PAT is haunted, she says, by a violent incident from when her second child was still a small baby. She had called her husband while he was out one evening, asking him to come home to help her sort out a household water leak. When he arrived home at 2am she was awake and breastfeeding. The first thing he did was come up and punch her in the face while she was still holding the baby. He then went downstairs to get a Stanley blade to cut the carpet and trace the source of the leak, came back up, put the blade at her throat and dragged her down the stairs backwards. “He told me that I was nothing but a stupid, sad cow,” she says. “And that I created the leak to get him home.”
In the course of her marriage, Pat was not only punched, but knocked out, strangled, clapped around the ears so hard she could barely hear, dragged across the floor and kicked. She believes her husband tried to kill her three times. On one particularly terrifying occasion, she says, when she refused him sex he punched her several times in the head, knocking her out cold, then continued to kick her in the face.
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Yet, what lingers more for her than the physical abuse is the psychological torture, the controlling behaviour and humiliation. “He told me I was a lunatic. He would tell the kids I was a bad mum. One time I got a bottle of gin as a present and I had a couple of drinks and fell asleep. He pulled the covers off, took my clothes off and took pictures of me, which he sent to me in the morning at my work. He said no wonder he doesn’t come near me, I’m alright from the neck up but I’m a fat cow.”
Though the bruises are gone, she says she still “lives with the mental torture”, a sentiment echoed by many victims of abuse. Until now such psychological torment has not been recognised under the law. However, last week MSPs debated in the Scottish Parliament the new Domestic Abuse Bill, which plans to create a specific domestic abuse offence recognising such “controlling and coercive behaviour” and could make Scotland one of the first countries in the world to criminalise partner psychological abuse.
What’s planned is a pioneering piece of legislation which encompasses both the horror of domestic physical violence and the interconnected torment of psychological abuse. Already in England there is a controlling and coercive behaviour offence, but it is narrow in scope. This particular law would be hugely symbolic. It would make clear, as Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, launching the planned draft bill at Edinburgh Women’s Aid last week pointed out, that “exerting total control over your partner’s every movement and action, forcing your partner to live in constant fear, is criminal and unacceptable in our society”.
Nearly 60,000 domestic abuse incidents were reported to Police Scotland in 2014-15 and it’s widely believed that this is a vastly under-reported crime. One Scottish survey found that only a fifth of those who had experienced partner abuse in the previous 12 months had said the police had been made aware of it. One of the problems, Matheson notes, is that such reporting has hitherto revolved around “incidents”, but actually domestic abuse is not like a housebreaking, where there is a single such incident – it’s about a pattern of behaviour, and the law needs to be changed to reflect this.
That physical abuse and controlling behaviour come as part of a pattern is something that has long been acknowledged by frontline organisations like Edinburgh Women’s Aid. Their chief executive Linda Rodgers notes that the majority of women coming to them have experienced some form of controlling or coercive behaviour. “For me the two are intrinsically connected.” The threat of physical abuse, she notes, is often used to enforce the control. “I think it’s always important,” she says, “to recognise that the reason why that controlling and coercive behaviour is effective is because there is fear underneath it.”
Partly, Rodgers argues, we need to recognise the way violence is being used. “Often there have been rules around behaviour and then a woman’s maybe been using the telephone when she’s not allowed and the violence is about bringing her back into line. It’s about maintaining control.”
Ways that this controlling behaviour manifests itself are varied, and include anything from controlling partners’ access to the toilet to stopping them from getting access to money. One woman who turned to Edinburgh Women’s Aid for help, Saadia, found the abuse began not long into her arranged marriage, and while occasionally terrifyingly violent, was more frequently psychological. “He just started chipping away at me,” she recalls. “He used to ask me where I was all the time. If I wore lipstick he would say, ‘Do you think you’re beautiful? Is that why you’re wearing lipstick? You’re nothing special.’ If he was on a phone call to his friends, which would sometimes be for hours, the kids and I would have to sit in silence.” While she was out working during the day, he would have women back to their home.
Frequently there are attempts to denigrate and crush the victim’s self-esteem. Pat, for instance, recalls: “He used to wash me after he’d battered me. He used to make me strip. He used to say, ‘You’re a sad little woman. You’re nothing. You’ll always be nothing. Nobody will want you. You’re damaged goods.’” Another victim, Anne, found that her partner would control her by undermining her. “It was like walking on eggshells. He would tell me that I was not parenting the kids properly, that I was fat, that I was worthless. When you’re hearing that all the time, you believe it.”
Often the abused say that they were isolated from friends and family, or any support. Pat recalls that her husband decided they should move, while she was pregnant and caring for a toddler, to a house out of town, leaving her stranded, away from family and friends.
Abuse victims are not solely female, though women are disproportionately affected: 79 per cent of domestic abuse reports feature women victims and male perpetrators. Rodgers believes this is because “the societal structures that give that permission don’t exist in the same way” for female perpetrators. “If you look at the sites of abuse, they are often around cooking, cleaning, the way the woman dresses - things that are seen as traditional women’s roles and that the male as the head of the household has a right to influence.”
