Behind Closed Doors

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Words ||  Saliha Rehanaz

As people confined themselves inside their homes for protection against the deadly virus on the loose, what happened to those that lived with their scariest monsters?

Almost one in 10 Australian women in a relationship have experienced domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis, with two-thirds saying the attacks started or became worse during the pandemic. A survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology also reveals more than half of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence before the pandemic said the violence had become more frequent or severe since the start of COVID-19.

The research also showed that 4.6 percent of all women, and 8.8 percent of women in relationship, experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabitating partner between February and May. For 33 percent of these women, it was the first time they had experienced physical or sexual violence in their relationship.

Additionally, it was also reported that one in three women who experienced domestic violence or coercive control said that, on at least on occasion, they wanted to seek advice or support but could not because of safety reasons.

Alongside the fear of physical and psychological health risks, the virus brought multiple new stresses, including isolation, loneliness, the closure of many businesses, economic vulnerability, and job losses. The End Violence against Children campaign reported that through all of these stressors, children and their mothers would be particularly vulnerable to domestic violence.

In a journal published in April, researchers Caroline Bradbury-Jones and Louise Isham state that domestic violence refers to a range of violations that happen within a domestic space. It is a broad term that encompasses intimate partner violence, which is a form of abuse that is perpetrated by a current or ex-partner.

Quite early in the beginning of the pandemic, The Guardian reported the surge of domestic violence globally, and highlighted alarming figures, such as the rise of domestic abuse in Brazil by 50 percent.  The government of Spain also claimed that in a particular region calls to a domestic abuse helpline service had increased by 20 percent in the first few days of lockdown, and there was a similar rise of calls to a hotline service in Cyprus.

Home is not necessarily a safe place for everyone, especially for adults and children living in situations of domestic and familial violence, as this where most physical, psychological, and sexual abuse occurs. Bradbury-Jones and Isham believe this is because home can be a place where dynamics of power can be distorted and subverted by those who abuse, often without scrutiny from anyone external to the couple, or the family.

Amidst the pandemic, the exhortation to ‘stay at home’ has major implications for adults and children already living with someone who is abusive or controlling. For victims, the lockdown shut down avenues of escape and ways of coping or seeking help. The restrictive measures are also more likely to play into the hands of people who abuse through tactics of control, surveillance, and coercion. This is partly because what goes in within people’s homes, and critically within their family and intimate relationships, take place ‘behind closed doors’ and out of the view, in a literal sense, of other people.

Unintentionally, lockdown measures may therefore grant people who abuse greater freedom to act without scrutiny or consequence.

For someone who has not faced any form of abuse, the thought might occur as to why the victim cannot simply get up and leave the abusive relationship. Jeanette Raymond, a licensed clinical psychologist, and relationship therapist, says there is an important psychological element keeping victims attached to their partners.

Raymond also explains, “[Abusive relationships] involves the person [in] power offering the possibility of the longed-for desire to be the one and only, to be the one to light up the other, the one who is indispensable and therefore depended on.”

The cycle is quite often broken down into three phases: “honeymoon”, tension or manipulation, and violence.

In the first phase or “honeymoon” phase, the victim and abuser work well together and do not act violently or forcefully towards each other. This is the point at which the abused feels loved, and the abuser feels a sense of control or power over them. This can be either when the relationship has just begun, or the couple have gotten back together after the abuser has apologised for a past act of violence. Abusers can draw their partners deeper into unhealthy relationships during this phase by appealing to their senses of sympathy, love, or hope and by promising to reform.

With time, the couple enters the tension phase, and the victims feel as if they are walking on eggshells to avoid enraging their partner again. Prior to using physical abuse, the abuser can build up this tension using emotional or verbal abuse, intimidation, violent behaviour towards pets or children, economic control, or forced isolation.

Psychologically, these tactics contribute to the victim’s loss of power and control. They begin to worry they are not doing enough to earn their partner’s affection or that they should be punished.

The final phase is the actual violent episode, the crime of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse towards the abused partner. The abuser will move back into the honeymoon phase from here, often apologizing quickly afterwards. This is what traps the victim in another heart-wrenching cycle of false hope, betrayal, fear, and pain.

“The abused has an incentive to allow the abuse, because the abuser then fears the loss of the abused, atones, wipes away the tears, and promises eternal worship,” Raymond also explains. “The abused gets the reward of having an apology, of promises of never being hurt again, and [of] being the apple of the abuser’s eyes.”

The scars of domestic violence and abuse can have a lasting impact. The trauma of what victims have been through can stay long after they escaped from an abusive situation. They may be struggling with upsetting emotions, frightening memories, or a sense of constant danger that cannot just be brushed off.

In July, the Morrison government pledged $3 million to provide more counselling and support services for women and their children who have experienced family violence during this global pandemic.

If you or someone you know is trying to decide whether to stay or leave, feelings of confusion, uncertainty, or fear might be present. Maybe you or they are hoping the situation will change or there is fear of how your or their partner will react if they discover that you or they are trying to leave. Sometimes there can also be thoughts that the abuse is justifiable. Do not let yourself or others be trapped by confusion, guilt, or self-blame. The only thing that matters is your and your loved one’s safety.

For confidential counselling and support services, please contact the national sexual assault and domestic family violence counselling service at 1800 737 732.

For on-campus counselling services, contact Student Wellbeing at 02 9850 7497 or email wellbeing@mq.edu.au

For more information on how to cope with domestic abuse or get help, visit www.lifeline.org.au

Always remember, you are stronger than your biggest fears.

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