Editor’s note: HuffPost has chosen to publish the following first-person account without naming the author. We do this only rarely and have done so here because of the potential risk to the author if her real name were used.
This was supposed to be the year I left an unhappy marriage of almost 20 years that came with psychological and emotional abuse. I still believe this will be my year of freedom since it’s only April, but I’ve had to put my plans and dreams on hold while I wait out the stay-at-home order and all the “nonessential” institutions and services remain closed.
To the outside world, when I post on social media or buy groceries, which has become my only public outing now, I may seem to exude happiness. However, I am constantly nervous about what I or my children will do that could anger my husband. How can I keep him from yelling at me? What new list of demands will he issue? Will I find his orders tolerable or soul-crushing? Will he take offense at something and retaliate with more threats and restrictive rules for me and my children?
Anyone familiar with living in the same household with an abuser while going through a divorce knows that arguments, intimidation and retaliation can be the fodder of daily life. But usually when this happened, the courts were open, most of the country wasn’t under stay-at-home orders, a deadly pandemic wasn’t killing people and we didn’t have more than 16 million Americans unemployed in less than a month.
For those living in fear with their abusers, the coronavirus has compounded the time that they must spend together. It has magnified the stress levels in our homes and surely increased incidents of domestic violence. For many of us, the toxic spouse leaving for work provided needed relief from the barrage of intimidation, verbal battery and abuse. Now many of these significant others are either working from home or unemployed.
The very nature of this virus isolates people. If we show symptoms of the disease, we must quarantine ourselves from our families and from society itself for at least 14 days. To end up at a hospital can mean lingering and ultimately dying separated from loved ones because no one will be allowed into our rooms as we struggle for our last breath. For weeks we’ve learned concepts like “social distancing,” where now we must not intrude within 6 feet of one another’s personal space. Steadily all of our in-person social groups and institutions have closed. Some connections have moved online, but this new norm of personal interaction and socialization by computer has left many people anxious, lonely and disconnected.
“For many of us, the toxic spouse leaving for work provided needed relief from the barrage of intimidation, verbal battery and abuse. Now many of these significant others are either working from home or unemployed.”
Some have joked that this forced confinement will result in a baby boom in nine months. Most of the media focus has been on those affected medically or financially by this crisis. But the pandemic’s upheaval is also exacerbating the pain of those living in homes where they have been mentally, emotionally and/or physically abused. And this often overlooked group needs help, too.
I feel fortunate that over the past month several friends have reached out to check how I’m doing because they know the stress and hostility I experience with my husband. Having them to text, email and talk with during this period of isolation has been vital to my staying positive and hopeful.
Now that we have more hours together in the same house, there are more opportunities for my husband to hurl criticisms at me. As the arguing intensified over the past month, several friends have urged me to move out as soon as possible. There were times I didn’t feel safe as he hounded me with his lists of demands, threatened me about the divorce terms, screamed, name-called and incessantly ordered me to explain why something was put in the wrong place.
I reached the decision to seek a divorce unexpectedly last year. Over the years, I had been conditioned to living with the constant fear of what he would be upset about next. Even the “good” times were never really pleasant because I always knew that he could suddenly turn and become infuriated with me about something. He exerted control sometimes by implementing consequences but mainly by issuing endless threats. Beyond my own fears, I could see that accepting this mistreatment was damaging my children’s view of women as they watched their mom being denigrated by her husband.
So I got a lawyer, but I’m still stuck in place now.
“My lawyer told me to make up with my husband, do my best to get along, wait until I could work for a few months at my new job, and hope that the courts reopen by July.”
Being under a stay-at-home order when I don’t feel safe at home is frightening. I recently called my lawyer to tell him that the threats and constant bullying were getting to be more than I could handle and I needed to make a plan to leave earlier than September. My lawyer told me to make up with my husband, do my best to get along, wait until I could work for a few months at my new job, and hope that the courts reopen by July. I understood his reasoning and resolved to do whatever I could once again to be agreeable and endure this time amicably. It appears this will be yet another life stage during which I have to tolerate my husband, my freedom be damned.
I feel like if my resident state truly cared about my freedom, then its divorce law wouldn’t require one of us to move out in order to file for a divorce. As long as I can’t afford to move to a place that will house my three children, I can’t file for a divorce. I looked into my options last summer and discovered that without an income above $160,000 or a letter from someone qualified to guarantee my rent, no landlord would lease to me in my children’s school district.
So when we wonder why abused spouses stay in miserable situations, it’s partly because our society still doesn’t offer much support to those who are financially dependent on a spouse and have children but still wish to leave. I never felt the pain was bad enough to move to a shelter before, but now it feels like I’m forced to choose between continuing to endure psychological abuse or going to a place where I and my children might be exposed to a life-threatening virus.
In addition, I was going to start a new job at the beginning of April to earn some income, but that was delayed another month because of this virus. When you haven’t supported yourself financially as an adult, starting anew as a single mother of three is intimidating.
“I never felt the pain was bad enough to move to a shelter before, but now it feels like I’m forced to choose between continuing to endure psychological abuse or going to a place where I and my children might be exposed to a life-threatening virus.”
I am an optimist by nature and have staggered through this marriage by focusing on whatever I could that was positive. Like any mother during this lockdown time, I do try each day to make sure that my children are able to engage in some fun activity like playing a board game, throwing a ball in the yard or baking.
In responding to external crises that I cannot control, I find comfort in the writings of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. I hope everybody making the best of confinement and abusive situations might find solace in this quotation as well. He wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms ― to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
There are times in life when we have to reevaluate, grit our teeth and make the best of our circumstances. We can choose our response and our outlook. And if we know someone having a tough time right now, try to check in on them and remind them that they are not alone and that there is a future on the other side of this crisis.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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