The holidays can mean festivities and family gatherings. But for families already dealing with domestic violence, the holidays and periods of economic stress may trigger abuse, said Kristi Salters-Pedneault.
The clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic said that although each incident of domestic violence is unique, there are themes she has seen during her years of counseling and research at the Veterans Affairs' National Center for PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in Boston.
Q. Is there an increase in domestic violence during the holidays?
A. Anecdotally we definitely see more people reporting more stress in their family, more incidents of violence happening. However, the research doesn't necessarily bear out an increase during the holidays. There's probably a few reasons for that.
One is that during the holiday season, people are really motivated to keep the status quo. People don't want to leave their families or break up their families right in the middle of the holidays. ... It's actually after the holidays end — in January and February — that you're more likely to see an increase in the reports of violence happening.
Q. So what is it about the holidays that might lead to an increase in domestic violence?
[Salters-Pedneault explained that severe domestic violence is generally linked to power and control issues.]
A. General family stress increases that type of violence. In addition, there's more financial stress during the holidays, so people are feeling that strain. Particularly in this economy, that makes it a recipe for more violence.
Often in relationships where there's violence, there's issues around jealousy and attachment. So, during the holidays, a partner might want to spend more time with their family or be around other people, and that can be very threatening for the partner who is the abuser who feels threatened or powerless in a relationship.
And people are drinking more during the holidays, too, and so that can disinhibit the abusive partner.
Q. What factor does alcohol play in domestic violence?
A. It's not always a factor, but for many, many people it is a factor because impulsive behavior is a risk factor for domestic violence. And alcohol just increases impulsivity.
Q. What is the impact of economic stress?
A. Economic stress increases overall stress in the family, which increases violence. In particular, for male batterers, it's a particular type of stress that's really, really difficult because men are under a lot of pressure to be the breadwinner of the family. ... It increases a general sense of powerlessness [and] we know that men who abuse often abuse because they're feeling powerless. In fact, they'll report, right before they engage in some kind of domestic violence, that it was a feeling of powerlessness or being out of control that led to that particular incident of violence.
In addition to that, tough economic times make it less likely that the partner is going to seek help or try to get out of the relationship.
Q. In this current economic downturn, have you noticed in statistics or your work a rise in domestic violence or a rise in the cases being reported?
A. Literally, every risk factor for domestic violence, every proximal risk factor, every situational thing that could be going on that could increase domestic violence is increasing right now. Unemployment is a risk factor. Low self-esteem is a risk factor. There are all of these things coming together that are definitely going to increase the rates of the violence.
Q. How much of an effect do the holidays and tough economic times have on domestic abuse?