Since the novel strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, began to spread rapidly throughout the country—and the planet—many nation, state, and city-wide governments have implemented ‘shelter-in-place’ policies and recommendations. The hope is that with less physical contact and proactive social-distancing measures, fewer people will become infected, seriously ill, or perish. While many busy professionals are adjusting to a much slower and stationary pace of life, there is one aspect of isolation that many may take for granted: safety.
For some people, home is not a haven or a harbor against the storm. Rather, it feels much more dangerous than a pandemic if you’re a victim of domestic violence. Being in an abusive relationship is always dangerous but extreme situations, like isolating at home due to COVID-19, can ignite more violence.
The experience of being at home is similar to a pressure valve that can’t be released, according to Suzanne Dubus, CEO at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Boston’s north shore. “It is already a common tactic for abusers to use isolation to gain power and control by limiting where their partner can go and who they can see. Add in a quarantine and social distancing, and that isolation is amplified—by a lot,” she continues. “There is no physical space to put between you and your abuser.”
If you are on lockdown with a partner you fear, here are the most effective ways to cope, free yourself, and survive.
What to Do If You Isolated With Your Abuser
If you are in a relationship with an abuser, daily life is difficult to navigate. And when there’s an order to remain inside, the anxiety and abuse are only heightened. Though it’s important to remember his or her actions are not your fault, crisis professionals and counselors recommend the following strategies to put yourself in the safest position possible.
Reduce opportunities for emotional triggers
Lawyer, author, therapist, and senior family mediator at the National Family Conflict Resolution Center and founder of High Conflict Institute, Bill Eddy, LCSW, says most domestic violence abusers are men with less control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions. This means they have weaker emotional boundaries, creating triggers that most men would ignore or talk themselves down from. During a period of quarantine, Eddy says most abusers will feel more triggered, even if you are not doing anything differently or wrong.
This is partly due to the fact that they are not able to have a break from their own negative thinking, which can create more emotional misinterpretations of conversations and actions. “Usually they have their jobs and their friends to distract them, which gives them cooling-off periods on a regular basis,” he explains.
That’s why it’s in your best interest to do all you can to reduce opportunities for these emotional triggers. He suggests asking your partner to take part in calming activities—like happy movies, TV shows, board games with kids and so on—rather than violent entertainment. Eddy says it can also be helpful to nudge the abuser to have contact with friends via phone calls, Zoom or Skype sessions, or even across the neighbor’s yard.
If he or she has an episode, remain calm
Since it is likely your abuser will have an episode during a period of quarantine, it’s essential to respond in a way that puts your safety first. When they start to grow upset or lash out, Eddy says to avoid criticism and blame (even if he’s criticizing and blaming you) and try the ‘EAR’ statement approach that demonstrates empathy, attention or respect. He shares these examples:
Empathy: “I know this is a hard time. I know you’re frustrated. I’ll help you with this.”
Attention: “I’ll listen. Tell me what’s going on. Tell me what’s frustrating you right now, I want to understand.”
Respect: “I really respect your efforts to solve this. I respect your time. I’ll respect your space.”
“Any one of these phrases can help sometimes,” Eddy shares. “More than anything they want empathy, attention, and respect, so these types of statements often help but are not guaranteed [to do so]. Whether this helps or not, it often helps to go with the ‘respect’ approach.”
Try to understand the facts of COVID
Another scary part of being isolated with your partner isn’t just the lack of time with other people, but not having access to reliable information surrounding the pandemic. After all, knowledge is power—and if you are at the mercy of your abuser, you can’t guarantee you have the facts straight. In terms of life-threatening viruses, this can put you at extreme risk, according to licensed clinical professional counselor and clinical program director at the YWCA in Chicago, Anne Pezzillo, LCPC. In fact, she notes dictating what you can—and can’t—read is yet another avenue for them to exercise power and control.
“An abusive partner may control access to information about the virus, may share inaccurate information, may minimize the risk, and they may actively interfere with a survivor’s attempts to protect themselves by withholding hand sanitizer or intentionally attempting to infect them if they are exposed,” she shares.
When at all possible, try to find accurate information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other reputable news outlets that report on the latest developments. This will help you understand exactly what’s happening, what’s recommended and how to keep yourself, and potentially your children, safe.
Try to avoid talking about the past
Though it’s not always possible to direct the conversation with an abuser—especially one who is manipulative with his or her words—Eddy recommends doing what you can to avoid talks about the past. Rather, focus your attention on the present and future. One way to effectively turn the discussion is by saying something like ‘Let’s look at what we can do now. Let’s take a break for a few minutes—do you want to head to the bedroom or the kitchen?’ The crux of this approach is giving the abuser options.
“Choices make people think more and react less,” Eddy explains. “Of course, domestic violence abusers often don’t want to let go of a conversation and they often resist taking a break and may physically try to restrain you. In that case, you could say you’ll listen, then you’d have a better response if you could take a break after hearing him out.”
If you can, document everything they say and do in case you want to make a report, either now or in the future, suggests domestic violence survivor, speaker, and interpersonal violence expert, Dr. Laura McGuire. This will help you create a case and give you a leg to stand on, should you want to press charges. Being armed with proof is your best opportunity to bring them to justice once the pandemic has passed.
If it is impossible to quarantine with your friends and family, start trying to find things at home to keep yourself occupied, and more importantly, away from your abuser. Pay attention to which rooms you’re in too, since some pose more threats than others. “Bathrooms are particularly dangerous given sink and tub/shower surfaces and tile flooring, while kitchens are troublesome too, because of easy access to knives and other sharp objects,” urges Pezzillo.
Remember, shelters and hotlines are open
Dubus says many victims assume that centers and shelters are closed with shelter-in-place orders. However, they are considered essential services in most states and remain open. “We want to remind survivors of domestic violence that many organizations are now providing remote services and are available to help. Many, including our own, are a phone call away from providing you with support.”
Because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to help someone suffering from domestic abuse, Dubus recommends reaching out to advocates when at all possible to provide hands-on, real-time support. “Every case and situation are different, and the best safety plan can be determined with an advocate who knows the details of your abuser’s behavior and the relationship you have with your partner. If there is a way to make a phone call or chat with someone online, that is the best option available,” she explains.
You can call these numbers and services (U.S.):
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: 1-800-656-HOPE
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 1-800-932-4632
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: 1-800-537-2238
Health Resource Center on Domestic Violence: 1-800-313-1310
Battered Women’s Justice Project: 1-800-903-0111 ext. 3
National Network to End Domestic Violence: 1-800-799-SAFE
And here are numbers and services for the U.K.:
Parent Line Plus: 0808 800 2222
National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247