In the weeks since strict social distancing measures have been put in place across the globe, rates of domestic violence have been increasing significantly. While it’s common for abuse to worsen amidst times of hardship in general, the COVID-19 pandemic has created uniquely dangerous circumstances for survivors because of how much time they’re being forced to spend at home with their abusers.
“Domestic violence is rooted in power and control. I think all of us can agree right now we’re feeling like we have a lack of control over many things in our life because of what’s happening,” Katie Ray-Jones, the chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, tells SheKnows. “So someone who really has the need for power and control in their life, the stress of this situation will exacerbate these dynamics, and thus you begin to see what may have been a verbally abusive relationship maybe escalates to a physical violence. Or you might see that physical violence becomes more severe, more frequent.”
The United Nations has reported increases in cases of domestic violence and calls to helplines across the world, including in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, Singapore, and Cyrpus. In the U.S., Google searches for the National Domestic Violence Hotline increased 140 percent in the last 30 days, while global searches for “national domestic abuse hotline” shot up 250 percent.
Many states have reported an increase in domestic violence calls. Meanwhile, in New York, domestic violence reported to the police actually decreased during the first few weeks of quarantine — meanwhile, visits to the city’s domestic violence resource website more than doubled, suggesting survivors may be experiencing increasing abuse but aren’t able to call for help. Similar trends have been reported in other states. “We’re actually anticipating the surge to happen once shelter-in-place orders are lifted, and that’s when people can safely connect with an advocate and say everything that’s been going on in the home,” Ray-Jones says.
If you’re trapped at home with an abusive partner right now, there are at least ways you can maximize your safety and well-being during this time. Here are a few ways to take care of yourself and your family while coping with an abusive relationship at home:
1. Consider the possibility of leaving.
With the increased risks of catching the coronavirus and so many closed workplaces forcing so many of us into isolation at home, it can feel like leaving your abusive relationship isn’t even an option right now. But if your situation at home is escalating and getting more dangerous, you should consider the possibility that leaving — even in the midst of this pandemic — may still be safer than staying trapped with your abuser.
“Everybody’s situation is complex, and it’s not the same for everybody,” Ray-Jones explains. “We really believe that survivors know their perpetrators best and what they’re capable of and how they might react to different scenarios.”
There are still domestic violence shelters that are open right now, and according to Ray-Jones, they’re taking very strong precautionary measures to protect the people living there, including increased cleaning procedures, closely following official COVID guidelines, and practicing social distancing within the shelters as much as possible. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or your state’s hotline, and their advocates will find the shelters near you that are open during this time.
Domestic violence organizations and shelters also offer temporary housing, financial assistance, job training, legal support and counseling services — most of it for free.
2. Call a hotline to get some advice, if possible.
Whether you’re planning on staying, leaving or are not quite sure what to do yet, calling a free domestic violence hotline is the best way to get advice and support as you think and plan. You’ll be connected with a trained advocate who will have information about what shelters are currently open near you, what safety precautions you should take based on your specific situation, and how to best protect your kids if you have them. They can also help you weigh decisions like whether to involve the police or get a restraining order (and how to do that, if you want to).
If you’re currently quarantining or isolated with your partner at home with little privacy, you might consider trying to call while you or your partner is at the grocery, taking a walk, or in the shower. The National Domestic Violence Hotline also has a secure online chat where you can talk one-on-one with an advocate, if calling isn’t an option.
Given the spread of #COVID_19, we’ve taken steps to keep our staff safe. We’re still here 24/7. Call 1-800-799-7233, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto https://t.co/FoM2Qy3oq3 or text LOVEIS to 22522. pic.twitter.com/5ZXd044qYk
— National Domestic Violence Hotline (@ndvh) March 23, 2020
3. Even if you’re not planning to leave, pack an emergency bag just in case.
Just in case things escalate and you need to leave in a hurry, it’s helpful to have a pre-packed bag that you can just grab and run out the door with. This emergency bag should have some money, your IDs, any other important documents you need to keep, any medications, some clothes, and any other valuables you’d want with you if you aren’t able to come back.
Keep it somewhere hidden or innocuous so your abuser isn’t suspicious. If they ask you about it, Ray-Jones says she’s heard from survivors who’ve just said that they were packing a hospital bag just in case they need to run to the hospital for COVID reasons.
4. Protect your emotional well-being.
Your mental health is more important than ever. Ray-Jones says part of what advocates are helping survivors do right now is figure out an “emotional safety plan.” These are stressful times for everyone, especially those in chaotic relationships. Don’t underestimate the value of practicing self-care—even during a pandemic, and yes, even when you’re dealing with an abusive partner. When you’re calmer and clear-headed, it’s easier to cope even in the most difficult of situations.
Find ways to relieve your stress and anxiety and ways to relax as much as possible. These might include getting enough sleep, taking walks to get some fresh air when possible, exercising, journaling, or meditating, all of which have been linked to stress reduction. Maintain your daily routines to keep yourself grounded and moving. Indulge where you can, too. Baked goods and bubble baths might seem like silly things to prioritize right now, but continuing to give yourself small pleasures can help you feel nourished and in control of your life, even in trying times. You deserve things that make you feel good, right now and always.
5. Get in touch with your friends and neighbors.
Don’t be afraid to tell trusted friends what you’re going through. The people who love you will rally to support you, even if that just means having someone to talk to when you’re feeling low and to help you see clearly when your partner is trying to manipulate you. Ray-Jones emphasizes the importance of having a strong support system: Emotional support can go a long way in help you feel strong and not alone as you face this challenge.
