We hear a lot about family violence spiking during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. (The same stat gets spread about Superbowl Sunday.) There’s a degree of accuracy to the widespread reportage – in some place, 911 calls do rise, and most shelters are full on Christmas. We should worry about family violence, because 1 in 4 women will be abused in our lifetimes, and over 15 million children witness domestic violence every year, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund and the Centers for Disease Control. But the “holidays cause family violence” is a deceptive connection to make on limited and inconclusive evidence, mostly because the leap implies that outside factors – holiday stress and alcohol consumption, for instance – cause domestic violence.
Only two factors cause domestic violence: the person committing the violence, and a society that allows it.
As a relationship violence survivor myself, I understand why 911 calls rise during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. At this time of year, the focus is on family. Togetherness, love, support, kindness, celebration, making your closest loved ones feel special, and making your home itself feel like a haven filled with gifts, food, people, and decorations.
It’s particularly painful, and jarring, when a holiday incident of DV makes it clear that you have built a life with someone who does not, or cannot, share these holiday values. So my take is that it is not necessarily relationship violence that peaks during December. It’s that victims, rightly so, feel especially intolerant of relationship violence during a season that exalts love and family.
If we dismiss holiday DV by saying everyone is stressed at the holidays, or that people drink too much during the holidays, we obfuscate the reality about the complexity and commonality of relationship violence. Domestic abuse happens in all communities, all religious faiths, all neighborhoods and all countries. It happens 365 days a year – my own husband hit me on my birthday, on Christmas, on Valentine’s Day. Family abuse is happening right now to one of your neighbors, a colleague, a classmate or a family member. A nuanced, comprehensive understanding of relationship violence across is critical to ending relationship violence across our society.
The only way we can end intimate partner abuse, during the holidays and the rest of the year, is to educate ourselves about how confusing and intractable DV can be, and to talk about the terrible reality that sometimes, love and violence do go together, even when they should not. Because the shelters are full, the hotlines are busy with calls, and the police are knocking on the door in response to 911 calls — every day of the year, not just in December. If we understand this reality, we get one step closer to getting victims and abusers the help they need.