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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 10-Sep-14 15:38:00

Guest post: 'Why the government must make emotional abuse a crime'

As ministers consider including emotional abuse in domestic violence legislation, MN blogger Katie Portman describes what it's like to endure this kind of psychological trauma, and argues that a change in the law would challenge the myth that women can simply 'get out'.

Katie Portman

Pouting In Heels

Posted on: Wed 10-Sep-14 15:38:00

(93 comments )

Lead photo

'You are not the woman you once were, and find yourself completely alone'

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."

It’s an innocent nursery rhyme that most of us sang when we were little, but it reveals a lot about why emotional abuse isn't taken as seriously as physical abuse. Thankfully we’re on the cusp of a shift in attitude, and it’s time for society – and the law – to recognise that coercive and controlling behaviour can be just as damaging as violence.

There are already laws in place which cover non-physical forms of abuse such as stalking and harassment, but the government is currently consulting on creating legislation that explicitly refers to emotional abuse within relationships. It is essential that they do - emotional abuse within intimate relationships must become a serious crime, punishable by the state.

Too many women are suffering at the hands and mouths of the men who profess to love them – and I was one of them. I survived, but over a decade on, I still feel the aftershock from the psychological terror I endured.

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like have your spirit worn down on a daily basis, to feel that you’re emotionally beaten. I’ll try my best to explain:

To begin with, the man who will become your abuser is your beloved. He woos and adores you. He’s your knight in shining armour. Life feels like a fairytale and you fall in love.

Once you’re smitten, he starts to change. Not straight away – that would be too obvious - but step by step, day by day. It starts with the odd remark and occasional put downs and then turns into endless questions and interrogation.

No longer will anybody be able to say ‘she should have got out', because the months and years of creeping, subtle, non-violent abuse will be recognised and punished.


A few months down the line, you've gone from being the most adored woman on the planet to a woman who cannot do anything right. Everything you do, everything you are is wrong. You start to think it’s all your fault - he tells you it is - so you try and change for him.

You change your behaviour and the way you dress. You stop seeing your family and friends. You make yourself seem smaller, less clever, less attractive and less worthy. You do everything you can think of to make him happy, but nothing seems to work. You’re always longing for a glimpse of the man you loved – and you're hopeful that he’ll appear again – so you keep trying and you keep changing.

Once you've started to lose yourself and your confidence has been eroded, the abuse and control escalates.

Your heart starts to beat faster whenever you’re with him. Not in the way it did when you first met, because of flirtation or romance, but out of utter terror. You know if you don’t do as he says, you will be punished and you will suffer - physically, financially, sexually or emotionally.

You begin to doubt yourself and your thoughts become jumbled. He tells you that you’re crazy and you start to believe him. Any confidence you had has now vanished and you become jittery and tearful. Life is about pleasing him and keeping him calm, because that’s what you need to do to survive.

You are not the woman you once were, and find yourself completely alone. That beautiful, intelligent, confident and independent person has been replaced with someone who is insecure, frightened and confused.

This is how easily it happens. This is why women don’t ‘just leave’, and society’s perception of what this is has to change.

Earlier this year, a report from the Inspectorate of Constabulary found that the police response to domestic abuse is "alarming and ineffective". Including emotional abuse in legislation is essential to improving this situation. It will raise awareness amongst the police force and the public and challenge perceptions – no longer will anybody be able to say ‘she should have got out’, because the months and years of creeping, subtle, non-violent abuse will be recognised and punished. Domestic violence is rarely as simple as one punch, or one slap – and one objective decision to stay or leave following the incident. Coercion and control are at its centre, and understanding this is essential to tackling all forms of abuse.

Of course it will be difficult. Emotional abuse can be subtle and hard to pinpoint. There will be much wrangling over definitions, and test cases, and horror stories in the papers of ‘innocent’ men being charged. But isn't it worth it? We have the chance to legitimise the experiences of hundreds of thousands of women.

As a woman who was once emotionally broken and now continues to pick up the pieces, I'm waiting on the government to make the right decision.

By Katie Portman

Twitter: @KateLPortman

Thumbwitch Wed 10-Sep-14 15:43:19

I hope they do legislate against emotional abuse. I just think it's going to be incredibly difficult to police, especially as quite frequently the abuser will level the same accusation at the victim of the abuse. But there must be some way around that and it needs to be taken more seriously, definitely.

honestmummy Wed 10-Sep-14 19:15:31

Such a moving and vital post, I hope they do legislate against emotional abuse. Thanks for sharing this x

mumtosome61 Wed 10-Sep-14 19:30:47

Thank you for sharing this. Emotional abuse, I agree, is becoming far more covered and commented on and it has proved both supportive and informative to many women and men.

