Children growing up in families where abuse, alcoholism or drug addiction is present are just trying to survive under incredibly difficult circumstances. To make it easier, their families often develop unspoken rules that help minimize the negative consequences of the continuing dysfunction. The rules don’t protect family members from abuse, or stop the alcoholic from drinking. They merely help the group function by regulating the emotional climate within the family. These rules may be unspoken, but they are strictly enforced. Breaking them risks rejection or punishment.
Children who learn these rules are affected by them as children and as adults. Today we’ll take a look at the rules and how they might have affected Marty Deeks.
|Before we get started
This is not an article infused with happiness (although – spoiler alert – it eventually ends pretty well for the hero of the story). I feel it necessary to issue a warning to anyone who might be triggered by discussions of child or domestic partner abuse, alcoholism, or their aftermath.
But before you stop reading, let me add that there are an astounding number of organizations, in the U.S. and other countries, which can help those needing to escape a currently abusive situation or trying to recover from a past one. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a wonderfully thorough list of places where victims and survivors of domestic violence can get help, including resources for children, teens, men, women of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community. In addition, mentalillnessmouse on Tumblr has compiled an equally thorough lists of mental health hotline numbers and on-line resources. If you need help, take a look.
Just a few other disclaimers: Keep in mind that just because children growing up in dysfunctional homes are more likely than others to experience certain outcomes, it doesn’t mean they all will. Every child is unique, with unique experiences that affect them uniquely. Most survivors of dysfunctional families grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults. Also: Lots of speculation ahead.
Don’t Talk and Don’t Feel
There are three main rules at work in many dysfunctional families, with the first two being DON’T TALK and DON’T FEEL. DON’T TALK is a reference to the absolute prohibition on discussing what’s really going wrong in the family, whether it be alcoholism or abuse. Family members are never to disclose such secrets to others- their business is private and private equals secret. And it’s not just that they can’t tell people outside the family- they can’t talk about it with each other either. You see, it’s not just that if family members disclose the problem to others, someone might intervene. It’s that even talking about it inside the family puts pressure on the alcoholic or abuser to change, which is the last thing that person is interested in doing. There is often a heavy amount of denial with many substance abusers, so it’s easier to, as wikiDeeks Contributor Brenda puts it, “go along with the family myth that everything is fine, no problem here, nothing to look at, keep going.”
In addition, children may believe that if they don’t talk about it, it won’t happen again. And at times when the parent is on their best behavior, the child doesn’t want to ruin a good moment by bringing up the family’s secrets, knowing that parent won’t want to hear it, and worrying that it might just prompt the negative behavior to begin again. This inability to talk about what is seen or heard has a direct effect on how the child relates to the world.
DON’T TALK extends beyond what is happening in the home to how the child feels about it. Discussions of feelings are just as discouraged. Since children cannot talk to anyone about how they feel, they cope the best way they can. They shut out their pain and fear, which unfortunately means they also repress other emotions too, including happiness and hope. This is the second rule, DON’T FEEL. It just isn’t emotionally- or maybe even physically- safe to express one’s true feelings in such households.
Unfortunately when children learn to suppress their feelings rather than to constructively express them, they may more easily feel overwhelmed when those feelings eventually bubble up to the surface. This in turn reinforces their fear or loathing of their feelings, and may lead them to work out more indirect ways to communicate them, such as by acting out or sulking, or via another family member.
The Consequences of Poor Communication Skills
Do you have difficulty recognizing and expressing your feelings?
Do you feel that others may not accept you?
Do you assume a typical role that is not really you in social situations?
— Journal questions in Survivor to Thriver, The Morris Center for Healing from Child Abuse’s manual for adult survivors
The questions above were taken from a self-help workbook for survivors of child abuse. Growing up following the DON’T TALK and DON’T FEEL rules affects adult survivors in a variety of ways. Since they never really learned how to communicate, one possible outcome is that as adults, they may have difficulty expressing themselves. They may expect rejection or criticism, which makes it even harder to speak up, to articulate their feelings, and to seek out honest conversation. Having actively supported the denial of a problem for so long, they may struggle with honesty in their relationships. Relationships they do establish may not last long and may lack intimacy.
Like I said, poor communication skills. I never ever ever know what the hell you’re talking about because you never say what you mean. It’s so frustrating.
— Kensi to Deeks in “Descent”
When we think about the impact of these rules on Deeks, the single characteristic that most jumped out at me during my research was this difficulty communicating about feelings. I see it as one of his defining characteristics, one that Kensi repeatedly calls him on in Seasons 4 and 5 (definitely a pot/kettle situation!). They both go a long time before they seem to even recognize their deep feelings for one another, and once they do, they’re both afraid to act on those feelings. Witness Deeks’ expression as he utters “sunshine and gunpowder” at the end of “Wanted.” He looks terrified as he realizes how deep his feelings go. We also know that Deeks “likes to lie,” at least according to Kensi, and we have seen him struggle with honesty in his relationships.
