….but we are all fabulous.
In December 2015, a new law came into force in England and Wales to tackle domestic abuse featuring emotional abuse rather than physical violence. This is a fantastic step forward – now controlling, belittling partners can be brought to account. Just as importantly, this law recognises that you don’t have to hit a person to be abusing them. Even if you do not want to take legal action against a current or former partner, this law sends out a message to all men and women in emotionally destructive relationships that they deserve better than this and to the perpetrators that that this is not acceptable behaviour.
The statutory guidance framework (which can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf) provides examples of emotionally abusive behaviour:
Some years ago, I found myself in a relationship which I euphemistically refer to as ‘toxic’. The person in question asserted that I was high maintenance for wanting breakfast, took me shopping for approved clothing and was rude about anything else I chose to wore, checked whether I had shaved my legs before coming into the house, insisted I drank more alcohol than I was comfortable with, refused to meet my friends or to introduce me to his, and called me names such as ‘mong’ and ‘drama queen’ telling me he was joking and I was uptight when I got upset. He never hit me but he kicked the panel out of a door in a house I rented.
I find it hard to believe now, but it took me a long time to realise that this was abusive behaviour and I know that people I confided in didn’t understand why I didn’t just leave.
So how did I find myself in this position? I’m an intelligent, educated, assertive woman. The thing is that abusive people don’t start off abusive, at least not in my experience. They start off charming, exciting, fascinating. It is only once you have started to trust them, to develop feelings for them, to share your life with them that the process begins. Requests to wear this outfit rather than that one, because it looks better seem innocuous to start with. Suggestions that your hair would look great in a different style, that those shoes are a bit masculine, that a dress is a bit frumpy gradually gather momentum and undermine your faith in your own judgement and style. You start to check with them to make sure that this outfit or that looks ok. When you get it ‘right’ they compliment you and reinforce the process. Over time the suggestions evolve into demands which if you resist lead to taunts and sneers and bit by bit the compliments become fewer in number and further apart.
So why not leave at this point? Because when you get upset they still apologise and since you have feelings for them you make excuses for them: maybe they’re having a bad day at work. Eventually they stop apologising when you are upset and instead blame you for not making more of an effort. You still see in them the person you think you love so you do what they ask, hoping that if you can just do the right thing, that the person you first fell for will return.
By now they are not just criticising your appearance but the quality of your work, the people you mix with, your life choices. They won’t let you touch certain items in the kitchen when you are cleaning it in case you damage them and generally behave as though you are an inferior being. You know you aren’t happy but somehow you are so undermined and so disbelieving that anyone can be this way, that you believe it must be your fault.
Friends and family get irritated and impatient that you don’t leave. You talk about how bad it is (at least I did and I am immensely grateful for the listening my mother did) but you can’t make them understand why you can’t leave, because you don’t understand it yourself. The frustration of the people you love most, although motivated by concern, reinforces how useless you feel about yourself.
So what happened? A friend said she couldn’t help me anymore and encouraged me to see a counsellor. I was pretty resistant to the idea of counselling in those days but I felt so low by then that I thought anything was worth a shot. Slowly, slowly, over time it worked, my self-esteem improved and eventually I left. That was 8 years ago and I no longer define myself by the experience or think about it very often, although that too took a long time.
So, I am delighted that this law is now in force. I might not have used it if it had been around 8 years ago, but at the very least it would have been an impartial, objective piece of evidence that this behaviour was not acceptable and that no one should have to put up with it.