As we are round up our shopping lists, light the menorah, or decorate our Christmas trees, news sources are warning domestic violence victims about the dangers of the holidays. Here are just a few headlines:
But is this true? On the surface; it makes sense. In spite of the idyllic snuggled-up-with-hot-chocolate-by-the-fire images we see on TV, we all know how stressful the holidays can be. A trifecta of high expectations, financial pressure and a few extra cocktails can lower just about anyone’s frustration tolerance. Many of us could tell some pretty good stories about holiday-inspired family feuds.
But when it comes to domestic violence, it’s a bit more complicated. And, ironically, not understanding the full picture can unintentionally send the wrong message, no matter how well -intentioned the sender.
The Myth of More Crisis Calls
It’s hard to know the truth about domestic violence because it’s so hard to measure. Battering takes place behind closed doors. Some partners don’t recognize it when it happens. Many victims keep quiet about it out of fear for their physical safety or financial wellbeing. A common way to skirt around these challenges is to count the number of victims on any given day who reach out for help, either by calling the police or a victim’s hot line. If we can’t measure the actual violence, we can at least measure the calls for help.
If we use that as our measure, we’re in good shape. For the past 10 years, the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s call volume on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day was far lower than on an average day. In 2015, for example, the Hotline received an average of 837 calls a day. On Christmas Eve, that number dipped to 530, and on Christmas Day, there were only 450 calls. A number of domestic violence shelter providers echo this finding, reporting fewer requests for help during the holidays. In fact, a 2010 report released by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence failed to find any reliable national study linking the holidays with an increase in domestic violence.
The Special Challenges of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
However, a lack of uptick in crisis calls does not always mean a downturn in danger. For many reasons, some victims of domestic violence may be more reluctant to call for help during the holidays. They, too, want a magical holiday for their children and, for most of us, that still means two parents and lots of presents. They, too, can romanticize about how the holidays should be or used to be and, as a result be tempted to reconcile with a violent partner. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a victim to leave a shelter around the holidays, lulled by a fantasy of what could be rather than what is, only to be smacked by harsh reality – and a fist.
Being let down when the fantasies of Christmas cheer are replaced by the cold reality of conflict is disappointing for all of us. But when it comes to domestic violence, ignoring the reality of dangerous situation can be far more than disappointing; it can be deadly. A safe holiday spent inside a domestic violence shelter is not the experience any mother dreams of giving her child, but it’s better than one filled with terror and toys. Santa can find children no matter where they are.
Domestic Violence is Not a Temper Tantrum
Domestic violence is not simply isolated acts of physical violence. It’s a pattern of tactics ― including emotional, verbal, economic and sexual abuse ― to control and intimidate victims. While the abuse may fluctuate in frequency over the course of a relationship, the power and control that underpins the abuse remains constant. In other words, there’s a big difference between a couple who fights more because of holiday stress and an ongoing pattern of abusive and controlling behavior that escalates in response to a stressful situation.
Coercive control doesn’t take a holiday. But it isn’t caused by one, either. One of the reasons we need to be careful about linking interpersonal violence to stress is that it can unwittingly suggest that violence is a normal – even understandable – response to holiday strain. While factors like stress, financial pressures, and increased alcohol use can escalate the abuse, they are not the root cause.
The Bottom Line
Contrary to popular belief, there’s little evidence that domestic violence rises over the holidays. There is evidence, however, that the holiday season poses specific challenges to victims and their family. The pressure many women feel to give their child a magical Christmas can lull them into a fantasy of what should be instead of what is, especially when children are involved.
The best gift we can all give ourselves during the holidays is self-awareness; not letting ourselves get seduced by fantasies and unrealistic expectations, not sabotaging our financial well-being because we have to get the most expensive gifts, and taking an honest look at our relationship with substance use and holiday stress. We can all help victims of domestic violence over the holidays, whether it’s by donating to shelters, volunteering our time, or helping a friend review a safety plan. And remembering that, for a child, there’s no better gift than safety.