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Domestic Violence

COVID-19, Domestic Violence, and Healing Through Music

How the pandemic could give us the opportunity to end violence against women.

During this time of coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing an alarming rise in instances of domestic violence, both here and around the world. Most recently in the news, Arizona has observed more than double its domestic violence deaths in 2020 so far. Other states throughout the country have seen similar spikes in domestic violence deaths and incidences.

We are all having to isolate ourselves at home, but some women are having to isolate themselves at home with their abusers. This isolation makes it all the more difficult for abused women to get help and seek safety. Isolation is not only a feature of lockdown, but it is also a feature of domestic violence itself.

Abusive men regularly use isolation as a specific and effective strategy to control their partners. It blocks their access to support—both physical and emotional. And it has been going on for so long, for so many women—far more than those whose stories hit the headlines. The coronavirus lockdown serves to exacerbate women’s isolation in a powerful and sometimes deadly way.

Understanding Domestic Violence

When chatting with people about my work with domestic violence survivors, I hear so many questions along the same vein. Why? Why is this violence such a problem? Why is this violence still a problem? What’s wrong with these men? What’s wrong with these women? Why don’t women leave?

Underlying each of these questions is an assumption that this is an issue about individuals. This assumption is wrong. Yes, individual men do abuse women, but this violence is supported at the societal level by deeply embedded beliefs about all men and women. Sociopolitical underpinnings excuse, condone, and perpetuate this violence. These include gender inequity, devaluation of women, and misogyny. And because we all grow up in this culture, these can impact men and women alike.

The sociopolitical underpinnings of domestic violence can be seen in the very common response of excusing men and blaming women (or at least holding them responsible for men’s behavior). Some argue that the situation in which abusers find themselves is at fault, causing them to lash out (but only at their intimate partners!). Today, it’s the coronavirus; previously it was their powerlessness, their stressful lives, and their alcohol use.

Interestingly when abused women use alcohol, they are more often blamed for their situation. This is the other side of the coin, where women are blamed for the abuse—for what they did (e.g., drink, push their partner too far, or even choose the wrong man) or for what they failed to do (e.g., leave, leave sooner, or protect their children). The reality is that women are not the problem, alcohol is not the problem, powerlessness is not the problem, the coronavirus is not the problem. Abusive men are the problem. As the band First Aid Kit sings, “You are the Problem Here” (Content warning: explicit language).

While “You are the Problem Here” refers more explicitly to sexual harassment, it highlights the victim-blaming, abuser-excusing behavior seen in domestic violence and indeed all forms of male violence against women. This is also clearly reflected in the question so many ask, “Why don’t women leave?” rather than, “Why don’t men let them go?”

It’s important to understand why women cannot easily get away. There are many other types of violence beyond the physical. Because of their abuser’s use of isolation and control (including control of money), few have the necessary resources to get away. If they have children, it becomes even harder given uncertainties about being able to keep them safe with a roof over their heads. One of the women I worked with had a creative solution to this. After her abusive husband left for the day, she packed up their trailer home and drove off without a forwarding address. Most abused women aren’t so fortunate.

Psychological violence is an important part of domestic abuse. Abusers attack women’s spirits, with constant messages that they are unworthy, unloved, and deserving of the abuse. Unfortunately, this message is reinforced by others in society at large with its pervasive woman-blaming sentiment. Abused women can come to internalize this. One of the women I worked with indicated that more than five years after the abuse, while her wounds had healed, her self-esteem had not.

Ultimately, there is a very real danger for women leaving abusive relationships. They are at greater risk of being murdered at this time than at any other. There is also a real risk for any friends or family to whom they may turn.

There is so much at the societal level that supports domestic violence, but perhaps one of the most fundamental is the overall devaluation of women. This can be seen in a myriad of ways. There’s a longstanding myth that police are at greatest risk when they intervene in domestic violence incidents. The reality is that high-speed chases are in fact the most dangerous; it’s just that intervening in a private matter between a “man and his wife” has less value.

So often public appeals to end violence against women call on others to act because it could be their daughter, their mother, or their friend. Women shouldn’t have to have a relationship with someone to be valued. They should have the right to freedom from violence on their own merit.

Working to Eliminate Domestic Violence and Support Survivors

Having identified the problem, the question arises: “What can we do?” Here’s the tricky part, the solutions can be long and complex. For many, a common first response is, “Not me!” If we have not been in an abusive relationship, we struggle to see ourselves in them. It’s more comfortable to think it couldn’t happen to us. But domestic violence knows no boundaries; women in abusive relationships come from all walks of life. Another common first response is, “Not all men!” While that may be true, all men who are not abusers have a role to play. It is not their fault, but it is their responsibility to create change.

Once we’ve gotten past our own possible initial discomforts, we need to look at both short-term and long-term solutions. In the short term, abused women need to be provided with support and safety. There is help available (although there are currently more shelters available for animals than for women). There have been some improvements recently. The following are available for direct assistance:

Beyond these resources, women in abusive relationships may need our patience and understanding. Because there are so many compelling factors that make it truly difficult to leave, some women may make two or three attempts before they are able to leave permanently. We need to be there for them throughout this process.

In the longer term, women need support in recovering from the harm of abuse. This can be while they are leaving, once they have escaped, or for some years after. I have worked with abused women along this whole continuum and have been so encouraged to see the remarkable transformative powers of music therapy and the incredible resiliency of the human spirit.

Working with me in music therapy and also individually on their own, women survivors have engaged in music listening, music making, and songwriting.

In music listening, survivors can hear the voices of other women; sharing their stories, they can break their isolation. In singing the songs of strong women singer/songwriters, they can internalize their experiences not just about male violence, but about the full array of women’s experiences—their loves, their relationships, their self-compassion and self-acceptance. And today there is such an incredible wealth of powerful songs by women singer/songwriters. From Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Beyoncé to Lizzo and many others, there’s something for everyone.

In writing their own songs, women survivors can find their own authentic voices, voices that have been long silenced by their abusers. In recording their own songs, women survivors are able to share their success with the world, perhaps giving courage and hope to others. Some women can do this independently depending on their own background. Others may need the support of a music therapist to fully embrace the transformative music making experience. For those interested, the following are available in terms of music therapy services (in person and via telehealth):

In the longest term, solutions to end male violence against women will require profound changes at both the individual and societal levels. This will require an increased understanding by all of the real nature of this violence and all its underpinnings. It will require attitudinal changes, with a deep understanding of what men and women can truly be. I am hopeful that these changes are possible.

We have come a long way over the past decades. But we have some ways to go still. COVID-19 has altered so much of what we do and how we do it. It has revealed the substantial shortcomings of our culture. Let’s use this opportunity to make a profound change for the good. In looking to a new future, I’d like to recognize the incredible strength and resilience of survivors everywhere with a classic: “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child.

More from Sandi Curtis Ph.D., MTA, MT-BC
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