The most vicious attack that can be made on a domestic violence survivor

Date

Louise Pascale

"When the scrutiny of mothers outweighs the scrutiny of violence, we are not only distorting the view of domestic ...

"When the scrutiny of mothers outweighs the scrutiny of violence, we are not only distorting the view of domestic violence but placing women under immense pressure." Photo: Stocksy

When we talk about domestic violence, we know how many women have been murdered, how many are living in motels or refuges or how many times police have been called out. One thing we know very little about is the lasting impact on the ones who fall under the radar.

Researchers at the University of South Australia and Curtin University made this the focus of their latest research that polled over 650 women across Australia in an anonymous online survey. The vast majority of respondents relied on family and friends for support with over sixty per cent being tertiary educated professionals.

What they found was it can take an average of three years for these women to recover from domestic violence, yet they never return to the same level of employment, housing or mental health. One respondent stated she was still experiencing triggers to her depression and anxiety up to 20 years later. Over half the women surveyed reported being diagnosed with a mental illness either during or after the relationship with the most common diagnosis being depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It is an observed fact that perpetrators will claim a woman's behaviour led them to being violent. They will say she was mentally unsound, crazy or hard to live with.

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'Mother blame' is another tactic and that occurs when women are led to believe they are bad mothers because of continuous criticism about their mothering from an abusive partner. They may attempt to alienate children from their mothers by telling them they cannot trust her, is selfish, stupid or deceitful. Or they undermine a mother's ability to respond to their children by getting in the way of everyday activities like reading, playing or caring for their emotional needs.

Again abusers will reiterate that everything wrong in the family, including the violence, is the mother's fault. Ultimately what this behaviour does is turn the focus away from the perpetrator's violence and to perceived failures of the mother, which in return heightens her anxiety, creates low self-esteem and triggers depression.

When it comes to parenting, society's expectations still fall on the mother to be the carer, nurturer and the one essentially responsible for their child. On examining mothers' experiences within child protection services, Dr Heather Douglas and Dr Tamara Walsh of the University of Queensland found that when domestic violence was a factor, the expectation was on the mother to protect her children. Because of this, women experienced a higher level of scrutiny by children's services as opposed to the perpetrators who were just bad husbands.

When the scrutiny of mothers outweighs the scrutiny of violence, we are not only distorting the view of domestic violence but placing women under immense pressure.

"There were some instances where women describe in the surveys and in the interviews as having a mental health problem being used against them," said Dr Nicole Moulding of Curtin University. "Some women would indicate being frightened of being diagnosed because they were fearful their male partners might use that in custody battles against them.

"Because (they were) living with the violence and that level of psychological abuse and control of their daily activities, some women talked about just getting to a point where they didn't really know what they thought any more."

In 2006, Federal Magistrate Judy Ryan wrote that the Family Court "holds entrenched views that people suffering from a mental illness and/or an intellectual disability are incapable and or irresponsible parents."

However, this latest research identified women worked harder at maintaining stability for their children despite any mental illness.

"They'd be getting up in the morning thinking 'Gosh, I've got to get all these kids off to school, I've gotta get their breakfast, I've gotta run them around to their different activities...'," said Dr Moulding. "Really wanting to be able to keep functioning for their children; that was a quite important theme for them."

Surprisingly, when women were diagnosed with PTSD they embraced this as it was acknowledgment they had gone through some form of trauma. However, that trauma did not end when they left the relationship, as many talked about stalking and ongoing harassment from perpetrators. 

Before domestic violence, women talked of being confident individuals. They had ambitions, large circles of friends, were travelling and able to express themselves.

"The violence really had a very strong impact on how they experience themselves and how they experience the world," reflected Dr Moulding. "They (now) talk of the world coming to seem to be an unsafe place and they had not seen that before the violent relationship to most of them and experiencing themselves as vulnerable to a sense of having negative qualities and negative characteristics after the abuse."

By examining housing, employment and mental health, this latest research paints a clearer picture of the full impact of domestic violence on women. It also demonstrates why the defunding of legal and mental health services will further disadvantage them.

"A lot of the women in our sample have not accessed any help at all, although they could have quite probably used it," adds Dr Moulding. "So (our research) gives us a sense of the sheer number of women out there who may need help, so that's going to be really important in terms of advocating for funding for services."