Domestic abuse is not just about violence. It can include verbal, sexual, psychological, financial or emotional abuse. It is the use of intimidation to control a partner, former partner or adult family member - whether inside the home or elsewhere.
Victims can be male or female, as can perpetrators, although the majority of victims are female and the majority of perpetrators are male. To put this into context, it affects one woman in four at some point in her lifetime and it kills two women every week in the UK.
For that reason, HuffPost UK Lifestyle have focussed this particular feature on female victims, by speaking to various charities, although some of the advice below will be relevant to male victims also.
At Christmas time, we spend a lot more time with family, but for an woman in an abusive relationship this often isn't a particularly happy time of year.
While national domestic abuse charities experience a drop in calls around this time while victims try to "keep it together for the sake of the children", police forces see an increase in reported cases in what has been described as a "seasonal spike".
Women's domestic violence charities Refuge and Women's Aid say that increased contact with abusive partners at Christmas may make it more difficult for victims to seek help - unless things reach crisis point, in which case they may decide to call the police.
Around this time of year, many police forces launch targeted domestic abuse campaigns to encourage victims to seek help.
Last year, Detective Superintendent Paul Furnell, head of safeguarding and Investigations, said: "At Christmas and the New Year generally we have seen a rise in reports of domestic abuse. This may be due to excessive alcohol consumption, people spending more time at home, or financial pressures, but whatever the reason there are no excuses."
But Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, is keen to stress that domestic violence happens all year round and that Christmas behaviour cannot be held responsible: "It affects one woman in four at some point in her life; and it kills two women every week. The police should be encouraging women to reach out for support every day of the year, not just at Christmas.
"Domestic violence is an abuse of power – it is the repeated, habitual use of violence and intimidation to control another person. We cannot blame domestic violence on Christmas, alcohol, drugs, unemployment, stress, money worries or ill health. These are just excuses for an abuser's behaviour."
Seeking Help At Christmas
Horley says: "It can be very difficult for a woman experiencing domestic violence to access support during the festive period – a period when her abusive partner may be spending more time at home and monitoring her behaviour more closely than ever."
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, echoes this experience: "We generally see a drop in calls to the National Domestic Violence Helpline over Christmas compared to other times of year, as we know many women want to keep it together for the children and so they wait until Christmas is over to call... Domestic abuse refuges often see an extremely high demand in January, when the Christmas period is over."
But, of course, support is always available.
The National Domestic Violence Helpline is staffed 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. We would encourage anyone who is experiencing domestic violence to visit Refuge or Women's Aid for more information and support.
Familiarise yourself with local domestic abuse campaigns such as those run by your police force too, as they may give details of local services and where to get help. And, if you or someone you know are in immediate danger, call the police.
Reaching Out To A Friend In Need
Horley says: “You may have noticed that your friend has started acting differently when they are around their partner; she might even describe that she feels like she is 'walking on eggshells'. Or perhaps she might appear less confident, or might be having to answer frequent calls and texts to prove where she is.
"She might start making excuses not to spend time with you, or always has to cancel plans at the last minute. You might notice a change in her appearance – that she has changed her style of dressing, or has gained or lost weight. If she uses Facebook, or other social networking sites, you might see that she starts to delete photos of friends, maybe even starts de-friending people.
"If your friend has unexplained bruises or injuries, or starts wearing baggy clothes that might be covering marks – these are all signs that she might be experiencing domestic violence."
“Many women experiencing domestic violence feel very alone. Talking to someone can be the first step towards accessing information and support, so it is vital that friends and family reach out and support a loved one if they are concerned. Finding a safe place to speak to a woman and offering non-judgmental support is key. It is also important for friends and family members to remember that leaving is a process and will take a time – don’t rush someone into making a decision."
Women's Aid have a series of practical tips and advice to help people reach out to friends and family who may be at risk:
- Listen to her, try to understand and take care not to blame her. Tell her that she is not alone and that there are many women like her in the same situation.
- Acknowledge that it takes strength to trust someone enough to talk to them about experiencing abuse. Give her time to talk, but don’t push her to go into too much detail if she doesn’t want to.
- Acknowledge that she is in a frightening and very difficult situation.
- Tell her that no one deserves to be threatened or beaten, despite what her abuser has told her. Nothing she can do or say can justify the abuser’s behaviour.
- Support her as a friend. Encourage her to express her feelings, whatever they are. Allow her to make her own decisions.
- Don’t tell her to leave the relationship if she is not ready to do this. This is her decision.
- Ask if she has suffered physical harm. If so, offer to go with her to a hospital or to see her GP.
- Help her to report the assault to the police if she chooses to do so.
- Be ready to provide information on organisations that offer help to abused women and their children. Explore the available options with her. Tell her about the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge) on 0800 2000 247, and how to access the website.
- Go with her to visit a solicitor if she is ready to take this step.
- Plan safe strategies for leaving an abusive relationship.
- Let her create her own boundaries of what she thinks is safe and what is not safe; don’t urge her to follow any strategies that she expresses doubt about.
- Offer your friend the use of your address and/or telephone number to leave information and messages, and tell her you will look after an emergency bag for her, if she wants this.
- Look after yourself while you are supporting someone through such a difficult and emotional time. Ensure that you do not put yourself into a dangerous situation; for example, do not offer to talk to the abuser about your friend or let yourself be seen by the abuser as a threat to their relationship.
As mentioned above, HuffPost UK recognise that not all victims of domestic abuse are female and not all perpetrators are male, additionally domestic abuse happens in non-straight relationships. Here are some contact details to support all:
- Refuge - Domestic violence help for women and children - 0808 2000 247
- Visit Women's Aid - support for abused women and children – or call the National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247
- Broken Rainbow - The LGBT domestic violence charity - 0845 2 60 55 60
- Men’s Advice Line for advice and support for men experiencing domestic violence and abuse - 0808 801 0327