As they often do, local media outlets in several states warned of a spike in domestic violence this holiday season. The phenomenon is not confined to the United States. Last January, for instance, London's Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe told the Daily Mail that an increase in domestic violence injuries in the last quarter of 2013 "could be linked to Christmas," elaborating, "You can imagine that when people are at home more there is more opportunity for domestic situations."
Yet despite many-a-tale about the dark side of the celebratory season marking the end of each year, interviews with advocates focused on reducing domestic violence suggest the idea that people are more likely to abuse their loved ones during the holidays is a myth.
Actually, the opposite may be true.
According to Norma Mazzei, Operations Director at the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), "We have data that supports the opposite. We do not have an increase in calls during holidays—in fact, sometimes it's a little bit decreased."
Mazzei and others close to the issue share a general consensus that domestic violence does not increase nationally over the holidays, even if it might in a handful of places at specific times.
For instance, a 2005 study on domestic violence reported to police in Idaho found 2.7 times more reported incidents of domestic violence on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day than the normal daily average, though rises in the summer were also reported. And a 2010 study analyzing calls to law enforcement "in a large US city" found an increase in domestic violence calls on some holidays, most notably on New Year's Day, but also on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.
"It's kind of all over the place," Kim Pentico of the National Network to End Domestic Violence told me. "It sort of depends on who you ask, and when."
Pentico and Mazzei agree that spikes in some localities are likely due to a host of variables and are an exception rather than a rule.
"Although there continues to be a common perception that domestic violence increases during the holidays, available research on such a link is still limited and inconclusive," a 2014 report from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence reads. "Information on the number of calls received by the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) for the past ten years indicates that the number of calls drops dramatically during the holidays, including on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day."
Pentico said a rise in domestic violence often actually occurs after the holidays, "when everything's settled down a bit."
Despite the data, because holiday traditions involve familial gatherings, financial stress, and alcohol consumption, the idea that domestic violence spikes under these conditions has a tempting logic to it.
Michelle Kaminsky, chief of the Domestic Violence Bureau under Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, said that her district did not see a rise in domestic violence over the holidays from 2011-2013, and offered one possible factor—"What the holidays are supposed to be about: family, togetherness, happiness"—to help explain why spikes do not occur, and violence may even go down.
Kaminsky said the assumed festive nature of the holidays could play a role in either discouraging reporting of violent incidents, or encouraging good behavior in abusive relationships. "I don't know what the numbers mean. It could be that people aren't reporting, and in fact violence is going on," Kaminsky said, adding the caveat, "It could be that people are on their best behavior during the holidays. It's really hard to say."
Pentico said that reported spikes in domestic violence in some localities may be linked more to spontaneous acts of familial violence than what she called an "advocate's definition of intimate partner violence."
Say, for example, two sisters had been drinking and got into fight, prompting law enforcement to arrive at their home. "It's considered domestic because [they] are family," said Pentico, "but not what an advocate would define as domestic violence within an intimate partner relationship because it is not a pattern of coercive behavior used to intimidate and threaten another person."
"An advocate's definition of domestic violence is one person's intimidation and threats over another to gain and maintain power and control," she added. A "domestic" tag on a police report for a violent crime implies a relationship, but not a pattern.
So while discordant definitions of domestic violence could help make sense of reported upticks in some areas, the conflation of risk factors—like alcohol, financial hard-times, and proximity to potential abusers—with root causes of domestic violence helps drive the presumption that domestic violence must go up over the holidays.
"We want to be careful about leading people down a path that stress or an increase in drinking causes domestic violence," said Pentico, "Certainly, we know that stress and alcohol and poverty increase risks [of domestic violence], but they are not causes."
Pentico added that the end of an abusive relationship is the most dangerous, because when a victim plans to leave, "That power has been threatened." There is nothing inherent to the holidays that jeopardizes an abuser's grip on the victim. On the contrary, the nature of the season may actually make victims less likely to leave or challenge their abusers.
"A lot of times we hear anecdotally from survivors that they're doing everything they can to keep the peace [over the holidays]—not to imply they control the violence by any means," Pentico said. "They're ingratiating as much as possible, and then once the holidays are over, it all kind of breaks down, and the violence will erupt again, or at least the fear. Sometimes they'll stay through the holidays just to give their kids a holiday home."
During the holidays, when the NDVH reports a drop in calls, Mazzei said it is "common for people to reach out to us for support to feel like they can make it through the holiday season without having to return to an abusive relationship."
A more common experience of a domestic violence survivor over the holidays is not an increase in abuse but the challenges in leaving, which persist year-long.
"Love for someone, even if a person has been abusive to you, does not disappear overnight," said Mazzei, who adds that the not-necessarily-contradictory feelings of love and pain are there throughout the year, but may intensify during holidays. "Now you have children asking for their father or mother, even if s/he was an abusive partner," she said. Mazzei emphasized that children's desire to be with their parents is one reason victims consider staying in or returning to an abusive relationship.
"Anyone who's left an abusive relationship is struggling to figure out if they made right decision, especially if they have children, or don't have employment or [other financial] resources," she said. These are "things that any victim on any day is going through," but Mazzei notes that the holidays might heighten the stress "because it is a time when you're focusing on family traditions" and leaving an abuser might mean the breaking-up of a once "traditional," or nuclear, family.
Likewise, "[Access to] financial resources is a problem that intensifies during holidays, when you want to buy gifts for your children," said Mazzei, adding that, like most obstacles to ending an abusive relationship, this challenge persists "throughout the year," including, for example, in September, "when you want to buy your children school clothes."
Rather than espouse misguided concern that domestic violence may increase over the holidays, it's better to consider how to support victims during a trying time of the year.
Pentico notes that because one in four women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, it is important to "be careful what you say" around the holidays, when relatives may be victims silently struggling with pain and tough decisions. "As women, we say, 'If a man ever hits me, I'm out of here' as a statement of power. But what it tells women who have been hurt is, I'm better than you... something is flawed with you. "
"I think people always say 'Why does she stay?' And we're not asking 'Why does he hit her? If he dislikes her so much, why doesn't he leave?'"
The answer, Pentico said, is "[Abuse is] effective... He's gaining something by staying."
"The big picture is, you know, patriarchy," said Pentico. Not the holidays.
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