One of the horrible ripple effects of our stay-at-home situation is the impact on domestic violence.1 Not only is COVID-19 increasing stress on abusers, but it’s trapping victims at home with them. Family Courts are unable to staff their normal capacity, much less an increase, making stay-at-home orders more dangerous for the abused than the virus. One in four women ends up a victim at some point in their life. Last night, it was my neighbor. A few years ago, a close friend stayed with us to escape her attacker. A long time ago, I came just close enough in a way I’ll never forget (no matter how much I’ve tried).
In a moment of impulsiveness, the guy I was dating raised his hand to hit me. I was trying to break it off. We started arguing. He started to lose his cool in an unusually extreme way. Screaming, he towered over me and raised his hand. I ran, and I was never alone with him again.
Now, that is nothing compared to what many face every day in abusive relationships. Nothing. It wasn’t someone I wanted to be with, and I was already trying to get out. I wasn’t physically harmed. We didn’t have kids or anything complicated. It was a long time ago, but I still can’t be in the same room as him. I’ve never been able to get the image out of my mind. Even though nothing physically violent happened, the shock alone messed with me for a long time. It wasn’t just that almost-violent moment. It was everything that led up to it.
When I finally told someone who pushed me to go to counseling, I felt like I was having an identity crisis. I felt stupid, ashamed. Was I seriously saying these words? How did I get here? I’m smart. I’m a good judge of character. How did I let this happen? Why couldn’t I forget it and move on?
I felt crazy because that’s what shame does. It makes us question our sanity. It keeps us silent. It tells us we’re stupid or worthless, that this is what we deserve. Or that it’s not that bad, and we can handle it on our own. That telling someone will only make it worse.
Admitting the details out loud felt humiliating. Especially because, as I reflected, it wasn’t the first sign I could have seen. It started with subtle manipulation. Slight moves to dominate, isolate, and control.
At first, I could rationalize it and dismiss it as something innocent. People trusted this guy. He did good things sometimes. But then it increased. The condescending comments grew into verbal abuse and “minor” threats to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing. The guilt afterward left me feeling equally a part of the problem, so how could I blame him? It’s my fault too now, right?
As the aggressive behavior escalated, so did my well-intended excuses, my compassion, and hope. He has a lot going on. He doesn’t mean to—it’s out of his control. Everyone freaks out sometimes. I should help him somehow, right? This doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy, right? It’ll pass, right? The emotional weight of the dissonance and the attempts to make sense of it weirdly bonded me to the situation more—as if I was in this now whether I liked it or not.
Though my experience was small, it was just enough to show me how it can happen.
Just enough to see the slippery slope that can land smart, strong women2 in abusive relationships. Just enough to create deep empathy for the disoriented rationale, the fear to tell anyone, the shame for being mixed up in it in the first place. Just enough to see how denial, blind hope, fix-it-on-my-own strategies, or anything but telling someone could seem so much more appealing.
Admitting it was enough though—wrong enough, serious enough, a problem enough— was actually the first step towards healing. And it was a problem before the hand was ever raised. Until a mentor forced me to say it out loud, I never wanted to say the word, abuse, as if it “just being verbal abuse” was somehow fine. I didn’t think it mattered what I called it. I didn’t want to be “dramatic.”
But knowing it could be worse doesn’t make “lesser offenses” any less wrong. The simplest definition of abuse is “the improper use of something.” It isn’t too strong of a word if you’re being treated differently than you were made to be treated. It’s not dramatic to admit you feel violated if you are being violated. Until we acknowledge how wrong something is without diminishing or excusing it, healing is out of reach. Pretending a gash is only a minor cut only leads to infection. An accurate diagnosis and a holistic plan of treatment is necessary and can only come when we fully admit what’s happening.
If you’re stuck at home with an abuser, I don’t know your story. But here’s what I do know:
This is not your fault.
There is no excuse for abuse—mental illness, stress, addiction—none.
Threats, disrespectful arguments, yelling, and belittling are verbal abuse. It is still abuse.
Volatility, possessiveness, controlling behaviors, manipulation, guilting are wrong.
It doesn’t matter what he’s going through. There’s always a reason, but that’s not a justification.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. No one is perfect, and no one deserves it.
Yes, it’s possible he can change. But right now—you’re not OK, and you deserve help.
Fear and love cannot coexist.
It’s not on you to fix him.
I also know:
You were made in the image of the Almighty God who loves you.
He is real. He cares. He promises to protect, provide, heal, and restore.
He formed you perfectly. He calls you good. Nothing you’ve done changes that for Him.
He created man and woman to function together as one.
His intent for our relationship was shalom—a peace that honors, restores, and brings life.
God intended man to serve his wife, never hurt.
To sacrifice for her—never use his strength against her.
That sort of relationship is real. It’s not a myth.
Jesus died for you to be free, to have abundant life through him.
Maybe you’re shocked and thrown that this is your story right now. Or maybe this has been your story for longer than you’d like to admit. Either way and anything in between—this doesn’t have to be how it ends.
I’ve asked God why I stayed so startled by my experience, why it sticks with me even though so much time has passed. I think it’s because even the threat of attack is such a significant violation of the worth God has inscribed in each of us. I believe it has stuck with me to remind me what’s at stake. To produce enormous empathy and zero judgment. Feeling the weight of it creates a clear contrast. The difference between what we were made for and what we too often settle for is stark. Our identity was given to us by our Creator and died for by our Savior. It can’t be taken or tainted. Anything that conflicts with it creates incredible dissonance simply because it should—it’s wrong.
You are worthy of respect. You’re worthy of love that doesn’t hurt. You’re worthy of healing. You don’t have to have all the next steps figured out before you take the first one. You aren’t responsible for how they respond. You’re worthy of being heard (and not doubted) when you ask for help.
Contact a counselor. Find a safe way to communicate with a professional. Normal tele-health (phone, video, internet) rules are being relaxed during social distancing. The State of Ohio, for instance, has now formally removed its normal rule that tele-health interactions can only occur after an initial in-person appointment has been held. Again, that rule is formally and legally suspended during this time of stay-at-home order. The Crossroads website lists suggested counselors here. If you do not live in one of the geographic areas there, contact a well-respected church closest to where you do live, and ask where they refer people for counseling.
Tell a trusted friend. Ask them for help in finding further help. Find freedom in not carrying this alone. It may be his secret, but it doesn’t have to be yours.
Contact an organization that exists to intervene in domestic violence situations. In Greater Cincinnati, for example, that’s Women Helping Women. In other metropolitan areas, there are other such organizations. If you don’t have such access, contact any local or national crisis intervention phone line or website. Or try a national domestic violence hotline here.
You can also talk to someone from our church. This is a great free place to start if you’re overwhelmed, want to stay anonymous, or want to start with prayer. They can help you navigate the other options above. It is a 100% confidential and judgment-free place to simply get help. We are for you.
The work of getting out of an abusive relationship might feel overwhelming, embarrassing, unknown, and terrifying—even when you aren’t being ordered to stay home. But if you are being abused, it doesn’t apply to you. Shame and fear will try to keep you silent. But whatever it takes is better than staying put. Start with just one call—one text, even. Ask to stay with a friend. Ask for help finding or paying for counseling. Be willing to let someone help, because you’re worth whatever it costs.
1While this article is primarily about verbal and physical abuse, if you’re being sexually abused, keep reading. The truths about your worth 100% still apply.
2I know men can be victims, too. I’m primarily addressing women, but if you’re a guy in a dangerous situation, please take anything helpful here in for you too.