Media outlets around the globe tell of a huge uptick in reports of intimate partner violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. France has seen a 30% increase in reports. In the United States, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. are witnessing upticks as well. Pop Icon Rihanna and Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey have donated millions in aid to provide resources for women in Los Angeles seeking shelter. Domestic violence has been called “the other epidemic.”
We wonder if, during this pandemic, the hammer of domestic violence prevention doesn’t see every interpersonal conflict as a nail.
That is, in order to prioritize and respond to intimate partner abuse properly, we must understand that not every domestic combustion right now indicates an abusive relationship.
It's important to realize the variables in these numbers
Without looking at the facts of each individual case of alleged abuse, it’s impossible for even trained psychologists to know if any of these spikes in domestic violence reporting contain any over-reporting, the behavioral equivalent of a false positive.
But we do know that it’s possible for the request for intervention to outmatch the risk of harm. In a study on validity of the Conflict Tactics Scale, a tool used to measure intimate partner violence, researchers found that over-reporting exists in domestic disputes.
This isn’t to say that over-reporting consists of lies; it doesn’t necessarily. But we can’t escape that victimization is a combination of facts, perception and proportion. Psychologists call this appraisal distortion. Indeed, that’s the problem with truly abusive situations; many times, the victim doesn’t even know they’re living in harmful conditions. People who grow up with abuse may think it’s normal.
If people fail to recognize abuse where it exists, then it’s possible that they also label it as such when it doesn’t rise to that level.
During the pandemic, even in the best of relationships, people are stressed. According to one study, the stressors of quarantines longer than 10 days worsen symptoms of post-traumatic stress significantly. We are over one month into shelter-at-home, so the impact of quarantine is getting more severe by the day.
People’s perceptions and reactions to these new sides of their partners — ones that would have been hidden had the “new normal” matched the “old normal” — may be heightened because we are all living through a mass trauma. Trauma causes people to sense what’s happening around them as a greater threat than it might be and fosters the use of maladaptive strategies.
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For example, an argument between a woman who threw away a cheesecake because she thought it was infected and her husband exploded into a drawn gun and 911 calls. Another woman called police and asked them to arrest her daughter for walking outside. These cases likely wouldn’t have happened outside the quarantine.
In order to understand what isn’t domestic violence, we must look at what is. Domestic
violence is driven by power and control. Outbursts of anger or frustration during the pandemic don’t necessarily signal a relationship wrought by intimate partner violence.
We must discover who the true victims are
Actions that erupt between loving family members in the trauma of quarantine are far different than oppression. In a different context, now that couples and their children live in what is essentially a more liberal form of what correctional facilities call solitary confinement, we all need to be easier with each other. Psychologists have explained how the lack of choices and stimulation in these conditions adversely affect the decision-making faculties of prisoners. It’s a widely accepted way of understanding inmates’ abnormal behavior.
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We need to extend the same understanding we show inmates and defendants with trauma histories to ourselves right now and know that every act is not born of pathology, but of circumstance.
For instance, in Chicago, the number of 911 calls has increased about 13%, while the number of domestic violence related police complaints filed has decreased. This divergence has been interpreted as women fearing more violence if they pursue charges against abusers. While that’s one way to look at it, another theory is that the people involved in the various incidents simply cooled off after the call.
In fact, calls to police end in mandatory arrests in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Out of control emotions and reactions can backfire very quickly.
Some may object that insisting that people deescalate arguments shifts the burden of preventing conflict to alleged victims. That’s not the case. We know there are some threats that leave no room for interpretation and some disputes have turned deadly. The case of a man who allegedly shot and killed his ex-girlfriend's 15-year-old twin daughters in southern California last week comes to mind. Violence is never acceptable, and it shouldn’t be condoned.
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But identifying everyone who is reacting to the unusual times we’re living by exploding in anger as a domestic violence perpetrator who other family members need to escape, uses too broad a brush. Labeling cases in this manner will cause a tightening of resources for people who really do need to exit oppressive domestic arrangements.
Rather than referring every instance of conflict for shelter and separation, we can work on preventing these escalations in the first place and learn how to manage our emotions with the skills of emotional intelligence. That way, we can reserve domestic violence resources for truly inescapable abusive relationships.
Robin Stern is co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations Women for Peace Association and the author of "The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life." Chandra Bozelko is a columnist and writes the blog Prison Diaries. Follow them on Twitter: @RobinSStern and @ChandraBozelko