In the wake of the horrific news of a number of deaths in the last week allegedly as a result of Domestic Violence, we need to talk about this issue.  Again; and AGAIN; and then MORE.

Domestic Violence is an abhorrent feature in too many Australian homes today.  The number of times we hear about families that have been ripped apart by shocking acts of violence in the home are startling and ought be the subject of discussion in every household, school, workplace and mainstream/social media forum in order to generate positive change in societal attitudes that violence in the home is unacceptable and not to be tolerated in any circumstances.  The more we openly confront the issue, the closer we may come to finding a solution.

Domestic Violence can occur in any intimate or family relationship irrespective of gender, age, religion, culture, socio-economic status, education or sexual orientation.

In March 2015, The Honourable Quentin Bryce AD CVO presented the results of an inquiry of a special taskforce commissioned by the state government of Queensland into Domestic Violence in this state.  The report presented by the taskforce, headed by Dame Quentin Bryce was entitled “NOT NOW, NOT EVER – Putting an End to Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland” and can be read in full online.

Interestingly, of the participants in the survey conducted by the taskforce, when asked “Who, in your opinion, commits acts of domestic and family violence?” 69% believed that both men and women, but mainly men commit acts of Domestic Violence and 24% considered that mainly men are perpetrators, as can be seen in the figure below[1]:

Click here to view image.

Similarly, when asked the question “Who, in your opinion, is most likely to experience domestic and family violence?” 58% of participants believed that both men and women, but mainly women are victims of Domestic Violence, while only 34% believed that only women are victims of Domestic Violence.  The figure below illustrates this[2]:

Click here to view image.

Often when people think about Domestic Violence they think of a black eye or split lip and tragically, there are so many victims of Domestic Violence who do suffer such physical abuse that leaves readily identifiable signs such as bruising, cuts, broken bones and worse.  However, Domestic Violence can sometimes be far more difficult to identify, especially when there are no visual indicators of physical violence.  All too often, Domestic Violence can go unnoticed by outsiders and victims may go without the necessary support they need.

In 2012, the Queensland Government amended the legislation governing Domestic Violence by passing the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act (“the Act”), which had the effect of widening and clarifying the meaning of Domestic Violence, summarised as being behaviour by one person towards another in an intimate or family relationship that is:

  1. physically or sexually abusive; or
  2. emotionally or psychologically abusive; or
  3. economically abusive; or
  4. threatening; or
  5. coercive; or
  6. in any other way controls or dominates the second person and causes the second person to fear for their safety or wellbeing or that of someone else[3].

When one person (an abuser) uses a deliberate and systematic pattern of behaviour of types listed above to reduce another person (a victim) to a state of emotional, social and economic dependence and then perpetuates the control and domination through instilling fear, including of the possibility of physical violence, then this is a domestically violent relationship.  But what might such a relationship look like?

The Act gives examples of emotional and psychological abuse, which are summarised below, including:

  1. following a person when in public, including by vehicle or on foot;
  2. remaining outside a person's residence or work;
  3. repeatedly contacting a person by telephone, text, email or social media without consent;
  4. repeated derogatory taunts, including racial taunts;
  5. threatening to disclose a person's sexual orientation to the person's friends or family without the person's consent;
  6. threatening to withhold a person's medication;
  7. preventing a person from making or keeping connections with the person's family, friends or culture, including cultural or spiritual ceremonies or practices, or preventing the person from expressing the person's cultural identity.

In my experience, behaviours intended to isolate a victim emotionally and physically from friends and family might start by making comments that subtly undermine existing relationships and create doubt, mistrust or derision in the mind of the victim, while at the same time reinforcing ideas of protection and understanding within the context of their own relationship.

An abuser might encourage the victim to stay at home and cease socialising with others by expressing disapproval of social engagements or refusing to engage themselves, leaving the victim feeling torn between loyalty to the abuser and their friends and family.  An abuser might also express displeasure or disdain at the victim for engaging in activities that express their particular culture.  An abuser may also be more overt in their controlling and dominating behavior and simply impose ‘rules’ for the victim to follow, such as a curfew or a ban on certain activities or external friendships/relationships/affiliations.   These examples fall under the category of emotional and psychological abuse.

Another example of subversive emotional abuse intended to isolate a victim may include an abuser creating and reinforcing ideology that it is the victim’s role to always be available to attend to the needs of the abuser (and possibly children) in the home. An abuser might place undue pressure on the victim to stop working.  The abuser might reinforce such expectations by constant criticism of the victim’s efforts in or around the house, suggesting that things might not be ‘good enough’ or up to the abuser’s standards and that the victim must ‘try harder’.  The abuser might also use emotional manipulation to create feelings of guilt in the victim, such that the victim feels guilty about leaving the abuser at home while they go out (even to do grocery shopping), or ashamed and/or guilty at not being ‘good enough’ for the abuser. 

