Can Your Conflicted Relations Now Affect Future Generations?
Years from now, your stress or anger could be alive in your great-grandchildren.
Posted Jun 26, 2020
Sebastian and Sophia sought psychotherapy because of his anger, which he frequently expressed to others in the home. Sebastian was quick to yell at his adolescent children and he too often was highly critical of Sophia. Her resentment started to grow toward him and so they sought help. In therapy, Sebastian eventually was able to admit his quick temper. Further exploration revealed that his own father showed a similar pattern: harsh criticism of his children and a quick temper toward his spouse. Even farther back in time, Sebastian realized that his paternal grandfather suffered trauma, had to immigrate from his country-of-origin, and displayed a challenging temper.
Sebastian is 46-years-old. He was treated unjustly as he grew up and as a result, he developed negative psychological effects from that original injustice that stayed with him for 40 years. Carrying resentment for decades is not uncommon (Hebl & Enright, 1993). Because of the therapy, Sebastian's behavior is much improved, but I still worry. What of his own children who will grow up and possibly reproduce their father's earlier behavior (as their father did with his own father), which they experienced for over a decade?
What I find fascinating about this case is this: The grandfather was treated unjustly. He developed the psychological effect of anger, which he passed to his son. The son (Sebastian's father) then developed a similar effect, intense anger, as a result of his own father's injustice toward him. The effects of injustice seem to come in waves. First is the original injustice towards the grandfather, which led to his anger effects (the first wave). His anger effects passed to Sebastian's father (second wave), which then were passed to Sebastian (third wave of effects, in this case, anger from unjust treatment).
There likely remains a fourth wave of the anger-effect from unjust treatment. This fourth wave may happen to Sebastian's own children. The children, once they are adults, may then express such anger to their partner and children, who may do the same... and on it goes for generations.
We cannot presume that just because Sebastian defeated the intergenerational third wave of negative effects that there will be no fourth or fifth wave of them. Research shows, for example, that children who experience their parents' divorce experience high levels of anxiety and anger (Emery, 1990). This, in other words, seems to be the start of a new wave of psychological compromise in families. As another example, long periods of parental conflict over child custody and visitation rights negatively impact the children (Kelly & Emery, 2003).
And this kind of challenge—the continual waves of psychological effects from being treated unjustly—are just as dangerous, or even more so, than an original injustice because they are so often unanticipated, missed. If we do not see that the inner conflict, with possibly deep anger, lives on in these second, third, and fourth waves, then we cannot defeat such effects.
Yet, we must begin to see that these reproducing waves of psychological challenge, caused by injustice, can lead to discouragement, hopelessness, hatred, depression, substance abuse, and child and spousal abuse. The sad part is that the victims of a third or fourth wave of negative effects are inheriting a pattern of anger that they did not deserve. Such undeserved inheritances can rob people of inner vitality and thriving.
Beware of these continuing waves of effects caused by injustices that may have started generations ago. See the effects, whether they are in the form of anger or mistrust or passivity. Know them... and then defeat them.
Recommendations for Defeating the Intergenerational Transmissions of Effects from Injustice
- First, be aware of any patterns in your partner or in you that seem to be consistently maladaptive. Label the behavior and the emotions that may be influencing that behavior.
- Ask this without finding an excuse for the behavior: Might this behavior be an effect from an injustice suffered long ago, before this relationship began? If so, what are the specifics of this injustice and who caused the unfair behavior?
- Defeat the effects first through the practice of forgiving (Enright, 2012)—within the heart of the one showing the negative effects from past injustice and within the hearts of those who are the recipients now of these effects. To forgive is to be good to those who are not good to you. To forgive is to see the other as possessing built-in worth, not because of the unjust behavior, but in spite of it. To forgive is to stand strong in the pain and commit to not passing it to others. To forgive is not to find an excuse for the other's behavior or to abandon the quest for fairness. Forgiveness gives people their lives back.
- Forgiving by itself likely will not be sufficient. Strive together now for justice, for fair solutions to conflicts that arise now in the relationship. Those affected by the waves of psychological effects from unfair treatment need to strive now for fairness toward others. Forgiveness and justice need to be practiced side-by-side.
- Ask forgiveness from those who now might be the recipients of a new wave of these psychological effects caused by you or your partner's pattern of injustice.
- Forgiving oneself for hurting others also is recommended if the person now is engaging in self-loathing. To self-forgive is to welcome yourself back into the human community despite your flaws. Self-forgiveness usually is accompanied by going to others and asking them to forgive you because of your own unjust actions.
- If narcissism is suspected as the cause of expressed anger or hatred toward others, in that the one who is acting unjustly has an excessive admiration of the self, then this person might not have people to forgive for past unjust treatment. In this circumstance, the one showing narcissistic behavior needs the insight that such behavior is unhealthy for others and for the self. A counter-move to narcissism, which takes much patience and perseverance, is the continual practice of humility, or seeing oneself as similar to others, not superior to them in terms of one's personhood.
If you are to defeat a second, third, or fourth wave of injustice, which can take the form of your psychologically wounding others, then being aware of this is a major first step. Countering this wave, by willingly stopping a cycle of resentment, is a heroic decision. This is so because you may be protecting your grandchildren's grandchildren from experiencing the same challenging psychological effects of injustice that you have had to endure. Think about that. Years from now, your children's children's children may have more internal peace because of your decisions today to start a healthier pattern in your important relationships.
Emery, R. E. (1990). Custody disputes in high-conflict families. [Review of the book Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict, by J. R. Johnston, & L. E. G. Campbell]. PsycCRITIQUES, 35(5).
Enright, R.D. (2012). The forgiving life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
Hebl, J. H., & Enright, R. D. (1993). Forgiveness as a psychotherapeutic goal with elderly females. Psychotherapy, 30, 658-667.
Kelly, J. B., & Emery, R. E. (2003). Children’s adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives. Family Relations, 52, 352–362.