Last Month was Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month. To help us and our readers understand it better, TGCA CEO Akos Balogh spoke with Dr Rebecca Sng; founder and Director of The Peregrine Centre. Dr Sng is a clinical psychologist and clinical family therapist who holds an MBA in Social Impact from UNSW.

TGCA: You work with survivors of Domestic and Family Violence (DFV). Who is most at risk from DFV? 

Domestic and Family Violence can happen to anyone, across all socioeconomic classes, ethnicities and professions.

As many people would know, women and children are the most common DFV victims. Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of death, disability and illness for women 25-44 years old. However, DFV can also affect men and those with diverse gender identities.

DFV can happen to anyone, across all socioeconomic classes, ethnicities and professions.

TGCA: What are some lasting impacts of DFV?

The experience of living in an unsafe situation means survivors often have had to adapt to dangerous situations.

This adaptation means the “alarm system” of the brain, the part that senses a threat and quickly reacts to it, is exceptionally well developed. However, the “thinking” part of the brain that does things like concentrate, learn, and control impulses can often be underdeveloped.

This underdevelopment is particularly true in children living with DFV, as their brains are still growing.

Research by people like Bruce Perry shows that the high levels of stress hormones in children in these unsafe situations prevent brains from growing as they normally would. As Fight/Flight/Freeze reactions are very well developed, survivors can often not only be scared easily and withdraw but can also look like they “fly off the handle” quickly.

It is hard for survivors to give up these quick reactions which have saved their lives in the past.

It is hard for survivors to give up these quick reactions which have saved their lives in the past.

And so, they need to feel safe to start giving up these strategies and instead develop skills like sustained focus and attention. These parts of the brain can only be rebuilt through repetitive practice.

The other primary impact is on the ability to form healthy relationships.

When people have been hurt by those who are meant to love them, they often find close relationships challenging, even with their children. This doesn’t mean they don’t love their children. But it can take a bit of understanding to help grow a healthy bond when both parent and child are dealing with their trauma.

That work of building a healthy bond between parent and child(ren) is critical. We know that children who have witnessed DFV are significantly more likely to be involved in relationship violence, either as a perpetrator or victim, by the time they are 23 years of age. This is one way the cycle of intergenerational trauma continues and echoes down the family tree.

But having at least one healthy attachment with an adult, particularly a carer or parent, can help protect children from these impacts.

TGCA:What are some common misunderstandings you see that Christians have about DFV?

A common misconception is that DFV doesn’t happen in churches. But sadly, churches are not immune to DFV.

Another misconception is that if violence isn’t physical, then it’s not abuse. But abuse can take many forms, including financial abuse, reproductive abuse (most commonly forcing women to have children when they don’t want to), sexual abuse and psychological abuse, to name a few.

Another myth is that all those who use violence are monsters.

Many of the men I have worked with, however, are very fragile, wounded souls. They’re terrified of being abandoned by their partner if they release their control, even a little. That does not, in any way, excuse their use of violence. But when we think of abusers as monsters, it’s too easy to believe they couldn’t be anyone we know.

The truth is that with one woman a week dying at the hands of a current or former partner, DFV is too prevalent for us to think it doesn’t happen where we live.

Lastly, and probably famously, some feel that what the Bible says in Ephesians 5 about wives submitting to their husbands justifies abuse and violence. They forget that in verse 28, Paul goes on to say: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

If a husband loves his wife as Christ loves the Church, he would never use coercion to force her to stay, just as Christ knows that loving him must be a choice we make freely and with all our hearts.

TGCA: What are some of the needs of those fleeing DFV?

The first need is to create a community which acknowledges that DFV happens, even in the church.

The first need is to create a community that acknowledges that DFV happens even in Church, and invites people to reach out for help. This can include things such as listing who they could talk to and prominently displaying information such as the number for the 1800RESPECT helpline.

The second is to believe people when they reach out for help and not judge them or ask them why they don’t just leave. One of the most dangerous times for a victim is when they leave the abuser; this is when the most assaults and homicides occur.

There are physical needs when someone leaves their home with nothing but their children and the clothes on their back. Many charities will help with this, such as Anglicare.

Lastly, survivors need their church to understand that recovery is a long journey, and leaving the abusive relationship is only the start. There is more helpful guidance at websites such as www.1800respect.org.au.

TGCA: How can Churches help those who are fleeing DFV situations?

Survivors need to be shown how much God loves them.

As well as those immediate supports just mentioned, survivors of DFV are often left feeling like they are unworthy of love.

They often feel guilty for “causing” the violence and not escaping earlier. This is particularly true of those with children. They have often had their confidence and sense of worth systematically eroded by the abuser, to keep them compliant.

One of the things they need most is to be shown how much God loves them.: how God’s grace, care and forgiveness can help them see themselves as fearfully and wonderfully made. When they truly grasp this, they can make better decisions about the kind of relationships they want and deserve.

I know some women fear going to a church as a single parent, feeling that they will be judged for their marriage ending. And so, I think it’s essential to create a community where everyone is welcome, not just people who seem to have it all together.

I think we need to offer them the care and protection that God offers. Faithful, long-term, non-judgemental, genuine relationships are what make a real difference.

When I think of how I would like survivors to meet God, I think of Psalm 57:1—

In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge
till the storms of destruction pass by

for you have been my help
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

Life after violence is possible: recovery is a hard road, but it is possible to feel peace and joy again because everything is possible with God. If we communicate anything to those fleeing violence, let it be that hope.

For those who use violence and are interested in changing this, help is also available. A good place to start is the Mens Referral Service: 1300 766 491 or ntv.org.au