As much of the population is sequestered at home to combat the spread of COVID-19, the United Nations reports that there has been a “horrifying surge” in reports of domestic violence around the world. Social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines have meant that it is more difficult than ever for those experiencing intimate partner violence to access support resources or seek help from their social networks. “The proximity that abusers have to their victims is what is most concerning to me, as well as the intensity of the violence that might occur as a result of this further isolation,” said Ruth M. Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
It’s difficult to leave an abusive partner in ordinary times, and the coronavirus crisis has only compounded that difficulty, with many victims feeling that by leaving they could be putting their own health or that of others at risk. At the same time, the financial and emotional stresses of living through a pandemic may drive abusers to lash out at their partners in increasingly extreme ways. Isolation is one of the ways abusers exact control over their victims. While social-distancing guidelines are intended to keep the public safe from the spread of disease, it also supports one of the most obvious tactics for abusers, which is to isolate partners from their support systems.
The Cut was contacted by a 26-year-old woman in California who wanted to share her story of isolating with an abusive partner, and how the mandate to “shelter in place” has made her already-traumatic living situation even more challenging. Glenn says that while hearing women’s stories is essential, she cautions that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “It’s not always a victim’s best interest to get law enforcement or other systems involved while they’re trying to stay safe, and there are myriad reasons survivors don’t reach out,” says Glenn. “Every survivor will and has the right to develop how they feel they are most safe, and for some it is staying there.” Even amid the coronavirus restrictions, Glenn notes there are many resources available and shelters that remain open, and she encourages victims to reach out to friends and family as well as local support groups.
The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
I have been with my boyfriend for seven years. He has been violent a few times before. Here and there. One time, in the very beginning of our relationship, I was going to break up with him. I was on the bed and he held me down, yelling in my face that if he can’t have me, no one else can.
Last December, I found out that he had been cheating on me. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. After that he started to get really crazy. He grabbed me and threw me onto the floor and held me down on the carpet. A lot of my hair got ripped out. I filed a police report after that and he actually left for the night. But when he found out that I didn’t file a restraining order against him — because that would have removed his legal obligation to pay his rent — he ended up coming back. I felt stuck. We had just entered a new lease that isn’t over until this September, and at that time I still had a semester left of school. I just didn’t feel like I was mentally or physically prepared to move again.
He tried to comfort me through the pain I was going through, he said he regretted it. I was an emotional wreck, but deep down, I knew I didn’t want to be with him anymore. Once I started to have a clear head and become emotionally stable, which was around the end of January, I started to tell him that I no longer wanted to be in a sexual relationship with him. And then I guess that’s when he started to realize that he had truly lost me, and to feel the gravity of what he had done. Still, he was constantly trying to come on to me and seduce me. Before I had to make the decision about whether or not to stay in a relationship with him, I was already uncomfortable being intimate with him, but I caved because I didn’t have the strength at that time to truly tell him, No. Once I finally told him no, I started to feel much better. I was gaining my self-confidence again. I kept telling him no, but he didn’t stop. He kept trying and trying. He kept touching me and I was like: You need to please stop, and you’re lucky that I’m not taking action because this is sexual harassment. But he kept doing it.
I went to New York in early March, and I was so excited because I was going to get away from him. It felt like an escape. And that’s when the whole coronavirus thing just exploded. I had to cut my trip short. I had to come back, and that’s when we were told to keep our distance from people and stay inside as much as possible. He was the last person I wanted to be stuck with.
I’m not usually home that often and neither is he. Before the coronavirus, I had school and work and I would also be with friends and family all throughout the week, so we would hardly see each other. I am usually outgoing. The stay-at-home order kind of blocked any of those activities that I could escape to.
Last week, it became horrible. We’ve been stuck together at home, and he would plead with me to get back with him, and he’d say he’s going to change, and I kept telling him, No, I’m sorry, I’m done. It was all talk with him and I realized that. That’s when he would get extremely aggressive and start throwing things around the house, yelling at me.
Once he realizes that he’s not getting what he wants, that’s when his anger escalates. I can’t really describe it. He turns into someone I hardly know. When he realizes his words aren’t really taking effect on me anymore, he starts to yell and scream and barge through the doors. There was a time when I locked our bedroom door, but he got so upset that he barged through the door and broke the lock. I told him I had a migraine, but he didn’t care. He’s like, Why should I care about your headache? I was laying on the bed, and he started grabbing all the blankets off of me and it got to the point where my body just froze. He was aggressively ripping the blankets off of me and throwing me around on the bed and I was just curled in the fetal position trying to get through it. I was like, I can’t really go anywhere. I can’t do anything at this point. I just let him just throw me around. And then he tried to grab the AirPods from my ear and he couldn’t. Instead, he ripped some of my hair out.
After the most recent incident, I considered going home to my family, but I had just gone to New York. If I was exposed to COVID, I didn’t want to spread it to people I love. My dad is abroad, I don’t have a good relationship with my mom, my cousin is pregnant, all my other family members have older people living with them. I didn’t really have anyone else I could go to. I just kind of froze thinking that I was completely stuck in this. And I know if I were to move out, I would have to move out the day that I tell him. I shouldn’t give him a few days in advance notice, because if I did, he would try to sabotage it.
I’ve seen a few articles on the rise in domestic violence, but it felt like it took those moments where he was barging into the room and tossing me around for me to actually go and reach out to those resources. I’ve read some things about how I should come up with a safety plan and prepare a bag, just in case things get bad. I plan to do that.
I tried calling the domestic-violence hotline that my cousin gave me the other night when I was out on a walk. Just when I thought they were going to answer, they hung up. I didn’t call back. I was just discouraged. I also reached out to my doctor’s office asking if there were any therapists that are working remotely that I can call during these moments, because I feel like it’s been a really traumatic experience. I have these thoughts in my head and I feel like what has happened between me and him could leak into future relationships. They still have yet to reach out to me with a therapist.
Now it’s been more than two weeks since I went to New York, so I feel like I do have places that I could go. My cousins offered to let me stay with them. I get confused at times thinking, Oh, well, it seems okay right now, so I’ll just stick it out. Even though he’s there, it’s still my home. I know it sounds horrible, but sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t impose on my family and friends. I wouldn’t wish this on any woman.
If you are or have been the victim of partner abuse, please call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).