In the midst of our current COVID-19 pandemic, we’re told to stay home when possible, social distance and in some cases go into quarantine with zero contact outside our homes. Even in the best marriages, this arrangement can cause friction – especially if both spouses are suddenly working from home and/or are out of work entirely.
But for marriages where abuse is present – whether physical, verbal and/or emotional – this new normal can quickly become a safety issue.
Some spouses may feel reprieve when their destructive husband or wife goes to work, or when they themselves are able to leave the home to go to work. Maybe going to a library or a park with your children is a much-needed escape from the difficult reality inside your home. Maybe your weekly church attendance provides you with solace. When these options are suddenly taken away, and the stress that comes with our current climate increases, destructive behaviours can unfortunately go unchecked.
Focus on the Family wants you to know that if you are dealing with this in your own home, or you know someone who is, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and find safety.
The following advice comes from Canada’s Focus on the Family in-house counselling team and marriage therapists trained to deal with crisis situations.
First and foremost, remember that this is not your fault. The stress tolerance for abusers is already low. As the stressors of self-isolation, unemployment and fear increase, that limited tolerance will decrease even further. If your spouse seeks to cope with their stress through destructive and/or addictive behaviours, you are not to blame.
Now more than ever, you need to prioritise taking care of yourself emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally.
Emotional care can include naming your emotions and coming to terms with the emotional climate in your home. It is important to be able to recognise your own emotional triggers so that you don’t rise to your spouse’s reactions, creating a destructive cycle between the two of you.
Spiritual care includes spending time in God’s Word, praying and meditating on Scripture. Reminding yourself that he is your refuge in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1) and knowing that his plans for you are good and do not include harm (Jeremiah 29:11) are important to cling to when home life is uncertain.
Physical care may include going to another room, locking yourself in the bathroom, or stepping outside and going for a short walk when possible. It may also mean removing yourself entirely and creating an exit plan with the help of a local shelter, a trusted friend or your church. (See more resources below to help if that is a necessary option.)
Mental care requires constant, intentional refocusing of your mind to the truth of your worth, your value and what you deserve. A common technique of abusive spouses is gaslighting, where they attempt to make you question your own sanity or doubt their true intentions. Having a clear mind and full knowledge of the truth takes a lot of mental effort, but it is crucial for you to stay aware of the reality of your situation to protect yourself and those you love.
Setting boundaries is crucial, especially in the midst of self-isolation with an abusive spouse. Boundaries will look different from person to person, but the heart of it requires the above self-care and responding in non-reactive ways to de-escalate situations. This is not the time to argue, lecture or try to reason with your offender. As tempting as it is to become reactive in heated situations, remaining calm – at least outwardly – can potentially lead to de-escalation. If you feel unsafe in any interaction, you can ask for time and/or space before coming together again with cooler heads. Again, if a situation escalates to a dangerous point, have a safe exit plan prepared.
Creating a safe exit plan
As the current self-isolation and social distancing measures continue, the risk for those in abusive marriages will increase and it will become necessary for spouses at risk to make emergency plans for their own safety and potentially the safety of their children.
The following advice comes from Australia’s National Domestic Violence Counselling Service 1800Respect “Safety Planning Checklist”:
Have an emergency bag or suitcase (kept in either a hidden place in your home or at a friend’s house) that includes:
clothing for you and your children;
original or photocopied personal documentation such as photo ID (birth certificate, driver’s license, passport), pension cards, credit/bank cards, medicare cards, medical records, court or protection orders, car registration, prescriptions, etc.;
toys and/or comfort items for your children;
mobile phone with – or written list of – contact information of trusted family and friends, as well as doctor’s offices and shelters/helplines;
extra cash if possible;
anything else that you may require in an emergency (jewellery, items of sentimental value, extra medication, etc.)
If possible, open a bank account in your own name and make sure the bank will not send you anything or call you regarding that account.
Make sure you have somewhere you can go if you and your children need to leave immediately (e.g., a friend’s house, a shelter where you’ve called ahead, a hotel, a pastor’s home, etc.).
Contact the police at your local station and/or call an emergency helpline. You can see a full list of helplines and shelters across Australia here.
Lastly, remember that while marriage is valued and reconciliation is always desired, sometimes it is not feasible – especially in times of escalated stress and tension such as the one we’re in now.
“Marriage and family are important to God, but just as important to him are the individuals within those marriages and families,” Leslie Vernick writes in her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. “God does not value . . . the institution of marriage more than the people who are in it.”
“God doesn’t want you to hang on by a thread, my friend,” she adds. “He gives you a lifeline. Grab hold of it and live.”
If you are in immediate danger, call 000 and take steps to find a shelter or go to a pre-arranged safe home with a friend, family member or someone from your church.