Domestic violence is never okay, least of all at Christmas time, says Cathy Zervos, trained Relationship Counsellor, having worked in a ‘Whole of Family’ response to domestic and family violence with BaptistCare for 11 years.
When most people think about special occasions such as Christmas, it usually conjures up fond memories. Granted it can be a stressful period for a lot of parents tasked with what feels like a never-ending cycle of cooking, cleaning and buying presents. But at the end of the day, most anticipate it being a joyful occasion. A time we spend with our loved ones; a time for giving, enjoying great food, and the magic of the holiday season. Children, especially, build up so much excitement as Christmas gets closer and closer.
Sadly, this is not the case for all families.
The reality for many at Christmas time is starkly different. Families living with domestic violence face much anxiety and uncertainty at this time of year. While it may be hard to imagine this reality, we have the opportunity to shine a light on and talk about family violence, something that is too often hidden behind the veil of private, ‘family’ business.
I frequently see women living with violence who will do everything in their power to create a peaceful and nurturing environment, particularly at Christmas time. In wanting to maintain an intact family and shield their children from the impact of the abuse, they may stay in an unsafe situation, despite their better instincts telling them that they should leave. Leaving, however, creates greater risk of escalating violence. There are no easy choices here.
Abuse and violence is very different from regular relationship conflict. Rather than negotiating differences and reaching compromise, it is the intentional abuse of one person’s power to disadvantage or disempower another. Happiness and excitement are replaced by grief and terror. Children come to associate special occasions with dread and anxiety.
The added stress and pressures experienced by people who are living with domestic violence often heighten. Whilst maintaining an appearance of celebration and happiness, victims live with the fear, uncertainty, and unpredictability of violence and abuse. They fear for the emotional and often physical safety of their children, living in a constant state of stress – stress that their children feel instinctively.
Christmas is also traditionally a time of increased consumption of alcohol, contributing to greater volatility and stress. The level of tension experienced by families in this situation is extremely anxiety provoking. It stretches a victim’s ability to cope to its limits, and a child’s challenging behaviours are a clear signal of the stress and volatility that they are exposed to.
Domestic violence is not okay at any time of the year and Christmas is no exception. I cannot emphasise enough that the pressures of Christmas never justify or cause the violence. What we must never lose sight of is that a perpetrator of violence always has a choice and is responsible for their use of controlling, coercive and violent behaviour.
In over 10 years of counselling women and couples, I have seen with my own eyes that the impact and effects of long-standing abuse and violence are often more pronounced during this period. Christmas is a reminder to everyone that the experience of a ‘happy Christmas’ is not a given. It is very much uncertain.
Helping victims of domestic abuse is something we as a community can take responsibility for. We can call out domestic violence. We can talk about it so that people understand it will never be okay at any time of year, least of all at a time when we are celebrating with loved family and friends.
If you are experiencing domestic or family violence you can seek support by contacting the National Domestic Violence Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). If you are in immediate danger, call triple zero (000).