While many of us are currently practicing social distancing and staying inside our homes, victims of domestic violence who are trapped with abusers don’t have the luxury of feeling safe. At Genesis, one of the most critical services we provide is safety planning, where a licensed counselor helps a survivor think through practical changes that may increase her safety. If you find yourself feeling unsafe in your own home, you may want to consider some of the suggestions below, but remember – everyone’s situation is unique, meaning that not all suggestions may apply to you. You are the expert in your own life, and we encourage you to listen to your instincts. And despite what is happening with the COVID-19 outbreak, you can still call 911 to get help if the abuse escalates.
Note: In this article, we refer to the abuser as “he.” While we do recognize that abuse also happens in same-sex relationships, we will refer to perpetrators as “he” for clarity. If you are in an abusive same-sex relationship, you deserve the same safe and healthy relationship as everyone else.
Be on heightened alert
When an abuser is escalating, there are often red flags that he displays immediately before an explosive incident. Oftentimes, these are small, subtle changes in his behavior, body language or tone of voice. For some, this may be a clenched fist, while for others, it may be a particular facial expression. You may not currently be aware of these microaggressions, so we encourage you to think back to past experiences to see if you can identify any patterns or indicators. In doing so, you will be better prepared to take safety measures.
Try to avoid your own escalation
The hard reality is that being submissive is sometimes the best safety plan. Abuse is rooted in power and control, so when victims stand up for themselves or participate in an argument, the abuser often escalates in response. You deserve to defend yourself and speak your mind, and it’s not your fault if he escalates in response to your being assertive. It is always your decision to stay with your partner or leave. If you choose to stay or you are unable to leave, being submissive might minimize your risk of abuse. If you want to implement this safety plan, practice your acting skills and try to maintain the status quo. For instance, you may want your partner to help around the house more, now that you’re both at home due to social distancing. However, asking this of him could shift the power dynamics in the relationship. He might use this as an excuse to escalate in an attempt to try to regain control. While this isn’t fair and places an additional burden on you, exercising your right to an opinion could potentially have negative consequences.
It’s important to know that processing through this can be extremely difficult – it’s hard to control your own emotions and not stand up for yourself when your partner is yelling at you. If you find avoiding escalation to be effective, you may feel that that your relationship is only safe when you are submissive. This is often an incredibly hard realization, but know that we are here to navigate these waters with you and you’re not alone.
Have an excuse to leave the house
In the event of an escalation, you may feel the need to leave the house for your or your children’s safety. Before this need arises, think through possible excuses you could have for leaving, whether that’s going to the grocery store, picking up medication or taking a walk around the block. We recognize that leaving the house is more difficult now that businesses are closed and social distancing is encouraged, but finding a creative way to leave the house could help to deescalate the situation. On the other hand, for some, leaving the house may not be the safest option. This may be because the explosive incident could be worse upon return, or he may get physical to keep you from leaving. If this is the case, another option may be to go onto your porch or into the front yard. Because domestic violence thrives in secrecy, your partner may not want the neighbors to witness the abuse and thus he might deescalate in public. You know your situation best, so consider thinking through what may be applicable to you.
Prepare your children
Abusers often hold a deeply-rooted belief that they have the right to something, and that it’s your responsibility to make it happen. Spending more time together can cause an increase in stressors, and this can be especially true if there are children in the house. The kids may be noisy when he’s working from home or he may feel his personal space is being invaded. If you notice that your partner tends to escalate when there’s a lot of noise, think of activities that can quietly engage your children. (Check back on this page regularly – we’re working on creating a list of resources that can help you with this.) If your partner blames you for a dirty or cluttered house, think of a game you can play with the kids to keep things tidy. Only you know what his triggers are, so anticipate what they may be and determine a plan of action in advance.
You may also want to consider devising a code word with your children. If so, talk to them privately and let them know what the code word is before it’s needed. For example, let them know that if you say, “It’s time to go pick up your medicine,” then they should immediately go outside and wait for you on the front porch. You can also create a second code word that means your child needs to call 911.
While safety planning cannot guarantee that you don’t get hurt, it can minimize your risk. If you want to speak with someone about creating a personalized safety plan for your specific situation, our hotline is available 24 hours a day. You don’t have to be a client of Genesis, and you don’t even have to tell us your name. Abuse is never your fault, you don’t deserve it, and your voice deserves to be heard.
For more information on safety planning, visit our safety planning webpage.
Written by Amy Ridings, director of communications, and Ruth Guerreiro, LCSW, senior director of clinical and non-residential services at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support