Unreported domestic violence needs focus shift

Being in an abusive relationship can make you want to avoid your partner. Source: Renata Nemeth


Being in an abusive relationship can make you want to avoid your partner. Source: Renata Nemeth
Being in an abusive relationship can make you want to avoid your partner. Source: Renata Nemeth


Women are fighting to remove themselves from violent relationships and do whatever it takes to protect their children. One in five women in Australia experience domestic violence, these women are affected not only physically, but also emotionally.

What is even more troubling is of these women, 26 percent will never mention or report the abuse. This means they will never report their abuse to the police and they will never tell a family member or friend of the adversity they are facing.

One woman of this 26 percent is Lisa*. During an eight-year marriage she never reported or confided in anyone about the abuse her ex-partner inflicted upon her and her children.

During the beginning of the relationship everything was wonderful, and they were together six years before she moved in with him in his one-bedroom apartment. However after she moved in, his behaviour began to shift, and Lisa felt more and more distant from the man she thought she knew.

“During this time, there was less communication between us. I was expected to take care of house duties, while he was wandering off meeting friends for drinks. He had started drinking pretty heavily by then,” Lisa said.

“Ten years later, he decided it was time to get married and started spreading the word, without actually having proposed to me. My feelings for him had weakened by this time, but I still loved him so I married him.”

After the wedding, the couple moved to another country where they built a new life. They found work and eventually bought a house and had two children. Lisa thought moving to another country and away from old friends would be good for them. A fresh start. However nothing changed.

“He didn’t feel good being in the relationship and his dissatisfaction of not being with friends [grew]. His drinking made everything worse. He could be acceptable when he was sober, but when the alcohol kicked in everything flew out of him,” Lisa said.

“He became jealous and constantly found things to argue about. I was always accused of being unfaithful, even though I didn’t know many people in the country, didn’t have a mobile or use the internet.

“He was constantly threatening me by saying, for example, that he would send me back to the old country if I didn’t do as he wanted, or that he would visit our children’s friends parents and make a scene because he thought I had a thing with the father. I always had to explain and defend myself for his made up accusations.

“He tried to control me, blame me and put me down by thinking he owned me. There was no respect. In his mind, a woman was always below a man. The sad thing is that he came from a family with just this, and now he was doing exactly the same thing to his family.”

Some perpetrators never hit their partners, never use physical violence, but the emotional abuse is often more powerful in controlling their victims. Source: Renata Nemeth

Social worker Dr Fiona Newman said emotional abuse can arise out of a need to be in control of another person.

“There may be many underlying factors that contribute to this. It can be a deprived and neglected childhood, a controlling or indulgent parent, or a home where physical and emotional abuse was part of the dynamics. It varies from person to person,” Dr Newman said.

“Emotional abuse is often the first tactic used by perpetrators, only its not recognised for what it really means. So someone who is jealous of a partner and won’t let them go out, or dress in their own style, will say it’s because they love them so much, whereas it’s really about control. Some perpetrators may never hit their partners, never use physical violence, but the emotional abuse is often far more powerful in controlling their victims.”

The worse period for Lisa was a few years later; her ex-partner was drinking, arguing and breaking things in the house every day.

“The children were being affected, either leaving home or locking themselves into their bedroom. They were given much responsibility during this time and probably had to mature faster. I saw that the arguing was affecting them, which is why I decided not to take it anymore,” Lisa said.

Dr Newman said emotional abuse not only affects the person being targeted but also the children near by.

“Children are also subjected to their form of violence, if not directly, on the receiving end, as they witness their mother being exposed to it. However the very nature that children witness emotional abuse is in itself an emotional abuse,” Dr Newman said.

During the abuse, Lisa could no longer view her life as enjoyable. She only lived for her children and their happiness, and felt for how they were affected by the poisonous home environment.

