Challenges of Families Who Experience Domestic Violence

This article is part of a special series focusing on common challenges faced by Australian families.

Other articles in this series include:

  1. Challenges of Single-parent Families Due to Death or Separation
  2. Challenges of Same-Sex Couple Families
  3. Challenges of Blended and Step “Remarried” Families
  4. Family Issues When There is Disability, Illness, or Serious Injury
  5. Challenges of Families with a Parent Working Away From Home Base

The family functions and domestic violence

Note: Refer to the first article in the series for further information about the family functions.

There is no way around it; all four functions of a family are put at risk in the sad situation of family violence, and to a large degree the risk factors are interrelated. Focusing first on Function One, family formation and membership, we can comprehend how the pervasiveness of family violence in Australia (which is a microcosm of the global picture) hugely distorts the capacity of the family to function positively as a “first tribe”, or initial place of experiencing membership for children. When there is domestic violence, there are issues of power and control. When family violence is so pervasive that a woman is physically abused by her husband every nine seconds, as in the United States (Commonwealth Fund, 1993), the question arises as to how well the family unit can function.

When it is further revealed that up to ten million children in the United States between the ages of 3 and 17 have witnessed parental violence (Straus, 1991), there is the serious question of what type of “club” the children are becoming members of when they live in a violent family. In fact, research has shown that children’s presence is correlated with higher rates of domestic violence, as there is more of it in households where there are children (Romans et al, 2007).

Fully 61 per cent of Australian victims of violence by a previous partner also reported having children in their care at some time during the relationship and 36 per cent said that these children had witnessed the violence (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006). Straus’ survey (1991) indicated that the similar percentage of American children who have witnessed violence between their parents have done so repeatedly. As we pointed out earlier, that witnessing is not only highly stressful for the children; it is also a risk factor for a variety of psychosocial problems, mental illness, substance abuse, marital conflict and violence, physical abuse of children when the witnessing children become parents, and assaults and other crimes outside the family (Flood and Fergus, 2008; Tomison, 2000; Strauss, 1991). But that is not all.

Men who beat their wives often begin abusing their children as well. Thus, children in violent families are at high risk of physical as well as psychological injury. They feel impelled to try to make peace between their parents, or to protect whichever parent appears to be the victim (usually the mother). They are in the firing line, and live lives of fear. True “family formation” (Function One) is non-existent, as the children effectively lose both parents: their father through emotional distancing, and their mother through her depressed, anxious focus on the abuser, with little energy left for the children (Carter & McGoldrick, 2005). Clearly, domestic violence spectacularly renders Function Four – protection of the vulnerable – null and void. And Function Three, appropriate socialisation, is also defunct, as the children learn that there is no safe place, that women are not to be respected, and that violence is an acceptable means of expressing emotion and frustration and solving problems.

Finally, Function Two, economic support, is prevented from being fulfilled because women may flee, but often return because they cannot support the children independently. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2008), domestic violence is the most common factor contributing to homelessness among women and their children. A study by the New South Wales Women’s Refuge Movement Resource Centre and the Urban Research Centre (2009, in Bartels, 2010) found that housing for women and children experiencing domestic/family violence has deteriorated significantly. The key concerns were affordability, length of stay, the physical condition of the housing, the neighbourhood, safety, and the availability of maintenance.

Accommodation is in general a critical factor in women’s decisions about whether to leave a violent relationship (Bartels, 2010). Fully one third of people accessing the government’s Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) in 2003-2004 were women escaping from domestic violence (AIHW, 2005). Even when women gain protection orders denying men access to the home, they are not always safe, because police are not always able to monitor the orders. Small, remote communities may not even have refuges (Oberin, 2008).

Domestic violence: risk factors to look out for

General factors. Given that domestic violence essentially destroys the family as a functional unit, support people will want to be especially clued up about the risk factors for it. While there is no single cause known to lead to violence in the home, a number of risk factors are associated with being a perpetrator. These include:

  • Age
  • Low academic achievement
  • Low income (or exclusion from the labour market)
  • Social disadvantage
  • Isolation
  • Exposure to or involvement in aggression as an adolescent (Flood and Fergus, 2008)

Because many of these factors are correlated with an increase in aggressive behaviour and offending generally, it is not surprising that Mouzos and Makkai (2004) found that, among women who had experienced violence with their current partner, the most frequently reported aspects of the perpetrator’s behaviour were drinking habits, general aggression, and controlling behaviours. These are also risk factors in Indigenous relationships (Bryant and Willis, 2008).

Rigid, traditional attitudes. Certain community attitudes elevate the risk of violence, especially towards women. These include:

  • Traditional “macho” norms for being male
  • Rigid gender expectations, such as that men are the primary breadwinners and women’s place is in the home
  • Norms encouraging excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Standards which facilitate peer pressure to conform to these ways of being male (National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children – NCRVWC – 2009a).

Other factors which influence attitudes are those such as being part of a subculture (like sporting) which facilitates negative attitudes towards women, exposure to pornography, being an adolescent male, and being a child who was exposed to violence (see below) (Flood and Pease, 2006).

