What does emotional abuse look like?

DA Family Lawyers - emotional abuse

You’ve likely heard the terms ‘emotional abuse’, ‘coercive control’ and ‘psychological violence’. We hear these sayings all too frequently in the news, usually associated with a domestic violence-related murder. But what do these terms actually mean? What behaviour constitutes ‘emotional/psychological violence’ and ‘coercive control’? How can we identify whether we’re in a relationship where these behaviours are being committed against us and if they are, what can we do about it?

Emotional and psychological violence

I’ve been on maternity leave this year, so I’ve had a lot of time watching streaming services whilst feeding my little one at all hours of the day and night! I have been pleasantly surprised to see that there are more and more television shows being produced that are shining a light on this type of family violence. Two such shows that I have watched this year are ‘Maid’, and ‘Criminal Justice’

Netflix’s ‘Maid’ is a 10-part drama series that follows 25-year old, single mother ‘Alex’, who is trying to move forward on her own with her young daughter, after having fled from her abusive de facto relationship. In the show (which is based on a true story), Alex’s de facto partner is an alcoholic who frequently becomes enraged when he is drunk, or simply if he does not get his way. He throws things and punches holes in the wall (sometimes right next to Alex). He tosses her belongings outside in the rain. He calls her derogatory names. He isolates her from her friends by answering her phone or otherwise intercepting their attempts to contact her. He forces her to sit and eat with him even when she says she is feeling sick. The show, whilst set in the United States, also portrays the very real struggle that self-represented litigants often face when trying to navigate the family court system.

Season 2 of ‘Criminal Justice’ is also available on Netflix (although it was first broadcast by the BBC in 2009). It follows a criminal investigation and eventual murder trial of Juliet, who has killed her husband Joe.  Right from start of the first episode, the viewer can see that something is odd about the way Juliet and Joe relate to one another. It then quickly becomes clear that Juliet is a victim of emotional and psychological family violence. Joe telephones her whilst he is at work, to see that she is home. When he gets home from work, he logs into her laptop computer to see what she’s been doing online. He goes through her purse. He checks rooms in their house to see if anything is out of place. He looks at the odometer in her car to see how far she has travelled that day, and if the distance matches where she says she has been. He finds out the last phone number Juliet calls from their landline.  He essentially keeps tabs on her every movement.

In my experience practising in this area of law to date, I have represented clients who have been victims of emotional and psychological family violence. Likewise, I have represented perpetrators of this kind of family violence. There are a few matters that will stay with me. The first was a young mother I was representing in parenting matters before the (then) Federal Circuit Court. After leaving her abusive husband with her two very young daughters, she found temporary refuge in a domestic violence shelter. Her husband harassed her with numerous phone calls and text messages and, much to her horror, seemed to know the approximate location of where they were being housed and continued to drive up and down the street. After domestic violence workers checked her vehicle, they discovered a tracking device in the spare tyre compartment of the boot. He had been tracking her movements since long before their separation.

I represented a client who was long separated from his ex-wife but who was still being subjected to profuse, emotionally and psychologically abusive text messages from her. The content of those text messages was largely in relation to their ongoing care arrangements for their daughter however, in almost every instance of communication, the ex-wife would call my client derogatory names, put him down as a father and suggest their daughter was better without him. She said that if she ever took her own life, he would be the reason. She insinuated that he was not their daughter’s biological father. This devastated my client. He then took steps to do paternity testing and his ex-wife then said he was the father and no testing was necessary. 

Another client I represented had beloved tropical birds. Her husband constantly accused her of cheating on him and was determined that he know her whereabouts at all times and ideally, that she quit her job and stay home. On one such occasion whilst she was at work, he kept calling her and sending numerous text messages demanding that she return home, suggesting she was cheating on him and ultimately, that if she refused to come home at once, he would hurt her birds. When she returned home, their two children were distraught, and told her that he said he was going to put his dog into the bird cage and see what happened to the birds.

Coercive control

The behaviours we see portrayed in ‘Maid’ and ‘Criminal Justice’, together with the matters we as lawyers see on a day to day basis are most often at the tail end of a relationship when the abuse has progressed significantly to the point where the victim has (or is trying to) leave the relationship. Coercive control usually starts occurring early in relationships without the victim realising it. To take a quote from the show ‘Maid’, “It grows, like mould”

The most confronting and important program shining a light on domestic violence that I have seen this year is, ‘See What You Made Me Do’. This is an Australian documentary series presented by Jess Hill, who is the author of the best-selling book by the same title. In the first episode we meet victim-survivor, Jessica and her family. Jessica started a new relationship and within a relatively short period of time she had gone from a confident, happy and social person to a shell of a human. Jessica says that it started with subtle things that she paid no attention to, such as him asking her to make him a cup of tea as soon as he arrived at her place. He told her how she should groom herself. He demanded keys to her apartment. He would take her phone and read her messages. He insisted on knowing where she was all of the time, who she was with and what she was doing. He installed spyware on her phone (unbeknownst to Jessica). He started asking her to drive him to work, then if he could borrow her car, then he took her car and told her she needed to walk to and from work. He told her she needed to lose weight and he started weighing her and restricting her diet. He would contact her at all hours of the night and demand immediate contact with her. He asked her for money. 

