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The Hidden Crisis of Domestic Violence over the Holidays

We asked experts why domestic violence spikes over the holidays and what this means for those seeking help.
December 16, 2015, 2:00pm
Illustration by Julia Kuo

Charlotte Kneer had only been with Wayne a few months when her brother was diagnosed with leukemia. She wanted to donate bone marrow, and her family decided to celebrate Christmas early because the surgery was scheduled for Christmas week. Kneer's boyfriend, Wayne, seemed understanding at first

"Then, out of the blue, he ended the relationship. I didn't understand what was going on, but I put it to one side so I could celebrate Christmas with my brother, who was so sick. On Christmas Day, Wayne kept calling me," Charlotte says. "He was saying he was going to hang himself, he was going to commit suicide. He was being abusive, calling me all these names. I should have been focusing on my brother that Christmas, but Wayne ruined it. People ask me why I got back together with him after that, and here's the scary thing: It never once occurred to me that I might deserve better."

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Evidence suggests that domestic abuse increases around the holidays. Hilary Hopker of the West Midlands Police Force in the UK is running an anti-domestic abuse Christmas awareness campaign this year. She says that they experience a 7 percent increase in calls reporting abuse all through December. "We see specific spikes at weekends, with most calls always on New Year's Day," she tells Broadly. According to UK government figures from 2012, assault and domestic murders spike 25 percent over the Christmas period. Similarly, a US study from 2010 found that calls to law enforcement increased on New Year's Day.

Read More: When You Live with Someone Who Wants to Kill You

While police figures demonstrate a rise in domestic violence, frontline services such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline say they experience a lull around Christmas Day. "Around the holidays you have to keep up appearances," explains spokesperson Brian Pinero. "You have family around your house, and you might not be able to get away and call for help. We experience calls increasing around January 2, when women are back at work and able to call for help without being caught."

We see specific spikes at weekends, with most calls always on New Year's Day.

If women can get away from their abusers over Christmas, sometimes they're not sure who to call. "Even as an organization that doesn't provide direct services, we saw an uptick," says Ruth M. Glenn, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Last year in the week before Christmas I had three emails sent directly to me in the course of six days. It was shocking. One woman was emailing me from her closet, because she was allowed to go into her room to change clothes by her batterer. I messaged her back asking if it was safe for her to call me. I never heard from her again."

There are multiple explanations for why abuse might increase over the holidays. "I never want to make excuses for domestic violence, because domestic violence is about power and control," Glenn says. "However what happens is the risk factors that lend themselves to domestic violence can escalate over the holidays." These include stress caused by the financial strain of Christmas; the pressures of being around family (many abusers like to isolate their victims); increased alcohol or substance consumption; and just the fact abusers will be at home with victims and have more opportunities for violence.

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For victims, Christmas can be a difficult time psychologically. "The experience of the abuse can be worse," says Polly Neate, the CEO of Women's Aid. "Because they're around their children more, and are conscious of the fact they're not able to give them the Christmas they want." These feelings of failure and shame can be a powerful motivator to seek help. "I've spoken to women for whom Christmas was the trigger. It made them realize they had to leave the abusive situation, because they could see it wasn't acceptable for their children to have to put up with it around Christmas."

We get calls from family members who've spent time with victims over Christmas and have noticed something's not right.

Abusers commonly attempt to isolate their victim from their family and friends; holidays are often the only time a victim might see their loved ones all year. "We get calls from family members who've spent time with victims over Christmas and have noticed something's not right," Pinero says. "Something happened over the holidays, over Christmas dinner for example, and they're concerned."

Media attention around high-profile abuse cases, such as the footage of Ray Rice attacking his then-fiancee in an elevator, has had a positive effect. "What happened with Rice is that people have more of a vocabulary to talk about abuse," explains Pinero. "So we get calls saying, 'How Ray treated her after she was knocked out upset me, because I see that behavior in my relative's partner.'"

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Some women even leave refuges and return to their abusers to give children normality over Christmas. Constanze Sen manages a refuge for 42 women, with space for up to 60 children. "We're always full anyway," she explains. "Our refuges are full 99 percent of the time. But refuges go quiet over Christmas, which is when a lot of abuse happens. Women don't want to cause upheaval for their children. Then, on January 2, the phones go mad. The women experience abuse over Christmas but they've been holding out for the children. Whether or not the children actually benefit from being home over Christmas and witnessing all the abuse is another story."

Loss is the ribbon that runs through all of this: everything the women and children have lost. And it's more poignant at Christmas.

Media attention on domestic abuse around Christmas can be positive, raising awareness and encouraging women to seek help. But while the holidays can exacerbate existing structures of violence and control, domestic abuse isn't just a seasonal problem. Abuse, in all its guises, affects women all year round.

"When it comes to violence against women, often we think it's over 'there' somewhere," Neate says. "In those other cultures, where people do horrible things to women we would never do in the West. The truth is, our indigenous culture tolerates and condones violence against women. It absolutely blames victims. We need to live in a society where violence against women is unequivocally unacceptable, in every circumstance, with no excuses at all."

Read More: Why Victims of Rape and Abuse Stay Silent

Even if women in abusive relationships do manage to leave, spending Christmas in a refuge is hard. Kneer found the courage to leave Wayne, and now runs a Women's Aid refuge in the south of England. "Christmas is a time for wider family, but often it's not safe for women in refuges to visit their relatives as the abuser may be waiting for them there. Children will have worries, like, 'Is Santa going to be able to find me here?'" Kneer says. "Loss is the ribbon that runs through all of this: everything the women and children have lost. And it's more poignant at Christmas."

But being away from the family home comes over the festive period can come with upsides, as Kneer puts it: "For some children, it might be the best Christmas they've ever had. There's no fear that Dad's going to get drunk and ruin it."