Wednesday 17 July 2019

Psychological abuse at home leaves deepest kind of scars

The Domestic Violence Bill is right to take into account the trauma of psychological abuse, writes Stella O'Malley

Control: Alan Hawe, who killed his wife Clodagh and their children, Liam (13) Niall (11) and Ryan (six) at their house near Ballyjamesduff, in Co Cavan, last year Photo: Hawes/Coll families/PA Wire
Control: Alan Hawe, who killed his wife Clodagh and their children, Liam (13) Niall (11) and Ryan (six) at their house near Ballyjamesduff, in Co Cavan, last year Photo: Hawes/Coll families/PA Wire

'I f that goes through we'll have social workers in the bed beside us making sure that we all play together nicely," snorted my husband as he read about the proposed amendments to the forthcoming Domestic Violence Bill 2017, which will make psychological abuse punishable by up to five years in jail.

But he's all wrong, and this bill is essential if we are to have any sort of proper understanding of what abuse actually is, because it's only when you come across a serious case of psychological abuse that you truly realise just how profoundly damaging it can be.

One lady I knew, let's call her Rose, used to ring me regularly, but she was never able to make an appointment to come and see me for counselling because she wasn't allowed out of the house.

Well, I say I knew her, but I never actually met Rose. Her husband kept control of everything.

He brought the kids to school and he did the shopping. This incredible situation was going on in Ireland only last year. Of course I made sure social services became involved but Rose was well scripted in advance by her abusive husband and she waved their help away.

A recent study in UL has shown that domestic psychological abuse leaves more lasting scars than any other type - you see, this type of behaviour gets into your mind in a more profound way than any other and so it is often a good deal more difficult to recover from, and it is also much harder to help people who suffer from domestic psychological abuse.

This is why the Domestic Violence Bill 2017 needs to fully acknowledge and understand the many facets of abuse - because abuse isn't necessarily about violence; nor is it primarily about sex. Abuse, in its many forms, is all about power and believing that it is confined to physical aggression is entirely missing the point.

The abuser seeks to control and maintain power over the target and they'll do it using any weapon that works. This might mean actual physical violence but, more often than not, it means psychologically grinding the target down until they become shadows of their former selves; almost like puppets on a string.

Often with psychological abuse, everyone involved - the abuser, the victim and the onlookers - aren't entirely sure what exactly is happening.

All too often, the abuser appears to be perfectly in control and the controlled partner seems curiously acquiescent and happy to obey. Although some of us may feel outraged when we watch a person being silenced by a look from their partner, or impatiently stonewalled when they try to state their opinion, more often than not, most people decide that this must be the way this particular relationship works, so we judge it's better to say nothing.

Most of us easily recognise the feeling of walking on eggshells around certain people, but it's often very hard to articulate exactly how a person is being coercive and controlling. For the record, the definition of psychological abuse is that it is a form that is characterised by behaviour that may result in psychological trauma.

Controlling behaviour is very hard to identify because it usually begins under the guise of a great love and an attempt to "improve" their loved ones. The potentially abusive partner feels consumed by a twisted kind of love and a deep insecurity. The abuse might begin with constant criticism; they might point out that their partner would look more attractive with their hair in a certain style, with certain clothes or wearing particular colours. Sometimes they're right - that hairstyle truly is an improvement! But if the partner is emotionally abusive, then these little comments soon become death by a thousand cuts; their clothes, their cooking, their friends, their driving - nothing is sacred and the abusive partner will seek to control everything.

When we consider that coercive control is apparent in 92pc of all domestic murders, it soon becomes clear this type of abuse needs to be taken seriously and recognised for the danger that it is.

Until that awful day at the end of August last year, when Alan Hawe coldly and purposefully killed his wife and children, he appeared to be a perfectly good family man, who was well-liked by the local community. But now, with the benefit of bitter hindsight and analysis, we can see that Hawe's relationship with his wife Clodagh bore all the hallmarks of a controlling and psychologically abusive relationship.

Mary Coll, Clodagh's mother, has since described Hawe as a controlling man: "I would ask Clodagh if she would like to go shopping in Dublin; she would have to run it by him first. He could be as controlling with his silence as he could be with his words."

Hawe had everything well planned out - he wrote a letter; he laid out all the details of their financial affairs, ready to be found by whoever came into the house; he placed all his wife's jewellery neatly on the bed and then, when he was all set, he wrote out a note. "Don't come in. Call the gardai," it said. This note, pinned to the back door, is particularly disturbing, as it was a clear bid to maintain control even after his death.

The extraordinary expectation that everyone will do their bidding can often lead polite people into respectfully falling in with controlling people's imperious instructions. Not only that, but when an emotionally abusive person is insulting, most of us tend to freeze in the moment and automatically search for a way to avoid a scene.

We fear that we have entirely misread the situation - indeed, even though I am a mental-health professional, it took me some time to truly understand the level of imprisonment in Rose's life; she had no money, no internet, no friends and no one to call on. Her husband used to check the phone to make sure she hadn't phoned anyone. Soon after the phone calls began, it was too difficult for Rose to ring me, and so that source of help was quickly scuttled.

Of course, psychological abuse isn't a gender issue - anyone can be an abuser - and the cluster of traits associated with being an emotional bully are being suspicious, jealous, aggressive, quick to anger and sudden mood swings; these characteristics can be found in both men and women, so we can get rid of the notion that this is a battle of the sexes. It's not and this proposed bill is not about supporting opportunists who enjoy feeling offended. This bill is for the most vulnerable people in society who feel lost, confused and completely isolated.

Many seriously abused partners can become almost childlike as they have given all their power away to the abuser. It can take many years before the abused person feels able to gather up their strength to retrieve their lost sense of self and make a break for freedom.

This proposed bill will support our most vulnerable when they need it most.

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and public speaker with many years' experience as a mental-health professional.

Women's Aid Freephone Helpline - tel: 1800 341 900, or see AMEN confidential helpline for men - tel: 046 9023718 or see

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