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Domestic violence is a person being subjected to an ongoing pattern of abusive behaviour by an intimate partner or family member. This behaviour is driven by a desire to dominate, control, or oppress the other person and to cause fear. Many people experience domestic violence within their family or intimate partner relationships.
Until recently, domestic violence was a hidden problem in Australian communities. Stigma and shame kept it bound in secrecy. It is only recently that people have begun to voice how common and complex the problem is. Public campaigns and changes in laws are now sending a clear message that domestic and family violence is not – and cannot be – tolerated in our society.
Domestic violence is complex because of the broad range of behaviours that define it. It isn't just limited to physical, sexual, and emotional violence. It also includes financial abuse, harassment, and stalking. When a person is threatened, the fear may force them to do things they don't want to. So, in some homes, physical violence may be rare, yet victims may be living under the constant threat of being hurt or punished.
As more people speak out about domestic violence, we learn that it is more about coercion and control than anger issues or relationship conflicts. Yet the true extent is unknown, as most people who have experienced it don't report it. The most common reason for not reporting it and for staying in the relationship is fear of revenge or further violence. People also stay in abusive relationships because of pregnancy, children, lack of money, low self-esteem, love, social pressure, among others.
Domestic violence and mental health
Domestic and family violence can have a significant negative impact on the mental health of the victims, or other family members who witness it. Constantly feeling unsafe in your own home or with the people who are supposed to love and care for you can lead to feeling afraid, unable to relax, powerless to change the situation, or ashamed to tell others. It may result in long-term physical and psychological trauma, and affect sleep, appetite, concentration or other relationships.
Domestic violence can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual identity, economic status, ethnicity, and religion. But it predominantly affects women, and it is considered to be one of the major risk factors affecting women’s health in Australia, resulting in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Children are often the forgotten victims of family violence, and the long-term impacts on their mental health are only just beginning to be understood. Children who have grown up in a family with domestic violence have a higher risk of anxiety, depression, learning difficulties, relationship problems, and alcohol and drug misuse. They may also be more likely to become perpetrators or victims of domestic and family violence as adults.
Taking action for change
A good first step is to become aware of domestic violence behaviours
These behaviours include: someone constantly checking up on you, calling or texting you, criticising or humiliating you, making personal decisions for you, restricting contact with friends or family, physically threatening or shouting at you. Noticing these signs of controlling behaviours early, within your intimate or family relationships, could make it easier to take action before the situation gets too serious.
Recognise that healthy relationships are based on equality and respect
When there is a power imbalance, it usually results in one person being frightened of the other and feeling unsafe in the relationship. Physical violence in intimate and family relationships is never acceptable. Once physical violence occurs in a relationship, it can easily become a pattern. Sometimes the violent person will apologise and promise it will never happen again, but it usually does. It often becomes more frequent and more serious the longer the relationship continues.
Most domestic violence doesn’t occur in a one-off event
It usually develops over time and continues for years until there is a life-threatening injury or death, or the victim is able to leave. Statistics show that the most dangerous time for a victim is when they are trying to leave their partner. Experienced domestic violence social workers can help a person and their children and pets to escape from a partner quickly if lives or safety are at risk. Social workers can also help people find short-term refuge, establish a safer place to live, and provide counselling and support.
Often victims of domestic and family violence find it difficult to ask for help
This might be because of threats of further violence, fears that they will not be believed, or hope that things will improve. It’s important to find someone you trust to confide in to support you throughout your journey. Remember that if you are a victim of domestic violence, it is not your fault. Every adult person is responsible for their own actions. The only way to stop domestic violence is for the perpetrator to change their behaviour. There are specialised agencies to support both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.
Learning how to stop violent behaviour
It’s not clear why some people are violent, abusive, or controlling towards their partners or children. It may because they learned these behaviours from their parents, have fixed attitudes about controlling their partner, or they may have mental health issues.
If you are abusing your partner, child, or someone else in your life, it is important to know that change is possible. It begins with admitting that you are responsible for your actions. Behaviour change programs can help, and have helped many people stop their violent and controlling behaviours. Take a look at the resources below for information and advice.
Supporting someone else
You can support someone who has told you they are experiencing domestic violence by believing them and listening without judging. Suggest that they get help from a specialised domestic violence support agency by calling or visiting their website. You might also offer to go with the person if they meet with a support service and keep in touch with them to see how they are going.
It’s not always easy to identify if someone you know is experiencing domestic violence. But there are many tell-tale signs in behaviour, as well as physical injury, that a person is being controlled by their partner. These include jealousy, possessiveness, put-downs, and threats. Some specific behaviours to look out for are if their partner threatens to hurt them or their children or pets, constantly criticises or humiliates them, decides what they wear or eat, controls how they spend money, monitors what they are doing, or prevents them from seeing friends or family.
If you have reason to suspect a child is experiencing, or is at risk of domestic violence or neglect, you have a community responsibility to contact the department of child safety or the police.
The resources below have information and advice on healthy relationships. You may also find our page on how to support someone useful.
You might find online and phone-based mental health resources helpful. Some suggestions are below. You can find more with our Search tool (opens in a new tab).