I wonder whether it is the dominant role shift from decades previously, where men would regularly engage in 'restrictive' and 'entitled' behaviour over women, deemed as at the very least acceptable in society (and other times, encouraged). Regardless of whether it was acceptable then, it is not acceptable now. Plenty of other private preferences or behaviours that were seen as acceptable then are outlawed or condemned now (drink driving, smoking in public places) - emotional abuse and any abuse should be one of them.

It will be hard to regulate and assess. I hope legislation offers support and information, rather than to promote hyper awareness that leaves us all afraid. Having cases like yours out there allows women and men to hopefully make objective decisions over their own situations, rather than having to meet a criteria. I hope it is also seen as seriously as other forms of abuse - emotional abuse has been seen to be as destructive, if not more so, than physical. Safeguarding and frameworks should be developed to ensure referrals or accusations of emotional abuse are treated fairly until proven too, to ensure the rights of all. Fingers crossed it happens.

IvaNighSpare Wed 10-Sep-14 19:36:44

In an ideal world this would be great, however, emotional abuse by nature is insidious and very difficult to prove. In a criminal justice system that relies on concrete evidence, sadly, I don't see how this can be enforced sad

bealos Wed 10-Sep-14 20:19:27

A good read and some salient points. Again, hard to see how this could be enforced by law but I do think at least having it as law would bring hope to many women. That said, it's not just men who are the perpetrators. Women can be just as bad at emotional abuse.

lornemalvo Wed 10-Sep-14 20:38:39

It is a terrible way to treat a person. It should not happen. I don't know how it could be defined or proven though. Presumably it would rely on proving a pattern of consistent behaviour as one incident could just be a row. However, harassment is also repeated and persistent type of behaviour and it is successfully proven so it must be possible. Even just having it labelled a legal offense will make more people recognize its existence. I do not remember thinking of it as a form of abuse or knowing anything about it until I started reading mumsnet and all the threads that it crops up in.

Darkesteyes Wed 10-Sep-14 20:47:47

In laws and parents who collude or side with the abuser need to face consequences too. There are many cases where the in laws or the victims OWN parents pressure them to stay with the abuser. In many cases in laws and parents minimise and gaslight the victim when she mentions the abuse and she ends up with the blame. I have seen this kind of collusion first hand and it HAS to be included in the legislation.

That is a very moving blog post btw.

LuisSuarezTeeth Wed 10-Sep-14 20:50:08

Katie.

First, I'm so sorry you have gone through this - I have too.

I read a thread on here where the OP stated that she did not have access to the family savings in order to facilitate seeing a solicitor. I can only hope that this kind of thing can be used to prove Domestic Abuse, which in turn would include Emotional Abuse.

I agree with other posters, it is so difficult to prove. It is also not exclusive to women, as bealos says.

Thank you for your post x

InTheNorth123 Wed 10-Sep-14 21:06:38

Yes Thumbwitch, that's what I thought. My narc ex has told anybody who will listen, that it was ME who abused him. Fortunately I have a file of correspondence between us where he admits what he did, but I think it will be incredibly difficult to police.

superstarheartbreaker Wed 10-Sep-14 21:24:23

I went through this... It was the emotional abuse that nearly killed me ans crushed me totally as a person.
He even controlled what I ate .... Which wasn't very much hence why I went down to 6 stone and nearly died...... Because he was a vegan and my meat eating habits were " wrong".
He also manipulated me out of university as "students are shit" my degree was " boring" and living in a city away from his countryside abode. " would drive me mad." No... He drove me mad and I ended up on a psychiatric ward.
How I wish there was a law back then as he really does deserve to be behind bars.... He's a psychopath and proof that you don't need to use physical violence to harm someone.
I still can't form decent relationships today as a result.

FoxgloveFairy Wed 10-Sep-14 21:45:34

A very powerful post. I just don't see that this can be solved by legislation though. It would be difficult to impossible to prove. What would an appropriate legal punishment be? I think that what would be more effective is more education on the subject, from school age onwards. Children should grow up knowing that words do matter and do wound. The 'jokes' that belittle and sneer at the target. The constant criticism of the most petty sort. Controlling behavior. All these things should be seen as socially completely unacceptable. The community should let such abusers know that their behavior is known and held in utter contempt, and victims given emotional support and support to get away from the situation. Victims need to be believed. Courts though don't decide cases based on belief. A judge might well believe a victim, but in a case in a court, that is not proof. I just don't see how you can legislate to make people decent human beings, only punish the results of their behavior. I do think that this kind of piggish behavior is being more and more recognized though, and less socially accepted. Change has begun. Schools and workplaces, theoretically anyway, take bullying very seriously and impose sanctions. These are not legal punishments though. Society is much more accepting of divorce, and not just because of physical abuse. Much more work needs to be done, but change is beginning. Hope so anyway! Sorry so long and rambly, but my thoughts for what they're worth!

