National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book
Emotional and psychological abuse - Key Literature
This release presents information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS).
The survey collected detailed information from men and women aged 18 years and over about their experiences of violence since the age of 18, as well as experiences of current and previous partner violence, stalking, physical and sexual abuse and harassment, abuse before the age of 15, and general feelings of safety.
- ‘Almost one in four women (23% or 2.2 million) experienced emotional abuse by a current and/or previous partner since the age of 15, compared to just over one in six men (16% or 1.4 million)’;
- 6.1% of women (575, 400) reported experiencing emotional abuse by a current partner’, and 18% of women (1.7 million) reported experiencing emotional abuse by a previous partner;
- 5.2% of men (473,600) reported experiencing emotional abuse by a current partner’, and 12% of men (1 million) reported experiencing emotional abuse by a previous partner.
Refer to Table 27 for more detail.
This Australian research used a variety of methods including an anonymous ‘phone-in’ and focus groups. 102 women who were victims/survivors of domestic violence participated in the phone-in. Emotional abuse was reported by 84 per cent of callers. Emotional abuse included a partner’s constant comparisons with other women and how this impacted on victims’ self-esteem and self-worth. Another form of emotional abuse used by both women and men was emotional withdrawal, such as long periods of silence, which could continue for weeks, sporadic ‘sulking’ and withdrawal of any interest and engagement with the partner (p22). 89% of callers had experienced verbal abuse. This abuse focused on women’s intelligence, sexuality, body image and capacity as a parent and a wife. Women were commonly referred to as ‘stupid’. Women often said they were labelled as ‘sluts’, ‘whores’ etc. Perpetrators were critical of women’s appearance, generally referring to them as ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’. Women were often compared unfavourably to other women. Mothers were often blamed for their children’s behaviour – it was considered to be the result of poor and inadequate parenting for which perpetrators did not take any responsibility (p22). Many callers reported that emotional abuse was often a daily event and that it had long-lasting and negative impacts.
Dal Grande, Eleonora et al, ‘Domestic Violence in South Australia: A Population Survey of Males and Females’ (2003) 27(5) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 543.
Interviews were conducted with a representative random sample of South Australian adults aged 18 years and over selected from the Electronic White Pages. Overall, 6,004 interviews were completed (73.1% response rate). 14.1% of adults in South Australia reported an emotionally abusive relationship. Demographic factors such as low household income, unemployment or part-time employment and health variables such as poor to fair self-reported health status and alcohol abuse problems were found to have a significant relationship with domestic violence. In this study emotional abuse included social abuse.
Hegarty, Kelsey, and Gwenneth Roberts, ‘How Common is Domestic Violence against Women? The Definition of Partner Abuse in Prevalence Studies’ (1998) 22(1) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 49.
This article presents a systematic review of prevalence studies of domestic violence carried out in English speaking countries. This review emphasises the role of emotional and psychological abuse in controlling victims and that such abuse can contribute to serious negative health effects on the victim.
This paper reports on the findings of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS), which was conducted across Australia between December 2002 and June 2003. A total of 6,677 women aged between 18 and 69 years participated in the survey, and provided information on their experiences of physical and sexual violence. In this paper the authors identify that emotionally abusive and controlling behaviours includes behaviours of a current or former intimate partner jealously guarding the woman’s interactions with other males, limiting her access to family and friends, and damaging or destroying her property or possessions (pxv). Based on data gathered in the IVAWS survey around 30% of women reported that their current intimate partner called them names, insulted them or ‘put them down’ (p49).
Arias, Illeana, and Karen T Pape, ‘Psychological Abuse: Implications for Adjustment and Commitment to Leave Violent Partners’ (1999) 14(1) Violence and Victims 55.
Sixty-eight women residing at emergency women's shelters participated in the study; approximately half the study participants were white and half were of minority backgrounds. Within two weeks of their arrival at the shelter, study participants completed self-report surveys on psychological and physical abuse experiences, coping styles and psychological well-being including the presence of PTSD symptoms. After study participants wrote brief narratives about the most recent episode of abuse they had experienced, they were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 their sense of control over the violence and the likelihood they would leave their abusive partners. Psychological abuse predicted both PTSD symptoms and intent to leave abusive partners, even after statistically controlling for the effects of physical abuse. The PTSD symptoms determined the effects of abuse on victims' intent to leave their abusers. Subjects with low levels of PTSD symptoms expressed resolve to leave abusive partners, but those with high levels of PTSD symptoms had less resolve to leave despite the severity of the abuse.
Follingstad, Diane, et al, ‘The Role of Emotional Abuse in Physically Abusive Relationships’ (1990) 5(2) Journal of Family Violence 107.
This article is one of the earliest articles to focus on emotional abuse and provides a good overview of the literature available in 1990. This article also reports on the results of a study involving 234 women being interviewed to assess the relationship of emotional abuse to physical abuse. Six major types of emotional abuse were identified: threats of abuse, ridicule, jealousy, threats to change the marriage, restriction of freedom and damage to property. 99% of interviewees experienced psychological or emotional abuse. Analyses determined that ridicule was the type of emotional abuse that the highest percentage of participants reported as the most negative form of emotional abuse (p117). The authors speculate that this may be because ridicule is a form of emotional abuse that ‘attacks women’s sense of self-esteem and destroys their ability to feel good about themselves’. 72% of the women in the study reported that emotional abuse had a more severe impact on them than physical abuse (regardless of the level of physical abuse reported) (p114). Women reporting that emotional abuse had a more severe impact were more likely to believe that threats would be carried out (p115).
This resource provides practical guidance for judges in engaging with victims of domestic violence in the courtroom, including information on the various forms of emotional abuse. ‘Gaslighting’ is one such form of emotional abuse, in which the perpetrator undermines the victim’s feelings and memories, which distorts the victim’s perception of reality, and ‘destroys the possibility of honest communication’ (p 5). This behaviour also increases feelings of confusion and insecurity in the victim (p 5).
Battered women receiving either shelter (n = 30) or non-shelter services (n = 30) from a domestic violence agency were interviewed regarding psychological abuse and its aftermath. Four types of abuse were derived: ridiculing of traits, criticising behaviour, ignoring, and jealous control. Sheltered women experienced ridicule and jealous control more often than non-sheltered women. For the entire sample, ridiculing of traits was rated as the most severe form. Ignoring was the strongest predictor of low self-esteem. Both psychological abuse and physical abuse contributed independently to depression and low self-esteem. However, fear of being abused was uniquely predicted by psychological abuse.