The UK government’s definition of domestic abuse is
‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional.’
Behaviour that is controlling or coercive can now recieve a prison sentence (Serious Crime Act 2015). So what is controlling and coercive behaviour….
- Controlling behaviour – this behaviour is designed to make a person isolated from their sources of support. It deprives them of their independence and escape.
- Coercive behaviour – these are assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation or anything else that is used to harm, punish or frighten the other person.
So, there are many types of abuse that come under the heading of ‘domestic abuse’. But whichever one it is, it is rarely a one-off incident. The abuser looks to gain power over the other person and it tends to get worse over time. The behaviour can start at any time, new relationships, established relationships, it doesn’t matter.
One part of domestic abuse is emotional abuse – but what is it?
Some types of abuse are pretty clear to understand and recognise, like physical abuse. We all know that physical abuse is hitting, punching, choking, basically anything that is physically harming to the other person. The wounds of physical abuse may be visible, but not with emotional abuse. Here the wounds are hidden, but they are without a doubt just as damaging. Sometimes when this type of abuse is going on we are sometimes aware that our behaviour has changed, but we don’t think to look to our partners or family members as being the reason for it. Or sometimes we aren’t aware and we just feel uncomfortable and not ourselves.
So, emotional abuse involves the gradual destruction of the person’s self-worth so that in the end they feel helpless, weak, compliant and without the ability to ever leave the other person. Basically, they are trapped.
It is persistent humiliation, undermining, criticism or insults and it may be about what you look like, what you do, what you say or what you wear. You are never right or good enough. So, what if you are constantly told that you don’t look good enough, making you feel unattractive. You may even begin to feel you are lucky to have this partner. Or if you don’t ‘pull your socks up’ or wear what they want you to wear your partner will lose interest and leave so you are always anxious about your appearance. Or you look too good (which may come across as the person being protective at first) and they try to keep you away from other people.
It is also constantly checking up on you when you are apart. Again, this could be seen as being protective and flattering at first, but this may eventually lead to the person putting curfews onto the other when they go out. Or, when the person doesn’t get home on time they may be met with anger, questions and accusations. It may feel like a parent standing at the door, tapping their watch and to go home may feel frightening because you may not know what’s there to greet you.
The constant communication will also seem flattering at first, always being in contact, we think they must really care! However, it may get to a point where you are being shouted at for not replying quickly enough.
Intimidating behaviour like shouting and making you feel scared is also emotional abuse.
Being really nice to you after being really awful is also emotional abuse. Imagine the roller coaster of this scenario and how confused you may feel if after hurting you they would be really kind, loving and be vowing never to do ‘it’ again. Until, of course, the next time. In these situations people may weather the storms because they know that once the storm has passed the person will become who they were when they first fell in love. This honeymoon phase bonds the two people together and convinces the victim that it is not necessary to leave right now, they’ll stay that little bit longer as besides it may never happen again. But this phase never stays and you may find you are back in the cycle.
They may tell you who you can and can’t see, which isolates you from your sources of support. Or you may just stop going places because the consequences are just too much to bear.
The abuser may be like Jekyll and Hyde. You don’t know which one will surface in any given moment. You begin to be hyper-vigilant and feel as though you are ‘walking on eggshells’ most the time, because you are scared that you may say or do something that they might not like. It is unsafe to disagree with them. So, you may change your behaviour and opinions and begin to placate. You are permanently in fight or flight mode, the stress hormones always pumping.
They may even speak for you, or over you. Thereby silencing your opinions and ultimately your voice.
It can go on in private or directly in front of family and friends. It can be presented as a joke, with the person gathering the group to be in on the ‘joke’, leaving you feeling shame and isolation.
The emotional abuse may be in conjunction with other types of abuse or it maybe on it’s own.
All of this gradually chips away at the persons confidence and leaves them empty, down, weak. You may feel like you are going crazy (and they may tell you that you are!) but you are not. You may feel it is all your fault. Again, it is not.
Over time mental health conditions can develop like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and even trauma. You may develop feelings of guilt or shame, experience difficulties at work or elsewhere in your other relationships. You may have trouble sleeping or your physical health may be affected. You may find yourself going to the doctor with other ailments. Everyone is different, but what is the same for everyone is that it has an enormous affect on the person being abused, touching their emotional and physical health and their other relationships.
But how do I know it is abuse?
Yes of course all relationships have their difficulties and sometimes our relationships hit ‘rocky’ patches. We may argue and not see eye to eye for a while. In-fact conflict and arguments are also part of healthy relationships. But ask yourself this, is the persons behaviour making you feel bad or controlled? Is it happening more and more? Do you find that your behaviour has changed to cope with what’s going on around you? Are your insecurities being used against you? Were you once a confident person, but now feel insecure, confused and indecisive? Did you once feel happy but now you now feel emotionally exhausted and anxious? Is it very difficult to talk about it with anyone else? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it probably is.
Sources of help
Claire’s Law – this is a scheme to enable people to find out from Police if an individual they are in a relationship with, or who is in a relationship with someone they know, has a history of abuse. It is named after Claire Wood who was murdered by her partner in 2009. Her partner had a history of violence against women. You can ring 101 or visit a Police station to make an enquiry.
Women’s Aid – 24 hour helpline 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line – Mon – Fri 9-5 0808 801 0327
1:1 individual counselling can help as emotional abuse often taps into our earlier patterns from childhood. Sometimes we stay with the abuser for a long time and shame can be one of the most dominant features of being abused. But shame cannot survive when empathy is present. Finding a counsellor who can understand your feelings around your experiences and show you that empathy will certainly help.