Anne Hailes: Lockdown has exacerbated domestic tensions – but help is available
THE statistics are horrifying. If you are a woman or a man enjoying a stable family existence, it's hard to put yourself in the place of one of these 'statistics'. Numbers are all very well, but each one represents a woman, girl, man or boy going through the agony of being abused sexually, emotionally or physically in a place where they should feel safe and secure – their home.
From October 2019 until September 2020, the PSNI recorded 18,885 domestic abuse crimes, almost a 10 per cent increase from 2018 to 2019. The police here respond to a domestic abuse incident every 17 minutes and such abuse represents 17.5 per cent of all crime in Northern Ireland.
Since lockdown began, five women have been murdered by a male partner or relative, so it's cause for concern when you hear a man laughingly complain about his wife, adding: "I'll swing for her someday". Not funny.
:: Resentment has built up
Lockdown has exacerbated tensions within homes up and down the country. Stress has a habit of making you say and do things in the heat of the moment, things you can't take back. Talking to some women about negative experiences with a partner during lockdown, it's clear there is a lot of unexpected distress.
"I couldn't believe it when my husband began monitoring the dishwasher! I'd load it as usual then he'd come along and rearrange the plates, I thought it funny at first but then it became a real argument when he told me I was doing it all wrong – for goodness sake, the plates came out clean at the end, so what's the problem? He told me I'm not competent to fill the dishwasher in the correct order."
The couple were unable to sort things out and it got to the point where tensions rose to such an extent that she left it to her husband to do it himself – apparently this didn't please him either.
Harsh words were spoken and now there is a dangerous rift. For another woman, the irritant involves the toilet:
"I like to get the housework done early and leave the place looking nice, but I get very annoyed when my husband thinks he's in a man's loo and leaves the toilet seat up rather than putting the lid down in its place.
"That might sound petty to you but it really annoys me. I've asked him and asked him but he just gets angry and tells me to 'get real', whatever that means."
These may seem no more than irritants, but like a constant drip, the lack of understanding begins to wear people down – men and women.
Other pressures on a woman who is used to running her own life at home while her man is out being the hunter gatherer, is accounting for her movements: where are you going, what time will you be back, who are you meeting, asking who was on the phone as if it's an another man when it's only a girlfriend.
On the other hand, a woman can get suspicious when the man receives calls on his mobile and leaves the room to talk privately, when in fact it's a work-related matter.
:: Communication breakdown
It's difficult for the person who is unexpectedly working from home, being furloughed or paid off, and that applies to men and women – although I suppose more often than not it's the man.
"My man is used to having a junior to do things for him, so he orders me to make cups of tea, make appointments, be available when he says so. Now he takes my car without asking and, worse still, he uses the only laptop we have in the house – basically, this is my laptop and I have no privacy any more.
"I've nothing to hide, so why do I get so upset that my being upset gets him riled up? Even when he shouts 'who left the light on?', I feel trapped. He's never violent, but there are other ways to make me feel fearful."
This is not a diatribe against men; lockdown is obviously extremely stressful for anyone who is suddenly housebound because of the pandemic. The future is very worrying and it's impossible to second guess employment or social life.
The next set of figures will probably make hard reading: in one part of England during the last financial year there's already been an increase of 41 per cent when it comes to domestic abuse.
"This lockdown brings out the worst in you and you've to be very careful and walk away from a situation that could trigger a row." That's good advice, but only if it's possible – when there are children involved that's not always easy, although I know there are those under threat who have a bags packed and hidden in the garage ready for an emergency exit.
:: The demon drink
Many domestic abuse situations involve alcohol. Here, the advice is safety first. Protect yourself and your children by reaching out for help. A lot of the abuse revolves round manipulation, cutting you off from friends and family, so be brave enough to talk to someone you trust and get their support and immediate help, have details of Al-Anon (a group for families and friends of problem drinkers) somewhere safe or ring the family group in Belfast on 028 9068 2368 for advice.
The phone number for Women's Aid is 028 9066 6049, find area groups at womensaidni.org/get-help/local-groups and there's a website chatline which is an option for those whose partner is at home and for whom a phone call or an e-mail isn't wise or secure – belfastwomensaid.org.uk will bring you to this service.
Nexus NI run a domestic and sexual abuse helpline every day at 080 8802 1414 and in an emergency dial 999. All these organisations are confidential and open to women and men.