If there is one thing that this pandemic has taught us is that we are all connected. What happens to one of us, ultimately impacts us all. Humanity does not exist in isolation. With that being the case, why do we still perceive domestic violence as something that happens to others?
With domestic and family violence skyrocketing due to the impact of Covid-19, it’s an issue we all need to get more familiar with. In Australia, the 33 weeks of this year have resulted in 33 women being killed so far. A chilling statistic for a country as economically developed, and long considered to have one of the highest standards of living in the world. Support services are inundated with calls, with the average wait for a counsellor currently exceeding 6 months.
Prior to the pandemic, the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 estimated that around 2.2 million Australians experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner, and 3.6 million Australians have experience emotional abuse from a partner. For a country that has roughly 24.5 million inhabitants that’s a fairly large chunk of the population.
Most of us have some awareness of domestic violence. It’s wrong to hurt others, and one shouldn’t do it. Yet there seems to be confusion about what constitutes abuse and who is impacted by it. Those who’ve never been in an abusive relationship think it’s something that happens to the mentally weak or downtrodden. We never think it could happen us — until it does. With billions of dollars spent on this each year, what exactly constitutes domestic violence? Does it have to be physical?
For most survivors of domestic abuse, the physical element came last. Their relationships started with butterflies and exciting hopes of a better future together. Changes were slow and subtle, quietly eroding their sanity and self confidence. Two brave women, Bridget and Charlotte, share their experiences. “My partner psychologically abused me for 3 years before the first slap in the face. He forbid me to see friends, controlled what I wore and cooked, and took a hold of my finances. It started subtly, all in the name of ‘helping me’ become a better version of myself. I was in a bad place mentally when I met him and his interest and passion in me was really infectious. He’d call me to work out and motivate me to do things. It was great.”
Bridget’s story is not unique. Most abuse does not start with physical violence. The process is slow so that the abuser can subtly break down the psychological barriers, creating a new reality for the victim. A reality in which they are to be controlled, demeaned and violated. Abusers also isolate their victims from their family or friends, while constantly training their victims to desire their attention and approval.
“Soon enough, he started showing an angry side. He was constantly angry at someone about seemingly nothing. There was nothing I could do to console him and with time that anger turned towards me.”
Bridget’s partner ended up nearly killing her. The impacts of his long-term coercive control meant it took her 6 attempts to leave him.
If we want to prevent domestic violence, we need to tackle the psychological harm before it escalates. Psychological violence, also called coercive control, is identified as the range of behaviours abusers use to dominate, manipulate and entrap their victims. Combined with gradual seclusion from their support network like family and friends, the abuser looks to degrade their victim through constant put-downs, strict rules, threats and humilation.
“Nick was a bad sleeper and blamed me if he couldn’t sleep. He had this saying ‘time in, time out’ which meant that if I upset him he would deduct any length of time it took for me to find the arbitrary magic words he wanted to hear from my allocated sleep allowance. If I tried to sleep he’d turn the lights on, scream at me, remove any blankets and follow me everywhere I went.” Bridget explained. “Eventually I gave in. Next day he’d explain how it had been my fault and what I must do to improve”.
Anyone can experience psychological violence, although those predominantly impacted are women. Around 80% of women seeking assistance for abuse have experienced coercive control.
Charlotte, another survivor of domestic violence and abuse recalls :“My abusive ex was extremely jealous. At first I was flattered by the attention until his behaviours started to impact my ability to work. He would forbid me to go to work functions, and comment on how slutty I looked if I dressed nice for work. When I went to a function I couldn’t get out of, he incessantly called the hotel using the ruse that our daughter wanted to say goodnight to her Mummy. The minute I accepted the call I was met with a torrent of abuse. With time the verbal control and abuse turned to physical violence. By this point I was a shadow of the woman I once was.”
For Australian women under 45 domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury (FACS Statistics, 2019). So if you’re under 45, the most likely thing to kill you in Australia is your partner. 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 7 men are impacted by some form of sexual or physical violence during their lifetime. Domestic abuse is a global issue which is why most countries are prioritising prevention strategies. Many other countries recognise the fact that psychological violence falls within the scope domestic violence. European member countries, Scandinavian nations and the UK have made psychological abuse illegal, with many specifically citing coercive control as a punishable offense. Yet Australia and the US have yet to follow suit.
If we want to truly change the devastating impact domestic violence has on this country, we must stop abuse in its tracks before it escalates, and educate individuals on what constitutes abuse. Whether you are a CEO, construction worker, teacher or front-line officer in the industry, domestic abuse impacts all of us and it will take a community effort to ensure it stops. If you don’t care about the well-being of others, care for your tax dollars which are being poured in to this gaping hole within society.
The cost of domestic violence is estimated to be a whopping $22 billion of which $4.1 billion is covered by the Australian government. However most of the costs are absorbed by the community, employers, friends and family who bear $6.5 billion of the total costs. Economically speaking this is a significant and wasteful use of tax-payer monies and community funds. Current strategies are focused on changing the behaviours of the perpetrators, however many of their behaviours are not deemed illegal. Victim support prioritises physical violence, which means there’s limited support for those who wish to get away from their abuser before things get physical.
So what can you do? Domestic violence agencies and support services are campaigning for victims to ‘speak out’. While it’s important for victims to do so, it is equally important to make psychological abuse societally unacceptable. Challenge controlling behaviours if you see them. For victims of abuse these behaviours are made to seem normal; like they deserve them. Speaking out against these acts of personal terrorism may save lives.
Educate yourself and those around you. Speak to your sons and daughters about coercive control, and how to avoid it. Notice friends or family members who are drifting away. Pay attention to subtle changes in your own relationships which constitute red flags. Support organisations advocating for legal changes such as Legal Aid and Women’s Shelters. Stop teaching our daughters to be submissive, or our sons that ‘boys will be boys’. If we want to change the way our society views abuse we must condemn this behaviour altogether.
Bridget and Charlotte were courageous and managed to escape their abusers before it was too late. Sadly 33 Australian women weren’t as fortunate this year. They were mothers, daughters and esteemed members of the community. They are mourned by those who loved them. Let’s honour their memory by doing better together.
Find Bridget’s full story here: https://www.blossommovement.com/post/my-long-walk-to-freedom-by-bridget-walker
Read Charlotte’s full story here: https://www.blossommovement.com/post/the-point-of-no-return-by-charlotte-m