Conversations with a Domestic Violence Expert
On the Dangers Within Our Homes During Quarantine
TRAVELLING ON THE LONDON UNDERGROUND most days of the week, our son Mark who counsels clients by profession, goes to work as the Domestic Violence Prevention and Intervention Coordinator in Social Care for one of London’s poorest and most densely- populated boroughs.
One of the immediate consequences of the quarantine imposed on the city of London that has now evolved into a stricter lockdown on the sprawling metropolis is the dramatic increase of domestic violence suffered by spouses with deep consequences on their children as health and economic tensions rise within family settings. Whereas one out of every three women have experienced abuse – whether physical, coercive, sexual, financial or religious – in the past, now more calls are made for help in dire situations, in one area alone estimated to be 40%, though more precise figures are still not available.
Understanding the Complexity of Domestic Violence
Domestic Violence/Abuse specialists like Mark have always argued that domestic violence is not just an anger management issue but one that is complex, nuanced and socially-constructed. Thus, I asked him to explain the phenomenon of domestic violence:
Mark: A myth persists that perpetrators of domestic violence consist of those smelling of alcohol, or covered with tattoos, with a menacing look about them, and with a record of previous convictions. The fact is that the perpetrators could easily be the mild-mannered well-dressed neighbor who lives next door and greets you good morning every day; in fact, most perpetrators would rarely if ever engage in a physical altercation with a stranger or acquaintance; and, yet the irony is that they can choose to be violent and abusive in their dealings with the people they are meant to love and cherish the most.
Most perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse are skilled at presenting themselves as charming to family and friends, and this is why it is usually a neighbor who is the first to be alerted of an incident occurring as they overhear the argument taking place next door. Thus, one must know what to do when this takes place.
Taking Steps in the Period of Lockdown
During this extra-ordinary time of lockdown in most places, what steps can we take to address issues arising from domestic violence?
Mark: Even without the Coronavirus lockdown, public or professional response and resources (either, from the women’s commission, non-governmental organizations, social welfare or police) in preventing domestic violence has not always been adequate but now during quarantine even altruistic neighbors would think twice before intervening due to fear of possibly bringing Covid-19 contamination into their own households.
As a neighbor who hears the sounds or sights that one can gauge to be signs of danger, then the first step to take is to call the authorities immediately. It is a good idea to try and use one’s phone to record the incident whilst you wait for the authorities to arrive. This can later be used as evidence to charge the perpetrator.
Dealing with the Victim and the Aggressor
Drawing on your experience, can you provide professional advice in dealing with the victims and the aggressors of domestic violence?
Mark: If you are able to have a safe conversation (making sure that the perpetrator cannot hear the conversation) with someone you think is a victim of domestic abuse, try to express concern, listen to what she tells you, validate her feelings, offer your help without blame, judgment or pressure, and support her chosen course of action. Empower her choice safely, if she is choosing to stay, help her come up with a safety plan just in case she decides to leave. Find out if she has relatives she can stay with, think of alternatives in case plan A doesn’t pan out. A good idea is to pack a small weekend bag with clothing for victim and the children, as well as important documents such as passport and identification card in one place so that if a decision to flee is made, then one can readily do so.
Encourage them to reach out to a professional outfit or to public authorities but emphasize that she should only do this if she feels safe to do so.
Do not approach the perpetrator about their behavior, this could escalate the abuse and put the victim in further danger. It is also important that you do not put yourself in a dangerous situation.
Considering Best Practice in the Time of Quarantine
A spike in cases of domestic abuse during this quarantine period in countries in regions of contagion seems inevitable. These will be trying times even for families who do not suffer from domestic violence and abuse, given the prevailing uncertainties and the tensions that may arise. What sound steps can we take during this period to deal with violence in our homes?
Mark: From professional experience, one is able to distill a nine-steps approach to addressing domestic violence, particularly in relation to a potential aggressor, which can be outlined in this manner:
- Be reflective. When things get heated we usually focus on our own feelings and the other person’s behavior. Instead, practice focusing on other people’s feeling and looking at your own behavior.
- Be conscious of our unpleasant feelings. Notice the physical signals that are happening to our body when you feel irritable, angry or sad. Think of what is going on outside and inside our body (clenching our fists, shoulder muscles tense, heart beating faster?).
- Be aware of our thoughts. A good warning sign is when we start to swear in our heads. This is a good time to try and wind ourselves down. Swearing in our heads leads to objectifying a person and making that person less than, which then makes it easier for us to abuse them.
- Confront oneself, first. Challenge our own point of view, perspective and entrenched beliefs. Focus on the positives and be mindful of our own cognitive distortions.
- Know that all emotions are valid but not all behavior is acceptable. It is alright to feel angry. It is not alright to shout or be abusive to someone when you feel anger. It is definitely not ok to be physically violent to someone when we feel anger. It is more than ok to feel powerless and vulnerable. It is not easy and your instincts to this may be to fight or run, but it’s best to practice feeling powerless and learning to sit through the difficult experience. It will get easier with practice and time.
- Be accountable. Most people think that there is only one consequence when they think or feel someone has been disrespectful to them and that their abusive or violent action is an automatic reflex action. This is not the case. The only reflex reaction the human body does is the knee-jerk reflex reaction. All other actions are a choice. It may not feel this way as the time between feeling disrespected and choosing to act or be abusive can be a matter of seconds. If we become abusive, be accountable. Own it, apologize for it, try to rectify it if we can, and, most importantly think what steps we can take so that we can ensure as much as possible that we won’t repeat the same mistake again.
- Be brutally honest with oneself. Instead of justifying our actions, think – can I honestly say without a doubt that I was not abusive to another person. Remember that the meaning of non-abusive behavior is this: being sure there was no other alternative decision we could have taken so as not to make the other person feel bad.
- Plan ahead. Think of a plan of action for when we feel angry, an example would be to go to the toilet and lock it so we can do breathing exercises to calm ourselves down.
- Breathe. Take a good breath. A good breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. A great article in regards to how this is accomplished and the multitude of benefits it gives us can be found here: https://www.healthline.com/health/4-7-8-breathing#1
As our world confronts a pandemic of uncertain proportions and duration, different challenges will emerge in areas such as the economy, governance, and, our personal lives which touch our mental health including relationships with those we love and those with whom we share our time in quarantine. We will emerge from this period to witness a changed world, and hopefully, we will likewise emerge from this singular experience all changed for the better.