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BATTERED LIVES

Extra Stress From Holidays Can Trigger Domestic Violence

By REGINE LABOSSIERE |

December 13, 2009

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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.

Salters-Pedneault discussed these issues in an interview with The Courant and in an e-mail exchange. Her answers have been edited for space.

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?

A. Holiday stress, economic stress, any kind of stress, is fairly inconsistently related to domestic violence. Probably the reason for that is there's a lot of other factors that go into creating a batterer that are more important than situational stress. For susceptible men, it's the situational stress that sets them off or escalates the violence. So, typically, relationship violence during the holidays does not come out of the blue.

Q. Generally speaking, what are some signs people can look for during the holidays to see that something is about to happen?

A. There's general relationship patterns that they should be aware of that are troublesome. Partners who are very controlling and who are very jealous — that's something to pay attention to [though it] doesn't necessarily mean it's going to escalate into violence. ...

In addition to that, if someone seems to be having more intense and more frequent episodes of impulsive anger, outbursts of anger. Particularly outbursts of anger that involve some kind of violence, even if it's not violence against a person, but throwing objects, things like that. …

Actual past acts of violence predict future acts of violence.

Q. Do women notice the warning signs?

A. Re-victimization is a major problem. Women who are in domestically violent relationships are much more prone to get into new relationships that become violent and we don't know exactly why. There are a few theoretical reasons. One is that, because of past trauma, women have trouble seeing the warning signs. Another is that their models for relationships are violent.

Q. What else should domestic violence victims know?

A. It's really important for women to understand that there are systems set up to help them. People who man domestic violence hot lines are incredibly knowledgeable, and you can call long before you're thinking of leaving. I think a lot of women think you can only call one of these hot lines when you're ready to leave and that's not the case at all.

•Contact Connecticut's statewide domestic violence hot line at 888-774-2900 for immediate help. For more of the Q&A, visit courant.com/batteredlives.

estimated family violence incidents in Connecticut year-to-date, based on 2007 data.