'The words last a lifetime': Emma Murphy on the silent damage of psychological and emotional abuse
Warning: This article contains details that some readers may find distressing. Independent.ie is running a series on emotional and psychological domestic abuse. Here, Geraldine Gittens speaks with campaigners and organisations about the scale of coercive control in domestic situations in Ireland.
Emma Murphy is the Dublin mother-of-two whose domestic violence video - shot on her own phone - shocked the nation in 2015.
Now she is taking a stand on emotional abuse, and has welcomed the new Domestic Violence Act 2018, which declares coercive control to be a criminal offence.
On January 1, the law will commence, following garda training and preparations by the courts.
Coercive control is defined as "ongoing psychological behaviour, rather than isolated or unconnected incidents, with the purpose of removing a victim's freedom."
A key provision of the act ensures that an intimate relationship between the victim and the perpetrator must be regarded as an aggravating factor in sentencing for a wide range of offences.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said, when the legislation was passed, that it “sends a clear, consistent message that non-violent control in an intimate relationship is criminal”.
Not all forms of abuse leave a physical mark or a scar, says Ms Murphy, who left her abusive partner Francis Usanga (who was last year found guilty of assault causing harm) in 2015 and now campaigns on domestic violence issues.
A bullying and controlling partner who insults you, threatens you, gaslights you, and controls you can leave emotional scars that last a lifetime. The emotional abuse can be the most traumatic of all, and the hardest to recover from, she says.
"It's the first time it's recognised as a form of violence, and the hope will be now that women and young women are going to be protected," Ms Murphy explains. "I hear women saying to me every day, 'How can I prove that he's abusing me? I don't have bruises, how can I prove this?' Whereas now it can be proved through text messages.
"A lot of manipulation goes on through text messages, and you can bring those to the garda station. With regards to financial control or controlling what the partner wears, that's a huge part of abuse, bank accounts could show a lot of things."
Emotional abuse is a persistent pattern of manipulative and intimidating behaviour towards a partner. It can be harder to spot than physical abuse - even for victims themselves or witnesses.
Emma says: “The psychological and emotional abuse is a long-term thing. The physical abuse might be gone away but the words last a lifetime. There’s always going to be a time that triggers something, and you’re back hearing those words again.”
The cumulative effect of sustained psychological abuse is very damaging, agrees Margaret Martin, Director of Women’s Aid.
“It’s not one drop of rain that makes you wet. And the more you’re exposed to it, over a long time, the more it impacts you," she explains.
“A lot of women say ‘he hasn’t hit me for a long time’, but they’re still living with the threat of being hit. Or they report threats like ‘I’ll bury you alive up the Dublin Mountains’; ‘I’ll cut you up in parts and your friends will never be able to find you’; ‘I’m going to get into the car and I’ll crash the car, and my death and the children’s deaths will be on your head.”
A support worker from Cork support group Mná Feasa tells Independent.ie: “We see physical, mental, emotional, verbal, sexual and financial abuse. The main one really would be the mental and emotional abuse.”
“They break the woman down and they break the woman’s spirit. She ends up not believing herself… and that she must have done something wrong.”
“Believe it or not, you’d hear the women saying ‘if only he hit me just to get it over with’.”
Meanwhile, an Amen spokesperson says mental abuse is what tears them down.
"This constant criticising and undermining - being told they’re a useless father, for example, day in day out,” she said.
“Feeling like they’re constantly walking on egg shells; afraid to go out because they know they’ll be criticised; their family is criticised all the time; jealousy would be huge. I have a client who’s not allowed to look at women even on the street when they’re coming towards him. He has to look down at the ground. The control is massive, and that’s for domestic violence in all areas.”
"We’ve had men who’ve been stabbed, who’ve had boiling water poured on their laps, who’ve been beaten with sticks. Women tend to use weapons when they’re beating their partners. We’ve had men who’ve had horrific injuries from being burned with the hair straightener.”