Situational factors. Certain situational factors do not cause violence directly, but they may increase the risk of violence. Some of these are family or relationship problems, financial problems, unemployment, and recent stressful events or circumstances, such as the death of a family member. Alcohol is a chief situational factor, with women whose partners consume excessive alcohol being more likely to experience violence (Mouzos and Makkai, 2004).

Taking out the effect of other factors, we can see in the Indigenous communities that alcohol is the factor most strongly associated with victimisation (Bryant and Willis, 2008). Perhaps this is so because alcohol tends to decrease inhibitions and increase feelings of aggression. Thus, an angry, verbally abusive incident may escalate to physical violence with alcohol, making the incident more serious. About half of partner-homicides were found to be alcohol-related (Morgan and Chadwick, 2009).

Even when there is not wholesale physical violence immediately, situational factors may come together to create a pathway to it in the future. The subtle, out-of-awareness dynamic that begins to be set up in a family from the outset of any incident, even if only mildly violent, is worth noting. The perpetrator may only do one violent act, such as shoving his partner or making a hole in the wall with his fist, but that one occurrence often frightens the woman so much that she begins to organise the relationship around avoidance of further violence. She may, for instance, apologise when she is not at fault, agree to do things that she does not want to do, or notice a mood turning and quickly rush to “fix” things. The stage is thus subtly set for further lopsidedness of power and control in the family, which means further abuse.

Early exposure. We indicated above how damaging to children’s development it is for them to either witness violence or have it perpetrated on them. Looking at children’s early exposure from the other side of the fence – the effects on others in the child’s life and on society in general, it is clear that early exposure is a serious risk factor for the perpetration of violence later, when the exposed child becomes an adolescent or adult. With the experience of abuse in childhood (either as a witness or a victim), a young person develops inappropriate norms concerning aggression, and begins to model the behaviour to which he or she has been exposed. This increases the risk that an individual will enter into an abusive relationship as an adult, whether as a perpetrator or a victim (Flood and Fergus, 2008). Women experiencing some form of physical or sexual abuse during childhood are one and a half times more likely to report experiencing some form of violence in adulthood (Mouzos and Makkai, 2004).

Signs and symptoms of an abusive/violent relationship

In your role as support person, you may very well not know a lot about the background or attitudes held by the partner of your friend or casual acquaintance. Thus, going by risk factors alone, you might miss the cues that let you know someone needs your help to escape a violent relationship, and of course you can never know exactly what is going on behind closed doors. The following lists constitute warnings that someone is in a violent or abusive relationship. If you detect any of these tell-tale signs of abuse, it is important to talk immediately with the person showing them. Failure to do so could cost the person her life.

People who are being abused:

  • Seem highly anxious to please their partner, or even afraid of the person
  • Agree with everything their partner says; go along with all partner plans
  • Call their partner frequently to report where they are and what they’re doing
  • Receive abusive or harassing phone calls from their partner
  • Talk about their partner’s jealousy or possessiveness, or even their temper
  • Have frequent injuries or “accidents”
  • Frequently miss work or school without explanation.
  • Dress to hide bruises or scars (for example: wearing long sleeves in the summer or sunglasses indoors)

Control is the “name of the game” for the abuser. Perpetrators often “groom” victims to come more under their control by gradually isolating them from their friends, family members, and other support networks. Signs that someone might be isolating his partner are that the intended victim will:

  • Be restricted from seeing family and friends.
  • Rarely go out in public without their partner.
  • Have limited access to money, credit cards, or the car.

The psychological signs of abuse are that the person being abused may:

  • Have very low self-esteem, even if they used to be confident.
  • Show major personality changes (for example, the extravert becomes introverted)
  • Be depressed, anxious, or suicidal. (Smith and Segal, 2012)

What you can do as support person

If you suspect that someone is being abused, you can:

  • Ask if something is wrong.
  • Express concern.
  • Listen and validate.
  • Offer help.
  • Support the victim’s decisions.

What doesn’t work is for you to:

  • Wait for the person to come to you (they may die from assault injuries before that!)
  • Judge or blame.
  • Pressure him or her.
  • Give advice. Place conditions on your support. (Smith and Segal, 2012)

The victim of domestic violence may be too scared to talk today when you ask her about it. She may still be too frightened tomorrow. But if she is reassured that you are there when she is ready to talk, she is more likely to come forward. Remember that abusers wear their victims down over time through dominance and control, humiliation, threats, intimidation, isolation, and manipulation. Thus, most victims are drained, depressed, scared, ashamed, and confused. They may not believe that there is anywhere that they can be safe, and that, by reporting incidents or merely trying to escape, the abuser will assault them even more violently later if they fail to get away and get safe.

Fear of the unknown keeps many victims trapped, so it may be a slow process. You may have to keep letting the person know that you notice and care. Section Four includes emergency numbers to ring when you are reporting domestic violence. Both national service numbers and those for the respective states and territories of Australia are listed. If you are assisting someone in escaping from an abusive relationship, it is important to ensure that she has the numbers handy, as well as emergency contact numbers for her own social support networks (for example: friends or family with whom she might be able to stay, or who could come and pick her up at any time of day or night).

