If you are at risk of domestic abuse and are isolated

If you are worried about abuse in your relationship or from your family, or are concerned friends or relatives are a victim of domestic abuse, particularly during Coronavirus there is advice here about:

  • who can be a victim of abuse?
  • what is abuse?
  • why is leaving so difficult?
  • if abuse has started since isolation
  • creating a safety plan
  • ways to help a friend who’s being abused
  • where to get help (you might want to skip straight to this and read the rest later).

Who can be a victim?
Anyone. Domestic abuse can, and does, happen to all of us. You can be abused whether you’re dating, married, living together, separated or divorced. You can also be abused by family members. Children and teens can be abused by parents or witness their parents being harmed by a partner or relative; teens can also be abused by people they are dating. Adults can be abused by other adults (spouses, siblings or parents), and older people by their children or other relatives. People of any gender and any sexuality can be abused in relationships. And abuse happens in relationships and homes of all kinds – regardless of whether you are religious or not, are wealthy or poor, whatever your ethnicity, or your health status.

What is abuse?
There are many different forms of abuse that may occur as a single incident or repeated harms and includes one or more of the following:

Physical; psychological/emotional; financial/economic; sexual; coercive control; stalking and harassment; online/digital abuse. All of these are described in more detail here.

As the stereotype of domestic abuse is physical violence we may miss other harmful and dangerous behaviours that are putting us at risk. Abusers may convince victims they have caused the abuse to happen, are being oversensitive, or minimize their actions claiming ‘it wasn’t that bad’. Where abuse results in physical harm a victim (or their abuser) might assume something that didn’t require medical attention wasn’t that serious and therefore not abuse. Or if abuse did require medical assistance abusers may assure victims it will never happen again. Or encourage victims to lie to healthcare staff about how they were injured. Some abusers prevent their victims getting medical attention.

Sometimes we struggle to believe we’re a victim or recognize those we care about are at risk, so a more detailed breakdown of what constitutes abuse can be found via
Our Bodies Ourselves
Helpguide
Mayo Clinic
Women’s Aid 

Why is leaving so difficult?
Abusers make a point of ensuring their victims feel ground down, muddle-headed, under confident, unattractive, uncertain and afraid. Doing this ensures people don’t get the time, space or energy to take steps to end the relationship.

It is exhausting to live in conditions where you are constantly on edge and hyper vigilant about your own safety or that of dependents. It can impact on physical and mental wellbeing, worsen existing health conditions, and affect sleep and appetite.

If your abuser switches between hateful and controlling to loving and charming, you may also feel unable to trust your own judgments about whether abuse really is happening or is as bad as you fear.

Unsurprisingly if you are confused emotionally and not at your best mentally or physically then trying to also work out how to end a relationship may feel overwhelming.

Also, due stigma associated with abuse (which some abusers may play upon), people may not want to accept it is happening to them. They may also worry if they accept they are being abused they also have to do something about it. And that may be something they are either unsure how to go about, or uncertain if they can manage.

For those with children or other dependents, acknowledging abuse is happening may bring additional fears of their children being harmed or taken from them, again something abusers may threaten. Or feel guilty about either staying in, or contemplating leaving, an abusive relationship.

You may worry you cannot cope alone, something that abusers may often reinforce. Or fear what the consequences of leaving might be for your children, pets, or wider family. Particularly if your abuser has threatened to harm you if any attempts are made to end the relationship.

Sometimes abusers threaten to harm themselves if the relationship ends, so victims stay to keep the abuser from hurting themselves.

Some victims don’t seek help because they don’t think anyone would believe them or that they don’t fit the stereotype of an abuse victim. This is particularly true for men, bisexuals and lesbians, children and seniors.

You may be concerned about where you might go if you leave a violent relationship, what might happen to any property you leave behind, or how to manage financially (especially if you have no savings or limited income and/or if you believe you wouldn’t qualify for benefits).

In the case of those in forced marriages, who are very young or very old, who have disabilities or chronic illnesses or are otherwise dependent on their abuser the opportunity to find an escape route will be limited further. Especially during isolation.

You may have already tried leaving but returned to the relationship because your abuser threatened you, or because coping alone was difficult, or because you’re reliant on their abuser for care, or perhaps wider family or community members forced you back.

Or you may have tried to get your abuser to leave, but discovered they would not comply, and possibly that any abuse worsened afterwards.

If abuse has started since isolation
You may already have been struggling with abuse prior to lockdown.

If you are not currently with your abuser you may not be sure how to feel and could be processing what has happened and recognizing you have been a victim and now need to talk to someone about it. You might be experiencing flashbacks or nightmares or not know how to manage alone. Equally you could be feeling relief. You may make choices now not to resume the relationship once lockdown ends. Or you may still be struggling if your abuser is controlling your remotely via text, phone or email; stalking you online; or making threats.

If you were already experiencing abuse before lockdown it may be more acute now you are stuck at home together and you may want to create an exit plan (see below) while using the support of help organisations listed at the end of this post.

It may be abuse has begun since lockdown, although it’s more likely there were abusive or controlling problems present before that you may have dismissed or perhaps were downplayed by your abuser. If abuse has started now you may be very anxious for your safety/wellbeing, or struggling to understand what is going on. You may be blaming yourself, or feel very afraid and alone. The information here should help you make sense of what is happening, while the organisations listed at the end will explain what you can do to stay safe/get away.

Remember you can leave your home during lockdown if you are at risk of violence or abuse. You can take children, pets or other dependents with you. If you are physically unable to leave you can call someone to get you. There is specific advice about seeking help if you are at risk during isolation because of Coronavirus here.

