Many People Are Experiencing Escalating Domestic Abuse In The Wake Of COVID

Illustrated By Jackson Joyce, Lauren Krouse
·9 min read
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce

The saying “timing is everything” has particular significance when it comes to getting out of a relationship involving emotional or physical abuse. An abuser’s tactics, a survivor’s complex feelings of shame or guilt, and factors like children or finances, or even pets, can all impact when and why someone feels ready to make their exit.

It’s a process that friends and family and the person in the difficult situation can’t rush—or craft a completely flawless plan—to fix.

Still, when you hear or suspect someone you care about is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, the knee-jerk reaction is often “Why can’t you just leave?” or “We’re ending this now.” Despite your best intentions, experts caution that what your instincts tell you to do is not always the most effective route in the long run. Especially in uncertain times like the present, when there are even more hurdles complicating the road to safety and healing.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is about one person in the relationship (or a former significant other) trying to take control and power away from the other. And abusers use a slew of strategies to do that, from threats to digital harassment. “A victim is experiencing a lack of control over their own decisions,” says Deborah J. Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). “The last thing you want to do is take more power away from them by making choices on their behalf.”

In the wake of COVID-19, many are experiencing escalating violence or abuse for the first time for a variety of reasons, including skyrocketing stress, financial struggles, unemployment, and alcohol use, says Nancy Glass, PhD, a community-based intervention researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and associate director of the university’s Center for Global Health. While rates of IPV are notoriously difficult to track—those impacted may forgo seeking outside help in order to stay safe, or carefully weigh the pros and cons of asking—calls to help lines and the police have recently gone up in many U.S. cities and around the world, per a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. (Right after states across the country issued shelter-in-place orders last year, however, many hotlines reported an initial downtick in calls, likely because survivors stuck at home had fewer opportunities to seek help.)

But experts say this data is the tip of the iceberg. After all, emotional abuse is the most common form of IPV—and it’s challenging to chart. The initial signs are easy to minimize, like increased isolation, personal jabs (being called names as a “joke”), tests of loyalty (such as insistence that passwords be shared), or gaslighting.

Worse yet, it’s hard to identify and address what’s going on from the outside, even if you suspect something’s amiss. While at home, “if a survivor wants to connect, they aren’t able to do that easily without their abusive partner knowing about it,” says Katie Atkinson, director of survivor services for LGBTQ people of all genders at The Network/La Red in Boston. The people they confide in most often are friends and family, though, so it’s critical to think proactively. (This is especially true for multiracial, Black, Native American, disabled, low-income, bisexual, and trans women, who face higher rates of domestic violence and greater barriers to receiving aid.)

One of the most helpful things you can do is help someone recover a sense of agency over their life. But you have to step up to the plate carefully. This advice from advocates with decades of know-how will guide you to get it right.

Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Research on Your Own First

“The more you understand the dynamics of intimate partner violence, the better able you will be to offer support,” says Anna Nicolosi, operations manager at StrongHearts Native Helpline. Expressing concerns about someone’s relationship is super-dicey territory, so learn the red flags and the different forms of offense before starting a conversation. This will help you avoid common mistakes that could jeopardize the situation. (Not what you want.…)

How to do this? Contact a trained advocate via the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) or live-chat at thehotline.org. Or find contact info for a local organization and give them a rundown of the situation. A common misconception is that hotlines are *only* for the person in the situation—but Glass says family and friends often call in too. Take a few notes about the nature of the relationship and any concerning behaviors you’ve witnessed or heard about so you’re ready to share them when asked why you’re calling. Also, make a list of questions you want to cover, says Atkinson, such as “Is it okay if I say or do X?” and “What local resources are available if they want to leave, find housing, or get legal aid?” And to ensure they’re comfortable potentially calling on their own behalf in the future, “How do you handle confidentiality?” Clarifying what you should (and shouldn’t) do in your role can give you the confidence you need to tackle what comes next.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A Way to Connect One-on-One

Ask your loved one if you can chat sometime (but don’t mention abuse, and do let them choose how to connect—socially distanced in person, over the phone, via Zoom, or on FaceTime, for example—since their partner could be monitoring communications). Start with not-so-invasive questions such as “Where’s so-and-so today?” or “I want to talk to you about something personal—can we chat privately?” suggests Atkinson.