Darkesteyes Wed 10-Sep-14 23:27:21

superstar i am sorry you went through that That is harrowing. In fact i cant think of a word strong enough to describe the experience in your post there sad angry

CogitoErgoSometimes Thu 11-Sep-14 07:54:09

I think there's a wider case to legislate around the concept of 'bullying'. For a long time it was seen as an exclusively playground problem and schools had to get on top of it. But bullying pops up everywhere from aggressive Twitter feeds, to the workplace, to institutions , to the home. Now we have stalking legislation we have a working template for what constitutes one type of emotional abuse and how to prove 'intent' - which will be a key factor of any prosecution.

Quitelikely Thu 11-Sep-14 10:09:43

I support this suggestion fully. However I think the government needs to also address more seriously the root cause of this problem too. The abuser, was not born abusive, unfortunately somewhere along the line he was a victim too. Bad parenting/domestic violence/abuse within the home etc.

Is there enough intervention? I know surestart was created with things like this in mind - to reach out to the hard to reach and so on but there have been lots of cuts and changes to what it originally was but maybe a large campaign about abuse within the home, the damage to the children and the impact upon them in later life I.e they become abusers or vulnerable to abuse (generalisation I know) but it needs to be out there.

I see too many heartbreaking stories on here to know that women don't realise that by trying to keep their family together (because daddy is great with the kids) that they are condemning the children to a life not to similar to their own in terms of adult relationships.

Flyawaylittlebutterfly Thu 11-Sep-14 15:31:23

How can they prove who is the abuser though? Somebody who is emotionally abusive usually has the victim manipulated into believing that they're to blame and they could easily convince outsiders that the victim is the emotionally abusive one. A clever actor can persuade anyone. You'll end up with as many victims wrongly getting convictions as abusers.

I think there's to much room for it to be turned against innocent people.

CogitoErgoSometimes Thu 11-Sep-14 16:32:42

The usual standards of evidence would have to apply. Clever acting only gets anyone so far. Victims - and they are the weak link in all this because they are usually so manipulated into submission that they don't want to rock the boat - would have to be prepared to keep records, make recordings, etc. Other people who had witnessed the behaviour, any agencies involved, social services or whatever would have to come forward to testify.

Darkesteyes Thu 11-Sep-14 17:48:42

TW.

I just spotted this moving powerful piece in my Twitter feed.

rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/09/10/stayed-abusive-marriage-two-years/

mrsdoubtfiresspecs Thu 11-Sep-14 19:51:07

I'm in an abusive marriage. I've given him a final chance but after that I don't know what I will do. We have 2 young dc and I don't have UK citizenship. I'm also a sahm. He keeps on saying sorry, but the cycle just never ends. He called me a lazy fucking cunt this morning. My self-esteem is being torn to shreds. I have no where to go. If I report him, the social services will take my children away. Why does he have to be like this? It's so preventable, we could be happy together.

chiriac Thu 11-Sep-14 20:10:11

Message deleted by MNHQ. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.

Fluftytufty Thu 11-Sep-14 21:36:23

Oh Mrsdoubtfire, that's horrendous. Would you have a health visitor who you could get help from? Or go to Women's Aid? Ask for help pet, please.

Darkesteyes Thu 11-Sep-14 21:54:40

mrs doubtfire please phone WA for help. That is bloody awful.

heleddinlavender Thu 11-Sep-14 22:29:42

Emotional abuse goes on all around us but honestly it's not a topic that's talked about enough. It's about time the Government stepped in and did something about this terrorising, systematic form of abuse.

Great post, elegantly written by a brave survivor.

Congratulations Kate xxx

wafflyversatile Fri 12-Sep-14 00:17:19

It would be difficult to gather sufficient evidence, but that's no reason not to have legislation.

Hopefully it would have gender neutral wording rather than just assuming it is something men do to women, not women to men, men to men and women to women.

Thumbwitch Fri 12-Sep-14 00:52:52

Mrsdoubtfire - has he told you that SS will remove your children if you report him? Because he's lying. Your children are only at risk of being removed if you STAY with him while he's putting you and them at risk - if you report and leave, you will keep your children.

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