While COVID-19 is a recent pandemic, interpersonal violence (IPV) is not. Having existed from the beginning of time, relational violence is far more prevalent than meets the eye, and often more deadly. After months of sheltering in place, whether due to formal orders or for personal protection, patterns have emerged indicating a link between COVID-19 and IPV.
Unsafe at Home
Catherine Kaukinen, in a timely piece entitled “When Stay-at-Home Orders Leave Victims Unsafe at Home” (2020),[i]explored the impact of COVID-19 on IPV. Recognizing a heightened risk of IPV as well as its consequences in a time of decreased mobility and services, she acknowledges the unique effect this situation has on victim decision-making, options, and available resources.
Because IPV is largely under reported, Kaukinen notes that tying IPV rates to COVID-19 restrictions is challenging. However, she notes that some data suggests an increase in IPV reports during the pandemic to domestic violence hotlines, police, emergency rooms, and social service agencies. She cautions that reported crimes do not always correlate to actual violence, in part because increased reporting may reflect more victimization by those most likely to report—who might also have the financial resources and support necessary to leave a violent relationship.
COVID-19 Related Risk Factors
Regarding the risk of IPV, Kaukinen recognizes the economic impact of COVID-19, which has in many cases resulted in record levels of unemployment, and adds stress to the home life of victims and perpetrators, which is already complicated with home schooling children and caring for family. Regarding the willingness to seek help, she notes that many victims are reluctant to expose their family to the virus, especially if they are living with someone who is vulnerable.
In addition, Kaukinen notes that sheltering in place with a victim in close proximity may increase a perpetrator’s exercise of power and coercive control. This includes the ability to monitor a victim’s movements, communication with friends or family, and other aspects of daily life. Indeed, being isolated from loved ones outside the home limits the opportunity for concerned family and friends to observe the victim-perpetrator dynamic, and to voice objections. Kaukinen notes that this situation may lead to increased coercive control and physical violence, as well as both financial and emotional abuse.
On the other hand, Kaukinen suggests that victims who have learned to adapt to and “read” the perpetrator’s mood and behavioral cues may experience less IPV. She also notes that when confined at home with the victim, perpetrators may find it easier to control the household, including the victim’s communication with friends and family, and find it less necessary to resort to IPV.
Common Stressors, Uncommon Combination
Kaukinen acknowledges what most people have experienced at one time or another: the experience of stress, which produces frustration, which leads to negative emotions and feelings of distress. She recognizes that pandemic-related unemployment and financial uncertainty may add to the stress levels of both men and women, increasing the risk of violence.
But she suggests there might be an additional factor in play due to unexpected unemployment by the traditional “breadwinner.” Kaukinen cites feminist research suggesting that men without marital power by virtue of their employment or financial position might resort to violence as a method of exerting power at home, given their inability to use economic resources to establish a “traditional masculinity.” She adds to this observation the fact that some couples might experience a financial role reversal, when a man is laid off and his partner can work remotely, causing a shift in both economic, and symbolic power.
Kaukinen notes that the increased physical proximity imposed by stay-at-home orders might increase conflict and IPV even among couples without a history of violence, especially among new and young couples, although perhaps not exhibiting a pattern of coercive control. This is no doubt something many couples did not consider pre-pandemic: whether their compatibility assessment would stand true when they were always together—especially in a small living space.
Novel Diagnosis, Old Prescription
IPV has existed for years, with both men and women as both perpetrators and victims. Regardless of who holds and wields the power in a household, an unequal power dynamic can be detrimental to a healthy relationship. A new prescription to IPV as an established societal pandemic requires knowledge and a wiliness to take advantage of current resources—remote or otherwise, designed to address underlying issues. Researching productive alternatives to conflict and stress will help couples weather the storm, and strengthen what can become an enduring, satisfying relationship.
[i] Kaukinen, Catherine. 2020. “When Stay-at-Home Orders Leave Victims Unsafe at Home: Exploring the Risk and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence during the Covid-19 Pandemic.” American Journal of Criminal Justice, June. doi:10.1007/s12103-020-09533-5.