Editor’s note: The following story includes domestic violence and abusive relationships, which may be upsetting or triggering for some readers.
On Sunday, the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made an impassioned plea to the global community on Twitter. “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19,” he said. “But they can trap women with abusive partners.” The home, he argued, is a dangerous place for victims of domestic violence.
Secretary Guterres’s argument wasn’t just theoretical—global statistics report increased rates of domestic violence all over the world, from France and Spain to South Africa, as more and more countries ask their citizens to stay indoors and not travel or go to work in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Social distancing may be a new concept to a lot of people right now, but it will unfortunately feel familiar to those who have been or are currently in an abusive relationship,” says Katie Hood, CEO of One Love Foundation, an advocacy organization that educates young people about healthy and abusive relationships. Why? Because restricting access to the outside world is often how abusers exert control over their victims. Now that the whole world is seemingly on lockdown, that isolation comes with increased risks for people in abusive relationships.
“This situation doesn’t make an abuser more likely to abuse—the threat is always there—but the lack of access to resources [exacerbates] the situation,” says Melody Gross, a domestic violence survivor and advocate.
Why a pandemic can be enabling to abusers
The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” This can be achieved through intimidation and threats, physical and sexual violence, and controlling a person’s finances (among other means). Isolation—specifically, when someone is cut off from all human contact outside of their relationship—is one of the most common strategies that abusers tend to rely on in order to control their victims.
“When my ex-husband and I first moved into our house, I used to keep all of the drapes open, and we had a large light in the front window [that] I always kept on dim to light the room even when it was dark,” domestic violence survivor and advocate Hannah Kay Herdlinger recalls. “My ex slowly started closing all the blinds and would get upset when I would open them. Keeping the blinds closed was one easy way [for him] to hide what was happening behind closed doors.”
“Abuse doesn’t stop in times of pandemic and can escalate in times of instability and financial stress. The abuser may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control.” —Hannah Kay Herdlinger, domestic violence survivor and advocate
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a specific climate that increases the risk of abuse. “We know we’re going to see an increase in domestic violence cases because of the loss of jobs, the increased financial burden, and all the other fallout from COVID-19,” warns Margaret Bayston, CEO and executive director of Laura’s House, a nonprofit authority on domestic violence prevention, treatment, and education. Indeed, research from 2016 shows that unemployment, particularly during the Great Recession in 2008 (the last major economic downturn of this magnitude), was associated with an increase in men’s abusive behaviors towards their wives and romantic partners.
“Abuse doesn’t stop in times of pandemic and can escalate in times of instability and financial stress,” agrees Herdlinger. “The abuser may take advantage of an already stressful situation to gain more control.” For example, Hood says that abusive partners can also use shelter-in-place mandates—which require people to stay home in order to stop the spread of COVID-19—as a pretext to stop a victim from leaving home entirely, even for essentials like groceries or going for a walk to get fresh air.
There are also some specific-to-COVID-19 abusive behaviors that might arise during this time, says Herdlinger, such as withholding necessary items like masks and hand sanitizer from one’s partner or children, deliberately sharing misinformation about the pandemic, or preventing victims from seeking medical attention if they have symptoms. “Victims become dependent on the abuser for all their needs—from financial support and food to medical services,” Bayston says—the epitome of power and control.
Even if partners aren’t living together, Hood says that abusive patterns can persist. For example, she says an abuser might try to convince their partner to still see them in spite of social distancing requirements. Pressuring messages like, “If you really loved me, then you’d come over” or “I haven’t been exposed and am not sick, so why won’t you hang out with me?” are red flags to look out for during social isolation, she says, because they imply that an abuser is trying to exert control, at the risk of both partners’ health.
Herdlinger adds that this isolation period can trigger flashbacks for survivors of domestic violence, too. “A trigger is something that elicits a certain reaction from us when we emotionally—or even physically—re-experience something in our lives,” she says. Being asked to self-isolate, even when an abusive relationship is long in the past, can thus be triggering for some survivors because it brings them back to that traumatic time.
Overcoming barriers to getting help
Again, social distancing and other measures to try and reduce COVID-19 outbreaks are important to follow. But staying indoors constantly with one’s abuser is not only potentially dangerous, it also makes receiving help far more difficult for victims.
“[Digital] communication resources may be cut off for someone isolated with an abusive partner,” Hood says. While pre-COVID-19, a person might be able to make a call for help outside of the house or when their partner is away, this isn’t possible now that no one is supposed to leave the home. Many domestic violence organizations in New York are already seeing this reflected in dwindling call center rates—as people are trapped with their partners at home, they are less able or willing to access traditional means of support. Plus, many cities’ emergency services are already overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, and some shelters are struggling to stay open—making outside help harder to come by.
The end result: Victims are more alone and vulnerable than before. “Lost or severed ties to one’s larger support system can leave someone in an abusive relationship feeling even more emotionally dependent on an abusive partner and less likely to reach out for help,” says Hood. “The more time that goes on, someone trapped in an unhealthy relationship can lose confidence in their ability to reach out to friends and family for help.”
“During this crisis, it’s vital that we all look out for each other, and those experiencing domestic violence are on the list of our most vulnerable.” —Melody Gross, domestic violence survivor and advocate
Thankfully, some organizations have pivoted their services to address the specific barriers victims have now. Laura’s House, for example, is currently offering therapy, case management, and legal services digitally to anyone in need (regardless of ability to pay) until they can resume regular business operations. Victims can also connect with advocates and find information about local shelters right now through domesticshelters.org.
Herdlinger says that it’s important for victims to know that they’re not alone, and there is hope. “Talk to someone now, and don’t be ashamed to ask for help,” agrees Gross. “Whether it’s a neighbor, colleague, or family member, it’s important to have the support needed to get to safety.”
“Text and live chat options offer lifelines to those who don’t want to risk their partner hearing them speak over the phone,” adds Hood. If calling a hotline isn’t an option, people can text “HEART” to 949-484-8440 to connect with Laura’s House or “LOVEIS” to 22522 to reach an advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
If you know anyone who’s in an abusive situation or who has been in one in the past who might be struggling with social isolation, Gross suggests offering to help them at the capacity to which you’re able. Although they may not accept it right away, she says that knowing it’s available can still provide a sense of safety.
“It’s important for all of us to check in by phone with family and friends who may be a victim of domestic violence,” agrees Bayston. “This simple but meaningful task can help save lives.” Hood recommends sending that loved one a quick message to check in and see how they’re doing, and always trust your gut if you feel something may not be right.
“During this crisis, it’s vital that we all look out for each other, and those experiencing domestic violence are on the list of our most vulnerable,” says Gross says.
If you are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence and are in need of support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.