When Sheltering in Place Isn’t Safe: How to Know You’re in an Abusive Relationship

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When Sheltering in Place Isn’t Safe: How to Know You’re in an Abusive Relationship

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: Tumisu/ Pixabay


The COVID-19 pandemic has created an overwhelming sense of anxiety, fear, and feeling out of control for all of us. Many who struggle with feeling powerless try to regain control by exerting power on physical, sexual, or emotional levels. And this “power and control” is at the core of domestic abuse. While the current lockdown is intended to help people stay safe – it is unfortunately putting victims of domestic abuse in danger.

It is important to know that victims of abuse often struggle with their partner being perceived as a “great person.” They might see their partner as being great in so many ways, and yet still feel emotionally harmed by them. If you are in such a situation, it is essential for you to pay attention to your emotions. Something about how you are being treated is not acceptable – no matter how wonderful your partner may sometimes seem.

With this in mind, consider that there are many different forms of abuse:

Psychological and emotional abuse: An abusive person degrades and scares their partner in many ways. They might make disparaging remarks about their partner’s appearance or abilities, humiliate them, or keep them on the defensive by blaming them for the abusive behavior. During this pandemic, the abusive partner might use misinformation to scare the victim and prevent them from seeking help or medical attention.

Threats and intimidation: An abusive person aims to keep their partner afraid and anxious by looking, speaking, and acting in threatening ways. For instance, to keep the victim from leaving, they might threaten to cancel their health insurance. When abused people finally stand up for themselves and threaten to leave, their abusers sometimes threaten to kill themselves in a desperate attempt to maintain control.

Physical abuse: All intentional physical harm is abuse. This includes pinching, shoving, slapping, punching, hair-pulling, and choking. With fears of contracting COVID-19 so high, abusive partners may act out their fears. A National Domestic Violence Hotline advocate reported, “A health professional still living with their abuser called and said they were physically abused that night because their abuser was sure they were trying to infect them with COVID-19.“

If you are in such a situation, it is important to understand that you are not to blame. Nothing justifies these behaviors. The abusers could have always chosen to act differently, such as walking away.

Sexual abuse: Just as with physical abuse, there is no excuse for sexual abuse. Even if you are married or living together, no one has the right to force sexual acts upon another person. When they do, it is abusive.

Isolation: Abusive people often limit and control their partner’s activities to alienate their partners from friends and family. This is made easier with lockdown orders, which include travel restrictions.

Economic abuse: Many abusive people control their partners through economic means. They will prevent their partner from getting a job and limit their access to money.

Using children: Many people stay in relationships because their partners control them with threats related to their children. In the current situation, an abusive partner might use threats about them infecting their children to keep them away from their kids.

If you can relate to any of the above areas, take measures to keep yourself safe. Reach out to friends, relatives, clergy, or your therapist (if you have one). The National Domestic Violence Hotline is always there to help you. CEO Katie Ray-Jones, has implored, “We encourage survivors to reach out to The Hotline, 1-800-799-7233 or chat online through our website, www.thehotline.org, or text “loveis” to 22522.” The staff who answer will talk with you about your situation and help you strategize ways to stay safe.

Even though you may feel scared, confused, or isolated, you are not alone – you just need to reach out for support and guidance.


Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.