This all happened gradually over months to the point that Jessica accepted everything he said as her reality. Eventually she stopped going to work, stopped talking to anyone, stopped leaving her apartment and was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit at hospital. It was at this point she reached out to her family for help, but it wasn’t until her family took her to the police that she realised she had been abused. Now, two years on, Jessica is still unable to resume work or everyday activities such as grocery shopping. She says, “…the most insidious thing about all those forms of abuse was that you can mistake them for someone having an intense interest in you”.

The law

Often, emotional and/or psychological abuse is the most damaging form of domestically violent behaviour that impacts both adults and children alike. Section 11 of the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 (“the Act”) defines this as behaviour by a person towards another person that torments, intimidates, harasses or is offensive to the other person. The Act provides some examples of behaviours which are emotionally or psychologically abusive as follows:

  • Following a person when the person is out in public, including by vehicle or on foot;
  • Remaining outside a person’s residence or place of work;
  • Repeatedly contacting a person by telephone, SMS message, email or social networking site without the person’s consent;
  • Repeated derogatory taunts, including racial taunts;
  • Threatening to disclose a person’s sexual orientation to the person’s friends or family without the person’s consent;
  • Threatening to withhold a person’s medication; or
  • Preventing a person from making or keeping connections with the person’s family, friends or culture, including cultural or spiritual ceremonies or practices, or preventing the person from expressing the person’s cultural identity.

As you can see, the Act provides only a few examples of this behaviour. In reality, emotional and psychological abuse takes on all manner of forms. If you are in a relationship and are being subjected to emotional and/or psychological abuse you can apply to the Magistrates Court for a Protection Order. To do this, you can either see a solicitor (who will assist you prepare your application, file it and represent you in court) or you can represent yourself. You could also attend upon your local police station as the police may assist you in applying for a protection order. If the police assist you in applying for a protection order, a police prosecutor will represent you in court.

We recommend that you seek legal advice or attend upon police if you wish to apply to court for a protection order, to ensure that you are taking the correct steps and are assisted in the court process.

I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship (or at least, I think I am). What can I do?

If you are in a relationship where you are being subjected to any of the behaviours described in this article – or any other behaviours – that are tormenting, intimidating or harassing you, there are a number of things you can do.

  • Get legal advice.  Please reach out to us for a conversation. 
  • Contact a domestic violence support organisation such as the Domestic Violence Action Centre, or by calling the Domestic Violence Helpline on 1800 811 811. (Names and contact information for these organisations can be found at the end of this article)
  • Make a safety plan. A safety plan is a well-considered strategy to leave the relationship. You should discuss and develop this with a domestic violence support organisation. 

I am in danger. How do I protect myself and my children?

If you (and/or your children) are in immediate danger, you need to remove yourself from the situation (if possible) and contact the police on ‘000’.   

There are domestic violence support organisations such as DV Connect, DVAC (Domestic Violence Action Centre) and Lutheran Services (Mary and Martha’s domestic violence refuge) that assist women by providing them and their children (and pets) with safety plans, refuge accommodation, court support, counselling, information and referrals to additional organisations for support. 

Conclusion and hope for the future (Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce)

It is important that anyone who is experiencing coercive control can identify what it looks like, and reach out for advice and support at the earliest opportunity.

If you would like to read further information about domestic violence, coercive control and applying for a Protection Order, please refer to our articles, ‘Is Coercive Control Illegal in Australia’ – https://dafamilylawyers.com.au/is-coercive-control-illegal-in-australia/ and ‘What is Domestic Violence and What Can I Do If I Am Experiencing It?’ – https://dafamilylawyers.com.au/what-is-domestic-violence-and-what-can-i-do-if-i-am-experiencing-it/ 

The Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce (‘the Taskforce’) has been established by the Queensland Government to examine coercive control and the need for it to be criminalised. The Taskforce has recently released its first report on this issue, after receiving significant community feedback and consultation. This report is called ‘Hear her voice’. If you would like to read the report in full or watch a summary of it as delivered by the Taskforce Chair, the Honourable Margaret McMurdo, please visit www.womenstaskforce.qld.gov.au.


Domestic violence support organisations

DV Connect

P: 1800 811 811

Domestic Violence Action Centre (‘DVAC’)

P: (07) 3816 3000 (for Ipswich) or (07) 4642 1354 (for Toowoomba)

W: https://dvac.org.au/ 

Lutheran Services (Mary and Martha’s Refuge)

P: (07) 3858 3000

W: https://www.lutheranservices.org.au/domestic-violence/about/

Domestic and Family Violence Support Services (multiple centres throughout Queensland)

P: 1800 737 732

W: https://www.1800respect.org.au/service_state/qld?page=7 

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