It is very important to differentiate such behavior from loving and functional relationships where partners choose various roles in/out of the home/workforce.  Where the behavior crosses the line and falls within the definition of domestic violence is when it is done without consent, remembering that consent is not consent when it is given under duress or in fear.

Directly attacking the confidence and self esteem of a victim by repeated taunts, name calling, derogatory remarks or public criticisms, is domestic violence.  I have learnt that over a prolonged period of time such behaviours can reduce a victim’s self esteem to the point where they believe the abuser and that they are not worthy of any other sort of treatment. 

The definition of Domestic Violence now also includes a concept of economic abuse.  When an abuser denies a victim access to assets and income without their consent, this constitutes domestic violence.  An example might be where an abuser who is the primary income earner in the home does not allow the victim free access to money.  The victim might be required to re-direct their own income to a certain account; or they might be denied access to credit cards or joint funds from which they might otherwise draw upon, as needed.   A victim might only be allowed a certain ‘allowance’ and be required to make requests for money beyond such allowance.  When such behaviour reinforces the abuser as the dominant partner from whom the victim must ask permission to spend money or otherwise is behaviour that controls the victim or causes them to modify their own behaviour for fear of reprisal, this is an example of domestically violent behaviour.

Again, it is important to note that good financial planning and budgeting within a household is perfectly fine, in fact, to be encouraged.  Further, one person might enjoy or be more adept at budgeting within the home and the other person might be satisfied to leave such matters up to the first person.  It is also a reality that financial pressures within a household may cause arguments or tension.  These situations are not examples of Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence is behavior that controls or dominates a victim and causes them to fear for their safety or wellbeing or that of someone else.  In talking to people about their own experiences, I have learnt that this can include: 

  • fear of rejection;
  • ​​​fear of being left alone;
  • ​​fear of judgment from others and the associated feelings of embarrassment or shame;
  • ​fear of not being believed;
  • fear of reprisal from the abuser, whether that be verbal chastisement with yelling and swearing or the possibility of physical abuse;
  • ​fear of the abuser physically hurting another, including a pet as a form of retribution on the victim. 

When subjected to such cumulative dominating and controlling behaviours for a prolonged period, a victim can be reduced to total dependence on the abuser for financial support, social status or identity, personal validation and emotional support thus widening the isolation between the victim and their support network. 

It is unfortunate that some victims are not aware that the behaviours they live with in the home every day are actually domestically violent.  After speaking with people about their circumstances, it is clear that for some, their perception of a ‘normal’ intimate relationship is so skewed through years of the same behavior occurring, they are not able to readily identify that certain behaviours are unacceptable.  Typically people in these circumstances often have little to no support network of friends or family to provide them with some external measure of what might be unacceptable behaviour.   I am saddened by the number of times I have heard a victim of Domestic Violence say, “But, they never hit me…so it can’t be domestic violence, can it?”

Even when a victim does come to the realisation that they are living in a domestically violent relationship constituted the types of behaviour discussed in this article, they can face another hurdle in the form of public explanation of their decision to separate and/or make an application for a Protection Order.   To an ‘outsider’ such an action on the part of the victim might seem excessive or disproportionate.  And therein lies the problem.  To an outsider an abusive relationship in which the abuser engages in the above sort of behaviours to control and dominate may well look like a perfectly happy and functional relationship; in fact, it would likely be the abuser’s objective to ensure such external perceptions.  An outsider must consider the circumstances from the subjective viewpoint of the victim.  One particular instance of behaviour might not of itself constitute Domestic Violence or cause any concern in an objective observer.  However, when such behaviour is part of an ongoing pattern of dominating and controlling behaviour, prolonged over many years in some cases, a victim’s heightened perception of and reaction to the same behaviour can be understood.

In the executive summary of NOT NOW, NOT EVER - Putting an End to Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland, it is reported that:

In 2013-14, there were 66,016 occurrences of domestic and family violence reported to Queensland police. This equates to over 180 incidents of domestic and family violence being reported every day across the state. 17 homicides relating to domestic and family violence occurred in Queensland in 2012-13. On average, across Australia, one woman is killed by her partner every week. The annual cost of domestic and family violence to the Queensland economy is estimated to be between $2.7 billion to $3.2 billion.[4]

Domestic Violence in any form is abhorrent and should not to be tolerated.  It is the responsibility of our society to collaboratively work together to address this issue.  Proactively addressing this issue at a grassroots level through early and ongoing education, providing greater support services for victims and higher prosecution rates for breaches of Protection Orders should be an objective of our government. 

However, in my view every adult member of our society has an obligation to assist in a way that we all can – do not turn a blind eye.  With hard work and cooperation of whole communities, governments, workplaces and schools, I hope we can work towards a country where everyone feels safe in their own home.