Wednesday 26 June 2019

Tackling domestic abuse when it takes a psychological and emotional form

We often associate domestic abuse with physical violence but not all forms of abuse leave a bruise or a mark.

Emotional and psychological abuse can be just as insidious as physical violence but it can be harder to spot, even for victims or people who witness the abuse. This isn’t about couples who have the occasional row or argument. It’s about one person engaging in a consistent pattern of manipulative and intimidating behaviour towards their partner.

This type of behaviour can typically see one person in a relationship use emotional or psychological control to dominate, intimidate, threaten or humiliate the other person. There’s a growing awareness of the damage that this can cause and new laws are set to clamp down on this type of domestic abuse.

New laws to tackle coercive control

There was a legal breakthrough this year when the new Domestic Violence Act 2018 declared coercive control to be a criminal offence. Speaking at the passing of the legislation, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan reiterated that offenders are criminals.

“For too long, domestic violence has been seen primarily as physical abuse,” the Minister said. “The new offence of coercive control sends a clear, consistent message that non-violent control in an intimate relationship is criminal. The effect of such behaviour may be as harmful to victims as physical abuse because it is an abuse of the unique trust associated with an intimate relationship.

“Another important provision [of the Act] will ensure that an intimate relationship between victim and perpetrator must be regarded as an aggravating factor in sentencing for a wide range of offences. This new provision sends a message that society will no longer tolerate the appalling breach of trust committed by one partner against the other in an intimate context.”

This new law makes it clear that this type of behaviour is a crime, and that perpetrators will be punished. It’s hoped that the new act will come into effect before the end of the year.

It’s easy to underestimate how many domestic abusers engage in emotional or psychological abuse. A recent report found that two in three cases involved this kind of abuse. Of the 15,833 cases of domestic abuse against women reported to Women’s Aid in 2017, there were 10,281 cases of emotional abuse.

It is not just women who are subjected to emotional violence. A similar ratio of men are affected, according to the most recent report from Amen. They received 5,196 reports of domestic abuse against men in 2016, with 3,730 of those cases involving psychological or verbal abuse.

Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, points out that abusers come from all social classes, ethnicities, cultures and educational backgrounds.

“Emotional and psychological domestic abusers use many tactics to exert their power over their victims,” according to Cosc.

“Many want to exert their dominance over their partner and they want to feel in charge. They will often humiliate their partner and want to make them feel bad about themselves and attack their self-esteem. They may try to isolate the victim and cut them off from families and friends.

“Abusers use threats to control such as threatening to kill or hurt the victim or threaten to kill or hurt pets or the victim’s children. They can threaten to make false charges against the victim in order to control access to children. Victims of domestic abuse in homosexual relationships can be threatened to be ‘outed’.”

What are the warning signs?

If you think that someone you know is the victim of emotional abuse, Cosc 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?

If you think you know someone who is the victim of emotional abuse or coercive control, Cosc recommends not waiting for them to come to you. A simple question like “Are you OK?” can start the conversation.

If you think a friend or family member is a victim, Cosc suggests the best approach is to express concern or tell the person that you’re worried. This can be a non-judgemental way to broach the subject. If they deny it, don’t force the issue but make it clear that you’re there for them. It can be important for a victim to know that they’re not to blame. Reiterate that it’s not their fault and that they don’t deserve to be treated this way.

It can be tempting to offer advice but Cosc recommends that people offer support but refrain from 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, it adds, 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. There are services available in Ireland to offer help and support to the person you are concerned about. Check out for a list of services and advice on how to find the most appropriate one. 

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