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Opinion: Psychological and emotional abuse should be recognised as crimes

Abuse within intimate relationships is complex and can take different forms that simply physical violence – legislation needs to recognise that.

Patricia Tsouros

PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS show sympathy when they see the physical evidence of abuse – but very seldom can they see the emotional scars that bind us more securely to our abusers than anything ever thought possible. The legal system in Ireland is not sympathetic to mental abuse and the odds are stacked against the victim. It is always easier to prove these cases where there are injuries or witnesses. In Ireland psychological, emotional abuse has no legitimate status in law.

When I talk about non-physical domestic violence and abuse, I’m not speaking of the occasional fight, or ups and downs of any normal relationship. I’m talking about patterns over time that define emotional abuse.

Controlling/abusive behaviours include: destructive criticism, humiliation, degradation, lies, isolation from your friends and family, pressure tactics, inappropriate sexual pressure, manipulation.

Efforts being made abroad

In the UK, domestic-violence campaigners are pushing for a change in the law to make coercive and psychological harm within a relationship a criminal offence.

In March 2012, the Home Office widened its definition of domestic violence to include what it describes as “coercive control”, financial, psychological, physical, sexual or emotional. Despite the change, such behavior between intimate partners is not yet illegal. But that could all change if an amendment to the serious crime bill goes ahead. The amendment – based on a bill spearheaded by Harry Fletcher, criminal justice expert and founder of the Digital-Trust charity which campaigns against online abuse, and the Plaid Cymru MP and anti-stalking campaigner Elfyn Llwyd – will be tabled by crossbench peers in the House of Lords this month.

It will coincide with the end of an eight-week Home Office consultation period on whether coercive control should be criminalised. Women’s Aid, the national anti-abuse charity, says criminalising the behaviour would increase the number of victims coming forward and prosecution rates.

The British Home Secretary, Theresa May, said: “Tackling domestic abuse is one of this government’s top priorities. The government is clear that abuse is not just physical. Victims who are subjected to a living hell by their partners must have the confidence to come forward. Meanwhile, I want perpetrators to be in no doubt that their cruel and controlling behavior is criminal.”

We have a right to love without fear

A foundation of modern morality is the relationship of power and responsibility. The more power you have, the more responsibility you bear. (Inherent in the definition of abuse is the use of power without responsibility.) When we form emotional bonds – when we love and are loved – we gain a great deal of power over the emotional health and well being of the loved one, whether we want it or not.

Accompanying that power is the responsibility to protect those we love from deliberate and repeated psychological harm for the purpose of controlling or manipulating them or merely for the adrenalin rush of feeling superior. It is the responsibility of everyone to love without abusing the power that goes with it, and it is the civil right of everyone to love without suffering intentional and repeated hurt.

There is a systematic pattern of behavior that fits psychological abuse, which in many cases leads to severe posttraumatic stress disorder, which can take many years for the victim to recover from. This type of contempt of mental abuse and mental health is ongoing and needs to end. Legislators have an obligation to society to start confronting mental health abuse and its consequences. The legal definition of domestic abuse in Ireland should address emotional abuse and be expanded to include any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, manipulation which causes mental damage – to include those aged 16 or over who are or have been, intimate with a partner, spouse, family members regardless of gender, sexuality or marital status.

I hope to bring together a lobby group to attempt to follow in the footsteps of the UK and try to bring about a change in Irish law with regard to emotional abuse.

I write a blog on Psychological Abuse ‘After’ dedicated to educating the public regarding the nature of psychological abuse by narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths and its cost to individuals and society. The posts seek to support victims of psychological abuse and their families and friends.

Patricia Tsouris is a Greek-Irish businesswoman with expertise in the emerging contemporary art market and the Co-Founder & Head of Innovation at www.artfetch.com. She is a mother, dog lover, and traveller, with a passion for photography, poetry and politics and fashion.

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Patricia Tsouros

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