Domestic Violence During Lockdown: How to Cope and Stay Safe

For victims of domestic violence, the pandemic has made day-to-day life incredibly difficult. Prior to social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and business closures, victims could at least get a break from their abusers by going to work, taking a walk, or running errands. They could safely use a library’s computer to learn about domestic violence resources and seek support.

According to Carol A. Lambert, LICSW, a psychotherapist and intimate partner abuse expert, these mandates “play into an abuser’s playbook of entrapment.”

It’s harder than ever to find a bit of freedom and privacy, said Tasseli McKay, a social science researcher who examines intimate partner violence in marginalized communities at the nonprofit research institute RTI International.

Victims are cut off from their support systems, said Christine E. Murray, Ph.D., LCMHC, LMFT, director of the Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

If they’ve been laid off or their income reduced, victims might become “more financially dependent on their abuser, which may add to their fears about leaving their abuser or otherwise taking steps toward safety,” Murray said.

Abusers also might use the coronavirus to further manipulate and control their partners, said Allison Crowe, Ph.D, LPC, NCC, ACS, an associate professor and program coordinator for the Counselor Education Program at East Carolina University. For example, they might withhold access to supplies like hand sanitizer, not allow a victim to schedule a doctor’s appointment, or hide their insurance cards, she said.

Another concern is that the pandemic has led some prisons to release inmates early. McKay’s research has found that a partner’s return from prison can be a particularly dangerous time for abuse survivors.

Moreover, all experts agreed that pandemic-related stressors, such as unemployment, financial concerns, school closures, and other lifestyle changes can heighten abusive behavior.

While the pandemic has exacerbated the situation for victims of domestic violence, there are still many helpful things you can do to cope and stay safe.

Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Lambert noted that the Hotline provides referrals to local helplines, resources, and support groups for women, men, LGBTQ, and all cultures. It’s staffed with trained expert advocates who are available 24/7 and speak over 200 languages. You can call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or use their online chat.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline lists these additional resources:

  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 24/7, confidential, and free: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) and through chat.
  • The StrongHearts Native Helpline for domestic/sexual violence is available 7 a.m.-10 p.m. CT, confidential, and specifically for Native communities: 1−844-762-8483.
  • The Trans LifeLine for peer support for trans folks 9 a.m.-3 a.m. CT: 1-877-565-8860. This hotline is staffed exclusively by trans operators is the only crisis line with a policy against non-consensual active rescue.
  • The Deaf Hotline is available 24/7 through video phone (1-855-812-1001), email, and chat for Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled survivors.

All of these websites have emergency exit buttons if you need to exit quickly.

Develop a safety plan. All the experts stressed that creating a safety plan is critical. “A well-crafted safety plan can help identify strategies for decreasing safety risks and planning ahead to respond to unsafe situations,” said Murray.

For example, she said, your plan might include a code word for your loved one to contact the police in an emergency. You can also develop a code word with your kids to leave and get help, Crowe said.

For people who’ve left their abusers, a safety plan can include changing the locks, saving a certified copy of a restraining order, and asking neighbors you trust to look for any suspicious activity, she said.

You can learn more about writing up a safety plan at the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.

Check out safety planning apps. McKay noted that there are many apps on the market that are specifically designed for domestic violence victims., an online directory of domestic violence programs and shelters in America and Canada, lists the pros and cons of three such apps in this post (from 2016). This post from the National Network to End Domestic Violence includes tips for finding the right app for you, along with links to reviews.

Don’t blame yourself. “Abusive partners rarely take responsibility for their abuse and blame their partner for ‘causing’ them to be abusive,” said Lambert, author of the book Women with Controlling Partners: Taking Back Your Life from a Manipulative or Abusive Partner.

Over time, you start to believe that it is your fault. Lambert stressed the importance of recognizing that we can’t cause someone to be abusive or to cause them not to abuse. To get back some control, she said, make the internal shift to hold your partner responsible.

Use empowering self-talk. According to Crowe, instead of telling yourself something like: “I can barely get through the day,” you might say, “I’m doing the best I can,” or “I am taking it one day at a time.” Instead of saying, “Social distancing is impossible,” she suggested telling yourself, “Social distancing is difficult, but necessary.

In other words, try to reframe your thoughts so they’re helpful, effective, and supportive.

Offset cruel comments. You might internalize the awful things your partner says to you regularly—like believing you’re stupid. Instead, Lambert encouraged readers to tell themselves “Just because [they] call me stupid, doesn’t mean I am stupid.” This helps to “keep a protective shield between you and the other person.”

Similarly, she noted that abusers typically attack their partner’s strengths because they threaten their power. Instead, aim to “embrace your strengths.”

Take care of yourself. This can include practicing yoga, meditating, praying, and eating nutrient-rich foods, Crowe said. Lambert suggested doing a simple breathing exercise throughout the day: “Start by inhaling through your nose, pause, and then slowly exhale through your mouth—do four or five times.”

According to Murray, “It’s a good idea to develop a wide range of coping strategies so that you can have different coping tools to help in different situations.”

Stay connected. If your partner is monitoring or limiting your technology use, take a walk and bring your phone with you to call loved ones (or look up resources), Lambert said. If you think your partner will check your history, “be sure to delete your calls and internet activity.”

Crowe suggested buying a pay-as-you-go phone, which can’t be tracked (and you can hide when you’re not using). Also, consider opening a new email account for any kind of safety planning or support, she added.

If you’re a survivor of domestic violence, the pandemic and its related social isolation can re-trigger your trauma, Murray said.  Which is why it’s important to practice healthy coping and self-care strategies. See the Triumph Campaign, co-founded by Murray and Crowe, offers a variety of supportive resources for survivors of past abuse. You can also join their Facebook community at this link.

If you’re the loved one of a victim who might be in danger, McKay suggested asking yes-or-no questions, such as: “Can you talk openly about this from where you are right now? Do you want me to help you come up with some options? Is text a safe way of sharing some information?” She also underscored being careful about texting or emailing resources unless the person has said it’s safe.

The pandemic has created unique challenges for victims of domestic violence. But help is absolutely available. Contact any of the above resources, and if you’re in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1.

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