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Shelter-in-Place: Lesbian Anger & Violence

19 May Posted by in Dr. Glenda Corwin | Comments Off on Shelter-in-Place: Lesbian Anger & Violence
Shelter-in-Place: Lesbian Anger & Violence

It’s very obvious that COVID-19 has caused a lot of fear and grief, and that many people are angry and threatening violence. It’s not just gun-toting protesters. Anger and violence are happening at home, too. Sheltering in place can become very scary.

The data on domestic violence shows that the prevalence is proportionately similar among lesbian and heterosexual couples. Many lesbians in violent situations say they felt huge shame because they were sure these problems didn’t happen between women. As always, secrecy and shame make everything worse.

Recently a woman named “Abby” reached out to me. She had moved across the country several years ago, met “Kim,” fell in love, and got married. Fairly soon, she realized Kim “had a short fuse,” and seemed to get very angry at least twice a week. Abby blamed it on work stress, as if it’s “normal” to be that outraged that often.

Then COVID arrived, Abby got furloughed, and Kim’s entertainment business collapsed. They were sheltering in place at home, and it had gotten ugly. She was crying when she called me.

She spoke quickly, because Kim had gone out to the pharmacy and was coming back very soon. She told me about an incident that had happened the week before her call.

They had been grocery shopping when Abby dropped a jar of tomato sauce and it splattered all over the aisle. Kim instantly, loudly, said “Why are you so f——g clumsy? You don’t pay attention to what you’re doing–that’s why you’re such a klutz.” People nearby looked shocked and quickly moved away. Alice was mortified. She tried to clean it up while Kim watched scornfully. Then a store employee came to help and they left immediately, without buying any groceries.

When they got home, Kim asked what they were going to eat. She began raving about how there was no food in the house, she’d have to go out again by herself because Alice was so clumsy and stupid. Abby was completely silent, and Kim put her hands around her neck and started to shake her. She was afraid she was going to choke her. She cried and begged for forgiveness, and Kim stopped.

When I asked if this had happened before, she said “Maybe just once or twice…” She described years of verbal insults and criticism…but said physical attacks had happened since sheltering together. I know how ashamed she was to admit this, and suspected there was more.

A social worker who works with battered lesbians told me the biggest problem is that “domestic violence confuses you.” Abby is certainly confused. She still loves Kim, and Kim swears she loves her. But why does she hurt her so much? She vacillates between thinking she should be more attentive, and thinking Kim has an anger problem. She also didn’t know that domestic violence happens with lesbian couples. Her confusion keeps her from trusting her own inner voice which is telling her this isn’t right.

Could Abby have predicted this behavior when she first met Kim? There are some clues worth noting. None of these definitely indicate someone is physically violent, but these are highly correlated with individuals who are abusive in verbal and perhaps physical ways.

1. They blame others for their problems. Problems come up in all relationships- that’s just life. But most of us are able to take some responsibility for our part in creating and resolving these problems. If everything is someone else’s fault, beware. You will be next in line when some difficulty arises.

2. They get angry very quickly, and often say they felt disrespected. I’m not talking about people who are routinely disrespected due to social marginalization. It’s people like Kim–privileged, white, upper middle class–who complain about a lack of respect from their domestic partners. It’s as if a “lack of respect” justifies inflicting heavy emotional and physical damage.

3. They try to control you: I’ve talked with women whose wives won’t let them access their own bank accounts, or have separate credit cards. The reason given is usually “I’m better with money than you are.” Likewise, they don’t want them visiting friends or family alone, because “we should be seen as a couple.”

If you notice any of these in a relationship, please talk to someone about it. There’s no need for shame–you probably weren’t taught to beware of abusive women. Most couples start out on their best behavior…and when abusive behavior begins to show up, you may already feel so entwined that it’s hard to see a way out. But there is, with support and validation from others who understand what you’re going through. Our local Women’s Resource Center offers free online support groups, and there may be message boards or other anonymous ways for lesbians in abusive relationships to connect with others. Please share any that you may know about. And please remember that it’s never acceptable to lash out at others, verbally or physically, just because you’re mad.


Glenda Corwin, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Sexual Intimacy for Women:  A Guide for Same-Sex Couples.  In addition to sessions in her private practice, she offers consultation and online programs for couples.  For more info or reach out to Dr. Corwin please visit

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