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Why society can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to emotional and mental abuse

Victims often say that they would rather face a physical beating than 'mental torture', says Women's Aid CEO Jan Melia


Research found that victims feared emotional abuse more than even physical violence. Image posed by model

Research found that victims feared emotional abuse more than even physical violence. Image posed by model

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Research found that victims feared emotional abuse more than even physical violence. Image posed by model

As the leading voluntary agency addressing domestic and sexual violence in Northern Ireland, Women's Aid works to raise public awareness and shatter unhelpful myths about domestic violence.

So, upon reading Mary Kenny's misguided article about emotional abuse in the Belfast Telegraph (July 24), we felt it our duty to address some of the article's claims.

The column, which argues that emotional abuse is not something the State should concern itself with, and is a private matter between two people, demonstrates a chronic lack of understanding of the issue.

By suggesting that emotional abuse is part and parcel of the normal dynamics of a relationship, Kenny disregards the very real anguish of victims, and perpetuates a view that discourages them from coming forward and seeking help.

Women's Aid knows that you don't have to be hit to be hurt. There is no place for emotional abuse in a healthy, non-abusive relationship, regardless of unsupported, pseudo-scientific claims about 'couple psychology'.

Women's Aid works with thousands of women and children every year.

Their lived experience informs our work, and we know from supporting those victims and survivors that emotional abuse is harmful and life threatening, and that its impact lasts long after the abuse ends.

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Emotional abuse is a deliberate pattern of isolation, manipulation, intimate terrorism and control.

This is not a new phenomenon. Women in our services have been telling us for decades that this abuse is often harder to endure, and more difficult to recover from, than physical violence.

Their experience has been corroborated time and again by research: studies confirm that the trauma of emotional abuse and coercive control are comparable to that of physical abuse, and similarities have been found between the impact of coercive control and the experiences of hostages, POWs and concentration camp prisoners.

In a recent consultation with women in our services, participants frequently described emotional abuse as a form of "mental torture".

One woman told us: "If I had a choice between being physically or mentally tortured, I'd choose the beating."

Another, who had left the relationship but continued to be abused and harassed by her former partner, told us: "I am so broken. He has broken me from the mental torture."

These sentiments have been echoed by victims of domestic violence across Northern Ireland, across the UK, and across the globe.

It must also be understood that physical violence in a relationship does not happen in a vacuum. In an abusive relationship, physical violence is just one part of a larger strategy of power, control and psychological harm.

If we as a society are to tackle the epidemic of domestic violence, we must acknowledge this inextricable link between physical violence and the psychological abuse that underpins it.

Our response must address the sustained, deliberate pattern of psychological and physical torture that strips the victim of their identity, their wellbeing and their sense of self, and costs the Northern Irish economy in excess of £931 million per annum. This is why Women's Aid continues to campaign for a coercive control law to be introduced in Northern Ireland to bring us in line with the rest of the UK.

We have come a long way since the days where domestic violence was viewed as a private matter and not the business of the State to intervene.

This is why Kenny's assertion that legislating for coercive control amounts to an invasion of privacy is so dangerous. We cannot and should not aspire to go back to the bad old days when domestic violence was regarded as a private matter between a man and his wife.

We cannot fail victims by turning a blind eye, or ignorantly blame them for their "failure to avoid control freaks." This thinking has no place in today's law and policy, nor should it have a place in public discourse on the issue.

We must also acknowledge the disproportionate impact of domestic violence on women and how this is linked to gender inequality. Although anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, and anyone can perpetrate it, the majority of victims are women and the majority of perpetrators are men.

These men are our brothers, friends and neighbours whose abusive behaviour is facilitated by a gender unequal society where men still hold the majority of positions of power.

So rather than celebrating the Irish Government decision not to legislate against coercive control, we should instead be questioning why governments consistently fail to respond to the reality of domestic violence in law, policy, and funding of specialist support services.

Without a gendered response that reflects the root causes and consequences of violence against women and men, all victims are left unprotected, and our efforts to eradicate domestic violence will be in vain.

Kenny is right about one thing: women do need to be empowered, not infantilised.

The first step to empowering them is to listen to what they are telling us, instead of dismissing their experience as an overreaction and blaming them for not being able to "deal with it".

If we are ever to make domestic violence and coercive control a thing of the past, public and media discourse must actively dispel counter-productive myths which belittle the lived experiences of victims.

We must hear what women have been telling us for decades about the harms of psychological abuse and coercive control, and respond with robust law, policy and action that solves the problem.

  • If you are affected by any of these issues, Women's Aid operates a 24-hour helpline which is open to all women and men affected by domestic and sexual violence on 0808 802 1414.

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