Melanie* had known Doug most of her life. They grew up in the same neighborhood and were good friends during high school. After she started college, they began dating.
“He was over-the-top charming, wooing me with flowers, text messages, lots of attention,” said Melanie, a Novant Health team member. “When someone comes on that strongly in the beginning, it’s easy to be blinded by the extravagant gestures.”
Two years later, the couple married. Soon after, Melanie suffered a miscarriage, requiring emergency surgery. That’s when things began to change…
* * *
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and with shorter days and the threat of COVID-19, there’s no better time to consider what spending more time at home means to those at risk of domestic abuse. Reports from healthcare workers and early data show that domestic violence has intensified globally since beginning of the pandemic, according to UN Women.
Domestic (or intimate-partner) violence describes a pattern of abusive behavior that allows one partner to gain or maintain control over the other, according to Dr. Sashalee T. Stewart, psychiatrist at Novant Health Psychiatry - SouthPark, in Charlotte.
It occurs in all communities, and affects people of all ages, races, genders, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations.
About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have suffered physical or sexual violence or stalking from an intimate partner, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While it appears women experience domestic violence at a greater rate, some researchers suspect that these numbers might be misleading. Men who experience domestic violence are often less willing than women to report it to authorities, fearing they will meet with derision and dismissiveness.
Domestic violence also occurs in the LGBTQ community at equal or even greater rates than among heterosexual couples. Here, too, victims fear reaching out for help will make little difference. In fact, one study of male same-sex relationships revealed that only 26% of men called the police after experiencing near-lethal violence.
Domestic violence falls into several categories:
• Physical abuse.
• Verbal abuse.
• Emotional/psychological abuse.
• Sexual abuse.
• Controlling behaviors.
Pandemic within a pandemic
Sheltering at home or being quarantined increases the risk of domestic violence — a fact reflected in rising numbers of reported cases, Stewart said.
That tension is exacerbated by other COVID-related stressors, like isolation, health worries and unemployment or financial strain. Also, with more people working at home, there’s less privacy and less opportunity to reach out for help.
“From a mental healthcare perspective, it's been really difficult because if we’re doing a phone or video chat with a client experiencing domestic violence, we never know if there's someone else in the room with them,” she said. “That just makes everything more challenging, because clients don't have space to speak freely like they did prior to the pandemic.”
* * *
Suddenly, Melanie’s husband, once charming and playful, became threatening, critical and controlling.
One evening while recovering from her miscarriage and surgery, Doug became enraged because Melanie hadn’t cooked dinner. He yelled at her and punched her repeatedly in the stomach while she curled up to protect her still-healing incision.
The couple ended up separating a few months later. After four or five months, however, they got back together and Melanie became pregnant again.
“I thought, ‘Oh, maybe things will be different, because now we have a kid together. And it was good for a while ... until Doug had to start spending more money for child care and finances became an issue between us. From there it was just downhill…”
* * *
Early warning signs
Domestic violence tends to occur in an escalating pattern, beginning with behaviors many might brush off as unimportant. Stewart suggests keeping an eye out for red flags:
• Laying on the charm: Potential abusers tend to turn on the charm when forming relationships to “reel them in,” Stewart said, and want relationships to progress quickly.
• Isolating: Abusers discourage partners from maintaining connections with friends, family and other supports.
• Belittling: The abuser makes harsh comments, name calling and insults. When confronted, he or she may claim to be joking, or that the victim is overly sensitive. Abusers are often doting and attentive in public, but critical and judgmental at home.
• Monitoring: Abusers keep track of what their partners are doing, who they spend time with, and may enact “curfews” or try to change how they dress.
• Blaming: When confronted, abusers may disregard or minimize victims’ feelings and refuse to take responsibility.
• Angering: An abuser’s anger often goes “from zero to 100” in no time, and he or she will react disproportionately, Stewart said. “That should definitely raise a red flag.”
* * *
The next several years, Melanie suffered physical, emotional and verbal abuse. Doug caused bruises no one could see, so neither co-workers nor family guessed what she was going through. The emotional abuse was equally damaging.
“He told me I was stupid, I was ugly, that nobody else could ever love me. The taunting was constant and extreme,” she said. “Gradually, I went from being a confident, young woman — a high school graduate who was on the dean’s list at college — to someone who just didn’t care. He broke me all the way down.”
