The UK government is to consider making psychological abuse a crime in England and Wales. It is a welcome step forward, but to avoid discouraging women in abusive relationships from seeking help, any legislation and consequent sanctions must be carefully shaped.
The announcement comes following a campaign by domestic violence groups and charities – a much-needed attempt to secure recognition of the huge damage caused by emotional violence. Treating patterns of ‘coercive control’ as a criminal offence would help change attitudes that abuse isn’t abuse unless we have a black eye to prove it.
Emotional violence is destructive but often little understood
Every survivor of domestic abuse has experienced coercive control. This can include being isolated from friends and family, being forbidden from leaving the house, or enduring interrogations every time you want to make a phonecall. It is often (incorrectly) seen as an extreme form of jealousy – a misleading view that fails to consider that it is symptomatic of what many call ’emotional violence’.
The slaps, shoves, and beatings that many suffer are enabled by emotional violence – which is a careful process that systematically erodes our ability to challenge (or leave) our abuser. What’s more, 94 per cent of respondents to the campaign survey said that emotional abuse could be worse than physical violence.
Why abused women don’t reach out
However, it is especially hard for many survivors to talk about psychological abuse. It is often insidious, complex and difficult to articulate. We fear that those we confide in won’t take us seriously. He doesn’t hit us, so surely we can work on the relationship. Perhaps if we seek marriage counselling, or do a little more of this and less of that…
Add to this the myriad of reasons women in abusive relationships don’t reach out. We all have been at the bottom of the avalanche, unsure which way is up. We may be paralysed by fear or shame. We may believe that this is how relationships are. We may feel there is no way out, or that we are somehow to blame. Often, the trauma-bond tells us that we love him – a powerful motivation for abused women to protect their secret.
Service providers must become the first call, not the last resort
For these reasons, most survivors engage with services such as the police, social services, and domestic violence centres only as a last resort – or, when the decision has been taken out of our hands. If we know that our emotionally-abusive partner would face criminal charges, this may well convince more of us to keep quiet rather than actively seek help.
I believe that a successful approach would:
- allow victims to opt for their abuser to attend (and successfully complete) a perpetrator programme as an alternative to a criminal trial. The door would be left open to further sanctions for further offences.
- mobilise support services around the victim, so she receives the tools and resources to end the relationship if she wishes.
- include comprehensive and widespread awareness campaigns to improve understandings in the way the world sees emotional violence.
What do you think? How can we ensure emotional violence is taken seriously, and encourage more women to seek help?
ALSO SEE: How vital services are failing to keep up with rising demand, in Is the fight against domestic violence in crisis?
© Avalanche of the Soul, 2013-14