Being hit by someone you love

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I don’t often think about the time my father held my head and bashed it against a wall when I was a teenager. It was a long time ago now and my father has since died. But like phantom sensations where a limb has been amputated, the imprints of past violence, whether physical or verbal, can loiter for a lifetime.
 
On that night I ran far from home, ended up in a nightclub, went home with a sympathetic man I vaguely knew, and spent the night trying to avoid having sex with him. When I returned home two days later, nothing was said. After a few days of silence, life returned to “normal” and all was forgotten – until the next time.
 
When violence erupts intermittently in the home it can seem dissociated from the usual, kinder, character of the offender, and episodes are often excused as passing aberrations. If alcohol or drugs, or in some cases mental illness, are thrown into the mix, the bigger picture can be even harder to grasp.
 
But too much understanding when it comes to a partner’s violence can lead to paralysis. And while our focus should be on preventing the violence of perpetrators, women must also step back and untangle some of the threads that bind them to a violent partner. Remaining at the centre and in control of their own lives should always be the priority.
 
Financial or emotional dependency, loyalty, fear, love (or the kind of attachment we think of as love), can be powerful and often underestimated forces in relationships – for children as well as partners. And each of us must deal with the unique detail and context of our lives. But the longer the abuse and controlling behaviours continue, the more entrenched the feelings of powerlessness and isolation in victims can become - and the greater the potential for long term damage.
 
My father never admitted to his violence, except for many years later when he told me I deserved it. His “conflict” with my mother, he claimed, was her fault. My mother didn’t talk much about her life to anyone, but as far as I am aware, my father’s violence was never confronted. When my father remarried after my mother’s sudden death, his second wife left when he tried to hit her. She came back after promises it wouldn’t happen again, and the physical violence never did. But this wasn’t the man she thought she had married, and fourteen years later - her mental health had long been fragile – she took her own life.
 
The committee for the recent NSW parliamentary report Domestic violence trends and issues in NSW notes that males and females can be either victims or perpetrators and that prevention and response systems must be effective for all parties, regardless of gender. But the committee also concurred with the overwhelming view of inquiry participants - supported by state, national and international data, and “rightly recognised in policy and legislation” - that “domestic violence is an inherently gendered crime”.
 
When I was growing up in the late 60s and 70s, Australian culture was quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) accepting of men giving their wives and kids a good whack if they stepped out of line. Women rarely had the means or support to leave relationships and the behaviour of violent men was seldom challenged. But if our culture has shifted and domestic violence is less acceptable in 2012, it is not reflected in current statistics.
 
Police Commissioner Ken Lay has made domestic violence a priority in Victoria and the growing number of reported cases gives us greater insight into the extent of the problem. In 2011/2012 Victorian police submitted 50,382 family incident reports - 23.4% higher than in 2010/2011. Charges were laid in 17,528 cases - a 45.1% increase from the previous year. Assaults made up 45.1% of offences arising from family incidents.
 
In Western Australia police responded to more than 42,000 call outs for domestic violence in the last financial year and deaths from domestic violence in WA have more than doubled over the past year. In Queensland between 2006 and 2011, 47% of homicide victims died as a result of domestic or family violence.
 
In NSW, 26,808 domestic violence related assaults were recorded in 2011, and each year NSW police respond to more than 120,000 incidents involving domestic and family violence. Reporting in NSW has remained stable over the past decade, but research shows that most cases around Australia are not reported.
 
As a society we ramp up political pressure on governments to address public violence but often we ignore abuse that doesn’t directly impact our own safety. Without further increases in awareness, support and prevention strategies, and changes in community attitudes, many more children and adults will continue to be harmed, and most of the time we won’t even know about it.
 
It is never easy to talk publicly about personal violence or violation, for many reasons – in some cases lives may be threatened. Understanding can be lacking and the ability to see victims as separate from the violence they have experienced is often absent. And who wants to be viewed through the lens of experiences many would prefer were left unspoken, and in my case, happened long ago. For me there is a also a feeling of betraying a father who put food on the table, often did the best he could, and was not just the sum of his drinking and violence.
 
But children are not responsible for their parents’ failings, victims are never the cause of a perpetrator’s violence, and criminal acts of violence are not private family affairs. Silence is just not an option if change is to occur.
 
It is up to our governments to ensure that help is available for victims and perpetrators – as reports increase so must the availability of support. Services for women and children who leave relationships remain chronically under-funded and without adequate housing many are forced to remain in violent relationships, or sleep in cars or on the street. Homelessness, mental illness and disability are just some of the wide-ranging consequences women face from domestic violence each year.
 
Within our communities and as individuals we must also step up and view the prevention of violence as a shared responsibility. White Ribbon is an organisation led by males, aiming to stop male violence against women. This Sunday is White Ribbon Day, a time for all of us to make clear that as a society and as individuals we will not tolerate cowardly acts of violence. To participate in or support White Ribbon Day events or the White Ribbon organisation visit their website www.whiteribbon.org.au
 
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Helpline 1800 200 526 is available 24 hours a day. In an emergency call 000.
 
Susan Metcalfe is a freelance writer.

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21 comments

  • Thank you for sharing this Susan. We can't afford to avoid this issue much longer.

