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It's a concerning headline we see repeat itself almost every year leading into the Christmas and new year period - 'Domestic violence predicted to surge over the holiday period'. But why do these spikes occur this time of year and will it be even more pervasive this Christmas because of the stress individuals and families have faced over the last two years due to the pandemic?  

“We know there are spikes in domestic and family violence over the Christmas and new year period, which relates to increased family stresses during this time,” said Dr Patricia Cullen from the School of Population Health, UNSW Medicine & Health. 

“However, it’s important to remember these factors do not cause violence, but the additional emotional and financial stress, as well as increases in alcohol use and gambling, can escalate and exacerbate existing patterns of violence and control in relationships,” explained Dr Cullen.  

While 2021 has been a challenging year for many, a study funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) revealed two out of five women who had experienced physical violence, sexual violence or emotionally abusive and harassing behaviours prior to the pandemic, reported an escalation of this violence and abuse in their relationship during the pandemic. The study also highlighted first-time violence and the escalation of violence coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, with many women attributing these changes to factors associated during this time. 

“We don’t know how this will impact over the holiday period. However, it is important for people who may be at risk for using violence, aggression and control in their relationships to consider how these stresses may be impacting them and their relationships. This may mean minimising consumption of alcohol, being mindful of excessive spending or gambling, seeking help from a health professional and reflecting on your behaviour.” 

Read more: Take the stress out of Christmas by being kind to yourself 

The warning signs 

Dr Cullen said violence and abuse are insidious, so the signs can be hard to see, and very often the physical signs will not be visible.  

“We need to be alert to subtler signs that someone is being threatened, manipulated or controlled. For the person experiencing this, it may feel like walking on eggshells, and they may be more isolated from friends and family, so they may cancel plans or be reluctant to do things without the perpetrator.” 

“I think we really need to consider how to look for warning signs that someone may be using violence in their relationships. Consider, how does this person speak about their partner and women in general? Are they jealous, controlling, easily insulted or make excessive demands of their partner? You may notice they send abusive messages, monitor their partner’s social media, or threaten to share images without consent. These are all acts of technology-facilitated abuse, which is emerging as another form of control and coercion,” explained Dr Cullen.  

technology-facilitated intimate partner violence (IPV)

A recent study revealed one in 10 respondents experienced some form of technology-facilitated intimate partner violence. Photo: Shutterstock

Technology-facilitated intimate partner violence refers to non-physical forms of abuse that are perpetrated using digital technology. This can include certain forms of verbally abusive and threatening behaviours, socially restrictive behaviours, and stalking and monitoring behaviours that are perpetrated online or using devices such as smartphones. 

The ANROWS study revealed one in 10 respondents experienced some form of technology-facilitated intimate partner violence (IPV) in the 12 months prior to the survey, which was conducted between February and April in 2021. IPV refers to behaviour within an intimate relationship that includes physical violence, sexual violence or emotionally abusive, harassing and controlling behaviours that occur between current or former intimate partners.  

Read more: Long COVID, IVF success, and the Delta variant: some of our most-read medicine stories of 2021

How can we help? 

Dr Cullen said if you see or hear something that makes you feel concerned or uncomfortable, it's important to take it seriously but cautiously, as it can be a difficult situation to navigate with family or friends.  

“If you feel you can safely have a conversation away from the perpetrator, you can approach the conversation by mentioning the behaviours you have noticed in the relationship, asking how they feel, whether they feel safe and if there is something you can do to help. Keep your concerns focused on them rather than the perpetrator. This way, you can establish yourself as a safe person that they can come to whenever they need and want support.” 

She said it can be hard to know that someone you care about is being harmed, and it can feel overwhelming to know what to do.  

“If you want to know more about how to support someone, you can always call 1800 RESPECT or use their online chat to speak to one of their trained counsellors. Of course, if someone is in immediate danger call 000.  

Domestic violence talk with a friend

Dr Cullen said the first step can be to listen with compassion and without judgement. Photo: Shutterstock

“Above all, we want to listen, believe and recognise the ways that the person is keeping themself and their children safe – they are the expert in this, so rather than trying to problem solve and provide solutions, the first step can be to listen with compassion and without judgement.” 

MensLine Australia offers free professional 24/7 telephone counselling support for men with concerns about mental health, anger management, family violence as well as relationship breakdown, separation and divorce, parenting, suicide prevention and emotional well-being. 

“Home is not a safe place for everyone. Usually, schools and workplaces are safe places for people who experience violence in their relationships, and so during holiday periods, it is more important than ever to check in on our friends, family and neighbours.” 

In an emergency call triple zero – 000  

For help and support, call:  

  • 1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732  
  • NSW Mental Health Line 1800 011 511  
  • Lifeline Australia 13 11 14  
  • MensLine Australia 1300 789 978 
  • Beyond Blue 1300 224 636  
  • NSW Domestic Violence Line 1800 656 463