Domestic Violence When You Can't Leave Home

Tips for navigating intimate partner violence during COVID-19.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

By Dr. Tammy Schultz and Dr. Adam Dell

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, the concept of social distancing has rapidly become a common practice for massive numbers of individuals.

However, home is not a safe place for everyone. Numerous studies have revealed that there is a relationship between natural disasters and increased rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) (Chew & Ramdas, 2005; Gearhart et al., 2018; Parkinson & Zara, 2013).

IPV is defined as “behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours” (World Health Organization, 2017). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that approximately one in four women and one in ten men have experienced IPV by an intimate partner during their lifetime.

For some, the workplace environment was previously an opportunity for respite from controlling partners. However, the call for all individuals to engage in social distancing and the transition to working at home or unemployment have meant elevated medical concerns, 24/7 proximity, diminished community support, heightened levels of distress, and an increased vulnerability to IPV. Moreover, social distancing can be used by partners as a coercive controlling technique to impede opportunities for support and safety.

Individuals who are vulnerable to IPV are often overlooked when it comes to safety planning and coping with natural disasters and infectious disease pandemic, like COVID-19. Thus, here are some considerations:

Tips for Survivors of IPV

  • Limit exposure to social media and news sources. Continuous reading and watching about COVID-19-related news can increase stress.

  • Self-care can be difficult for many people to practice, especially when individuals feel they are not worthy of love. Learning to entertain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that promote physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being is not “self-centered care.” Rather, self-care involves the wise stewarding of our bodies and resources.

  • Develop a safety plan or a series of steps you can take to minimize the risk of harm by a partner who abuses. While no room in your home may feel safe, identify the “safest room” where there are no weapons and your ability to leave through a door or window is possible.
  • Because isolation is a common aspect of abusive relationships, developing practices to increase connection with others is important. It can be helpful to identify two individuals who you can communicate with using a “code word” to let them know if you are in trouble. Plan in advance what they should do if you send them the code word.
  • Although scores of schools and offices are closed, IPV shelters remain open. However, since shelters may have more limited availability due to COVID-19, consider if you have a trusted friend or relative who you could stay with in case of danger.  
  • The implementation of faith practices can be particularly helpful for individuals who value faith-based practices such as journaling prayers. Research has demonstrated that writing down thoughts and feelings can reduce both stress and anxiety. Physically writing (as opposed to typing) has been proven to have better results.
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available via text or by calling 1-800-799-7233 to discreetly talk with a professional. However, for many individuals, accessing support online may be safer than calling for support as individuals who abuse will not overhear the conversation. Thus, survivors can log onto thehotline.org.
  • In an emergency, call 911.

Ways to Assist IPV Survivors During COVID-19

  • Check in with someone who you are personally worried about. If making a phone call to someone you know is in a violent relationship, always assume that the perpetrator could be listening.

  • If applicable, offer your phone or computer as available resources so that tracing technology is prevented.
  • If possible, offer to do errands together while maintaining safe distances (e.g., grocery shopping).
  • Some IPV survivors may turn to spiritual leaders for wisdom and support before secular mental health providers. Thus, it is important that clergy are educated regarding IPV so that they can develop safe and effective response teams and provide referrals to IPV experts.

If possible, clergy can offer financial support to survivors facing financial distress or unemployment. Schneider et al. (2016) found that unemployment and economic hardship were positively correlated with IPV during the last recession. If individual intervention is impossible, consider ways your local church might champion the payment of bills, provision of food, or supply of necessary toiletry and clothing items for at-risk families in the community.

Tammy Schultz, Ph.D., LCPC is a professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Wheaton College and Co-Coordinator of the Wheaton College Trauma Certificate program.

Adam Dell, Psy.D, ABPP was a military psychologist for six years specializing in the treatment of trauma and family advocacy programs. He now serves as the Clinical Director of behavioral health services at a hospital in Northern Arizona.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Intimate partner violence. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/index.html

Chew, L., & Ramdas, K.N. (2005). Caught in the storm: The impact of natural disasters on women. New York, NY: The Global Fund for Women.

Gearhart, S., Perez-Patron, M., Hammond, T. A., Goldberg, D. W., Klein, A., & Horney, J. A. (2018). The impact of natural disasters on domestic violence: an analysis of reports of simple assault in Florida (1999–2007). Violence and Gender, 5(2), 87-92.

Parkinson, D., & Zara, C. (2013). The hidden disaster: Domestic violence in the aftermath of natural disaster. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, The, 28(2), 28-35.

Schneider, D., Harknett, K. & McLanahan, S. (2016). Intimate partner violence in the great recession. Demography, 53, 471–505.

World Health Organization. (2017). Violence against women. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women