Deeks: I even called in to apologize. Okay? Twice.
Kensi: A little too late. You lied to her.
Deeks: Uh, no. No I did not.
Kensi: Excuse me? Lies of omission are still lies.
Deeks: I didn’t tell her because I didn’t think it was gonna be a big deal.
Kensi: You went out with one of her girlfriends!
— Densi banter in “Tin Soldiers”
And those indirect communication skills like sulking? We see Deeks exhibit them on more than one occasion (see Densi’s mocker-sulker debate in “Enemy Within” for example). Directly sharing his feelings has been difficult for him. When he does finally begin to share his feelings for Kensi, he tends to do so via actions rather than words, like the going out for “something like tacos” unnamed date at the end of “Recovery” or the hilltop kiss in “Descent.”
Do you often feel misunderstood, blamed or ignored by other people?
Do you either avoid conflict or attract it seemingly endlessly?
Do you feel that your experience of life is somehow not right or not as good as others?
Do you often feel used or taken advantage of?
— Journal questions in Survivor to Thriver
This inability to communicate makes it hard to connect with others. It can lead to a disconnected, lonely life of social awkwardness or anxiety. Living in isolation may simply feel safer. When survivors do attempt to establish contact with others, they may be especially sensitive about how they’re treated, experiencing joking or teasing as critical or hostile. They can easily feel stigmatized and not accepted by others. In extreme situations this produces resentment which can lead to acting out or violence. Some relationships may lack passion, but others may be filled with conflict.
Apparently the class clown has been a naughty boy.
— Quinn to Deeks in “The Debt”
I actually see Deeks’ mascot persona providing a counterbalance to any inclinations toward social alienation or lack of spontaneity. As we discussed in Part Two, mascots use humor to distract themselves and others from the painful events in their households. They grow into adults who hide from their own feelings by joking around and seeking attention. As a mascot, Deeks exhibits attention-seeking behavior rather than isolating himself, but the end result is that he still keeps people at a certain distance.
Have you learned to disconnect yourself from your feelings by refusing to pay attention to them?
Do you often feel confused by what you feel?
— Journal questions in Survivor to Thriver
Adult survivors can have such trouble expressing their emotions that their feelings can come out in unexpected ways. They may not recognize them for what they are, and may have trouble managing them. They may struggle with anxiety, depression, or anger. They may turn to alcohol or drugs or eat compulsively to numb the painful feelings, or adopt a workaholic lifestyle to avoid them.
Deeks: When I was undercover, I was fearless. You know why that was?
Kensi: Because you didn’t have to worry about anybody?
Deeks: Yeah, because I was on my own, you know? Nobody has any control over you when you’re on your own.
— Deeks to a suspected CIA mole in “Betrayal”
Deeks doesn’t seem to have suffered from depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, at least until Sidorov, but we know he has a serious history of difficulty controlling his anger. It’s so important to his personality that it will be addressed in a separate post to come.
Deeks does seem to have thrown himself into his work. Just look at the hours he works at NCIS. Long-term undercover assignments at LAPD would have been even more intense, giving him ample distraction from dealing with unruly feelings- working undercover by definition keeps one from making any true emotional connections. And in the case of undercover aliases like Max Gentry, it could have actually provided an outlet for his negative emotions, particularly his anger.
The third rule that goes with DON’T TALK and DON’T FEEL is DON’T TRUST. DON’T TRUST concerns issues of predictability and safety. When it comes to predictability, just imagine the lack of it – the chaos – that having an alcoholic or abusive parent in the house might generate. Cycles of drinking, hangovers and sober periods lead to different moods and behaviors. Reactions to things like a bad report card or a broken glass may vary tremendously depending on the parent’s mood at the time, and those moods may swing drastically over the course of a single evening. There’s simply no way to know how the parent may feel or act. Children learn by repeated broken promises (“I’ll make it to your recital”) that their parents can’t be counted on. In other words, they can’t be trusted.
Then there’s the even more elemental aspect of safety. Abuse by a parent damages the most fundamental of childhood relationships. The child learns that they can’t safely and reliably have their physical and emotional needs met by the person who is supposed to take care of them. Repeatedly having their trust violated, whether by emotional or physical abuse, results in their learning that the world is not a safe place. They can’t trust people or know who is trustworthy.
The Intimate Kind of Intimacy
Do you find it hard to maintain close, trusting relationships?
Do you get anxious or scared when someone gets too close?
— Journal questions in Survivor to Thriver
The lessons learned about trust make it difficult for adult survivors to form close relationships. They may feel quite uncomfortable allowing people to get close to them, since loved ones are not to be trusted and can hurt them at any time. If they do have relationships, they may not last due to fears of being controlled or abused. They may be haunted by insecurity and doubt that leads to jealousy issues and the need to be constantly reassured of a partner’s love.
Kensi: So you’ve never been dumped?
Deeks: What part of “never” don’t you understand?