Then, when you’re sure you’re both in a safe place, simply ask how they feel about the relationship. Let them know you’re concerned about something you’ve witnessed or heard about, and encourage candidness by listening reflectively. For example: “I’m worried when [name] says things like that to you. How does it make you feel?” or “What you’re describing sounds like an example of gaslighting. What do you think?” Prime questions with phrases to emphasize that they’re in control (e.g., “There’s no pressure to answer any of my questions”) and be truthful about your own uncertainties (“I don’t know exactly what to say, but I want to support you however you need. May I ask you some questions about this?”).

You might feel the urge to disparage their partner, but this can backfire fast. The person is still a key part of their life and someone they may love deeply. They might become defensive, blame themselves, or stop confiding in you entirely. Focus on behaviors and their impact instead, says Nicolosi. At the same time, be firm, emphasizing that it’s never okay to treat someone that way, no excuses. If they don’t want to talk to begin with? Do not push it. Let them know you care about them very much and are concerned, and that you respect their boundaries and are available anytime they want to discuss. Then let them change the subject.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

No-Strings-Attached Support

While it’s important to be honest about your concerns, keep your tone calm and avoid gushing about how worried you’ve been (experts call this centering your own feelings), which could cause unnecessary drama or fear, says Nicolosi. Thank them off the bat for trusting you with this information. “What survivors need most is someone who will believe them and listen to them,” says Linley Beckbridge, communications and outreach director at Doorways, a domestic violence shelter in Arlington, Virginia. Let them know you’re in their corner, and never give ultimatums or unsolicited advice.

Also good to know: Going back to the relationship is a normal part of the process. They might be facing obstacles they can’t tell you about, like feelings of denial or guilt. Pressuring them to “get out” before they’re ready is dangerous. The hope is that *they* know best how to stay safe until they can carefully exit.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Resources

Once they’re (possibly) ready to move forward, you can help sort priorities with an open-ended question like “Are there any options you’ve been thinking about?” Assure them, once they’re on board, that there are people who care and programs that can help, says Doreen Nicholas, survivor engagement and systems change specialist at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence (ACESDV).

Know of a service for their needs? Offer to set it up for them. For example, if they are interested in connecting with an affordable or free therapist, support group, or other mental health service in the area so they can talk through coping methods or have an objective person help unpack an upsetting interaction, search for professionals who are trained in trauma-informed care and regularly work with survivors of sexual and domestic violence, says Nicholas. In that case, you would search their state or city and “Coalition Against Domestic Violence” to find the local coalition. (Call or email; a rep should be able to direct you to mental health resources.)

If they’re not there yet, don’t jump into problem-solving mode; continue to lend an ear and unconditional support, says Nicolosi. Money troubles are one of the most common reasons victims stay or return to partners. (The majority experience financial abuse—e.g., their person controls all finances or prevents them from working.) What you can do is spot them on childcare, necessities, or an Airbnb.

Pro tip: Advocacy centers sometimes help cover immediate needs or can point them toward other opportunities.

Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Jackson Joyce
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

All Lines of Communication Open

Abusers of any kind use isolation to deepen their control, dominating a person’s time to keep them from spending it with loved ones. So continue to reach out, offering a space to talk, to feel validated, or to just know they’re not alone. Ask how they prefer to stay in touch and check in often-—as long as it’s safe for you both, says Nicolosi. Connect over phone calls, texts, video calls, virtual games—even grocery deliveries or socially distanced meetups.

Just be sure to find ways to maintain your comforting presence and encouragement, even if you have to get creative. It may be lifesaving.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

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