Over the years, I’ve met many victims who, for one reason or another, were not able to leave their abuser. One woman was an EMT who worked for an ambulance service. She didn’t want to go to a domestic violence shelter, because the closest shelter was about a 40-minute drive away, and she had to be able to respond more quickly than that at work. She knew that losing her job would add a financial crisis to her marital one. So, she steered clear of her husband as best she could until she saved enough money to get her own place and file for divorce. Other women I’ve known were afraid of losing custody of their kids, losing health insurance coverage for a serious illness, or even getting killed if they left (the most dangerous time for intimate partner homicides). Contrary to popular stereotypes, it’s not always easy or even safest to leave. Many of these women found ways to minimize the risk while with their abuser.
Their stories are on my mind as we are all hunkering down for long stays inside our homes. I know that some people are moving from one dangerous threat, the novel coronavirus, to another—members of their own household. The forced confinement, especially with men out of work, may even increase the risk of violence.
Other family members may be at risk for aggressive or abusive behavior, due to Alzheimer's or other health issues. Even toddlers chafing at confinement may be at greater risk of aggression. Truthfully, researchers could know more about managing potentially impulsive or aggressive loved ones. Nonetheless, there is some guidance on ways to promote safety while living with an abuser.
If you or a loved one is in this situation, consider the steps below. If some of these don’t seem to apply to you, then trust your gut. Also remember that it is possible that nothing will help. It is not your fault if you do your best to defuse the situation and violence still erupts. In that case, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233). If you haven’t already, teach your children to call 911.
Safeguarding You and Your Home
Hopefully you are stocking up on supplies that could last 2-3 weeks (but don’t hoard; you do not need a year’s supply of toilet paper). While you are taking steps to prepare for the coronavirus crisis, also work on safeguarding you and your home.
Lock up guns, especially if you have kids at home. Very bored kids may soon be getting into every closet, nook, and cranny of your home, looking for something to do. Don’t let it be finding a gun. Store ammunition separately from firearms. Consider asking someone else to store your weapons in their home.
But don’t stop at guns. Go into your kitchen. Where are the knives? Consider putting some of them away: Do you really need a dozen knives out on the counter? Store them high.
If you have a cell phone, keep it on you at all times. Choose outfits with pockets that will hold your cell phone. Don’t take the chance of getting trapped in a room without your phone. Keep your phone charged.
When you stock up for supplies, try to get first aid supplies and sufficient birth control.
Consider creating a signal for help. This could be a coded text message that you send to a parent or sibling, such as “We are out of milk,” that is really a request to call 911. I’ve known clients to create signals with neighbors, such as lowering the blind in a certain window. Then the neighbor would know to call 911.
You can safeguard your wardrobe, too. When I worked on the locked ward of a state psychiatric hospital, we were always told to minimize jewelry: Don’t wear dangling earrings that someone can rip out of your ear, or a necklace that could be used to choke you. Similarly, avoid scarves. Don’t wear your hair in a ponytail and create a handle that you can be dragged by; put it all the way up in a bun or wear it down.
Many people, such as hostage negotiators and first responders, are valued for their defusing skills. Be proud of any defusing strategies that you have as well. If you have family members who are potentially abusive or agitated, there are many steps that can soothe the situation.
Embrace the screen—but be careful about violent video games. Television is a good distraction for all age groups. Violent crime goes down on weekends that popular blockbusters are released. If you are able, it may be a good investment to rent or buy newly released movies, if those are more distracting. Some movies are now going straight to streaming. If you are dealing with irritable and impulsive children, don’t worry about exceeding the recommended screen time for a few weeks or even a few months (the data on those effects is not very precise about the optimal dose of screen time, anyway).
The same goes for phones, tablets, and other devices: If surfing the internet or texting their friends keeps them occupied, then don’t worry about how much time they are on online.
On the other hand, be grateful that most sports have been postponed or canceled, because some data suggest that televised sports can increase the risk of domestic violence, especially if someone’s favorite team loses.
The one exception to the more-screen-time guidance is violent video games. Non-violent video games are fine (those that promote prosocial behavior may even be helpful), but the best research suggests that exposure to violent video games increases aggression, especially in the short run. Suggest nonviolent alternatives or encourage family members to watch TV instead. If you cannot stop them from playing violent video games, consider setting that up in a separate room that is not occupied by other family members.
Keep physical distance at home. If you have a yard or balcony, make use of it. Send the kids outside or spend time out there yourself.
I’m starting a garden (for the first time in many years). Let kids hang out in their bedrooms—or if they share a bedroom, consider starting a schedule for who gets to have the privacy of the bedroom.
At the time of writing, most jurisdictions in the United States are still allowing people to go outside for exercise, as long as you stay 6 feet away from non-family members. Exercise is one of the best things you can do to manage depression and anxiety. There are also many free videos online for yoga, meditation, and exercise.
Avoid conflict: Distance, delay, and deny. I know you are home and may have more time on your hands than usual. It might be a good time to clean your closets. It is not a good time to tell your spouse you want a divorce. For dealing with difficult people, I recommend the “distance, delay, and deny” strategy. In addition to keeping as much distraction and physical separation as you can in our new reality (distance), try to put off any major decisions or difficult relationship conversations that are not necessary to manage the current crisis. If you have to, deny negative feelings. A lie is better than a beating. You may need to be prepared to do things you don’t want to do, and this may include letting comments slide or acting happier than you are.
Other defusing strategies. Over the years, many women have told me that sticking to some routines can help, such as cooking (but again, put those knives away). Making a pot of coffee or tea can lead to a calming string of behaviors. Take advantage of those kinds of “social scripts.”
Let people sleep in: They might feel less irritable when they catch up on sleep. Sleep deprivation is a common problem in the modern world and can contribute to aggression.
During a Fight
Sometimes, no matter what you do, violence erupts. Again, it is NOT your fault if this happens. If you are being attacked, there are still things that you can try to minimize injuries during a fight. During a fight, try to stay out of the kitchen or any room that has a weapon. Try to move to another room if it started in the kitchen. Try to stay away from children and teach them to not get involved in a fight. You can try locking yourself in a room or also try escaping to the car and locking yourself in there. If you can’t do any of these things, protect your body by curling up in a ball and covering your head with your arms.
The coronavirus crisis is testing all of us, but we can use the wisdom of survivors to help us through these difficult times.
© 2020 Sherry Hamby. All rights reserved.