One of the most disturbing consequences of the pandemic has been an increase in domestic abuse. During the first three months of the lockdown, there were over 40,000 enquiries to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, mostly made by women. In June, the number was almost 80 per cent higher than usual, according to the charity which runs the helpline, Refuge. Working from home and being unable to mix with other households or go to the shops have made it harder for people trapped with an abusive partner or relative to get some distance or escape. And worries about money, health and unemployment have been compounded by the pandemic, and then exacerbate already toxic relationships.
Domestic abuse doesn’t just mean physical violence; it often takes more subtle and calculated forms. Several years ago, legislation was changed to more clearly incorporate this. The Serious Crime Act 2015 included a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships. This refers to a pattern of behaviour by the perpetrator which makes their victim fearful or otherwise has a substantial adverse effect on them. Such behaviour would involve manipulating the victim or limiting what they can do, possibly by cutting them off from family and friends, taking over their finances or imposing rules on them. So, controlling and coercive behaviour is a combination of psychological and emotional abuse, sometimes with financial abuse, with or without physical violence.
Coercive and controlling behaviour can be difficult to recognise, both from inside and outside the situation. A recent documentary on BBC3 – Is This Coercive Control? – looked at whether a group of young adults would be able to identify its signs. Over two days, they watch and discuss a specially made drama about the relationship between two twentysomethings. Rachel gets fired from her office job and moves in with Alex, her boyfriend of a few months. She fails to find other work and gets increasingly in debt and withdrawn. Alex pushes on her his expectations about what she ‘should’ wear and how she ‘should’ keep the flat tidy. The plot then jumps to a courtroom, with each getting interrogated about their now-disintegrated relationship. The show’s presenter, journalist Ellie Flynn, asks the group of volunteers about their interpretations of how Rachel and Alex relate to each other, and particularly if they believe that any behaviour in the scenario constitutes a crime. All the volunteers see that Alex’s actions are unacceptable, while nearly three quarters don’t think that they’re illegal. In the drama, Alex escapes prosecution because of a lack of evidence that he has been abusive. Emotional and psychological abuse is hard to prove, and realistically enough, the court in the drama doesn’t get the full picture. It’s revealed that Alex engineered for Rachel to lose her job and not get another one, while also isolating her from her friend and leaving threatening voicemail messages, clearly coercive and controlling behaviour.
It’s a step in the right direction that domestic abuse is recognised more than it used to be, and many people sincerely try to address the problem. However, the services run to support victims of abuse are sadly unable to help all those in need. There’s never been enough funding available, and this year’s disruptions have added further pressures. According to a survey by charity Safe Lives, three quarters of domestic abuse support services which responded have had to reduce their capacity due to the pandemic, when there is greater need for them.
These services, and the law, have assisted many victims with getting support and, less often, a sense that justice has been served. But they can’t address the deeper causes of domestic abuse. Each situation is different, but they all happen in a society which enables them. Money is such an important aspect of capitalism that it’s bound to impact on how we relate to our partners and families. In the scenario featured in the documentary, Rachel and Alex’s relationship is shaped by money as much as by other factors: when Rachel loses her job she can’t afford to do anything but move in with Alex, and her lack of money gives Alex a way to control her. People who are trapped in a destructive relationship are often trapped partly because they don’t have much financial autonomy. This is one reason why women, who tend to have lower incomes than men, are more often victims of domestic abuse. As our society is based on division, and competition, and exploitation, it encourages us to want power or at least an advantage over others, financially or otherwise. For some people, these tendencies take over and come out in their close relationships, pushing out empathy and affection. Perpetrators have usually been damaged themselves in some way, and in turn go on to damage those they can.
Understanding how capitalist society creates the situations where domestic abuse can happen isn’t enough, though. Really tackling the problem of domestic abuse means addressing its root causes: the social system we live in.