For too long domestic violence has been seen primarily as physical abuse. Recent changes to our laws mean that emotional abuse is now a crime too. But how will proof of coercive control be presented in court? Amanda Cassidy reports.
“I didn’t know I was in an emotionally abusive relationship until I was so far in that I didn’t know how to get out. I didn’t know how to leave because I did not know who I was anymore. I only knew who he wanted me to be: submissive and subservient.” Ally compares her psychologically abusive relationship to being a prisoner with no escape. After she suffered a miscarriage, the emotional abuse deepened. She says it took her a long time to realise that the behaviour of her ex-partner was far from normal. “When myself and my ex-partner miscarried, there was a traumatic bond between us. It was in the place of where our child once was. However, the toxicity in the relationship began before the pregnancy. It began with subtle, verbally degrading comments regarding my body, using demeaning words to state that I was too sensitive, and isolation done by demanding constant communication and connection. I found it hard to understand how someone could switch from kindness to coldness, or how my expectations of a loving relationship had become so skewed.”
Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This psychological abuse creates invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victims life. It will now be included in the Irish Domestic Violence Act. The executive of Safe Ireland, Sharon O’Halloran has described the changes as ‘groundbreaking'. She told RTE that it represents a ‘coming of age’ in our understanding of domestic violence. Announcing the new offence of coercive control just after Christmas, Minister Charlie Flanagan says that protecting and supporting victims is a key priority for the government. “This step recognises that the effect of non-violent control in an intimate relationship can be as harmful to victims as physical abuse because it is an abuse of the unique trust associated with an intimate relationship”.
So what does it mean? Now victims of domestic violence including coercive control will be able to apply for an emergency barring order, lasting for eight working days, where there is an immediate risk of significant harm. The Irish Examiner reports that emergency barring orders can be granted even if the victim has no legal or beneficial interest in the property or has an interest which is less than the perpetrators. The Act will now allow victims to give evidence by video link both in civil cases and in criminal cases for breaches of orders. They can also be accompanied to court by a person of their choosing to provide support during a civil hearing.
But how do you know if you are in this type of abusive relationship? Woman’s Aid points out that you can usually find a pattern in the relationship, where one partner is controlling and there's an ongoing sense of fear.
Some of the warning signs include being isolated from your family and friends, monitoring your time, taking control over aspects of your everyday life, depriving you access to support services, humiliating and degrading you, controlling your finances and intimidating you.
Coercive control legislation will now provide the Gardai with an opportunity to protect victims who experience a spectrum of abusive behaviour. But in order to enforce the law as effectively as possible, we must also encourage victims to recognise coercive behaviour and to report it. Research in the UK, where emotional abuse has already been criminalised, shows that victims rarely contact law enforcement specifically to report coercive control. The crime of coercive control often became obvious after other offences like assault or criminal damage. Reporting this type of crime is made more difficult because of the vulnerable nature of victims of coercive control.
A grey area
There are also challenges when it comes to proving this kind of abuse in court. There are no broken bones or external bruising like with physical abuse. It is hard to objectively assess if coercive control has taken place or not.
The abuser will typically use signals and covert messages to exert and maintain control and often these have meaning only in the context of that particular relationship.
In other jurisdictions where emotional abuse is a crime, the advice is to keep any evidence; diaries, text messages and emails as well as testimony from friends and family. Yet, these things may not always provide sufficient evidence of the extent of the psychological harm inflicted on the victim.
For Ally, this was the hardest aspect of her situation. She initially found it hard to pinpoint exactly what it was that was damaging her the most. “He would fabricate stories to distort my reality, gaslight, and deny my genuine grief over losing our shared son. His list of comments targeted to destroy my sense of self is astonishing for me to reflect on now. I was at my lowest. It haunts me because it demonstrates how emotionally destroyed I was to not be to able to realise that I was in love with someone void of compassion or empathy, or even love.”
Criminalising coercive control will help victims achieve justice and recognise that attacking the mind is as damaging as a physical blow. The complexity of the dynamics in a relationship make this a greyer area when it comes to prosecution - but such a cultural shift around this lesser-known side of domestic abuse is a welcome step forward.
For more information, help or advice on this topic, you can contact Women's Aid Ireland