SafeLives’ research into psychological abuse

Jen Daw, Research Analyst at SafeLives, explains the key findings and process behind the ‘Psychological Violence’ report, just launched.

In 2018, the Oak Foundation funded SafeLives to conduct research around ‘Psychological Violence’.  This European wide research aimed to establish a clear and consistent definition of ‘Psychological Violence’ and amplify the voices of survivors. We also reviewed the legislative frameworks in place across Europe, assessing their ability to protect survivors and their children.

The research took an ‘empowerment and participatory approach’ grounded in the lived experiences of survivors.  The mixed-methods project was co-produced by survivors and practitioners. Survivors led research design, assisted in development of data collection tools and conducted interviews and focus groups.  An independent expert panel fed into every stage of the process, ensuring that the research truly reflected and gave voice to the survivors.  We had an amazing response from survivors and practitioners to our surveys with 600+ survey responses from practitioners and over 400 from survivors.  Survivors gave their time to take part in interviews and focus groups and spoke freely and in depth about their experiences.  Many thanked us for an opportunity to contribute to this topic.  From this engagement, it became clear this was a topic survivors and practitioners wanted to talk about and get acknowledged.  When we analysed the data – it confirmed why.

Survivors told us ‘psychological violence’ is extremely hard to recognise as abusive.  They described its creeping nature often using the ‘frog in water’ analogy.  At the beginning of the relationship survivors described their partners as ‘the ideal companion’.  Some talked of being ‘love-bombed’ and completely charmed with compliments and constant communication.  

Survivors discussed numerous acts of covert abuse. They described experiencing gendered criticisms, put-downs, insults about their appearance, parenting or cooking/housekeeping.  They also talked about the abuse being masked in normalised ideas of love and romance.  These hidden abuses also included psychological manipulation such as projecting blame, refusing to take accountability, ‘stonewalling’, the ‘silent treatment’ and ‘gaslighting’.  

He made me feel like I was crazy. I apologised for things I hadn't even done just to try and keep the peace. I always felt guilty for everything and nothing at the same time. I was emotionally exhausted; I would cry all the time.


Survivors described further tactics such as insults presented as a joke, presenting differently in public to private, using their social status to gain the upper hand or present the victim as unstable, and using a victim’s vulnerabilities such as mental health difficulties or immigration status.

I am a strong woman…I always thought I would leave a man who treated me badly. But it creeps up on you. They are very clever and manipulative


Many survivors described ‘walking on eggshells’ throughout the relationship to try and keep the peace. They also explained why they remained in the relationship after abusive incidents.  They communicated how partners used ‘dosing’. Over three-quarters (80%) of survivors said their partner promised to change saying they recognised their issues after an abusive incident or if they tried to end the relationship.  Some survivors said they saw this as a ‘return to hope’ that the person they knew at the beginning would return.  This could escalate to more intense psychological manipulation with 5 in 10 (49%) survivors saying their partner suggested they would take their own life if the relationship ended.

He would threaten to harm himself or kill himself if I tried to end the relationship…he would call me "his angel" and tell me that he couldn't live without me or cope…so I felt that I couldn't leave him


Many survivors portrayed the difficulty of explaining what was happening to them with many noting they didn’t access support as “who would believe me” without any proof of physical harm.  A few noted how they ‘wish they’d been hit’ to have something tangible as evidence.

Many, many times I wished he would hit me, so that I could know for sure it really was abuse, so there would be proof, so that I had a clear reason to leave the marriage, and a clear reason to justify and explain it to others. He was so charming; no-one would ever believe me otherwise


Our findings highlight the urgent need to increase both public and professional awareness of psychological violence, for earlier identification, and to give any victim or survivor a supportive, understanding and appropriate response to this insidious and extremely harmful form of domestic violence and abuse.

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