It’s also helpful to have an ally who can help you when you want to leave. For example, you can have a friend hold on to some of your money or valuables for you while you’re preparing to leave, as that might be less suspicious to your abuser. (You can tell your abuser that you’re paying your friend back for something or giving them a gift.)
According to the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence, you might also benefit from alerting your neighbors of your situation and developing a visual signal for when you need help or want them to call 9-1-1 — like turning on the porch light or lowering your blinds halfway. You can similarly develop a “code word” to use with friends or neighbors that you can text them or tell them on the phone when you need help.
6. Teach your kids a safety procedure.
“Kids change the calculus in complex ways,” says Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who has spent more than 20 years working on violence intervention. “I’ve met many victims who decided to leave when they first thought their children were in danger. On the other hand, I’ve also met many women who have stayed because their partner threatened to kill or kidnap their children if they tried to leave. There’s no answer that is true for every victim in every situation.”
One thing any parent can do is make sure your kids know what to do when violence breaks out, says Ray-Jones: “Is there a code word you want to give your kids so they know to go call 9-1-1 or they know to run to the neighbor’s house? Recognize that kids are often in the crossfire of violent relationships.”
Hamby recommends teaching your kids how to call 9-1-1 and when to do it, as well as how to get out of the house during a fight or away from where the violence is happening. Depending on your children’s age and relationship to your abusive partner, it may also be necessary to plan what you’d do if your child tells your partner about these precautionary measures.
7. Teach your kids that violence is unacceptable.
It’s important to communicate with your children about what’s happening. You may need to adjust your language depending on their age, but all kids should know that violence is never okay, no matter who is doing it. Reinforce that it’s never okay to hurt someone or make someone feel scared, no matter how upset you are.
Here are some lines you can use with your children, from the nonprofit Breaking The Silence Against Domestic Violence:
- Violence is not OK.
- It isn’t your fault.
- I will do everything I can to help you feel safe.
- It’s not your job to fix what’s wrong in the family.
- I want to you to tell me how you feel. It’s important, and I can handle it.
- It is OK to have mixed feelings about either or both of your parents.
- It is OK to feel more than one emotion at the same time.
- It is normal to feel angry at either or both parents when violence happens.
- You can love someone and hate their behavior.
- It’s OK to love both parents at the same time.
- Their behavior is not OK; violence is not OK.
- The abusive person is the one who is responsible. Not you. Not me.
- It’s OK to love and want to spend time with the person who was abusive.
- It’s OK to be mad at or scared of the person who was abusive.
- It’s OK to feel mad but still love the person who was abusive.
- Violence is an adult problem, and it isn’t your fault or responsibility. You can’t fix it.
8. Identify your “safest room.”
Figure out which room in your home has the fewest items in it that could be used as weapons and/or has an easy way to escape out of the house, Ray-Jones recommends. That way, if an argument or physical violence breaks out, you can quickly move to that room. Kitchens and bathrooms can be dangerous because of the knives, access to burning hot water, and lack of exits.
Hamby also recommends making sure that weapons are safely stored and locked. You may even want to keep the kitchen knives away in an inaccessible cabinet in general.
9. Try to maximize alone time.
The more time you spend away from your partner, the better. It’ll lowers the amount of time you’re vulnerable to violence. Ray-Jones recommends simple strategies for maximizing your alone time such as going for walks outside as often as possible, taking longer showers than normal, and even simply spending time in a room by yourself journaling. Can you volunteer to be the one going outside for errands and groceries? Try to expand any time by yourself whenever possible, however possible.
If you have kids, find opportunities to take them with you in your solo excursions or ways to keep them away from the abusive person — perhaps alone in their rooms doing homework or playing.
Likewise, TV and movies help keep everyone occupied — including the abusive partner, Hamby points out. When they’re busy concentrating on a movie marathon, they’re not focused on finding excuses to lash out at you. Relinquish your concerns about screen time for the time being.
10. Avoid conflict as much as possible.
Conflict management is a good idea in these situations, Hamby says. How can you keep your home calm? Routines help. Do what you can to deescalate arguments as much as possible. Don’t fret too much about criticism from your partner — it may not be worth setting off your partner. Apologize and move on, even if you’re lying through your teeth.
These are not behaviors that should be necessary in a healthy relationship, mind you. In a healthy relationship, you would not have to tiptoe around your partner because you’re afraid they’re going to hurt you. Violence and abuse are never your fault. It should not be your responsibility to avoid violence — it’s your partner’s responsibility to learn appropriate ways to manage their emotions. Avoiding conflicts is simply a way to potentially limit a violent person’s excuses for becoming violent.
“Abuse is always on the abusers’ side,” Ray-Jones points out. “So many of our contacts start with, what do I need to do differently to get them to stop? And we’re like, nothing. If violence is going to break out, your partner is going to find a reason to become violent. … You can be the most perfect person right now, and there’s going to be something that’s going to spark violence with your abusive partner because it’s really about power and control. It’s not anything you’re doing.”
11. Start planning for your future.
“Having a purpose helps people through all kinds of crises. Focus on the future and how you can plan for a better one,” Hamby says. “These are the kinds of goals and values that will guide people through these tough choices and help them get to a better life.”
What would your ideal life look like? What would you be doing? Where would you live, and what kind of job would you have? What kind of relationship would you be in? See if you can start taking small steps toward that ideal future. It can be as simple as starting to save money, Hamby points out.
You will not be trapped in this situation forever. Violence shouldn’t be part of your life, and you can and will find your way out of this eventually. You are strong, capable, and resilient, and there’s bright, beautiful next chapter awaiting you. So start planning for that future.
If you’re in an emergency situation, call 9-1-1. If you or someone you love is dealing with an abusive person, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 (TTY 1-800-787-3224) or find your state hotline here.