Creating a safety plan (aka exit plan)
A safety plan is a stepwise approach to working out what you need to do to stay as safe as you can while an abuser is present, while working out how to get away. That could include quietly packing a bag or noting the phone number of a helpline to call. There is a clear guide on creating your own safety plan here (please note the phone numbers listed in this guide may not be suitable to all readers, so check what is available in your local area). Alongside other information about why safety/exit plans are useful here and here 

Ways to help a friend who’s being abused
If you’re worried about a friend, neighbour or relative, here are ideas to try:

  • Be a safe and dependable person for your friend to rely on – in person, over the phone or via email [the latter two will be more appropriate during isolation].
  • Read about how to give support appropriately
  • Offer them support with childcare or other dependents if needed.
  • Encourage them to find/use resources and information about ending an abusive relationship (see end of this blog post).
  • Help them get to appointments with doctors, advice services, solicitors etc.
  • Encourage them to make a safety plan (see above).
  • If there are particular things they need keeping safe, then store them at your home or another safe location. That might include passports, financial information, bankcards, birth certificates, photographs or other items of emotional value. [If you are in isolation they could leave these on the doorstep for you to collect]
  • Let them use your home/phone/computer for any calls or transactions they do not feel safe doing in their own home. [Or in the case of isolation make calls for them].
  • Remind them to delete browsing histories and stay safe online on computer/phone (see the first safety plan link above for tips on how to do this).
  • Help your friend to seek medical care should they need it. [Remember during isolation they can still call their GP or go to A&E if they are injured, or call 999 if they have been severely harmed].
  • Encourage them to seek legal and financial advice via professional services or charities.
  • Prepare a package of things your friend may need if they might exit suddenly. A change of clothing, toiletries, nappies, foodstuffs, toys (see exit plan above).
  • Give them space and time to rest/sleep if they need it and encourage them to eat healthily, perhaps sharing food with them if they would welcome this. [If it wouldn’t place them in more danger you could drop this at their home if they haven’t yet been able to leave].
  • Discourage them from sharing any plans about ending the relationship with their abuser in case it places them at more risk. Victims are at their most vulnerable if abusers sense they want to leave.
  • Ask what they need and want, right now, and in the future, letting them form their own strategy for coping and reassuring them they are making progress, even if the steps they are taking seem slow to you.
  • Regularly remind them they are loved, valued, wanted, important, and that you believe they can take steps to change/end this.

Remember it may take more than one go for your friend to end the relationship. They may make several attempts before they do end things. It may take a while before they make decisions to act. They may well return to their abuser more than once before finally getting out of the relationship. [Or in the case of isolation they may ask you to help them leave or tell you they are leaving, then appear to change their mind once or several times].

Noting that you will be there, even if it takes time and several efforts, may give your friend the strength they need to keep trying to reach safety.

What not to do if a friend is being abused
Avoiding shaming, belittling, or judging your friend – they’re getting enough of that already. Ideally you want to represent the opposite to their abuser.

Don’t threaten, shout at, or scare them. Telling them if they don’t do something they will be badly hurt or their children may be taken away. Even if you fear these things could happen it may be better to support them to find ways to end things so they and other dependents can be safe.

Don’t take control and tell them what you feel they ought to be doing.

If they have tried to leave before use this to remind them it is a possibility in the future, rather than ‘I told you so’ when abuse has started up again.

Do not break your friend’s confidence – if they want to tell other people about their situation that’s their choice, but it is not for you to tell other friends, neighbours etc what is going on; or to share gossip on social media.

Don’t stay quiet. If you are upset about what is happening, or want to say you are concerned or you recognize they are being abused you can be honest about your worries, in the context of prioritizing your friend’s wellbeing. You recognizing and naming their abuse may give them a greater awareness that it isn’t them causing problems or imagining things; other people they trust have noticed too.

Looking out for yourself
You may need support if you are the main person your friend is turning to (the resources listed below are there for you too). This may be especially acute if you are isolated from each other and are hearing from them what is happening but feel you cannot help. If your friend feels able you may want to encourage them to create their own support network or ‘safety blanket’ of friends, family, agencies or charities who are there to assist them in feeling able to leave.

Work out where your boundaries lie and what you can feasibly offer your friend. This may be particularly important if you have survived abuse and find dealing with your friend necessary but triggering. It may also be difficult if you are coping with mental distress during isolation and hearing about their situation.

High-risk situations
If the abuse is escalating, or if you feel your friend and/or any dependents are in serious danger, or if you witness abuse happening (including hearing your friends/neighbours being attacked) then you should call the police.

There are several situations when people can be at more risk from abuse. That may be if:

  • they cannot escape their abuser due to isolation
  • they are dependent on their abuser, permanently or temporarily
  • they return to a relationship after past abuse
  • an abuser senses they are losing control
  • an abuser is drinking heavily or using drugs
  • someone tries to end an abusive relationship

In high-risk situations where someone needs emergency help but are prevented from accessing it or are too afraid to call, you may want to work out a code where they may call, text or email so you know you either have to go and get them or notify the police on their behalf. If you’re a victim of abuse think of a code word or phrase to use when you call or text a friend so they know to take action. Some people are using everyday phrases to avoid arousing suspicion of abusers such as ‘could you get me some apples when you next go shopping?’ which is the sign for ‘call the police’

Where to get help
Refuge (support for women and girls)
Women’s Aid  (support for women and girls)
Men’s Advice Line (support for men)
Broken Rainbow (for LGBTQ+ people affected by relationship violence)
Childline (help for children and teens)
NSPCC (for children and teens)
Hourglass (support for seniors)
Advice about animals (for those exiting violence who need temporary care for pets)
Abuse and Domestic Violence resources listed here cover a variety of charities in the UK and other countries.

 

A version of this blog post appeared in The Telegraph in November 2015.

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