“A life barely half lived”: Domestic abuse practitioners’ experiences of supporting survivors of psychological abuse

Gemma Halliwell is a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol within the Domestic Violence and Abuse Research Group (DVAHG). She is a SafeLives Research Associate and Pioneer.

Domestic abuse is experienced by 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. Yet, these figures are based on reports of physical or sexual violence and there are no consistent estimates about the number of people who have experienced non-physical forms of abuse.

Psychological abuse is hard to define, it overlaps with many other forms of abuse and is inconsistently measured – this means that we are nowhere close to uncovering its true prevalence or impact. Addressing the lack of research in this area, we asked practitioners working in domestic abuse services to share with us their experience of supporting survivors as part of our wider study about ‘Psychological Violence’, commissioned by the Oak Foundation. They told us that psychological abuse is common, often exists in the absence of physical violence but can be misidentified or overlooked. Many felt that psychological abuse is as harmful, if not more harmful than physical violence. Often practitioners quoted survivors saying that they would rather “get a smack in the mouth” than suffer psychological abuse as it is the “worst kind” of abuse. This reflects wider research which has shown an association between psychological abuse and lifelong health issues, particularly mental health concerns like PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

For practitioners, these impacts were often connected to the most common consequence of psychological abuse, significant damage to survivor’s confidence, self-esteem and identity. This had a radiating impact on every aspect of survivor’s lives, often preventing them from feeling like they could manage everyday activities like going to work, making decisions, building relationships with family and presented challenges with parenting. Very poor court outcomes. A non-molestation order will only be granted when there is an act of violence or a threat of it, meaning there are no protective measure.

In simple terms, an inability to function without guidance or instruction of another person. Defer decision making to others, including children. No pleasure in anything. No autonomy. A life barely half lived.

DVA Practitioner

Our research found that the biggest challenge to tackling psychological abuse is identifying it in the first place. Practitioners talked about how survivors often struggled to recognise psychological abuse as ‘domestic abuse’ because of the tactic’s perpetrators use to establish and maintain control. Designed to cause confusion, subtle slow and insidious acts of psychological abuse used by perpetrators were often interspersed with warmth and kindness. This caused survivors to doubt their own experiences, thinking they were “going mad” or to minimise the abuse – believing it was not severe enough to warrant help because they hadn’t been hit.

The fact is victims of psychological violence often don't recognise that they are victims of abuse and therefore the barrier is them knowing they need to access support in the first place

 DVA Practitioner

This, in turn, played into wider social messages that practitioners felt normalised certain aspects of psychological abuse in the media as “romantic” and emphasised that domestic abuse is only synonymous with cuts and bruises. When we asked practitioners where the gaps are in providing support to survivors, they told us that above all we need to increase awareness of non-physical forms of abuse within society and across professional agencies. Lack of understanding about the patterns underpinning psychological abuse and the tactics used by perpetrators – particularly within the police, the courts and child protection services – had significant consequences for survivors. They highlighted how even with new legislation in the UK about coercive control, evidencing psychological abuse is problematic and places significant burden on survivors to prove what had happened. This often resulted in cases being withdrawn from court or civil orders not being granted.

Very poor court outcomes. A non-molestation order will only be granted when there is an act of violence or a threat of it, meaning there are no protective measures

So many of the people I work with have to go through the ordeal of family court and hand over their children to an abuser, because a Judge has ruled that without a criminal conviction the perpetrator doesn’t pose a risk - demonstrating a clear lack of education around what [psychological] abuse actually is.

DVA Practitioner

Within children’s services and child courts, they talked about how perpetrators could ‘charm’ professionals into being granted access to children which enabled the abuse to continue. Perpetrators of psychological abuse were rarely held accountable for their actions and could often fly below the radar of services.

Lack of training, a universal definition and standardised assessment tools meant that psychological abuse is rarely identified by wider agencies. Access to support for psychological abuse is also in short supply according to practitioners, particularly mental health and long-term care services. Practitioners told us that the shortage of resources across agencies had led to rising ‘risk-thresholds’ and prioritisation of physical forms of abuse, which often resulted in survivors not being able to access the support they needed.

As a society and in the delivery of frontline services, we have a responsibility to identify and respond to domestic abuse – whatever form it takes. For as long as the image of domestic abuse is synonymous with “a smack in the mouth”, we create barriers which inhibit the visibility of psychological abuse to both survivors and professionals. The outcome of this is that perpetrators of psychological abuse are often able to escape accountability and are not challenged to stop. There will always be a need for crisis care and interventions that address severe forms of physical abuse. But as research shows, underpinning almost every domestic homicide review is a continued and sustained pattern of psychological abuse – which has often been misidentified as ‘medium risk’, falling below the threshold for intervention. Our findings highlight the urgent need to increase both public and professional awareness of psychological abuse, for training of wider agencies, and for sustainable funding that increases long-term support options for survivors and their children.

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