IoS Christmas Appeal: Mental torture - the hidden side of abuse

Not all domestic violence leaves physical scars. Psychological intimidation and extreme jealousy can be just as serious
  • @emilydugan

Emma will never forget the day her husband, Ben, decided to show her that she could not disobey him. It was 2002 and she wanted to go on a shopping trip with their three daughters. As she left the house, Ben said: "You'll regret this."

They returned home to discover he had massacred their pets. The bin was full of fur from the girls' dead rabbits and guinea pigs and the animals' skinned bodies were in the freezer.

"The kids were devastated," recalls Emma, now 53. "Then the very next day he got a guinea pig for his god-daughter and gave it to her in front of them."

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Though an extreme example, mental torture such as this is often the unseen side of domestic abuse. The domestic violence charity Refuge, which The Independent on Sunday is supporting in this year's Christmas appeal, found that 75 per cent of the women in their safe houses had experienced extreme jealousy and controlling behaviour.

In September, the Home Office broadened the definition of domestic abuse to include those who fall victim to psychological intimidation and controlling conduct. It is hoped that this will mean more prosecutions for those that bully their partners, take control of their finances or isolate them from friends and family.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, said: "People often think that domestic violence is only physical, but that's not true. You don't have to be hit to be abused. I have worked with many women whose partners have never laid a finger on them.

"Psychological, emotional, financial and verbal abuse are common forms of domestic violence. For some women, abuse may start as emotional and verbal, and escalate into physical violence. For other women, it may never turn into physical violence, but the cumulative effects of constant humiliation, criticism, threats, name-calling and manipulation can be just as devastating as kicks and punches. Over time, psychological abuse can wear down a woman's self-esteem – like water dripping on a stone. We can think of it like this: physical abuse is an attack on a woman's body; psychological abuse is an attack on her personality."

For Emma, the abuse was physical, too. Over their 18-year marriage, Ben would hit her or throw her around when she disagreed with him. But it was the mental torture that did the most lasting damage – and meant that for nearly two decades she was too paralysed by fear and low self-confidence to leave.

Remembering the day the pets were killed, Emma says: "In some ways that hurt more than being hit. It doesn't always have to be a punch in the face."

When Ben knocked their eldest daughter against a wall in a rage while Emma was out, she finally saw the abuse for what it was. She called the police, who arrested him and took him away, though he was not prosecuted. Not long afterwards, in 2005, she found the courage to file for divorce, but, far from escaping him, the mental abuse only escalated. He stalked her and the girls – despite a restraining order – following them in his car and once chasing them down the road into their driveway. The police recommended that she speak to Refuge and Emma was assigned one of their independent domestic violence advocates to give her support and help her navigate the legal system.

"You don't really know what help is out there until you find yourself in this situation and it becomes out of control," she said. "Most people think Refuge means grabbing you out of your house and hiding you away somewhere, but they helped me at home. Without them, you're on your own and it's daunting. You do need that because you lose a lot of confidence and you don't know what's going on."

Gwent's chief constable, Carmel Napier, who is the lead on domestic violence for the Association of Chief Police Officers, says the public needs to realise how serious psychological abuse can be. "Domestic abuse is not just about violence and people having arguments. It's about mental abuse and financial abuse, which isolates people from families and services and make it really difficult for them to leave," she said. "That childhood saying that 'sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you' is not true. Many victims say that mental abuse, taking away their self-esteem and control, is worse than actual violence. The scale of the problem is really huge."

Aside from the immeasurable personal cost of going through abuse, the bill for treating the mental disorder caused by domestic violence in Britain is an estimated £176m, according to research by Lancaster University.

Money is often central. In some cases, a bullying partner will assume control of all finances, leaving the victim almost penniless. A survey by Refuge found that 89 per cent of women they helped endured economic abuse as part of their experience of domestic violence. Of these, almost half said their abuser had interfered with their education and employment, and 74 per cent reported that their access to economic resources had been controlled.

Ms Horley believes these unseen abuses are just as important to tackle as those that result in injury. "The truth is that psychological abuse is extremely serious," she said. "Some women have told me that it is harder to cope with than physical abuse. Cuts and bruises heal, but relentless psychological torment can leave deeper scars. At Refuge, we know how to support women to overcome the trauma of domestic violence – whatever form it takes. We help women to understand that they are never to blame for abuse, and that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

All names have been changed

The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal is for the national domestic violence charity Refuge. To make a donation visit: