Published:  12:57 AM, 06 June 2017

It's time to make emotional abuse a crime


It's 5am and I can't sleep. A quiet dawn is bringing the color back to the world outside, but in here it's still dark. I'm worried about my friend, who is beautiful, kind, smart (it feels important to note that she's smart - some people still think "women like her" aren't), and trying to extricate herself from an abusive relationship. He is out of the house, but not her head. This second eviction isn't the most urgent, but until it is complete she won't be free.

The French have already criminalized "psychological violence". British ministers - who are considering making "coercive control" within intimate relationships a crime should do the same. Coercive control is sometimes described as if it is a mild form of domestic abuse, but this is a mistake.

It is, in fact, the foundation stone on which abusive relationships are built. If a stranger hit you, you wouldn't go home with them, much less deny it happened later - often the very modus operandi of domestic violence. Coercive control creates the psychological conditions that allow abusive relationships to exist and to escalate, often with fatal consequences - an average of seven women and two men are killed by their current or ex-partners every month in England and Wales. Coercive control is increasingly being acknowledged as a significant predictor of future violence and murder by domestic violence charities and the police (for more on warning signs visit refuge.org.uk).

Thirty percent of women have experienced this kind of relationship. I'm one of them. What I remember most about emotional abuse is that it's like being put in a box. How you end up in there is the biggest trick - I never managed to work that one out. Maybe you think it's a treasure box at first: you're in there because you're special. Soon the box starts to shrink.

Every time you touch the edges there is an "argument". So you try to make yourself fit. You curl up, become smaller, quieter, remove the excessive, offensive parts of your personality - you begin to notice lots of these. You eliminate people and interests, change your behavior. But still the box gets smaller. You think it's your fault. The terrible, unforgivable too-muchness of you is to blame.

You don't realise that the box is shrinking, or who is making it smaller. You don't yet understand that you will never, ever be tiny enough to fit, or silent enough to avoid a row - because they aren't rows. If you're lucky - like my friend and me - you get to leave the situation. I'm not sure whether you ever completely escape the experience. Obviously coercive control is not just present in partnerships. It permeates and perpetuates all kinds of toxic domestic relationships.

There are many questions to answer about any potential legislation: where would we draw the line between unpleasant behavior and abuse? How would the law be enforced? What would the penalty for breaking it be? All valid, especially in light of the HMIC report earlier this year which highlighted the police force's "alarming and unacceptable" failure to tackle domestic violence using the legislation we already have.

I'd argue that domestic violence law should be strengthened and expanded to include coercive control. At the very least this would legitimize the experience of thousands of people whose abuse is predicated upon the extreme self-doubt created by its perpetrator. It might also articulate a lamentably common wrong that our society should have evolved beyond and help to change attitudes. Most importantly, it could make people at risk of violent crime - and potential perpetrators - known to the police sooner. It could save lives.

The author is a columnist at The Gurdian

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