Yes, the pandemic has frayed our relationships: The spouse who’s too loud on a conference call or who can’t put the dishes in the sink now seems extra annoying.
But for people spending more time at home with an abusive partner, the stakes are incredibly dangerous. One in three women and one in four men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Abusers often isolate their partners and kids, and COVID has exacerbated this disconnect.
“We’ve noticed how much more people have been trying to get out. Survivors are a lot more eager to leave, to get out at a faster rate because they’re stuck at home with their abuser, all day, every day. … It has gotten more intense,” says Camila Rojas-Pineiro, community advocacy program manager at Casa Myrna, a Boston nonprofit that provides programs to address and end dating and domestic violence.
Amy, not her real name, is a survivor of domestic abuse and the mom of two young children. She retained a permanent restraining order against her ex-husband earlier this year. She had support from her family, from domestic violence officers in her town, through domestic violence advocates when she went to court, and through Somerville-based domestic violence agency RESPOND Inc. Now, she wants to share her story to help others.
This is something I never thought would happen to me.
I’ve always been fiercely independent. I’ve always been the protective mom of the group. In college, I had a friend who shared bruises from her boyfriend. I went about things the wrong way, because I didn’t know. I told our friends, because they wanted to support her. I made demands on her to get out of the relationship, and I threatened to tell her parents.
The best way to help somebody is just to be there and listen, not make demands, not pressure them, and not tell them what to do.
I was in the Navy for four years as a nurse and was medically discharged. I became a pediatric nurse, and I met my now ex-husband through a friend from college. We fell in love immediately. We were together every day. And, you know, things weren’t always perfect — but it was so insidious. You don’t see that at the time.
Looking back, there were so many signs. He was controlling. He got mad if he couldn’t reach me, if I didn’t pick up at 4 o’clock when work was supposed to be done. Every medical professional knows you’re not done until you’re gone. You can’t abandon your patients. But he’d go through my phone. He wouldn’t talk to me for days. There were things you might perceive as romantic — like, we’d be in a fight and he’d show up at my house. A lot of jealousy.
I got pregnant maybe six months into our relationship, while we were living at my parents’ house. That’s when a lot of things started coming out: a history of drug abuse, being expelled from school, and having several violent charges on his record.
There wasn’t a lot of violence when we were at my parents’ house. There was a lot of lying. I didn’t realize how much he wasn’t there, because I had my parents here to help me with the baby. He’d be out until three in the morning. He took my debit card without permission. I found out he’d been off work but hadn’t been home. He’d gone to buy opioids.
Then, we bought a house, and I got pregnant again. I was isolated, I was home with a newborn and a 2-year-old, and he was making more money than me for the first time in our relationship. That’s when a lot of the acting out happened — breaking things. I wasn’t taking care of the house like I was supposed to. One day it would be, ‘I want all this stuff done!’ Then the next day it would be like, ‘None of this stuff should have been done that way’ kind of thing. There’s no amount of submission [that works], and then if you fight, it’s worse.
His drug use was escalating. His unusual behavior was escalating. There was violence. I left before I was seriously injured. We tried to do marriage counseling. And then you go in, and you’re the one looking crazy, crying at the counselors.
I started meditation and yoga. I started working with a health professional. I was having really bad anxiety constantly. I couldn’t even go to the grocery store. I would sit in the parking lot and not be able to go in. I was educating myself on abuse. And I read a book, “Psychopath Free,” and it scared me so much, because all the things I read were all the stuff that he did.
I thought: I can suffer to save this person that I love. That’s fine. But my kids? Knowing the research, knowing the long-term health risks for them, seeing them so afraid having been exposed to this? I left for them.
[I was able to leave] because I had a family. Not everybody has that. But if you have someone you can tell, whether it’s a counselor, a teacher at your school, your doctor, someone? Just telling somebody and getting it out makes it real.
I finalized my divorce, and I went back to school. We haven’t seen him in two or three years. He has his own legal troubles, thankfully. A lot of the people I speak with, their abusers are functioning, stable members of the community. They make the money.
I have help from my parents. I’ve been able to stay home with the kids, so that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s what they’re used to. My youngest is having separation anxiety going into school. My oldest had really bad tantrums, but when we moved home with my parents, I think he felt safe for the first time.
If you or someone you care about is being abused, here are steps that you can take right now.
Know the signs. “Abuse is power. An abuser is all about power and control,” says Rojas-Pineiro. “They gain power over you, financially belittle you, make you feel that your opinion doesn’t matter. Maybe they make you feel crazy or ‘less than.’ They isolate you from family or friends until you depend on only them. In an abusive relationship, only one person has power and control.”
Call SafeLink at 877-785-2020. This is Massachusetts’ statewide, round-the-clock, toll-free domestic violence hotline staffed by a trained advocate who can strategize a safety plan, even if it’s incremental. Don’t feel ashamed if you’re not ready to leave immediately.
“We work with participants who are on the fence. We know survivors can take seven times to leave, because it’s that difficult,” says Rojas-Pineiro, whose agency coordinates with survivors to secure housing, legal help, and more.
Try to carve out a private routine. If you’re in an abusive situation, it can be hard to speak safely.
“If you can get in a routine where you go to pick up the paper, drop your kid off at daycare, or you make a doctor’s appointment — if there is some kind of routine when you can establish a few minutes away — call during that time. We’ve gotten folks out of really dangerous situations in a very small amount of time, because of that safety planning that can happen in a few minutes,” says Greta Hagen, director of philanthropy and engagement at RESPOND, Inc, a domestic violence prevention agency in Somerville.
They will confirm you’re in a safe place to talk, determine where and whether to reach you if you get disconnected, and invite you to call back whenever you need.
For the first three months of the pandemic, RESPOND experienced a 131 percent increase in calls to their hotline requesting shelter.
“But overall, call volume was down, and what we hear from those who have called points to ... abusers being at home, survivors managing childcare and/or remote work, financial strains, and fears about accessing in-person services (especially congregate shelter) during a pandemic,” she says. She wants callers to know that they can work quickly and discreetly to help.
Talk to someone, even if it’s not a hotline. “Abuse thrives in isolation,” Hagen says. Sometimes even a check-in with a friend about whether a behavior is normal is helpful.
“It’s so that somebody knows what’s going on, but also for validation, that gut check: ‘This doesn’t happen in every relationship. That’s not something you have to roll with,’” she says. This is especially important because abuse can escalate incrementally — sometimes so incrementally that it’s difficult for a survivor to perceive.
Don’t be judgmental, even though you’re worried. Like Amy, it’s tempting for friends and family to say things such as, “Why don’t you just leave?” It’s not that simple.
“It’s very complicated. It’s a complex set of decisions for each person that can involve huge levels of risk: physically, financially, socially,” says Marianne Winters, executive director of Northampton’s Safe Passage, which provides counseling, legal advice, and support to survivors.
Instead, a friend could say, in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way: “You have all these wonderful qualities and strengths. As your friend. I worry about you,” and then note what you’ve observed, she says, and then ask them how they feel.
Don’t act alone. Concerned friends and family can reach out for advice to a place like Casa Myrna, RESPOND, or Safe Passage, which can help you construct a safety plan before taking steps to remove a loved one from a dangerous situation. This is especially important to remember because, so often, an abuser tries to isolate their partner.
“We discourage you from making a decision yourself to be the ‘rescuer,’” Winters says, such as showing up in a car and packing up without a safety plan in place. “It could create more alienation, and perhaps danger.”