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Thursday, 02 Jul 2020

The Unique Challenges of Domestic Abuse During Lockdown

By Dr Becky Spelman

The message of “stay home, stay safe” doesn’t hold true for everyone. In fact, for many, it’s a cruel irony. While the current lockdown is a necessary measure, it’s not without some lesser-known effects beyond the financial stressors most people are facing. The current guidelines have created a perfect storm for domestic abuse. And those who’re in the midst of it are now fighting a battle on two fronts. While the coronavirus marches on outside, there is another storm to contend with in what should be a sanctuary from the current madness. Except it’s not…

The Reality of Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse isn’t restricted to acts of physical violence and in fact, demands a far broader definition. Any behaviour that seeks to limit the freedoms of another person is considered an act of abuse. And that includes isolating people from family and friends, monitoring their activities and communications with others and withholding or hiding possessions. Basically, anything at all that would make the other person feel restricted. These acts are categorised under controlling and coercion and actually account for much of what is considered domestic abuse. In fact, it is often how abuse begins before escalating to emotional and physical acts of violence. These control mechanisms have been passed as being an unlawful offence under Section 76 of the Serious Crimes Act in 2015.

The reality of domestic abuse is that it’s rarely about regaining control. It’s about total control. The behaviours directed towards victims are about establishing a power dynamic and a hierarchy system. This is most often enacted through humiliation, intimidation and fear. Although every abuser will have their own particular ‘style’ of how they go about this, the path of abuse itself is typically cyclical, which comes in six clear phases. These are:

Build-up Phase: The enactment of controlling behaviours and tension

Stand-over Phase: An escalation in oppressive behaviours and emotional abuse

Explosion Phase: A peak violence whether it be a physical or verbal attack

Remorse Phase: Gaslighting tactics and shifting the blame onto the victim

Pursuit Phase: Trying to make amends and paper over the cracks.

Honeymoon Phase: Reaffirming that everything is back to ‘normal’

Unsurprisingly, mental illness is a serious concern for those who are either experiencing ongoing abuse, or else have come through the other side and managed to escape. Anxiety and depression are both common challenges as well as PTSD.

Domestic Abuse Hasn’t Stopped Because of Quarantine

The unfortunate fact is that domestic abuse hasn’t stopped since the quarantine came into effect. In fact, there’s been a significant spike in recorded cases around the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has seen an increase of 60% in calls to European domestic abuse hotlines in April with calls in the UK up 50% alone. There were also 100 arrests made relating to such case by the Metropolitan Police in London during the first six weeks of lockdown. And those are likely to account for just the cases that were reported. The vast majority of people who’re at the mercy of an abuser suffer in silence, and now in complete isolation.

The reason lockdown has seen such a sharp increase in overall cases of abuse is multi-faceted. But it’s the very nature of the lockdown itself that is causing the issue. The current rules can be weaponised and used as a further means of control. For quarantine to be observed properly in a co-habiting scenario, both people must be taking the same precautions – unavoidable excursions permitting.

You can’t have two people who live together following their own version of self-isolation, as the approach of the more relaxed individual will compromise the more cautious person’s efforts. It does make for common sense. However, it’s a fact that can be seized upon and feed into the control narrative of an abuser. And the emotional blackmail of reporting spouses for flaunting lockdown rules is a very real possibility – even if it has been observed correctly.

This creates a catch-22 situation. Disregard the current guidelines to get to place free from abuse, but doing so at the expense of risking infection. It feels as though there’s no right choice to make. And with the lack of privacy afforded to those in danger, it makes seeking support all the more difficult. There’s even less oppurtunity to make contact with support lines without creating further tensions and risking their safety.

Taking Back Control of Your Situation

The uncomfortable truth is that in situations of abuse, there does need to be an element of proactiveness. You need to find a way to break the cycle, whether it be reaching out for help, or finding the courage to exert your own will. The path you take will be dependent on your particular circumstances. It may not be realistic to stand up to someone who’s much larger than you, and prone to bouts of unpredictability. You’ll need to choose your course of action carefully so as not bring yourself into unnecessary harm.

Know exactly what you’re going to do – create a plan. Don’t leave anything chance. If at all possible, try establishing boundaries that reaffirm your position as someone who should be respected, and not treated as an object. It will involve pushing past your emotional distress and taking a step into the unknown. However, this is only advisable is the limit of your abuse is coercive behaviour, and you’re not dealing with the threat of physical violence. Although you should absolutely stand up for your rights, it’s also wise to recognise that this can also serve as a trigger for certain individuals.

Your primary motivation should always be our own wellbeing. What measures can you take to increase your sense of safety? If you’re unsure, one of the many available hotlines can help you put in place a plan that will you take positive action steps to reclaim control of your life. The nature of domestic abuse makes it feel like a place of extreme isolation, which has only been heightened due to the current pandemic. But there is still help out there if you’re willing to reach and ask for it.

About the author:

Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.

***If you’re struggling with domestic abuse related to the COVID-19 outbreak and think you might benefit from speaking to someone, we offer a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with one of our specialists to help you find the best way to move forward. You can book yours here


Psychology Today. (12th May 2020) COVID-19 Triggers a Catastrophic Increase in Domestic Abuse. Retrieved on 22th May, 2020 from, (12th May 2020) COVID-19/Coronavirus: Safety tips for survivors. Retrieved on 22th May, 2020 from,

Guardian. (27th Apr 2020) Domestic abuse surge in coronavirus lockdown could have lasting impact, MPs say. Retrieved on 22th May, 2020 from,

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