One of the most challenging things about domestic violence is that rarely does the person who is being subjected to abuse realise that they are being abused. A victim is one of those women, the shrivelled up ones who (according to most stock images) cowering in a corner with a bruised face. And their partner isn’t one of those men. He’s a good guy really. He doesn’t mean it. It’s only because of all the stress and he had a really bad childhood and he loves me and soon things will get back to how they used to be. To take the step of acknowledging that our partner is abusive is a huge thing. Once it’s not “me overreacting”, “his difficult childhood”, “the way I push him to the edge”, “how passionate he is”, “only that one time when he left me bruised”, once we label it ABUSE, everything changes. Nothing can go on as normal. We have to take action. We have to accept that our relationship must end and that our children will lose their father and nothing will ever be the same again. And that’s before we begin to reckon with all the ways his behaviour will escalate if we try to leave. Around 80% of men who kill women, do so within eighteen months of her leaving him.
Men are more abusive over Christmas. Often people think it’s because of the stress, the money worries and the increased alcohol consumption. But that’s not why. It’s because an abuser deliberately destroys whatever is precious to his partner and children. He destroys birthday celebrations and anniversaries. Some abusers destroy every family mealtime, leaving their children with eating disorders because their father (or step father) has thrown food, screamed at their mother, or gone into that silent sulk which they all know ends in him being violent. The other reason abusers are worse at Christmas is because there is greater opportunity to abuse. Most people get time off over Christmas, and the abuser will use those extra hours to demand he get whatever he wants. And because it’s Christmas, his partner will acquiesce, because she wants to make it special for the kids; because where would she go on Christmas Day when he’s kicked the Christmas tree over? On Christmas Eve he pushes her to do sexual stuff she doesn’t like, but he promises her that if she does what he wants, he’ll make Christmas nice. So she does what he wants. Then on Christmas Day she asks him to help with the dinner and he kicks off and blames her for ruining Christmas. And she just wishes that she’d not asked for help, he was tired after all.
You may be wondering why I’m writing about Christmas when we’re dealing with a global pandemic… It’s because this crisis, and the self-isolation and physical distancing caused by it, creates the similar context as living with an abuser at Christmas, but about a million times worse.
He’s now at home 24/7, not just for three days. He uses his need to work from home to demand that everyone in the home stays silent all day. If his partner can’t keep their three-year-old silent; he screams, punches walls or makes threats that she’s knows he’ll carry out later. He’s always hated her speaking on the phone with her friends or family and normally she waits until he’s out of the house to call them, because he’ll tut or huff and puff throughout the phone call. Now she can’t speak to her anyone. And then he says he’s started with a temperature and they all need to stay in for fourteen days. She hasn’t seen any evidence he’s got a temperature, but she daren’t question him as she knows he’ll hurt her, or worse, take out his outrage at her insolence on the kids.
And she can’t leave now. He’s there all the time. She’d thought about it before, was just waiting for the right time. But now the kids are off school and don’t have any stability and so she can’t move into a refuge. And anyway, she’ll be exposing her asthmatic seven-year-old to the virus. She keeps trying to make everything nice for them all, exhausting herself to make things nice. He always leads her to believe that she can “make” him nice, if she only plays by his rules. But then he changes them, or the kids needs something that means she has to break them. Her job say she can’t have time off as she’s a carer. But she knows he won’t look after them properly. He’ll undermine her and play fight with them until they cry and then when she gets home, he’ll keep her up until 4am in the morning interrogating her about which male co-workers she interacted with, accusing her of having an affair. She says she can’t go into work and her line manager is horrified at her lack of commitment in this crisis and fires her right there and then. She daren’t cry, because he’ll mock and deride her for it. She dreads Sunday, when he’ll demand that she and the children participate in the online streamed church service that he’s been planning, the one that was so important all of them had to be silent for three days straight. Afterwards, he whispers to her that he’s never punched her in the face because people might see it, but now things are different. She’s his and he’ll do what he wants to her.
Specialist domestic abuse services are working around the clock to make their provision effective for women during this epidemic, but due to ideologically driven cuts, they’ve already been stripped back, defunded and de-specialised. For each of us, there’s not a lot we can do to make a difference while also social distancing and self-isolating. Abusers are making choices to isolate, control, abuse and harm their partners and children, and the only people who can stop abuse are those who choose to be abusive. But it’s important that we understand what abuse is, what the dynamics are, and how this virus is going to hugely increase women’s vulnerability. It’s crucial that we don’t perpetuate myths about abuse; it’s not the stress or financial difficulties caused by the virus that is increasing perpetration, it’s about increased opportunity. Women who don’t leave abusers are not stupid or wrong; they are doing everything they can to keep themselves and their children safe. Abusers deliberately act in ways that prevent their partner making sense of what is going on or being able to articulate it as abuse; so doing announcements about “if you’re being abused we can help you” is not really going to reach that many of the people who need support.
What can we do as we continue into this unknown place?
- Contact your local domestic abuse and ask them how you can help; do they need financial support, donations, volunteers to drive/move/clean?
- Educate yourself about domestic abuse (my book can help with that).
- Be aware that if someone is being abused, their online interactions may be tracked.
- Notice who isn’t able to engage with your community; who isn’t on Facebook/Twitter/Whatsapp, and see if there’s a way to check in with them some other way.
- Facebook is particularly risky for those who have left an ex-partner, because it is very easy for him to find her. Ensure you have an additional option other than Facebook for engaging with those in your community.
- If you hear violence or noise from a neighbour’s home, call the police (use 999 if you are concerned it is an emergency).
- Be vigilant. Are there people in your family or friendship group, amongst your colleagues, church community or neighbourhood who are acting differently, whose communications have gone down dramatically or who seem withdrawn or different. Try to make regular contact with them.
- Be aware. When you do your shopping, are there women and children who seem overly subdued, or is there a man behaving in domineering ways (abusive men will be emboldened in a context where they have so much uninterrupted space to abuse, and this may be visible in the brief encounters we have with people).
- Trust women. If someone tells you something that sounds abusive, if they talk about feeling suffocated by their partner, if they say they feel scared or need help to leave, believe them straight away. Whatever they tell you will be the tip of a very horrific iceberg.
If you identify with the abusive behaviour detailed in this post, it may have shocked you to become aware that what is being done to you (or what you are doing to someone else) is abusive.
If you are recognising that what is being done to you is wrong and if it is safe to do so, here are some places that can help:
- You can find your local domestic abuse service here: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic-abuse-directory/
- Women’s Aid Online Chat (10am – 12pm Mon – Fri): https://chat.womensaid.org.uk
- National Domestic Violence Helpline: https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk (0808 2000 247)
If you are concerned about your behaviour towards a partner, you can contact the Respect perpetrator helpline: https://respectphoneline.org.uk (0808 802 4040).