SafeLives publishes new report into psychological abuse

2nd September 2019

New research into non-physical domestic abuse finds that 91% of survivors experienced psychological abuse at some point in their relationship.

The ‘Psychological Violence’ report, published today by UK domestic abuse charity SafeLives, sheds light on the regularity of psychological abuse, the daily experiences of those living with it, and the tactics perpetrators use to threaten and control.

SafeLives Chief Executive, Suzanne Jacob, OBE said:

“Psychological abuse is an insidious form of abuse in which perpetrators employ a wide range of personalised, psychological tactics to manipulate and frighten a person, distorting their thoughts and changing their sense of self in order to maintain control.”

“We’d like to say a big thank you to all the survivors and practitioners who shared their experience with us for the purpose of this report.”

“No one should live in fear and be tormented in their own home. We must do more to raise awareness and understanding of the tactics used by perpetrators and the dynamics psychological abuse, asking the question "Why doesn't he stop?" rather than "Why doesn't she leave?"​ The same principle applies whatever the sex of the victim or perpetrator and whatever the nature of their relationship.”

Key findings:

Psychological abuse is commonplace and can occur in the absence of physical abuse

91% of survivors surveyed as part of the research had experienced a form of psychological abuse at some point in their relationships, with nearly half experiencing it regularly. Practitioners confirmed this regularity – with nearly three-quarters saying that psychological abuse was ‘always or often’ reported to them when discussing domestic abuse.

Many survivors will experience some form of psychological abuse in isolation from physical abuse – 42% had never been physically assaulted causing bruising or cuts and 76% had never been physically assaulted causing broken bones or serious injuries.

Psychological abuse follows a pattern of abuse and manipulation, often involving a phase of ‘grooming’

At the beginning of their relationships, 96% of survivors said their partner was charming and affectionate, 93% said they expressed love for them very quickly and 92% wanted to spend a lot of time together. Abusive behaviour is interspersed with warmth and kindness, slowly desensitising the victim to the behaviour.   

Perpetrators use a wide range of hidden tactics to maintain control and brainwash their victim, presenting insults as a joke, gaslighting, and presenting different versions of events. Nearly half (48%) of survivors reported regularly being told they were mentally unstable, and over half regularly experienced control in who they could speak to, meet socially or spend time with. Perpetrators also take advantage of victims’ vulnerabilities; those with mental health illnesses were threatened with being sectioned, whereas those with precarious immigration status reported citizenship being used to keep them dependent upon their abuser.

Manipulation is maintained following abusive incidents too, with many survivors experiencing tactics to keep them in the relationship – 80% said their partner promised to change and nearly half experienced severe psychological manipulation, with a partner threatening to take their own life if they left the relationship.

“People who abuse in this way are clever in their manipulation and the drawing you back in with good and kind behaviour before striking again with threats, control and manipulation [which] leaves you on a constant cycle that seems impossible to escape.” Survivor

Children are hidden victims of psychological abuse, with contact often used as a means to continue control

Children living with psychological abuse are often used as ‘tools of abuse’. 85% of survivors said the perpetrator used the children to threaten and control them and 72% of survivors said the perpetrator attempted to turn their children against them.

There are no ‘typical’ victims or perpetrators of psychological abuse

The report dispels common myths around ‘typical’ victims or perpetrators of abuse. Previous research finds that of visible cases, women who earn 65% or more of their household income are more likely to be psychologically abused than those who earn less than 65%[i]. In line with this, the Psychological Violence report finds that almost a third of perpetrators were in professional, senior or middle management at the time of the abuse, with roles including police officer, psychologist and director of children’s services.  

We must do more to see the whole picture for every adult, child and whole family experiencing any form of domestic abuse. We hope this report is the first step in opening up that conversation, shining a light on psychological abuse and raising awareness and understanding of the tactics used by perpetrators.

Read the report 


Notes to editors  

About the report

SafeLives has been funded by The Oak Foundation to undertake research of ‘psychological violence’ as part of their ‘Issues Affecting Women’ programme.

This research was co-created with survivors and practitioners in design and delivery and captures their lived experience.

Use of the term ‘psychological violence’:

The report emphasises that the term ‘psychological violence’ is not consistently used or understood in the UK and should be replaced by the word ‘abuse’ to avoid theoretical confusion.

The Psychological Violence report refers to ‘psychological violence’ because it was commissioned by Oak Foundation, a European based funder, where this term is more widely stated in the Istanbul Convention.

We advocate the following description:

Psychological Abuse involves the regular and deliberate use of: “A range of words and non-physical actions used with the purpose to manipulate, hurt, weaken or frighten a person mentally and emotionally; and/or distort, confuse or influence a person’s thoughts and actions within their everyday lives, changing their sense of self and harming their wellbeing”

About SafeLives:  

We are SafeLives, the UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, for everyone and for good.

We work with organisations across the UK to transform the response to domestic abuse. We want what you would want for your best friend. We listen to survivors, putting their voices at the heart of our thinking. We look at the whole picture for each individual and family to get the right help at the right time to make families everywhere safe and well. And we challenge perpetrators to change, asking ‘why doesn’t he stop?’ rather than ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ This principle applies whatever the sex of the victim or perpetrator and whatever the nature of their relationship.

Last year alone, nearly 11,000 professionals working on the frontline received our training. Over 65,000 adults at risk of serious harm or murder and more than 85,000 children received support through dedicated multi-agency support designed by us and delivered with partners. In the last three years, nearly 1,000 perpetrators have been challenged and supported to change by interventions we created with partners, and that's just the start.

Together we can end domestic abuse. Forever. For everyone.



[i] Kaukinen, C. (2004). Status compatibility, physical violence, and emotional abuse in intimate relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(2), 452–471.