Christmas is just days away, there is snow covering the ground and the air is cold. The malls and stores are full of people shopping for gifts for loved ones. The grocery stores are bustling as people buy food for the various parties they will be hosting or attending and, of course, their Christmas dinner. It is a busy time of year for most and the messages of, “Be grateful,” and “Give not receive,” are heard in media, social media and in conversation. It’s a time of joy and togetherness.
But not for everyone. For so many, Christmas is a time of sadness, a time of fear, a time of uncertainty. There are arguments made for both sides, but ask anyone who works in the field of violence against women and domestic violence, this time of year is more dangerous for women living with an abusive partner. There is a spike in domestic violence during any holiday, but Christmas seems to see the greatest spike, particularly in more rural communities. The added financial stress that comes with Christmas shopping and gift-giving and the increase in social activity and the extra expectations put on families to be “together” can often lead to increased tension levels, lower tolerance for frustration and an increase in violent episodes.
Often alcohol plays a huge part in the violence as well because people are more apt to be drinking during the holidays and we all know that alcohol influences your judgement and reduces your inhibitions. Couples will argue or fight without violence on a normal day, but put alcohol in the mix, so to speak, and you have a recipe for disaster. In a household that already is experiencing violence from an abuser, this increases the likelihood of a violent episode and may speed up the cycle of violence , ending the Honeymoon phase and accelerating the tension-building phase to put the family back in to the Crisis Phase more rapidly. Sometimes the Cycle of Violence is experienced many times during a stressful period, such as Christmas time, with each Crisis Phase escalating more and more. This is where women sustain very serious injuries or are even murdered at the hands of their partner.
In my own marriage, the holidays were a very stressful time. My husband was not a very social person and the expectation put on him by co-workers, our friends and family to attend parties caused him to feel pressure to behave in a way that was socially acceptable. No off-colour jokes, no inappropriate comments, no swearing at or berating me or the children if we displeased him. In turn, we also felt the expectation to appear as the perfect family; pretty, compliant wife, stay-at-home mother caring for three charming and well-behaved children. To an outsider, we looked like the perfect family; very “together”. We were not. If this facade was broken, if we somehow embarrassed Jason, there would be hell to pay when we got home.
The financial stress to buy gifts was only exacerbated by his unreasonable need to impress his family and friends by sending exorbitant gifts home; he exulted in their praise and gratitude. However, this led to our budget being even more strained and him reprimanding and berating me for spending too much on gifts for my family back home and our children. Inevitably there would be a fight about how much was spent, among other short-comings that I invariably had during this season and it was just a matter of when, how hard and how many times I was to experience Jason’s hands on me. I know from very real experience just how tumultuous the Christmas season can be when living with an abusive partner.
so, be mindful of the fact that not everyone will be experiencing the “Joy of Christmas” and check yourself before you encourage people to “cheer up” or “be grateful”. Also be aware of the signs of abuse and if you suspect a woman is a victim of domestic violence, do not turn a blind eye or pretend you do not see her bruise, her fear, her exhaustion. Ask her, “Are you safe?” This question is so much more effective than, “How are you?” or “Are you okay?” These questions are mundane and perfunctory and a woman living with an abusive partner will automatically answer this question with the same answer we are all programmed to say: “I’m fine,” and “Yes.” Asking her if she is safe is not a routine greeting and she may not have an automatic response to this question. She may have to think about it and she may just tell you, “No.” And if she does disclose to you that she is not safe, be prepared to help her, even if it is just a small gesture such as listening if she wants to talk or giving her the number to a Crisis Line; you have a moral duty to help her. Don’t let her down.