Domestic abuse is not easier to cope with when it's not physical

Intimate partner abuse of the non-physical kind can be easier to excuse but it is just as wounding.

Intimate partner abuse of the non-physical kind can be easier to excuse but it is just as wounding. Photo: Stocksy

"At least he didn't hit you."

That was a common refrain to a friend of mine after she finally found the courage, a while ago now, to leave a destructive relationship. Funnily enough, in the thick of it, she thought it would be better if he did. At least then she would've been able to draw a definitive line in the sand. To know when enough was enough. To be yelled at, sworn at and, at the other extreme, ignored on a daily basis is easier to excuse. But just as hard to take.

Domestic abuse is, blessedly, derided in this day and age. Thanks to campaigns like White Ribbon (calling out male violence against women) and greater public awareness about the unacceptability of it, it is gradually morphing from shame of the victim (women, usually, according to statistics) too embarrassed to speak out lest they embarrass themselves or their family, to shame landing where it belongs: with the perpetrator lashing out at his partner. We're starting to accept that, for that, there's never any excuse. But so called 'emotional abuse' - yelling, belittling, manipulating, humiliating, financially controlling - still lags behind as moderately admissible. Despite all we have finally come to understand about the damaging fallout - and inexcusablity - of domestic abuse, unless there are bruises, we tend to let it slide.

Yet it is just as wounding. And, it would seem, just as rife.

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When US writer, Zahira Kelly, recently started the hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou to share her own encounters of emotional abuse, it pretty soon drew a crowd, tens of thousands of women (and counting), sharing their experiences of chronic non-physical abuse at the hands of partners, past and present. Of course men aren't immune, nor are gay relationships, but the hashtag has become a touchstone for predominantely heterosexual women, piercing a pressure valve that was clearly gagging for an outlet.

#MaybeHeDoesntHitYou but he punches the walls and damages things in your house because you "made" him.

#MaybeHeDoesntHitYou but if you don't respond to his texts within a minute you're a cheating whore.

#MaybeHeDoesntHitYou but you not agreeing with him is disrespectful and an insult.

"It is giving voice to the experiences of so many women to this pattern of behaviour that is just as harmful and degrading as physical abuse", says Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia. She's not surprised the hashtag is gaining such traction, one of the few forums where women are able to share their encounters of emotional and verbal abuse without being doubted or trivialised.

Only 20 per cent of domestic violence victims report physical abuse, the great majority subjected to emotional, psychological, sexual or financial abuse. "It's behaviour aimed at humiliating, demeaning or undermining a person with the aim of gaining power and maintaining control", explains Willis. "It's like walking on eggshells, everything is her fault, and she never knows what's coming next".

Willis says women are often reluctant to speak out because they fear the stigma. "They're more likely to keep the peace for the sake of the family", she says. "People ask 'why doesn't she just leave?' They don't ask 'why doesn't he just stop?'"

Emotional abuse is a shady phenomenon, tricky to discern to the untrained eye, as victims tend to normalise it over time. But counsellors, like Leslie Spruce from the Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, agree it can be more impacting than physical violence. "We often hear women say 'I wish he'd hit me' because a bruise heals but emotional abuse eats away at your core. It wears you down and you start to believe the insults. It takes so much longer to heal".

More significantly, physical abuse is always preceded by psychological abuse. As Karen Willis put it, "It doesn't start on the first date".

Yet, despite one woman dying every week at the hands of a current or former partner in Australia, very little is being done to redress the problem where it starts. Emotional abuse is now a criminal offence in the UK where "controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship" could lead to five years jail. Here, there's not much police can do.

As a well-meaning policeman put it to a friend at her wits end after her husband's ongoing abuse in front of their children, "Unfortunately there's no law in this country for being a cock-head". 

Instead, her only recourse for the incessant attacks - including watching her young children chanting "Mummy's a f---ing cow! Moo", mimicking their father - was to pack up and leave. "I could put up with it when it was just aimed at me", she explained. "But once our boys started witnessing it, that was the turning point. If I stayed they too would become abusive men. One generation is enough".

Jacinta Tynan is a Sky News Presenter and author. Twitter @jacintatynan