In a recent video therapy session, Sheila told me that her husband Gus,* who recently lost his job because of the lockdown, had been sleeping all day and watching angry videos at night. When he was awake, he was demanding, insisting that she feed him or run to the liquor store. After several days of this, she refused. He then took her car keys, yelled at her, and accused her of “nagging” and “provoking” him.
“I am exhausted and worried,” she said. “I am now the only provider, and part of my income is going to support his kids and ex. I am trying to work from home, which isn’t going well with him around, and at the same time, I am trying to make him take care of his diabetes, but he just refuses and says I’m not his mother.”
Sheila’s well-being was deteriorating along with Gus’s behavior. He was making suicidal threats and becoming physical, pushing Sheila away when she wanted to talk, and holding her down when she tried to leave. Concerned about this spiraling behavior, I asked Sheila about her safety.
“I don’t think he would really hurt me,” she replied, “but I have never seen him this out of control.”
I asked her about guns since their presence makes suicidal and homicidal thoughts more likely, and she mentioned he kept one under the bed, and that he had just ordered another one. This already shaky marriage was becoming dangerous and abusive under the stress of COVID-19.
The Current Challenge
The world is groaning with the stress of a spreading pandemic, and this is straining families and relationships. Of particular concern are those dealing with abuse. Over one-third of women and men have experienced spousal emotional abuse, including coercion, cruelty, or humiliation, and around one in four women and one in seven men have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner. These experiences are grim and damaging, and the pandemic has made it worse.
The current situation has ramped up stressors that can fuel abuse. The relentless march of the virus, the deluge of mostly negative news and social media, the threat of job losses, crowding in the home, and an increase in gun and alcohol sales, cause friction that can explode into violence. Perpetrators often justify abusive behavior by blaming outside stressors, including their partner, and those with less power and more isolation are at greater risk of being hurt.
The sad reality is that while stressors and violence are increasing, resources for victims are decreasing. For example, victims who need to make a call for help may not have the privacy to do so, and public resources, including law enforcement and medical professionals, are strained. In some areas, police have been asked not to respond to domestic violence calls to prevent the spread of the virus, and some domestic violence shelters are hampered because of decreased staff or staff working from home. Some victims are not willing to leave an abuser because going to a shelter or a friend may put their children or others at risk of contagion.
Sheila described some of these difficulties. Gus’s increased tension and anger led to more drinking, which loosened his self-control and his willingness to take responsibility for his behavior. As the pressure increased, Sheila’s world constricted.
What Can Be Done?
Domestic abuse is a complex challenge with few easy solutions, but there are things to consider that might help spouses dealing with emotional and physical abuse. Some of these suggestions might address emotional abuse, while others are necessary for higher levels of control or physical violence, which require more intensive intervention.
- Focus on safety. Listen to your intuition and take action if things are escalating or threatening. Don’t minimize red flags.
- Set boundaries. Request respect in a calm but firm way that honors individual worth. If an abuser does not respect boundaries or is provoked by them, these are warning signs and additional steps should be taken.
- Create a plan. There are many online guidelines to help victims create a safety plan. These include having a stash of important documents, cash, and spare keys that can be gathered quickly and taken to a planned location. Also, a safety word can be used with children (or texted to others) to help them recognize when a situation is dangerous.
- Get support. There are also many online groups, hotlines, and support threads that were created to help victims sort through the confusion and fear of abuse. Many shelters and professionals are still offering phone consultations or therapy sessions, which may be briefer than traditional therapy, but can still provide validation and advice.
- Act decisively. Emergency options, including 911, are still operating for those victimized, and law enforcement, shelters, and hotlines are the right places to contact if someone is in danger.
Sheila and I discussed her safety and brainstormed some escape options. She was able to put the guns in a safe in the garage, remove the key, and prepare to have a direct conversation with Gus. After attempting this conversation, however, Gus continued to downplay his behavior and claim he was the victim. Sheila realized that she was being overly responsible for Gus and his health, and she decided to leave for a time of separation. Over the course of a week, she was able to carefully move her important belongings to a friend's house while Gus was asleep. She left him a list of requests that would need to occur for a reunification.
Shelia had more options than many who are being hurt or harassed. The severely traumatized will need more intensive intervention, including the help of law enforcement and medical professionals. Hopefully during this time of increased stress, we can raise awareness about those who are vulnerable, and we can all work together to reduce domestic abuse.
*Names and details have been changed.