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COLUMN: Relationship challenges amid a global pandemic

Absence is one type of pain but too much presence is leading to spike in domestic abuse
George Neufeld holds signs for his wife Nettie outside Chilliwack General Hospital on April 24, 2020. (Submitted)

A woman I know forwarded me the photo taken from inside Chilliwack General Hospital (CGH) last Friday.

It was of an older man in a black jacket and a fedora on the street outside the hospital.

He was holding up two hand-written signs. “God bless U,” said one. The other: “Nettie.”

His name is George Neudorf. His wife Nettie was a patient at CGH at the time (not a COVID-19 patient and she’s out of hospital now).

With visitors not allowed, this was George’s way of saying something sweet to his wife, a few words from a few floors down amid a global pandemic that is keeping some people apart while forcing others together.

I don’t know the Neudorfs, but despite their temporary separation, it’s probably safe to say that the relationship between George and Nettie is just fine.

For a great many others, forced separation will have been a great challenge these past weeks. Family members not allowed to visit parents in care homes. Geographical separation with travel restrictions in place.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I think that’s true. Absence also makes the heart ache stronger.

For a whole other subset of the population, however, it’s not absence that’s the problem, it’s presence.

The Victoria-based Cridge Centre for the Family reported a 40 per cent increase in women attempting to escape family violence in March, at the start of this COVID-19 pandemic.

In the U.K., a committee of British lawmakers is urging the government to take action after a report found that calls to the national domestic abuse helpline surged 49 per cent during the coronavirus lockdown.

• READ MORE: Victoria-based support group reports 40 per cent leap in women seeking escape from family violence

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Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services reported a 300 per cent spike in calls to its crisis line since the outbreak began, according to Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers, which urged anyone with information about specific cases of domestic abuse to call in anonymously.

“With no sign yet of the stay-at-home orders being lifted, people may know of friends, neighbours, or even relative strangers down the street who may be suffering abuse at the hands of a spouse or partner,” executive director Linda Annis said in a press release. “Many people don’t want to get involved, but an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers may put an end to it, or even save a life.”

This is, of course, far from a local phenomenon with similar trends reported in places such as New York City. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed out recently that violence is not confined to the battlefield.

“For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest – in their own homes,” due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Guterres called for “peace in the home.”

Relationships are certainly shifting amid self-isolation, job loss, and otherwise unusual circumstances as we all wrestle with what is hopefully a temporary new normal.

One person I know early on suggested maybe some relationships would improve, possibly letting married people re-acquaint themselves. After all, couples got married for a reason. I told another friend about this notion and she wondered if he might need help polishing his rose-coloured glasses.

But I do like this half-cup-full way of thinking, and I’m sure it certainly is true that some relationships, whether between spouses or siblings, or parents and children, can improve while the world is turned on its head.

This increase in domestic abuse, however, is a tragic reality, a terrible side effect of this virus spreading around the world.

There is also hope and joy and love, and we’ve seen that with many stories in recent weeks.

Stories like that of George and Nettie, whose hearts maybe grew a little fonder in absence, and whose love will more than certainly outlast this temporary time of turmoil.

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