The impact of such mental abuse is devastating for the victims. As Saadia puts it: “In eight years my husband hit me about 10 times. The rest was psychological. It’s hard to explain how much of a long term affect that has. I don’t think there is any way I could go back to being the strong woman I was before. Psychological abuse for me is bigger than physical. It has long lasting impacts. Not just for me for the children as well. They saw it. They were unfortunately witnesses to quite a lot of the abuse.”
Linda Rodgers hopes the impact of the legislation will send out a symbolic message that “this is what we recognise as domestic abuse in Scotland and that we think it’s unacceptable”. Already public attitudes towards domestic psychological abuse have started to shift a little, prompted partly the abuse plot-line in The Archers radio soap. Rodgers is hopeful that the new Bill will form a step towards a “domestic abuse free Scotland”. She believes this is possible and can be facilitated not only by such legislation, but also by increased gender equality. “Violence against women is less in countries that are more gender equal. The more equality that we have in Scottish society the less likely it is that violence against women will exist. We need to keep our eye on that prize. We need to believe we are capable of that.”
Before I got married I was very strong and happy-go-lucky. My father had brought me up to be really independent. I had a degree. I was a senior manager at a big company, very successful. The abuse began from the time I got married, an arranged marriage to the son of my dad’s best friend from Pakistan. He wasn’t physically abusive at first, but he did want to control me. If I was 15 minutes late home from work, he would say to me, ‘Right so it took you two minutes to walk to the car and ten minutes to drive down the road. Why are you 15 minutes late?’ I would just fob it off and say, 'do you think I went clubbing?’
Later, I fell pregnant and he said that he didn’t want children and he wanted me to abort my child. But I refused. I was a very strong person. But all the time he just chipped away at me. I started believing what he was saying. I stopped wearing make-up, which he disapproved of. I started gaining weight. I was depressed. Then he actually became physically abusive towards me. He threw a shoe at my head. Immediately he said he was sorry and that it was a mistake. But after that the violence became not regular, but acceptable. He would punch me and hit me, then apologise.
My work colleagues started asking, ‘What’s wrong with you? You’re so quiet now.’ I used to just start crying for no reason and I couldn’t explain it. I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. There was nobody I could speak to. My parents were very happy that I was married and I didn’t want to upset them. I tried to speak to my sister once, but she didn’t get it. She just said, ‘Be strong.’
It was through my work that it all came out. I had a big job as a senior manager and you have to be really firm and I was becoming really subservient. Eventually my manager had a word with me and I just broke down and told him everything. He was in shock. I was referred to a psychiatrist who then put me in touch with Women’s Aid. I met a lovely lady there and the first thing she did was give me a big hug and say, ‘Are you okay?’ I burst out crying. The fact that she acknowledged how awful what I was going through was gave me so much relief. Up till then I had been very alone.
She was the one who said to me, ‘You know you could leave your husband if you want to.’ She told me, ‘You know you can phone the police.’ Those words stayed with me and the next time he did hit me, I phoned them. When they came and took him away, it was an amazing feeling. I just thought, ‘Oh, my children, they were crying in the corner when they saw my husband hitting me. I don’t want them to go through that anymore.’
I’ve experienced both physical and psychological abuse. I don’t have the bruises any more. I don’t have the cut on my forehead, I don’t have the burn he did to me. But I’m not the person I was. Today I find it hard to believe that I have a degree any more. I think, was that really me that went to university? Was that really me that had that big job? I now struggle to even apply for any job. The impact of psychological abuse is long-lasting. Because you become so subservient. It’s ‘Yes master, no master.’ And that affects the rest of your life. You can’t be that strong person you were before.
For me it was both psychological and sexual abuse. It started when I was pregnant. The abuser raped me when I was six months pregnant. I disclosed it to my mum, and I kicked him out the house. But a few weeks later my mum took a stroke. Then I gave birth to my son and the abuser actually wheedled his way back in. I had lost the support of my mum because she was ill and in a nursing home, and he knew that was a vulnerable time for me. I stupidly took him back and he psychologically abused me the whole time of my relationship. He tried to keep me isolated from friends and family. He would only let a few of my friends round, and then he would tell me that those friends were no good for me. So I became isolated. The control was making me feel worthless. He would tell me I was a bad mother, that I was fat.
Then, at one point we split up, and we were going to get back together, and my daughter disclosed that he had been sexually abusing her. I thought this can’t continue. We contacted the police. Bail conditions were put in place, but he broke the bail conditions and that’s when I had to go into refuge, because I didn’t feel safe in my own home with my children. I was in a Women’s Aid refuge for almost a year. While there I started to realise that the behaviour was not acceptable and that he had been abusing me from day one. When I met him, in a bar, he was very charming but it didn’t take long for him to show his true colours. I think a lot of people were shocked when they learned my situation because he had also come over charming to them.
Names in this article have been changed.