How to manage toxic relationships and past perpetrators at Christmas time.

Christmas is not all about jingle bells and merriment. Women are at risk in the home and twice as likely to be assaulted over the Christmas season than any other time of the year.
woman looking lonely at Christmas

Currently, my Instagram feed is being a bit triggering, although there are some important messages being put out there.

These messages can sometimes be received as unwarranted advice, given without warning, and without the safety of a therapeutic environment can feel like an unnecessary provocation. Maybe you feel the same?

My Instagram feed is typically nature-focused as this is what fills my cup. 

Nature finds its way. This beautiful analogy allows us to recognise our struggles and that we may overcome them. 

A flower can bloom either as a result of stress or due to an abundance of rain. You may prune a tree that you think is dead only to find its green and living; this is the resilience of nature.

We can all bloom, whatever our conditions. Some from a loving and nurturing environment and others despite trauma.   

We are nature, we can not separate from that. So when I  feel doubt or overwhelmed, my go-to is always back to nature and a reconnection with my senses. 

Unfortunately, the Christmas season can force unwanted and unnatural connections. For some this time is filled with joy, parties and a time to share with loved ones, however,  an Australian Christmas Attitudes survey claimed 47% of Australians stated they were not looking forward to Christmas and  10% stated they were dreading Christmas [1]. Reasons stated were financial pressure, loneliness, the work involve and tense relationships. 

The reality is this time of year can be dangerous especially for women [2]. Enforced family reunions for some people can make the holidays feel unsafe.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow that 90% of sexual assault occurs within the family environment or by someone known to the victim [3]. This is a stark fact and opposes the stranger danger mindset, which is somehow more palatable than reality and encourages perpetrators to hide in plain sight, some being actively invited into the home without knowing the harm being caused.  This reinforces the belief that the family is a safe place but, for many people, this just isn’t the case. 

Sexual Assault has been reported to double during the Christmas period because perpetrators gain access to their victims through family occasions, normalisation of alcohol and drug use or work parties when true colours may emerge. It can be tense, stressful and unsafe. 

Women and children are more susceptible to abuse at this time. This does not reflect the imagery and messages received on Instagram. The incongruence from these images compared to someone’s true experience can feel devastating and isolating. It is not spoken about because it does not fit the Christmas image. It sours the dream. Women will often hide the impacts by normalising the ‘it is what it is’ mindset and ‘Christmas is meant to be stressful’ or ‘if I want to see …I have to see…’, but inside they are hurting, having to sit down at the table and break bread with their ‘perpetrator’ is intolerable. It goes against every fibre in their body. It reinforces the silence and heightens the shame that this person has already internalised. 

If you are this person, what can you do to manage these times? 

Here is a list of things that may help:

  • No 1, have a plan, sit down and think about what you can do to have some influence in the situation. The trauma is about powerlessness so becoming aware of what is in your control can reduce the impacts.
  • In that plan, give yourself an out! Make sure you have a getaway plan, is it a friend who calls to check in on you, where you can make up an emergency to go to! Is it staying somewhere away from the family environment, so you have somewhere to decompress after lunch! 
  • Give yourself a time limit: – 2 hrs during the daytime only and once ‘such and such’ leave. Boundaries are there to keep you safe.  If you want to change the boundary once you are there, that is ok. 
  • However, recognising that it is okay and giving yourself permission to leave can be empowering. 
  • If a person or persons are going to be there who make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe make a plan to not be alone with them, find a distraction or get up and move around, make a phone call. 
  • If that person or persons make suggestive comments to you or threaten you, change the subject, move position, leave. Make a record of what they say once it is safe to do so. 
  • Plan something enjoyable for afterwards, so you have something to look forward to. You deserve it and you can make that happen!
  • Get in touch with your body signals. Notice how your body feels when you think about certain subjects or people. Does it change temperature, feel a different colour, hold tension, relax? What does your body wish to do? Practice becoming aware of the body sensations and becoming curious about what your body is trying to say. Your instinct is likely talking to you. Learn to listen and act accordingly. You have probably found ways to ignore it in the past. This needs to change. 
  • Monitor your alcohol use, if you want to stay alert and connected to your instinct signals reduce the alcohol intake. Always pour your own drinks, so you know people aren’t using alcohol to reduce your inhibitions or to take your autonomy from you. 
  • Plan to debrief with a safe friend loved one or your therapist. Finding a safe space to talk it through is most important. Making sense of conflicting feelings and trigger points and recognising all the actions you put in place to leave the environment safely will build resilience. It doesn’t mean it was easy!
  • Once you are home, take a moment to reflect on all the things you actively did you make sure you were safe. It is important to take stock and reflect on the differences you have made. 
  • If you feel in danger, it is okay to leave at any point, self-preservation is essential. Tell someone, you do not have to go through this on your own. 

People shouldn’t have to put these steps into practice when they spend time with their families. However, for most victims of assault of any kind, the perpetrator is likely to be within the family or someone you know. Some families are not safe. At Christmas time the focus is usually more on people drinking and driving and staying safe on the roads when the reality is that the real danger may be within the home or the family reunion.  

If something happens or you do not feel safe. Please call 1800 RESPECT for Crisis support – these are sexual assault/domestic violence informed counsellors, they will help you. .


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