Walking on eggshells: Reflections on domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic

Suzanne Jacob (MML, 1999)

‘Walking on eggshells’ is a common phrase in domestic abuse response. Those who have experienced abuse often describe that this is the way they felt, much of the time. Abuse doesn’t always involve violence, but the pernicious levels of control, and the ways in which you’re undermined, lead to a feeling of… consequences. 

In their extraordinary book Operation Lighthouse, brothers Ryan and Luke Hart describe how in the end, your abuser doesn’t even need to police all your behaviours, because you start to self-police so thoroughly. 

Reflecting on the covid-19 lockdown, a woman I work with said she could imagine herself back in the abusive relationship she experienced, only this time ‘Instead of walking on eggshells, I’d be walking on glass’. Covid has exaggerated many aspects of abusive situations, from a closing down of our physical space and social connections, to an imperative to wear or not wear certain things, to a policing of transgressions outside the home.

We won’t know the full impact of covid-19 on the individuals and families where someone is abusive until long after lockdown is over, despite seeing clear signs of trouble such as a huge rise in calls to specialist voluntary sector organisations. In particular, it’s going to take time for children to have the chance to talk about what home felt like during this period. Even adults, in normal times, come forward in very small numbers compared to the total who experience abuse. This can be for many reasons; shame, embarrassment, fear of not being believed, physical fear, anxiety about child contact, continuing love/feelings for the abuser, not being able to name it as abuse, not wanting to disrupt a settled life/friendship group/other’s people’s peace of mind, not having the support to do it, fear of change in financial circumstances…

This is also true for the person using abusive behaviours. If your way of being in the world involves harming someone - or multiple people - who you’re supposed to love, what mountains of societal expectation stand in the way of you speaking about that? And will it achieve anything if you do? In a piece of engagement work last year by my charity, SafeLives, over 1,200 men and boys gave us an insight into their attitudes, behaviours and expectations. Almost a third said they had done something they regret in a relationship. Of that number, however, almost none had worried that this would lead to any kind of sanction from friends. Some even recounted how, when they had tried to broach the subject with a friend, that friend had minimised the seriousness of their behaviour. 

I’ve been CEO at SafeLives for 2 ½ years. In that time, around 160,000 adults and over 210,000 children have used frontline interventions created by SafeLives. Over a thousand individuals who pose the highest risk to one or more family members have taken part in our Drive programme, to challenge and disrupt their behaviour. We’ve influenced the policy of Governments in England, Scotland and Wales, and the words of dozens of journalists who are read/heard by millions of people in the UK and overseas.

It isn’t enough. Until we lift all the barriers and allow people to speak out, we’re still just paddling about at the edges. During the lockdown, the space for someone to speak out to change their life has been shuttered up in unprecedented ways. At the same time more column inches than ever have been written about what happens behind closed doors. As we start to emerge, SafeLives will be looking for opportunities, as well as evidence of what risks have turned into reality. We’ll be asking individuals all across the UK not to go back to the times when domestic abuse was too hard to talk about or think about. If you worried about people during lockdown, you can play your part. ‘How did it feel at home?’ will be a natural question we’re all asking each other, but we need to listen, really listen, to the answers people give. Encourage our kids to ask their schoolfriends. Question our own experiences and behaviours and wonder if any of that could, or should, have been different. 

SafeLives will walk alongside anyone who wants to do this. Thank you to all the former Binsonites who help us do it. Mike Brett’s amazing film company Archer’s Mark, who have created video for us to illustrate the Men and Boys Voices project. Rupal Sachdev-Kantaria, who gave me a platform to speak to a prospective Mayor of London in Parliament. Fran Perrin, whose Indigo Trust reached out to SafeLives to ask what specialist domestic abuse charities need right now as they pivot from in-person working to greater use of online technologies. The friends and alumni who donate, who take part in the conversation, who share their own story with me. There is no them and us about abuse. Anyone can experience it regardless of age, class, ethnicity, sexuality, level of education. Any of us can adopt abusive behaviours ourselves. We’re not heroes and we’re not monsters. 

If covid has kept us trapped then as we shake ourselves out of its worst strictures, let’s not go back. Change is long overdue.

Information & help: https://safelives.org.uk/news-views/domestic-abuse-and-covid-19

Support SafeLives: https://safelives.org.uk/support-us/donate

Contact me directly: Suzanne.Jacob@safelives.org.uk