Doug also controlled her financially, monitoring the couple’s bank account. She once opened her own account, begging the bank not to contact her by mail or email, but he learned about it when her bank erroneously mailed a letter to their home.
“Domestic violence victims really have no type of privacy whatsoever,” Melanie said. “The abusers go through our emails, our mail, our cell phones, anything that allows us to communicate to the outside world.”
* * *
Why don’t they just leave?
People stay in abusive relationships for a variety of reasons, Stewart said. Some love their partners and hope they can change. They may also feel guilty about separating kids from their father or mother.
Others feel shame about their situation and blame themselves, or stay because of religious or cultural beliefs that make them unwilling to divorce or separate.
Some worry about bringing children to a shelter. Or they decide against going because they don’t want to leave heirlooms or beloved pets, which most shelters cannot accommodate.
“Many people feel they have to stay for financial reasons,” Stewart said. “They may not have jobs and worry they can’t make ends meet without their partner’s income.”
Victims’ feelings about leaving often vacillate, and they often fear for their safety should they decide to leave.
“That fear is not unfounded,” Stewart said. “Victims of abuse are at increased risk of harm when they try to leave — even more than those who stay. The abusers often get very angry because, by leaving, a victim is taking away all the control the abuser worked so hard to gain.”
* * *
One day, after enduring seven years of abuse and trying to leave several times, Melanie had an altercation with her husband. Doug dialed 911, but immediately hung up and pulled his gun, pinning her to the floor with the gun to her head, threatening to kill her.
“The police came because of the 911 call,” she said. “They could see how the house had been torn up, and our kids were standing there crying.”
Taking the officers’ advice, Melanie quickly packed some necessities and took her children to a family member’s house. A few weeks later, with her mother’s help, she was able to move into her own apartment.
“Fortunately, my husband wasn’t aggressive after I left. He didn’t create any havoc.”
She credits her support system, primarily her family and her best friend, for encouraging her and never giving up on her. Without that kind of unconditional support, she said, victims are more likely to go back over and over again.
* * *
Creating a safe plan of escape
For those in abusive relationships, Stewart offers the following tips for creating a plan to leave safely:
• Involve somebody you trust — a therapist or counselor, healthcare worker, family member or friend — to help develop the plan, identify resources and arrange a place to stay.
• Choose a “safe word” to alert your support network you’re in danger and need to get away.
• Know the abuser’s triggers, to take action before the situation escalates. Come up with several believable excuses to get away without causing suspicion.
• Have a safe place in the house if leaving immediately isn’t possible — a room with an outside window — and avoid enclosed places like closets, where you might be trapped. Avoid the kitchen or rooms where there are knives or other objects that might be used as weapons.
• Keep gas in the tank, if you have a car, and park so you have a clear and easy exit. Get spare keys made and keep doors unlocked for quick access.
• Prepare a “go bag” — clothes, medications, toiletries and cash — or decide beforehand what you need and where those things are so you can pack efficiently when the time comes.
• Gather Social Security cards, passports, birth certificates and a list of important contacts. Try to memorize the phone numbers, as well.
• Practice your escape plan, especially if children are involved, so everyone knows what to do. This can help highlight any changes that need to be made so the plan flows seamlessly.
• “Reach out to a friend or contact a shelter before leaving to let them know you’re on your way,” Stewart said. “And always, if there is a threat of harm to yourself or your children, call 911.”
* * *
Four years ago, Melanie remarried. Her new husband, she said, treats her “like a queen.”
“I went from being told I was ugly and no one would ever love me to being told daily that I'm loved and I'm beautiful.”
Over time, seeing that their mother was treated with respect and genuine love, her children warmed to the man they now call “Pops.”
However, because they had joint custody of their children, she still needed to interact with Doug. “I didn’t want to put the kids in a situation where they had to choose between mommy or dad,” she added. “My ex isn’t a bad father — he just didn’t know how to be a husband.”
“I didn't allow the bitter experience to stop me from being better,” Melanie said. “I forgave, and now I advocate for victims and their families. It’s a wonderful life.”
* * *
If there’s one thing she’d like domestic violence victims to remember, Stewart said, it’s that everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
“You deserve to be safe and happy. Your children deserve to be safe and happy,” she added. “There are people out there who want to help. Please seek out those resources, and those treatment options, because you are not alone.”
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* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.