Lauren Laverne posted this article over the weekend titled "Time to Make Emotional Abuse a Crime", following news that a new domestic abuse law could criminalise perpetrators of psychological and emotional abuse, as well as physical abuse. The description she gives of her own emotional abuse was particularly resonant for me:
"...it’s like being put in a box. How you end up in there is the biggest trick...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 behaviour. 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..."
Emotionally controlling or abusive behaviour is defined as “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.” This includes "accusing you unjustly of flirting or of having affairs, repeatedly belittling or humiliating you, or regularly criticising or insulting you."
I'm not pretending to have suffered life-crippling abuse that so many women and men endure on a daily basis, but the feeling of having "offensive parts of my personality" is all too familiar.
I have been told that I am too quiet and that I don't drink enough, but also that when I do drink I am too loud and offensive. My clothes have been deemed the wrong colour, not flattering, my style simultaneously too weird and too boring. I didn't cook enough, but when I did, it was shit. I was constantly questioned when I spent time at the pub with male colleagues, but told I needed to chill out when I professed my loathing for the strip clubs my boyfriend regularly frequented. I quit the gym due to lack of money, put on a small amount of weight and was subsequently guilt-tripped into re-joining. Then I was denigrated if I didn't attend frequently enough, my sessions were too short or I didn't do the "right" kind of workout.
Hair? Too short. Heels? Too low. Make-up? Not enough. Lipstick? No, not that kind of make-up.
I tried multiple times to get myself out of these relationships, but was met with anger, tears, emotional blackmail and accusations that I was hormonal and crazy. How dare I try to leave, when I was cooking such terrible meals and slobbing about the house in grey leggings? The worst thing I remember was being told by my boyfriend at the time that he hadn't proposed to me yet because I was too mentally unstable to be a wife and mother to his children. Actually, that wasn't the worst thing. Not even close. Of course, I apologised for all these failings and ran back into the arms of these men, promising to try harder next time.
Over the years, the box I found myself in grew and shrank, depending on how well I followed these arbitrary rules set for me. I was constantly stressed and on edge, my body in constant protest, causing me to feel ill whenever I ate anything. If I sought comfort food I was met with yet more disdain and snide comments about my weight. It was an exhausting, vicious cycle. It makes me wonder why these guys ever decided to go out with me in the first place, since my actual self was never quite good enough for them.
Anyway, that's enough of that.
The real question is, under this new law, does this kind of behaviour warrant an arrest, a criminal record or prison time? Maybe. I really don't know, sorry. But Lauren Laverne sums it up nicely:
"There are many questions to answer about any potential legislation: where would we draw the line between unpleasant behaviour and abuse? How would the law be enforced? What would the penalty for breaking it be?"
I can't see this kind of behaviour being reported and taken seriously in court, considering how low the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence already is. It's also impossible to prove, unless the victims extensively document their emails, texts, phone calls and conversations, which is unlikely to happen within relationships already dominated by manipulation and control.
But the main reason a new law isn't going to change much, is that most people wouldn't even recognise their partner's actions as abuse. You can't accuse someone of something if you don't know what that something is or whether or not it's even affecting you. One of the main signals of emotional abuse is gaslighting: Convincing the victim that everything is their own fault, that they are imagining things. If someone has been mentally beaten down for years, convinced that they are at fault, how does the law possibly expect them to turn their abusive partners over to the authorities? It simply won't happen.
Rather than creating new laws and forcing vulnerable people through a harsh legal system, I think it's far more important for young people - girls and boys - to be taught to identify this type of behaviour so they can call it out, get away from it and stop doing it as quickly as possible.
I'll be honest with you. I'm 27 years old and I didn't really know emotional abuse was a 'thing' until I read about this law a month or so ago. I've never been beaten up or physically hurt by a partner - or anyone - so I didn't equate my own situations as being abusive, mildly or otherwise. This stuff was never taught to us at school or even covered in the glossy magazines we used to read as teenagers. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's safe to say that this is still the case.
I'm not saying the law is a bad idea - it's not - but until emotional and psychological abuse becomes a household term with clearly identifiable patterns of behaviour - like domestic violence - then there's no way it will be of any use.
This needs to start now. If you have a child who is of the age where they will be starting to think about having relationships, then talk to them about it. Hell, talk to anyone about it. Your brother, sister, friend, father or colleague. No-one is ever too old for a wake up call. Explain that no-one should ever make them feel inadequate, scared or trapped, and if they do, then that person is not worth their time. Teach them how to treat people with respect and not dismiss their feelings. Teach them that no-one is entitled to anything and that no-one was put on this Earth for the sole purpose of making anyone else happy.
There will still be abuse, in all its disgusting forms, but by opening up about it maybe we can catch it earlier and nip it in the bud, as well as help more people recognise the signs and seek help. Preferably sooner rather than later.