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Will new law really stop domineering parents and bullying wives?

By Mary Kenny

Published 11/01/2016

Dark fear: Joan Fontaine’s character in the film Rebecca is bullied by the housekeeper
Dark fear: Joan Fontaine’s character in the film Rebecca is bullied by the housekeeper

Is emotional abuse on a par with physical cruelty? Some people might say it is, and I can see that point. For example, I was never smacked during my schooldays, but I can still remember stinging sarcasm from teachers. One day a teacher was trying to correct a girl who spoke with a pronounced Dublin accent. "You may say 'dese' and 'dose' in your home, Brigid O'Rooney, but young ladies educated in this school learn to say 'these' and 'those'."

The teacher perhaps had the intention of improving a child's way of speaking but I remember the blush on the girl's face (her name wasn't Brigid O'Rooney, by the way) as her family was belittled.

Is this just as unkind as a slap? For some, it might be. A lot depends on personality.

At the end of December, British law decreed that ­domestic offenders could be jailed for up to five years for "emotional abuse", putting it almost on a parallel with physical assault. Those who subject spouses, partners and other family members to "serious psychological and emotional" abuse, including "controlling behaviour" could be breaking the law.

The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, defined abusive emotional behaviour as existing within "a relationship where one person holds more power than the other" - and may exploit that power detrimentally.

Victims, she said, may be frightened by not abiding by someone else's rules; may feel intimidated by emotional or psychological threats (which could presage physical threats); they could be humiliated or subordinated to unreasonable and coercive, or manipulative, conduct. There are domestic abusers who spy on their partners, control them through social media, or through financial manipulation, or limit their access to family and friends.

I'd guess we could all recognise such scenarios, and many of us might have experienced them at one time or another. Yet it's such a wide definition of human interaction that almost anything could be seen as "abusive" in a bad light.

Almost all marriages, to my knowledge, are a struggle for power. We almost all manipulate one another in family circumstances.

In any family in which there are siblings, there's always one who is more dominant than the others, and there's often one who is the scapegoat of the family. This shouldn't occur, but learning coping strategies for awkward or dominant personalities is part of acquiring social skills.

I have seen husbands dominate and bully their wives: and I have seen wives nag and humiliate their husbands.

We have all known parents who were unreasonably domineering: I have also seen elderly parents under the cosh of their grown-up offspring.

I can think of a cousin of mine, now dead, who controlled, bullied, bossed and finally virtually abandoned his elderly mother. She was terrified of him - not that he ever raised his hand to her, but she was frail and dependent and he had taken control of her life, including financial control.

Dominance and manipulation in human relationships are often illuminated by drama and narrative. In Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, the narrator is totally manipulated by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. In Macbeth, the protagonist wades through blood under the influence of Lady Macbeth.

And although the new British law seems to be aimed more at men who control or bully, Erin Pizzey, the campaigner for battered wives, nowadays emphasises that women are just as capable of such offences. She's written about the baleful regime of her own mother, a ghastly domestic tyrant.

There must be cases of emotional and psychological abuse that are so extreme that recourse to the law may be justified.

But are we moving towards a situation where the law invades all areas of personal interchange, and adjudicates on all areas of private relationships?

Where manners and morals once sought to restrain or define the acceptable, now behaviour is increasingly defined by the law. That could make some people even more dependent and vulnerable.

When you're growing up, you have to learn how to test relationships of all kinds. You meet all types of people and you learn how to deal with them. Some friends - or lovers - do become overbearing and toxic, and if they're undermining you, you may have to learn to dump them. But it's all about acquiring these skills of personal negotiation without necessarily always turning to the law.

Surely if someone seems to be a bully or emotionally abusive, the best advice is: don't get involved with them, live with them, or marry them. Look out for yourself - don't be railroaded by others.

Ah, but, if only human nature were that simple. We're often attracted to dark characters who are "bad, mad and dangerous to know", and I doubt that even a law forbidding them from exercising their wicked beguiling ways will alter the complexities of these entanglements.

Belfast Telegraph

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