There is no recourse for victims of psychological abuse.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and various organizations across the country will be raising awareness. Although domestic violence is a composite of abusive behaviors that include physical, psychological and sexual harm, our criminal justice system only recognizes and offers legal protection for physical or sexual violence. It’s this sole focus on violence that inadvertently masks a more harmful reality. What is missed and can be a serious detriment to women, men, and children is the hidden “psychological” abuse, the aspect of domestic violence that’s the most elusive, but which actually endangers the most.
Unlike other countries such as the UK and France, the United States does not protect those who endure psychological abuse, leaving those who suffer vulnerable, isolated, confused and traumatized by their experience. There are no institutional options for protection.
In my groups for women with controlling partners, since the 1990s and even now, I hear women say that they wish their partner would hit them because then the injury would be more visible, or as one woman stated, “I’d rather be pummeled.” This kind of statement is a desperate expression to have the abuse seen and taken seriously by others and, most importantly, to be able to recognize it themselves.
Psychological abuse, like physical abuse, is used to gain power and control over an intimate partner and can be a precursor to physical violence. Unlike physical abuse, psychological abuse is hard to see because it happens with words and demeanor, without physical contact—yet it’s undeniable due to the psychological harm it causes.