Domestic violence: who are the victims?

If we want to understand how a family transitions into violent mode, we need to know who the victims are. As noted above, because violence is perpetrated such a high percentage of the time by a man against a woman, most of the victims are different demographics of women. We name below the main groups which are most victimised in Australia, but the scene in this country is similar to that in most countries.

Indigenous women are over-represented as victims of domestic violence, with rates of victimisation being much higher than for non-Indigenous women. In 2002, seven per cent of non-Indigenous women had been a victim of violence in the previous 12 months; that figure shot to 20 per cent for Indigenous women in the same period. Not only do they experience violence more frequently; it is also more harmful when they experience it. Indigenous women were found to be as much as 35 times more likely to sustain serious injury and require hospitalisation as a result of violence committed by a spouse or partner than were non-Indigenous women (Mouzos and Makkai, 2004).

The problem for Indigenous women is that the decision to access counselling, medical, or legal support may mean giving up anonymity and confidentiality, as kinship groups are extended and close. Thus any decision to disclose offences may have both physical and social consequences, causing alienation and upheaval, not only in the family but also in the community. Unfortunately, many Indigenous communities are not equipped to deal with domestic violence issues, resulting in the victims from those communities getting little support (Morgan and Chadwick, 2009).

Women living in rural and remote areas are already isolated as a result of the abuse. In areas of geographical isolation as well, there are not many resources available, as few professionals wish to live in remote areas, or even travel to work in such communities. Service delivery is thus inhibited, and both confidentiality and safety become issues, a situation applying to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women living remotely (NCRVWC, 2009a).

Women from culturally and linguistically different backgrounds are sometimes shown in research to experience more violence than mainstream, English-speaking women (O’Donnell, Smith, & Madison, 2002), and other times are shown to experience rates of physical violence lower than or equal to English-speaking women (Mouzos and Makkai, 2004). Thus, no conclusion can be drawn about the fact of being culturally and linguistically different (CALD) in itself; the various groups need to be examined individually. What is clearly an issue, however, is the reluctance of CALD and immigrant women to report domestic violence victimisation to police, or to access mainstream services.

There is a perception that the services would not understand their situation and respond appropriately. Too, translator/interpreter services may not be available, further complicating attempts to report. Thirdly, refugees and newly-emigrated women may decide not to report violence because they are dependent on the perpetrator for residential or citizenship status, and fear deportation. This situation is aided and abetted by perpetrators, who often use insufficient knowledge of English as a tool of power and control (NCRVWC, 2009a).

Pregnant women. As a family begins to add new members, the risks to women go up substantially. It is common for men to begin abusing their wives during pregnancy. Whether the men are worried about the additional burden the child will present or merely jealous of the time and attention that will be taken away from them to care for the child is unknown, but women in pregnancy become more vulnerable to both physical abuse and marital rape (Bergen, 1996).

The ABS (2006) Personal Safety Survey found that of women who had been abused by their partner, 36 per cent experienced the abuse while pregnant, with over half of those experiencing it for the first time during their pregnancy. Women with lower levels of education, those from poor communities, and those having an unintended pregnancy are at the highest levels of risk. The consequences of such abuse are far-ranging when one considers that physical injuries and stress to the woman – often leading to drug and alcohol abuse – impact greatly on the health of the mother, worsen the birth outcome, and also affect the health of the baby (Taft, 2002).

As women leave work because they cannot afford the day care, they become even more vulnerable. Women who do not work outside the home, who earn less than 25 per cent of the family income, and who have young children at home are at highest risk of abuse (Kalmus and Straus, 1990).

Older women experience violence at a rate two and a half times higher than older males. Many older women are long-term victims of abuse, committed in 20-25 per cent of cases by their partner, who often has a duty of care of the victim. Both physical disabilities and decision-making disabilities are common in victims of this sort of abuse (Morgan and Chadwick, 2009).

Women with a disability (physical or intellectual) are more likely than women without disability to experience intimate partner violence, and the abuse that they experience is likely to be more severe and to extend for longer periods (NCRVWC 2009a). As with older women, they may have decreased opportunity for leaving a violent relationship, so community and family supportiveness is essential.

Dating and relationship violence is common in adolescent relationships and school-age communities, with younger women being more likely to experience physical and sexual violence than older women (Mouzos and Makkai, 2004). As discussed in the risk factors section, traditional gender role attitudes, sexism, an encouraging peer culture, and attitudes supportive of violence which are shaped by the media and by exposure to pornography put young women at higher risk (Flood and Fergus, 2008). 42 per cent of young women 19-20 years old acknowledged being the victim of some form of physical violence from a boyfriend at least once (Indermaur, 2001).

Younger women may struggle to leave a violent relationship if they cannot afford private rental accommodation, are not eligible for public housing, and cannot access unemployment benefits. The remaining options – homelessness and staying in the abusive relationship – present a dark dilemma.

This article was adapted from AIPC’s MHSS Specialty Course “Supporting Challenged Families”. For more information, visit


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