In our latest Ask Her column, clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson – who specialises in therapy, treatment, and counselling for individuals, couples and families – answers a question from a concerned reader:
I think someone close to me is in an abusive relationship. What constitutes domestic violence? He’s not hitting her but I think the way he treats her and the way he talks to her is abusive. Any guidance would be appreciated.
That’s a very good question. While physical aggression and sexual coercion are obvious forms of domestic violence, psychological abuse can be equally mentally and emotionally harmful. For that reason, domestic violence services typically consider non-physical abuse another form of domestic violence.
The Domestic Violence Resource Centre, for example, defines domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behaviour, whether physically, sexually, economically, emotionally or socially abusive, that is designed to control and dominate an intimate partner.
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic And Family Violence Counselling Centre, 1800 Respect, defines domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behaviour, involving coercion and control, which over time causes fear in an intimate partner, and places one partner in a position of power over the other.
Examples of abuse by intimate partners can include repeatedly humiliating a partner or attacking their self-esteem, for instance by name-calling, isolating them from family and friends, restricting their access to money, curtailing their freedom of movement, monitoring their activities, preventing them from caring for, feeding or soothing their children and/or threatening them, their property or their loved ones.
Determining whether a friend is suffering this kind of abuse can be tricky, particularly if she is keeping her experiences to herself. The vast majority of couples do argue, and many partners occasionally say or do hurtful, unreasonable things that they later regret.
The key difference between normal couple conflict and emotional abuse is that abuse involves a pattern of behaviour rather than an occasional lapse. Abuse is also intentional rather than unintended, and designed to intimidate or control.
A partner who is being abused typically does not feel free in important areas of her life, for instance to express her opinions, make her own decisions, be herself, or take her own actions, without fear of some kind of reprisal.
What you can do if you think someone is in an abusive relationship
If you are unsure whether your friend is being abused, the most helpful approach is to make your relationship a safe and non-judgemental place where she feels comfortable opening up. Knowing that she will be supported by you rather than blamed, and understood rather than pressured to change, she is more likely to be honest with you about what is going on.
To help you adopt this stance, reading about the impact of domestic violence, and how to help someone suffering intimate partner abuse is a good start. With that information in mind, use your knowledge of your friend or loved one to talk with her in a way that you think will help her to be open with you. You might need to go slow, for instance talking first about other stresses and struggles in her life, and coming at her relationship in a gentle and indirect way. This might take some time, perhaps days or weeks.
Alternatively, you may feel able to approach the subject more directly. For example, “I’ve noticed that …… often calls you an imbecile in public. That would crush me. How do you cope?”
If she does open up, and her relationship does sound abusive, your job isn’t to push her to do whatever you think she ought to do. She gets enough of that at home. The best way to help her is to be kind, empowering, and on her side, offering an alternative to what she gets at home, relief from the coercion and control, and a place to turn outside the abusive relationship.
The domestic violence services and websites that helped you to understand her can also help her to understand herself, and her struggles. Don’t be surprised, however, or deterred, if you suggest domestic violence resources and she knocks them back. It can be very difficult to acknowledge being abused.
Be patient with her. At the very least you will have planted a seed and opened some doors. As a result your friend or loved one will know that she is not alone and that you and others are there for her, whenever she is ready.
As a caveat, it is important to note that physical and sexual violence are illegal, and can be life threatening. Children in domestically violent homes are also at significant risk of long term psychological harm. If you are concerned about physical violence or children in an abusive relationship, call 1800 Respect – 1800 737 732 – for advice about how best to respond. In any emergency involving immediate danger, for instance if you hear screaming, extreme distress or threats, call 000.