“I always felt alone even though I was in a relationship. I was being held back, all my ideas were being neglected and I started to avoid my ex-partner because I was sick of seeing or hearing him. I was glad if he didn’t speak to me at all,” Lisa said.

All abuse takes a hard toll on those it engulfs. Lisa’s abuse did not stop at psychological control but became physical when her ex became drunk.

“There were some occasions were he hurt me by twisting my hand, but I always kept a very low profile of it because of the kids. He was constantly looking for opportunities to get into a fight,” Lisa said.

“I remember coming home from work one summer evening, and getting into an argument with my daughter. This was a perfect opportunity for him to start arguing, of course being intoxicated. He ended up biting me on the shoulder in front of our daughter.”

Lisa never reported any of the incidents or spoke with near friends or family. She felt ashamed of what people would say and think, as she still felt empathy for the father of her children.

“I thought ‘this is my problem and I need to deal with it’. There wouldn’t be much others could do anyway. And he was the father to my children, so I didn’t want to cause problems for him,” Lisa said.

Dr Robyn Holder from Griffith University Criminology Institute said the reasons for not telling anyone about abusive relationships are commonly shame or a sense that this is somehow normal and not serious.

“When it is a current partner, women can be protective and loyal. And they will commonly stay for the children,” Dr Holder said.

“[A] Common [reason] for not telling police is that women feel it is too trivial, or that there is nothing police can do, or fear. Other key issues about reporting to police are: will they do anything or can they do anything; are they available and accessible; and what have I heard from others about police?

“Women also assess whether it is worth it, whether there is some better or more effective source of help.”

Relationships Australia Manager Sonya Kupfer said the misuse of power in a relationship is insidious and complicated.

“Women who are subject to physical and emotional abuse are not abused from the outset, it begins slowly and builds gradually, often in a manner that makes the women feel incredibly guilty for not walking away immediately,” Mrs Kupfer said.

“As a result of this guilt, they are often made to feel complicit in the abuse and to blame, so are less likely to report it.

“These women are now trapped – society already judges women in these situations incredibly harshly, now they are expected to ask for help with the weight of judgement also on their shoulders.”

Being in poisonous relationship affects ones psychological, and sometimes physiological, wellbeing. Source: Renata Nemeth

Lisa then made one of the hardest choices in her life, to get a divorce.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done, but in our case; salutary. I often thought whether I should divorce him or not. I was scared that he wouldn’t sign the papers, but he did. I was scared of how I was going to do life on my own but the fact that I had my two kids and a full-time job was a reassurance for me,” Lisa said.

Mrs Kupfer said a woman’s decision to leave the relationship can be a financial struggle. Sometimes they are left with no money, no house and no support from family or friends. A mother and her children can completely have their life turned around in an instant. The decision is never easy and it is never black and white.

“It is up to us as a society to stop insisting that the only manner in which to stop abuse is for the woman to report or leave. We need to stop judging women against whether or not they choose to stay in a violent relationship. Instead, we need to start asking what the perpetrator’s doing to make those women’s homes and families not a safe place to remain,” Mrs Kupfer said.

“We as a society need to stop judging women and making them responsible for their abusers behaviours by blaming them for not reporting or leaving. The responsibility for abuse sits with the perpetrator, never the victim, regardless of what he may say to defend or condone his behaviours.

“We as a society need to stop asking why women stay and start asking why perpetrators offend and insisting that they do something to change their own behaviours in a manner that ensures the safety of everyone in their family.”

Lisa recommends to women whom are experiencing domestic violence in any form to give themselves the chance to have a better life.

“Don’t stay in a poisonous relationship. If you are experiencing lack of respect and worth from your partner, and if you continuously need to defend yourself, don’t let it go further. Even if you have kids as they will suffer the most – get out of the relationship,” Lisa said.


*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the source.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence in any capacity you should reach out for support.

In an emergency dial 000

DV ConnectDVconnect : 1800 811 811

Mensline: 1800 600 636

Sexual Assault line 1800 010 120