Psychological Abuse in Law

Here in the UK, at the end of 2015, a landmark new law came into effect that criminalises the act of Psychological Abuse perpetrated against a Spouse, Partner or Family Member.  This is a major step forward in addressing the broader problem of Domestic Abuse where, historically, Domestic Abuse was only considered to be physical abuse and violence.  This change in law recognises that Domestic Abuse includes isolating a person, controlling them, creating structures that lead to degrading, dehumanising and humiliating the person or threatening to expose a private or personal aspect relating to the person.  This law is part of the Serious Crime Bill.

I would describe Psychological Abuse as an abuse that may have either an intentional or an unintentional cause; namely the behaviour of another person or people, culture or institution.  I would describe Psychological Abuse also by its effect upon the person or people who experience the effect; the victim/s.  The effects are largely emotional, though can also be neurological; with cognitive functioning potentially becoming disordered or adversely affected by trauma as a consequence.  Physical health can be adversely affected, too, as a consequence of the emotional and neurological impact.

How a person experiences their physicality and physical world may also be affected; for Psychological Abuse can come in the form of physical threats such as written threat and intimidation, ostracisation, exclusion, alienation and other bullying tactics or there may be an illness or physical symptoms that accompany the emotional or neurological effect.  I believe that Psychological Abuse often involves an element of misuse of ‘power’ by the perpetrating person / people, culture or institution; the aim, where there is intent, being to hold power over the victim, in some form.  This includes the element of control.

I mention intentionality, for I believe that Psychological Abuse can also be an effect, when caused unintentionally by the ignorant or bad behaviour of others, by outdated, unhelpful or unhealthy cultural structures or practices and policies of institutions that are inherently working against those that are employed, or served, by them.

What I have described, thus far, is based on my view that there is a cause and an effect that describes Psychological Abuse. I also believe that Psychological Abuse can be broader than just the actions of one person exerting power over another; for it may be cultural or institutional, within society. I reiterate that Psychological Abuse may be intentional or unintended and, therefore, a by-product and a consequence of damaging societal structures.  Currently in the media; discussion about how Religious institutions or indeed Governments may be intentionally, or unintentionally, responsible for the Psychological Abuse of those such as Lesbians, Gay Men, Bi-Sexual people and Trans people, for example.

In my line of work, as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist, I have found that people present to me evidence of emotional and / or neurological effects as a result of Psychological Abuse but there can also be physical consequences; psychosomatic disorders, for example.

This brings me to the subject of trauma, for trauma can be a significant and debilitating effect of experiencing Psychological Abuse. The impact of this can be fundamental; particularly when the perpetrator of the Psychological Abuse, triggering the trauma, is personally close to the victim; for example, a colleague, friend or loved one.

A person that has been Psychologically Abused is usually aware that what they have experienced is abuse but, sometimes, a person may be unaware that they are, or have been, in an abusive situation, despite experiencing symptoms of the effect of the abuse.

Counselling and Psychotherapy offer an opportunity to help the person with their emotional and physical symptoms and help the person to recognise the abusive nature of their situation, for themselves. In such circumstances, the Counsellor or Psychotherapist can help the person to effect self-change that may empower them to achieve their goals and restore their perspective and their sense of hopefulness in their own future.

John Bowlby (1907-1990) suggested that a person’s view of him/herself may be adversely affected; given that the perpetrator of their Psychological Abuse (whether a person, a culture or an institution) may have become an ‘attachment’ figure / authority during the time of the abuse.  This can sometimes deeply affect the person’s ability to trust others or take a step away to manage for themselves.

The consequence of the person’s self-esteem / self-concept being adversely affected, as a result, may have broader social implications; social isolation, withdrawal, maladaptive thinking that could affect friendships and other relationships, low self-confidence, inability to carry out basic life skills, difficulty in the workplace or education system, economic instability, health issues, mental health issues, rejection of one’s own culture or of the abusing culture and associated ‘norms’, rebellion against institution, substance abuse, self-harm, developmental problems, difficulty with parenting skills (potentially causing dysfunction or damage to a new generation) and many other issues.

Again, at this point, Counselling and Psychotherapy can be incredibly helpful in assisting a person to recognise these adverse effects and helpful at supporting the person to bring about positive change in their thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours; empowering the person to regain a sense of who they are, control of their life in the present and creating the basis for building a brighter future.

Please Note:  If you wish to copy this article, please have the courtesy to quote me as Author.  Thank you.