Mention ‘domestic violence’ to most people and you can be sure the same old images will pop into their heads: angry voices, smashing plates, raised fists, a bullying husband venting sudden neurotic rages on a cowering wife.
But these distressing images, while built around a core of truth, are simplistic and do not capture the full complexities of domestic violence. It is not necessary to be physically violent towards your partner every day to create a toxic, intimidating atmosphere, in which they may feel cowed, controlled and unable to escape. Threats, anger and the possibility of violence are enough. Many abusers exploit this fact to control and coerce their partners – phoning them obsessively, forbidding them from seeing their friends, making unreasonable demands, controlling their finances….the list goes on and on.
Both the police and support groups are all too familiar with such cases and have called for a clearer, more inclusive legal definition of domestic violence to make the prosecution of domestic abusers easier to achieve and fairer for victims. Currently there is no specific offence relating to domestic violence. Instead the police and courts rely on a 2004 definition of “incidents of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse”.
Now all that is set to change. The government has announced a new, broader and more precise definition of domestic violence and abuse, which includes 16 and 17-year olds for the first time and explicitly includes coercion and intimidation.
The new definition reads, in part:
Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse:
This new definition will come into use in March next year. It follows a report from the Centre for Social Justice, published in July, which highlighted the coercive strategies typically employed by many abusers:
“Strategies include depriving the victim of money, making requests that become gradually more and more unreasonable (such as requests about not going out, not seeing friends, or checking levels of cleanliness around the house), locking the victim up and making threats of harm to any children involved.”
Domestic violence is horribly common – estimates of its frequency range as high as the claim that one in four women will experience it during their lifetime. I also think it is worth remembering that around in five victims of domestic violence are men, although they typically receive far less support than female victims and are even treated with outright incredulity at times.
It can be difficult to admit to the world at large that you have married or moved in with an abuser. It is often easier to go into denial about the situation and push on for as long as possible. But this a dangerous approach – there is little evidence to suggest abusers are likely to stop once they have started. If anything, the abuse is likely to escalate. To quote from Mosby’s Medical Dictionary:
“Most battered women report that they thought that the assaults would stop. Unfortunately, studies show that the longer the women stay in the relationship the more likely they are to be seriously injured. Less and less provocation seems to be enough to trigger an attack once the syndrome has begun.”
The psychological as well as physical damage suffered by the victims of domestic violence led to the development of the controversial ‘battered wife syndrome’, initially used as a legal defence for murder in the 1970s. More correctly termed ‘battered person syndrome’, this is defined by the American Heritage Medical Dictionary as: “A pattern of signs and symptoms, such as fear and a perceived inability to escape, appearing in women who are physically and mentally abused over an extended period by a husband or other dominant individual.”
In recent years battered person syndrome has fallen out of favour as a legal defence, principally due to the way it depicts victims of domestic violence in diminishing terms as passive victims incapable of making rational decisions. But it did achieve something of value in my view: shining a spotlight onto the extent of the psychological damage which can be inflicted in the worst cases of domestic violence and bullying. We can only hope that the recently announced new definition will mean more justice for more victims of this unpleasant crime.