By Cindy Dampier Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Cindy Dampier reports, "The holiday season can hold particular perils for victims of domestic abuse, and offer family and friends potential opportunities to intervene in abusive situations."
The winter holiday season has plenty of traditions: decorations, music, gifts, family outings. But for advocates who work with victims of domestic violence, the predictable rhythms of the season take on a heavier meaning.
"The media and Hallmark send the message that all families are happy families, and this is a joyous occasion for everyone," says Stephanie Love-Patterson, executive director of Connections for Abused Women and their Children, which provides services to domestic abuse survivors in Chicago. "Oftentimes, survivors are just trying to make things work for the holidays, regardless of the cost."
In spite of the threat of intimidation and violence from an abusive partner, Love-Patterson and other advocates watch each year as domestic violence shelters empty out and women and children return home as the holidays get closer. "No one wants to spend their Christmas in a shelter," Love-Patterson says.
Though popular perception has long held that domestic violence increases during holiday times, statistics don't confirm that notion. And domestic violence experts often push back against a link between the holidays and abuse, because of a misconception that increased alcohol consumption at holiday time is a cause of abuse. In fact, habitual abusers often use alcohol as an excuse for their intentional, coercive and violent behavior, which helps to perpetuate the cycle.
Yet the holiday season can hold particular perils for victims of domestic abuse, and offer family and friends potential opportunities to intervene in abusive situations.
While national domestic abuse hotlines show a decrease in calls over the holidays, there is typically a slight increase in early January, meaning that holiday time may be a time when victims are already thinking about seeking help. "After the holidays," says Love-Patterson, "people will often tell us, 'I wanted to come sooner, but I wanted my kids to have a good Christmas.'"
"The decrease in calls during the holidays makes sense," says Cindy Southworth, executive vice president at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, "because if you've got a house full of people, it might be difficult to find a moment to make a call to a national hotline."
Those ever-present family members, Southworth says, might represent protection from immediate abuse. ("Some people who are controlling will hold it together while there's an audience," Southworth says.) But they also might be the best chance a victim, or even an abuser, has at breaking the cycle of control and violence.
Family gatherings around the holidays may provide the opportunity to spot the signs of an abusive relationship. "When extended family gets together is exactly when somebody might observe a control dynamic, something that feels off," says Southworth.
"There might be subtle signs," says Love-Patterson, "like a mom and children who seem depressed, or fearful and anxious, or are so quiet when they weren't always so quiet in the past."
If you do spot something troubling, advocates suggest that you approach the victim by finding a moment to catch her alone, out of earshot of the abuser, and by offering support, not judgment, even if she has returned to an abusive relationship during the holidays. "There is no right or wrong way," says Southworth. "Leaving is a process. Survivors leave many times. It's very common that a survivor will leave more than once and each time they do a little more planning. Each time they are a little stronger."
Returning home for the holidays might provide a survivor the chance to quietly gather documents or some favorite toys for a child. It can also provide others a chance to reach out. "Sometimes family members will say, 'We've noticed things for a while, but we don't know what to do,'" says Love-Patterson. "Be careful, but try to get her alone and say, 'I'm kinda concerned, you seem so quiet. Are you OK?' Even if she doesn't respond immediately, sometimes all it takes is for someone to plant that seed that will eventually enable her to leave."
Continue to plant that seed, even after the holidays have passed, says Southworth; reinforcement of the victim's own sense that a relationship is unhealthy is important. "Strengthen your connection to the survivor in authentic ways," she says. "Find time to get coffee. Compliment them on something they are really amazing at, because oftentimes an abusive partner is tearing down their self worth." Increased self-worth can provide needed strength for the journey to a better place.
Southworth also stresses that it's important to find ways to thoughtfully and safely call out an abuser. "If you say nothing, you are complicit," she says. "It's not OK to keep condoning the behavior, but you don't want to do it in a way that might cause more harm for the survivor."
She frames these conversations as "not calling someone out, but calling them in. You're not trying to alienate your loved one, you're trying to help him change his behavior. That's where you have to think strategically. Who does the abusive partner respect? Who can go up to him and say, 'This is not who you want to be. How can we help you change your behavior?'" Recruit that person to take on the conversation, in the hope of starting a dialogue that leads to recovery and change, even if the current relationship can't be saved.
And, believe it or not, the holiday dinner table might be a fine place to start advocating for that change, Southworth says. "Don't be afraid to call somebody out in a gentle way," she says. "It doesn't have to be a huge deal. If you hear your brother talking down to his wife at the holiday dinner, just say, 'Why are you talking to her like that? I think she's great. Look at how she managed this amazing dinner! Now, please pass the potatoes.' " ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.