What is psychological abuse and could it be happening in your relationship?

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Emily Reynolds
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Scottish MSPs have voted in favour of a new piece of legislation focusing on domestic violence – here’s what it means for victims. 

The Scottish government has passed a “gold standard” law against domestic violence – which encompasses not only physical abuse but psychological. 

The Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill will protect women who are subject to psychological abuse and “coercive and controlling behaviour” – behaviours that current criminal law finds hard to prosecute. Under the law, police and prosecutors will be able to charge individuals over a “course of conduct” offence – meaning that physical violence, psychological abuse and coercive behaviour can be prosecuted at one time. 

Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, said the legislation was “fundamentally innovative”. 

“Women have been telling us for years that it is emotional abuse that is most harmful,” she said. “One of the unique things about this bill is that it privileges the experiences of women and children. That’s why Scotland’s approach to domestic abuse is so radical.”

Speaking to, Scott said that the law was “unique” in the way it’s “shaped by the voices and experiences of survivors”. 

“It’s a fundamental change in how our country thinks of and understands domestic abuse not as a one off incident of physical brutality, but as an ongoing pattern of coercion and control,” she explains. 

“This law sends a message to all survivors of violence and abuse: you count, your experience counts. What is happening to you, or what has happened to you was not okay and we want you to know that the law is for you.” 

’It sends a message to perpetrators who absolve themselves of the label ‘abuser’ because they never left a bruise: this behaviour is neither acceptable nor legal.”

Recent research suggests that funding cuts have meant that many women are unable to access the help that they need. A survey from Women’s Aid suggested that more than 4,000 women and children could be unable to access domestic violence refuges if the government went through with plans to remove them from the welfare system – meaning many women would not be able to afford a place. 

And shortly before this survey, more research suggested that 200 women and children are turned away from refuges every day in England. Speaking at the time, Women’s Aid chief executive Katie Ghose said that the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure survivors and their children get the support they need to escape domestic abuse and rebuild their lives” – but that the government’s plans “undermined” the Bill’s intentions. 

“Demand for refuges already far outstrips supply and the proposed funding model could be the breaking point. Refuges will be faced with the awful reality of either turning more women and children away or closing their doors forever,” she said. 

Most of us understand what physical abuse looks like. But what is psychological abuse?

What is psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse – sometimes known as coercive control – can take many formsWomen’s Aid define coercive control as “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten a victim”. According to statistics from the charity, 95 out of 100 victims of domestic abuse have experienced coercive control.

“When people think of domestic abuse they think of physical violence,” Scott explains to “But domestic abuse is very often so much more than that.”

“For many women who live with domestic abuse there will be no scars, bruises or broken bones, but for some it can take their life. No one ‘kind’ of abuse is more serious than any other.”

Often abusive behaviour “starts small and gets more and more serious”, Scott says. It could start with name-calling and humiliation, or the isolation of the victim from friends and family. And “regulation of women’s and children’s everyday lives is the end result”. “Coercive control is a 24/7 abuse, and it continues after separation,” Scott says. “At Scottish Women’s Aid we’ve heard stories of women forced to eat from the floor and others whose partners have not let them leave the house for days at a time.”

The function of coercive control is to make someone dependent – isolated from support networks and access to vital services, victims can be exploited and abused.

This could come in the form of:

  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Being deprived of basic needs (such as food)
  • Being monitored online (such as through spyware)
  • Controlling aspects of every day life – where a victim goes, who they say, what they wear or when they sleep
  • Being deprived of access to medical services
  • Verbal put-downs, humiliation and degradation
  • Controlling of finances
  • Making threats or intimidation

If you believe you need help, you can contact the Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline – run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge – on 0808 2000 247, or email Women’s Aid also provide a Survivor’s Handbook, which provides practical support and information for women experiencing abuse. 

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