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(Adapted from an article in The Psychotherapy Networker May/June 2010 pp 13-14)
Should psychological violence be outlawed in the same way that physical violence is? Advocates for children have been arguing this case for years. There are laws on the books to protect children from this type of abuse. However, it has been difficult to apply them because psychological abuse is so much harder than physical abuse to prove in a court of law. Now, the French National Assembly has passed a bill which will criminalize “psychological violence” in couple relationships. Their definition reads “actions or words that could damage the victim’s life conditions, affect his/her rights and his/her dignity, or damage his/her physical or mental health.” The offense would be punishable by up to three years imprisonment and a fine of $105,000. Emotional abuse experts in this country believe we need a similar law. There are laws in this country to protect individuals from harassment, intimidation and verbal assault. But we do not extend this to the rights of intimate partners to have equal protection. Steven Stosny, a specialist in emotional abuse and the author of Love without Hurt thinks that taking a stand against emotional abuse would help to more clearly define our legal and social norms as well as increase safety in intimate relationships. When individuals are physically abusive in relationships it is likely that they are emotionally abusive. Also emotional abuse may be a precursor to physical violence.
In order to be able to prosecute a case of emotional abuse, proponents of the French bill argue that abusive or threatening text, email and voice messages meet a standard for psychological violence. The Center for Disease Control in this country has established that psychological violence has to include an act or threat of physical or sexual violence within the previous year and that the definition of emotional abuse could be partly determined by what is felt abusive to the victim. As therapist we are willing to validate for our clients that if they feel abused they can accept that they have been abused. But the law requires a more objective measure which may be difficult to obtain.
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