The Worrying Truth About Attitudes Towards Domestic Violence in Australia

By Relationships Australia

For many of us, domestic violence and abuse seem like far-removed concepts that could never happen to us or the people we know and love. But these types of abusive relationships are insidious and often hide in plain sight – and misconceptions around them are dangerously common.

In Australia, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that one in four women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner; one in six women has experienced physical violence by a partner since the age of 15; and one in 16 men has experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a current or previous cohabiting partner.

Although physical violence and emotional abuse between intimate partners is alarmingly common, recent findings from the 2021 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey show that:

  • 37% of Australians think women going through custody battles often make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence to gain advantage in their case.
  • 34% believe it’s common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of “getting back at men”. 
  • 10% of people agree it’s easy for a woman to leave an abusive relationship.
  • 23% of people think that much of what is called domestic violence is just a natural reaction to day-to-day stress. 

These concerning statistics show that a considerable amount of people’s knowledge of and attitudes toward violence against women is out of step with the statistics.

Common misconceptions around abusive relationships – and how to switch our thinking

Domestic violence is extremely damaging to victim-survivors, their families and the broader community. While Australians’ attitudes to domestic violence and violence against women are improving, there’s still a great deal of misinformation and mistrust of women’s experiences.

We take a look at some of the misconceptions around domestic violence and abuse in relationships – regardless of the victim or perpetrator’s gender. It’s important to see the whole picture to better understand domestic violence.

Misconception #1: “We shouldn’t get involved in other people’s relationship problems.”

The facts: Most relationship problems can and should be solved by a couple themselves – sometimes with the assistance of a qualified relationship counsellor – but, when it comes to abusive relationships, minding our own business can be dangerous.

Domestic violence is a crime and it should be taken extremely seriously.

Misconception #2: “If it’s that bad, they would have left their partner by now.”

The facts: Choosing to separate from an abusive partner can be one of the most difficult decisions of a victim-survivor’s life. Most people don’t want the relationship itself to end – they just want the violence to stop.

They’re likely to feel scared to leave and worry about what might happen when they do. It can be even more challenging when children are involved, as the time of separation is often when victims and children are at most risk of harm.

These factors mean that, on average, it takes seven attempts for a victim to leave a domestic violence situation. Ending an abusive relationship is simply not as easy as just leaving.

Misconception #3: “They must be bringing it on themself.”

The facts: There’s a harmful narrative that victim-survivors of abuse ‘provoke’ their abusers into using violence and coercion.

It’s true that all couples argue – and that a certain level of relationship conflict can be healthy if it’s expressed appropriately – but using repeated, deliberate, and violent tactics to gain control and power over your partner, including physical and emotional abuse, is unacceptable and inexcusable, not to mention against the law.

Misconception #4: “If they wanted my help, they would have asked for it by now.”

The facts: Victims can keep their abuse a secret from their close friends and family for so many different reasons. They might be ashamed and embarrassed, worry they won’t be believed (sometimes for good reason), or feel that others won’t understand their situation. Sharing the details of their abusive relationship could also put the person and their family in a potentially dangerous situation.

None of these complicated factors means that the abuse should be tolerated by the victim-survivor – or ignored by others.

Misconception #5: “He seems like a really nice guy; I don’t think he could do that.”

The facts: The saying “you never know what goes on behind closed doors” rings alarmingly true in abusive relationships.

People who regularly use violence and abuse are sometimes clever at crafting a charming and likeable front, that enables them to cover up or justify their behaviour. Friends and family can find it hard to accept that someone, who seems so well-mannered and nice, is capable of behaving this way.

Indeed, this ‘nice guy’ is probably the person their partner fell in love with in the first place – and seeing those characteristics shine through outside of the abuse can make it even harder for victim-survivors to leave.

Humans are multi-faceted, and we adapt our personalities to suit different people and situations; just because you haven’t seen someone’s dangerous or abusive side, you shouldn’t assume it doesn’t exist.

Misconception #6: “But they seem so in love.”

The facts: Abusive relationships usually aren’t violent all the time – like all relationships, they can have their ‘good times’.

Domestic violence usually follows a cycle or pattern – moving through a tension-building phase, an abusive phase, and a remorse phase. During the remorse or ‘honeymoon’ phase, the abuser often feels enormous shame and guilt for their actions. They might apologise profusely, make promises to change and shower their partner with love and gifts – before transitioning into the ‘calm’ phase, where the relationship feels relatively stable and normal.

From the outside, this can create the illusion that the couple has the perfect relationship. And within their relationship, many victims understandably want to believe their abusive partner can and will change their ways.

Why do attitudes towards domestic violence matter?

By addressing some of the concerning mistruths and attitudes around domestic violence in intimate relationships, we can ensure victim-survivors are believed, taken seriously and given the space and support they need to forge a better path forward.

If someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or abuse, it’s really important they get support. It may take some time and a great deal of strength, but no one should ever stay in a relationship that’s abusive.

While statistics show that women are most likely to experience domestic violence and abuse, we know that men aren’t immune either. Mensline is available to help men who are experiencing domestic violence, and there are other support services available.

For more advice and help, you can contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). This is a confidential, national sexual assault, domestic family violence counselling service.

Relationships Australia NSW offers a range of counselling and support programs to assist those impacted by domestic and family violence, as well as Mens Behaviour Change group programs, which offer a judgement-free opportunity to share challenging experiences and learn practical tools to help break cycles of violent behaviour.

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