She added that a lot of clients comment that physical abuse was "easier to take" than the emotional tormented inflicted on them.
“Men would often say to me, it was easier to take the black eye than it is to take the constant criticism every day - that I’m a useless father, that I can’t do anything right, that my family are useless… being told what to wear, what time I can go out at if I can go out at all," she explained.
“We’ve seen financial abuse where the man’s wages are going into a joint account but he has no access to it at all.”
In 2016, the organisation received 5,196 reports of domestic abuse against men, with 3,730 of those cases involving psychological or verbal abuse.
Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says the effect of emotional abuse can be as harmful to victims as physical abuse.
“The breach of trust, if you commit to a relationship and it becomes an abusive relationship, the abuse of power is more complete than if it was abuse on the first meeting,” she says.
The denigration, the pain and the humiliation are so caustic that victims often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder breaks when they finally build up the courage to leave the abusive partner.
Blackmail, threats and "gaslighting" have all frightened the victim and eroded any modicum of confidence they might have had.
Ms Martin says: “It’s the constant monitoring. The woman might be out with her friends and even though she’s physically there with her friends and family, her mind isn’t there because she’s thinking about how he might be verbally abusive and physically abusive when she comes back. That affects her relationships.”
“She might be told constantly over time, 'Who believes you?' 'You’re imagining this, I never hit you'. Often when the woman comes to us they might say he hasn’t hit me, but then when they get talking they might reveal he’s sat on them on the bed, he’s pinned them up against the wall.”
“We see people who report not being called by their own name at all, report being locked out of their own home, women who’ve experienced stalking, constant monitoring of their contact with their friends and family.
“The impact of all of that is...women talk to us about having panic attacks, being anxious and depressed. A lot of women talk about how their self-esteem is rocked. The stress of constantly being on alert, not knowing what’s going to happen when he walks through the door, is huge.”
And yet, there is a dearth of services for victims of domestic abuse in this country, while abusers who are brought into custody are offered services to help them rehabilitate.
Ms Blackwell explains that victims of historical abuse can be placed on waiting lists for services.
“We literally can’t see all the people who need to see us. Given that about 20pc of those who need to see us regularly are intimate partners, then there’s a good chance a lot of people waiting to see us are or were intimate partners as well.”
What are the warning signs?
If you think that someone you know is the victim of emotional abuse, Cosc (the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence) says to look out for the following behaviour:
- Victims can be anxious to please their partner or even express fear of their partner.
- They might talk about their partner’s temper, possessiveness or jealousy.
- They can be restricted from seeing friends and family or have limited access to money or a car.
- They may also demonstrate low self-esteem or be depressed, anxious or suicidal.
How can you help?
"From our perspective, the first thing isn’t the question we ask, but the quality of our listening, and the question of being available that someone can tell us something and not be judged on it," Ms Blackwell says.
"Firstly make sure that the person is safe, second it's important to listen carefully and not to judge so that the person can say it without feeling that they’re being judged or condemned. The third is that help is available."
Cosc recommends that if you suspect someone is the victim of emotional abuse or coercive control, don't wait for them to come to you and instead, approach them with a simple question like, “Are you okay?”
They recommend that people offer support but refrain from offering advice or putting pressure on them to leave or telling them what to do. You can’t make someone leave a relationship. Leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous for the victim, Cosc says, and they’re often best-placed to assess the danger.
An alternative approach is to give them options, offer any help and support they need, and ensure that you don’t isolate them further by making judgements of their choices, Cosc says.
See www.whatwouldyoudo.ie for a list of services and advice on how to find the most appropriate one.
Anyone affected by issues raised in this article can contact the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's National 24-Hour Helpline on 1800 778 888; Women's Aid's National Helpline on 1800 341 900; Amen’s confidential support line on 046 9023718, or its confidential support email, firstname.lastname@example.org; Mná Feasa on 021 4211 757; or see safeireland.ie for a list of all support services and helplines throughout Ireland.