How should we approach emotional abuse as a criminal offence?

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

Photo by Håkan Dahlström

Photo by Håkan Dahlström

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

Photo by CathyK

Photo by CathyK

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.
Photo by xJasonRogersx

Photo by xJasonRogersx

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

20 responses to “How should we approach emotional abuse as a criminal offence?

  1. what a great post! And the part about why abused women don’t reach out. yes, the abuse is ” insidious” and so on. I think it is also in part because society as a whole does not ‘accept’ emotional abuse, as ABUSE. and unless someone has lived with it, experienced it on a daily basis, it is next to impossible to describe the long term affects from it. Thank You Avalanche Of The Soul for a GREAT Post!!


    • Thanks for sharing your view Tela. I think it’s important that survivors are heard on this. You are right to point out that it is enormously difficult to articulate what emotional abuse is, and why it is so devastating. That’s why I believe education is needed for society at large as well as perpetrators and victims – we need to give people the tools and language to talk confidently about abuse.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. My first reaction is, yes! But I wonder: some of these abusers will be just as dangerous if you made a call about their emotional abuse, won’t they? So the first time she gets beat up for calling, she won’t want to do that again. I would love to believe this might work, so he could be stopped (get help) him before it gets to the physical abuse. Great information, thanks!


    • Hi Mandy, I agree with you – it is ALWAYS dangerous to challenge an abuser, and those capable of change are extremely rare. However, I guess what I’m suggesting is no different to a woman who is beaten by her husband and then refuses to press charges, and takes him back. Common story, right?

      At least if there was a properly-supported route that didn’t immediately try to force her into testifying against him in a trial (which is a barrier) could help her to engage with key services that can empower her to make the decision to leave, for herself.

      Agree that there needs to be strong risk-management elements in there, but I still think this could be an improvement on a system that ‘punishes’ women who feels unable to leave at that time.


      • Absolutely. Every avenue should be explored. Makes me crazy that women have to feel so powerless. I appreciate that these other places find it important enough to address.


      • So true. We’ve got to keep fighting for those improvements. Nobody should feel trapped in an abusive relationship, yet it frequently happens when women think services are there to work against them rather than with them.


  3. Oh, wow!!!

    I have thought about this so much the last months!

    I have reported my ex-psychopath to the police for
    – stealing my money (evidence is in the missing money gone missing at the same time he went missing),
    – for beating me half to death (evidence is in the photos of me blue and green and in having talked with the police about it earlier, just after he beat me, while I was full of blood and blue marks) and
    – for fraud (evidence being in his signatures on loan papers (and him now missing)),

    but the part of me that hurts the most – the horrors I feel after realising I endured all of that for somebody not caring about me – the love scam itself – is doing SO, SO, SO much more harm to me than these criminal offences ever did, but this real crime (in my opinion) cannot be punished.

    It seems so wrong.

    Great post!


    • I’m so sorry you went through all that. Thank you for sharing it here, and for your words of encouragement. You are very brave to have involved the police. Unfortunately, many women never do.

      You are absolutely right – for so many of us, the emotional scars are the most painful and it seems incredible that we are not protected in law from this type of damage. Hopefully, this is set to improve. I hope so.


    • @afterthepsychopath, i think you have suffered soooooo much and sooo deeply because your abuser just basically disappeared into thin air. Not that we ever get ‘closure’ in a sense from these vile individuals, but we have had to deal with them after the fact. Whereas you, don’t even know really WHO he is, or WHERE he is! That is heartbreaking on top of all the despicable things he did to you! 😦


  4. Reblogged this on Moms' Hearts Unsilenced and commented:
    Excellent blog. My ex was physically abusive at times, but I believe he used psychological violence to avoid the court embarrassment he once faced after putting the wife of his second daughter in the hospital — Yes, he actually talked his way out of this on the stand even though witnesses saw her “bloody & blue” I later found out. I agree that seeking support & help would be more effective than mandating punishment.


  5. Have been a relationship with a female partner that became abusive both mentally and physically towards mysef I would often be accused of infidelity and had to ask my manage not to put an X on the end of a text have been assaulted on many occassions due to denaial of the infidelity and have been constantly inqustioned on the subject and told I look happier with other females than her I loved my partner dearly but could do nothing to support her as the false conviction was so strong
    is there any other men out there with a simular experience as I feel alone with the issue


  6. Have been in a relationship marred by morbid jealousy issues by my female partner who would accuse me of infidelity on a regular basis and even passing on a sexually transmitted infection to her I would be monitored by any means possible ie Google history and gps location apps applied to my phone and physically assaulted due to my denial of the accusations which seemed to enhance my partners conviction are there any other men out there with similar experience even support from a woman who has lived the covert fear that morbid jealousy brings would be welcome the fear of another outburst means that you live your existence walking on eggshells even an X on the end of a text would be questioned and became sinister


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