Kensi: I don’t believe you… Let me guess, you’re the “senses the breakup, initiates preemptive strike” guy.
Deeks: Yeah, well, it’s much better to be the breaker than the breakee, I think.
Kensi: You’re just broken, Deeks.
Deeks: Yeah, well, no argument there.
— Densi banter in “Blye, K. Part 1”
Deeks may joke about “the intimate kind of intimacy,” but before Kensi he seems to have jumped from one casual relationship to another, with Jess being a possible exception (she shared at least one intimate, albeit case-related, experience from her own childhood trauma with him). He was known as “Party Marty,” which implies he had a relatively active social life; he certainly doesn’t sound like someone who settled down with any long-term girlfriends.
Chaos and Control
My unit’s tight-knit. Deeks had skills, but he was never one of the guys. Gave it time, but he never fit in, so when you came looking for him, I was naive enough to think that he could find a place to call home.
— Bates to Hetty in “The Debt”
I do wonder if Deeks’ inability to fit in at LAPD and his struggles to be accepted by his NCIS teammates might somehow be related to these rules. No one at LAPD wanted to work with him after he reported Boyle to Internal Affairs, resulting in his move to undercover work. Even then, the general atmosphere must not have been pleasant. Witness the cold reception he receives from the crime scene detectives in his first day as liaison in “Fame.” He is unfazed, as if this is par for the course. Dealing with such grim working conditions for so long can’t have been easy, but he seems to have borne it without too much hardship. Is this because he learned to expect to be misunderstood or mistreated by others in a chaotic environment?
Unfortunately his work with NCIS may have, at least initially, reinforced these feelings. Sam’s unremitting distrust, and the entire team’s mocking, could only have played into Deeks’ expectations that it was impossible to develop close and trusting relationships with others. Actually, his chilly reception at NCIS was likely expected. And given his consistent avoidance of intimacy, of even wanting or trying to develop deeper relationships, he was likely fine with it. Like his LAPD co-workers, these people weren’t trying to get too close to him, which might have been just what he wanted.
Do you expect to be left or rejected by your relationships?
Do you have a habit of choosing relationships that don’t work?
Do you notice choosing friends or lovers because of their similarity or dissimilarity to your abuser?
— Journal questions in Survivor to Thriver
Adult survivors may repeat the patterns of abuse they witnessed or experienced as children. Their fear of rejection may cause them to hang onto relationships even when they become destructive. Or they may become hyper-independent, pushing people away and refusing to make lasting connections for fear of getting hurt again. They would rather live a life of isolation and loneliness than become vulnerable and intimate with another person.
Rather than repeat an abusive relationship by choosing a partner who acted like his father, I think Deeks chose Kensi because she didn’t remind him of his mother. Deeks sees Kensi as Wonder Woman, far too strong to become a victim like his mother. Kensi is actually part of a string of such strong women Deeks has been attracted to, including Jess (“Human Traffic”) and Eva (“Sacrifice”). This is a much healthier outcome than what many victims of abuse follow. (Don’t worry, we will talk about The Punch next time.)
Because they weren’t able to grow emotionally, these survivors may develop a strong need to control all aspects of life in order to avoid ever feeling pain again. This means they lack spontaneity or playfulness and can be very serious people. In addition, they may always feel like little kids when interacting with their parents.
And while I don’t see Deeks having any control issues- just look at the control he daily hands over to Kensi- I do see a degree of independence to his choice of working undercover. It also allowed him to avoid any real relationships. He may have faked intimacy with someone like Monica in “Parley,” but none of the emotions he showed her were real.
As for a lack of playfulness, again I see Deeks’ mascot inclinations forcing a sense of spontaneity and fun to his interactions with people, even as deep down I do see him as a very serious person. Does he feel like a kid when interacting with his mom? No, if anything, it seems increasingly apparent that he’s long had to play the role of Caretaker to her. It would seem that to some extent, the roles we discussed last time may have impacted Deeks at least as much as these rules.
Coming Up Next
Next month, we’ll look more in depth at issues around the guilt, shame and low self-esteem experienced by victims of abuse, and how Marty Deeks has experienced these challenges.
Want to Read More?
In the meantime, if you google “Don’t Talk Don’t Trust Don’t Feel” you’ll get almost a hundred million hits. You can also check out the Adult Survivors of Child Abuse website or their self-help manual Survivor to Thriver.
- Or, go back to the previous post in this series, Playing a Role.
- If you’d like to know how to help those who need it, check out The Pixel Project’s “16 Ways to Stop Domestic Violence in Your Community.”
- The HelpGuide has a great overview of child abuse and neglect.
A huge Thank You to my fellow wikiDeeks collaborator Brenda for her assistance with research and editing of this article. Brenda is a nurse practitioner with more than 25 years of experience in caring for individuals experiencing significant trauma, and a PhD student whose research focuses on communication, conflict and ethics in human interactions. I’m very grateful for her input and review of this series.