New Domestic Abuse Law Could Include 'Psychological Abuse' - But What Exactly Does That Mean?

A new domestic abuse law could criminalise 'psychological abuse' in intimate relationships.

This move has been welcomed by domestic abuse charities, who have long been saying that psychological abuse is just as harmful as physical abuse.

Now, people who emotionally abuse their partners by threatening violence, cutting off friends or refusing access to money could be prosecuted - a move that not only acknowledges the gravity of emotional abuse, but that supports a host of vulnerable individuals.

Polly Neate, Women's Aid chief executive, said: "This is a vital step forward for victims of domestic violence. Two women a week are killed by domestic violence, and in our experience of working with survivors, coercive controlling behaviour is at the heart of the most dangerous abuse."

But what exactly constitutes such behaviour?

According to the government, controlling behaviour is defined as “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.”

Speaking to HuffPost UK Lifestyle, Polly said: "This controlling and coercive behaviour is central to domestic violence: it doesn’t ‘lead to’ physical violence (and physical violence isn’t the ‘worse’ form of abuse), physical violence is one tool some perpetrators use to maintain their control.

"Psychological abuse and control are different to verbal abuse, which is another tool of control, much as financial and sexual abuse are."

Domestic abuse doesn't discriminate. People from all walks of life are affected, both male and female, young and old, no matter what the social background.

But according to Polly, it mainly affects women and some are more likely to be affected than others.

"Women who are vulnerable are more likely to experience domestic abuse, because it is easier for a perpetrator to isolate and control them.

"This includes younger women, aged 16-24 who are the age group most-likely to experience abuse; disabled women; women with mental or chronic physical health problems; and women who speak limited English.

"Some things can also make domestic violence in a relationship get worse, or increase in intensity, with pregnancy or having a small child being a particular risk."

In terms of what to look out for, some signs could be:

Your partner:

Preventing you from seeing your friends or family

Stopping you from continuing or starting a college course, or from going to work

Constantly checking up on you or following you

Uploading tracking software to your phone, keys, or similar

Accusing you unjustly of flirting or of having affairs

Repeatedly belittling or humiliating you, or regularly criticising or insulting you

Deliberately destroying any of your possessions

Denying you access to money or credit cards

Hurting or threatening you, your children, or your pets

Forcing you to do things you don’t want to do, including sexually


Feeling frightened or like you have to ‘walk on eggshellls’ for fear of their reaction

Changing your behaviour because you're afraid of what your partner might do or say to you

Feeling like you can’t do anything right for your partner sometimes, while at other times you are put on a pedestal

Remembering things, and being told they didn’t happen, or not remembering things your partner insists happened

Feeling like you’re going mad or can’t trust your own feelings and beliefs about your partner and the behaviour you’re experiencing

So what should you do if you recognise these signs in your own relationship or the relationship of a loved one?

If you are affected:

It’s not your fault, you don’t deserve it, and there is help available. Call the Freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge on 0808 2000 247, or find help online at

If you or anyone else is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.

If a friend is affected:

If you’re worried immediately for anyone’s safety, call the police on 999. Otherwise, let the woman know you’re there for her and that there is help available.

Don’t try and force her to tell you what’s going on, or to leave, but let her know that psychological abuse and control is domestic violence and she shouldn’t be treated like that. Let her know it’s not her fault and she doesn’t deserve it, and that although she might feel like she couldn’t cope alone, she would probably feel much stronger if she were no longer with someone who was telling her she couldn’t cope.

But a woman has to take the decision to leave herself, when she’s ready, so don’t judge her if she chooses to stay or if she doesn’t think it’s safe to escape, and keep the lines of communications open so she doesn’t become even more isolated.