girlfriends by scrutinizing their weight or their choices in clothes. In one particular college relationship, I often used my physical size to intimidate my petite girlfriend, standing over her and yelling to get my point across during arguments.