From the very beginning of the pandemic, activists and charities raised concerns that lockdown could be having an impact on domestic violence. Women’s Aid noted that home is often an unsafe environment for those experiencing abuse, while earlier this year Refuge stated that they’d seen a 60% increase in monthly calls to their National Domestic Abuse helpline.
A new study, published in Psychology of Violence, looks at rates of intimate partner violence during the pandemic in the United States. Like data from the UK, it suggests that domestic violence increased during lockdown — and that this was particularly linked to stress.
Participants were 510 adults based in the United States, all of whom had been in a relationship for at least six months and had consumed at least one alcoholic drink in the month prior to the study’s start. On average they had spent six days a week with their partner during lockdown. After sharing demographic data, participants completed a measure of Covid-19 related stress, indicating how much the pandemic had impacted their life or behaviour, and whether they had experienced physical, psychological, social, economic or health-related stressors in its wake. They also shared how much alcohol they had been consuming in terms of both frequency and quantity.
Next, participants completed a measure related to psychological and physical abuse, which assessed the perpetration of intimate partner aggression in the six months prior to lockdown, and since lockdown measures began. Psychological aggression was measured with four items, with participants responding with yes or no answers to the following questions: “I yelled at my partner”, “I sulked from my partner”, “I insulted or called my partner names” and “I made threats to my partner”. Physical aggression was measured with two items: “I threw things, kicked or hit something” and “I pushed, grabbed, or hit my partner”.
Overall, participants reported perpetrating more acts of psychological and physical aggression after lockdown began, compared to pre-pandemic. Participants who experienced more Covid-related stress were also more likely to be psychologically or physically aggressive towards their partners. But, contrary to expectations, the relationship between stress and physical aggression was only seen among those who consumed relatively few alcoholic drinks, and not among heavy drinkers.
A closer look at the data showed that heavy drinkers tended to have relatively high rates of physical aggression, which didn’t change with pandemic-associated stress. Those who drank less, on the other hand, showed relatively low rates of aggression when they reported low Covid stress, but when they were more stressed about Covid, they perpetrated intimate partner aggression at the same level as these already aggressive participants.
In addition to individual interventions designed to reduce domestic abuse, the team suggests that wider policies that relieve stress could also reduce intimate partner aggression. “Most people wouldn’t think about intimate partner violence as a reason to offer an economic relief package, but our data suggest that it has potential to be an effective measure,” said lead author Dominic Parrott. “The data also suggest that typical high-risk groups are not the only ones at risk of perpetrating violence in this kind of crisis environment. The stress of the pandemic is so profound and so ubiquitous that you need interventions or policies that hit big swathes of the population.”
Several questions still remain. Firstly, it was not clear whether or not participants had consumed alcohol prior to perpetrating intimate partner aggression, which may offer vital insights. Secondly, the short physical and psychological aggression measures may have excluded certain behaviours that could have increased during the pandemic, including less extreme examples that nonetheless impacted on people’s lives. And, finally, insights were self-reported. Whether participants accurately or honestly represented their relationship with their partner is not clear.