Why don’t they just leave?”
If you haven’t said it out loud, chances are you’ve thought it at least once. I know I have—but that was before I truly understood what family violence was; before I appreciated the many complexities associated and the very real risks that leaving can lead to. It was before I began practising law in a court where four-out-of-five cases involve allegations of family violence.
It takes an incredible level of courage for a victim of family violence to seek help, not to mention the very real safety risks that are often present at the end of a relationship. Even in the face of abuse, often the uncertainty of separating yourself from the life you have become accustomed to seems like the harder choice.
What is family violence?
Family violence is behaviour that is violent, threatening or coerces, seeks to control a family member or causes that person to be fearful. Examples of this behaviour include (but are not limited to): physical assault, sexual assault, abusive behaviour, stalking, repeated derogatory taunts, intentionally damaging or destroying personal property, unreasonably denying financial autonomy that the individual would otherwise have, preventing them from making or maintaining connections with their family, friends or culture, or unlawfully depriving a family member of their liberty.1
How prevalent is family violence?
In Australia, an estimated 3.8 million people (around 20 per cent of the population) aged 18 years and above have experienced intimate partner or family violence since they were 15 years of age. That figure represents 2.7 million women and 1.1 million men. In New Zealand, the figures are equally sobering, having the unfortunate title of being the highest ranked developed country in the OECD for family violence, despite the fact that only an estimated 33 per cent of family violence is actually reported to authorities. This translates to police being required to attend an average of one family violence incident every four minutes. This means that by the time you finish reading this article, New Zealand police will be attending their second family violence callout.
If this is confronting for you, there are two important things you need to understand about family violence.
1. It almost never starts with physical abuse
You may have heard of the tale of the boiling frog. The theory is that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will instantly jump out of the pot and save itself whereas if you place the frog in a pot of water at a pleasant temperature and continue to increase the heat at a gradual pace, the frog will remain in the water and will not realise the increasing danger the warming water presents. Though this behaviour in frogs isn’t actually true, it is a crude example often used to illustrate an aspect of human psychology where we tend to accept things that slowly creep up on us.
Perpetrators of family violence frequently master and exploit this aspect of human psychology. They conduct themselves with patience as they gradually dial up the control. They also groom family and community members so that if their victims do come forward, they are not believed. It is important to know and recognise “red flags” that commonly occur in relationships characterised by family violence. These warning signs may include: the person wanting to keep you all to themselves, criticising you or putting you down, as well as excessive jealousy. While it is fun to spend time together at the start of a new relationship, if your partner begins insisting that you stop spending time with your family and friends, or insists that you stop participating in your hobbies, studies or employment, these are all signs that they are seeking to exert control over you by limiting your interaction with others and isolating you from your support networks.
2. Physical abuse is not required for family violence to have occurred
Just because you have never been physically abused, does not mean you have not been subjected to family violence. Abuse does not have to be physical to constitute family violence. If you or someone you know is being subjected to emotional abuse, financial abuse or coercive control you do not need to wait until the perpetrator escalates to physical abuse before you ask for help. I would encourage you not to minimise your experience or to be embarrassed to look for help. No matter what you may have been told, nothing you have done is worthy of abuse.
Love is not violent
Perpetrators of family violence often profess their love for those they are abusing. They constantly paint a deceitful image that their actions originate from a place of love. They attempt to convince their “loved ones” that the end justifies the means—where the end is love and the means is guidance. In reality, the end is control and the means is abuse. No matter the circumstance, family violence is not perpetrated from a place of true love. Perpetrators of family violence practise a form of false love. It may have glimmers of happiness and sometimes it is hard to tell them apart from the real thing—but I assure you real love does exist, and it is not based on a foundation of fear.
If you have attended any weddings over the years you may have heard the following biblical passage read:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).
This passage paints a picture of true love. A relationship where you are not constantly fearful of putting a foot wrong. A relationship where you do not feel like a hostage in your own home. A relationship where you are free to express your thoughts and opinions without fear of retribution, whether through emotional, financial or physical means.
Of course, a meaningful relationship is unlikely to stand the test of time without some conflict along the way, but even through that conflict, true love is built on a foundation of mutual respect, not of fear.
If you have been told that no-one else will love you, that is a lie. If you have been told you are not worthy of love, that is a lie. If you have been told no-one else will put up with you, that is a lie.
You deserve to feel safe in your own home. You deserve to pursue your own interests and hobbies. You deserve to be independent. You deserve to be happy. You are worthy of true love.
If family violence is not a present threat in your relationship or your home that does not mean you are immune from facing the issue. While family violence mostly occurs behind closed doors, it is a community issue, and the community at large has a responsibility to address it. I encourage you to educate yourself further about family violence and how you can provide assistance to those in need.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know is at risk or is experiencing family violence, or you are worried about your own harmful behaviour, free and confidential support is available.
If you are in Australia, 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) is the national domestic, family and sexual violence counselling, information and support service hotline which operates 24/7.
If you are in New Zealand, Shine (0508 744 633) also offers 24/7 support to anyone experiencing family violence, worried about their own harmful behaviour or worried about someone else.
Brianna Watson is a solicitor specialising in family law based in Adelaide, South Australia. She is married and owns two corgis.
1. Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) s 4AB