    Commenter
    M98
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    November 23, 2012, 8:38AM
    • My former girlfriend was physically violent towards me on several occassions. To her it was inconsequential and acceptable because she was a woman. Sometimes I felt inclined to sympathise with her point of view, but lately I realise it was unacceptable.

      Commenter
      Ray
      Location
      Sunshine
      Date and time
      November 23, 2012, 9:27AM
      • Thanks for sharing Ray. I can relate to your comment. I deplore violence. I want to see an end to all violence, though sadly domestic violence by women towards men also happens. All too often though, as you say our society regards this as "acceptable because she was a woman". Worse, often defended as "as you're the man, you must have deserved it" which was the advice provided by relevant authorities.

        I think violence will continue as long as perpetrator - victim stereotypes continue to be promoted.

        Commenter
        Gery
        Date and time
        November 23, 2012, 11:44AM
      • I can understand what you experienced Ray. My ex wife was violent and abusive and, towards the end of our marriage, slapped me around quite often. I had grown up in a non violent family. My parents never shouted at each other and my Dad would never have hit my Mum. My ex grew up in a family where verbal violence and mental and emotional abuse was part of their family culture. My ex's brother also bashed his wife. www.myspace.com/scarycatholics/blog

        Commenter
        Appalled
        Location
        Springwood
        Date and time
        November 23, 2012, 1:28PM
    • I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and attitudes hadn't changed much, sadly. My father was unshakeable in his belief that beating your kids was socially acceptable until the police showed up and arrested him. He was dumbstruck - he had always thought that what he was doing was legal.

      Even after the AVO, he kept doing it, because the law is "wrong", you see. Even after I knew it was illegal, I wasn't able to report it, as a criminal record would have cost my father his job.

      Like you, Susan, I have never received an apology for the years of abuse from both of my parents. Both have told me I deserved it. Both see themselves as victims and the kids are the real perpetrators, and they will never be swayed in their opinion.

      What I learned from this was that I will never, ever again in my life tolerate a person raising their fist to me in anger. A partner once tried it - our relationship ended soon after. Now I am with a wonderful man who would never imagine hitting me. But if we are arguing and he steps too close, if he goes to hug me and moves too fast, if he comes up behind me while I'm sitting alone... I still flinch and instinctively protect my face. Over a decade later, the instinct is still there.

      Thank you for this article.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      November 23, 2012, 9:59AM
      • I can remember my wonderful gentle father sitting me down and telling me that the back of the axe was better to use than the sharp edge, and that if ever I was in such a situation everyone had to sleep at some time.

        He also made sure I had excellent self defense training - and several black belts. I've never needed to use his advice.

        Commenter
        MaryD
        Date and time
        November 23, 2012, 10:19AM
        • While I agree that this is a serious issue and agree the number of public houses available for crisis accomodation is inadequate, but this is unlikely to change with the current freeze of investment in public housing in most states in Australia.

          I have some familiarity with the statistics in question. Family incident reports in Victoria are still a new thing. You would expect the numbers to increase this year, even if there had been no increase in actual incidents of domestic violence. Also the number of murders each year is not very large. Of the handful of murders involving domestic violence in WA, a doubling in one year is unlikely to be statistically significant, the long term trend would be much more informative. Of the stats the NSW situation sounds most likely to reflect the underlying trend in domestic violence (stable over 10 years). Although I was confused by the sentence ending ",but research shows that most cases around Australia are not unreported". I am assuming you meant most cases are unreported.

          Commenter
          Alex
          Location
          melbourne
          Date and time
          November 23, 2012, 10:20AM
          • I think the stats would be impacted by Police taking out AVO's on behalf of 'protected people', such as children/minors in the home or woman of repeated violence and the victims dont need to consent to the AVO being taken out. This would bump up the stats but not necessarily represent a dramatic difference in victims reporting or following through on charging perpetrators.

            Commenter
            Sammi_Bammi
            Date and time
            November 23, 2012, 10:58AM
        • I grew up in an environment where neither of my parents was abusive and am grateful for not suffering the family abuse I so often hear about. I had friends who got the strap from their father, while others got a good beating from their mother too. Boys that went to catholic schools reported that a few of the nuns were particularly sadistic.

          Violence and emotional abuse are unacceptable in our society, especially in the home, more so when directed at or witnessed by children. Children are the biggest victims of domestic violence.

          What disturbs me is that family violence is considered a gender issue. It true that sometimes it is, there are some men who feel that they are entitled to hit women, there are many women who also feel they are entitled to hit men, men who on the whole won't hit back. By defining family violence as a gender issue it constrains the response, for example there is almost no support for male victims of family violence. It diminishes the role of alcohol and drugs in magnifying violence and it denies that much family violence is reciprocal.

          The gender model of family violence has been ineffective. The cost is increased confrontation and more broken homes, yet the violence continues. The response is often along the lines of if the medicine doesn't work double the dose. People should be treated equally, on there merits and held accountable for their actions. Violence and relationship issues need to be dealt with early before they escalate, rather than the model of confrontation. Men and women are equally good and equally bad.

          Commenter
          JohnA
          Date and time
          November 23, 2012, 10:54AM
          • Thanks John. I too am disturbed that domestic violence is defined as a gender issue.
            Even though as a society we've made some progress on one aspect of domestic violence (with much more to do), we still have a long way to go raising awareness of other forms of domestic violence up to the same level.

            Commenter
            Gery
            Date and time
            November 23, 2012, 11:52AM

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