Expand the definition of domestic violence to include emotional abuse

by So’Phelia Morrow

On Aug. 16, Emma Cooper’s documentary “Depp v. Heard” dropped on Netflix. Despite generally scathing reviews, it quickly rose to most-watched status.

People’s ongoing fascination with this trial is a testament to the power that tales of physical abuse have in the public eye. I can’t say that I was ever hit, slapped or punched, but I know that a prison of abuse can be built without the abuser ever laying a hand on the victim. I know because it happened to me.

“He kidnapped me one weekend, and I never went home.” “I have Stockholm syndrome.” These are the jokes I would tell people in the beginning of the abusive relationship I later escaped last September. I didn’t really believe this, though. At least not consciously. But one of the many things I’ve learned about myself is that I hid my subconscious knowledge behind these jokes.

My abuser never physically hurt me, but he isolated me, never letting me spend any time without him. We moved where he wanted to move. His decisions were my decisions. He would want to have debates almost every day about the smallest of things, constantly trying to undermine my intelligence. I would come up with potential ideas for skits for the entertainment production company he claimed he wanted to start but somehow never did. He knew I was insecure about how creative I am. One day, he told me, “You know you’re not as clever as you think you are.” Although it stunned me — and I most certainly thought it was an unkind thing to say to a partner — I didn’t recognize it at the time as a form of verbal abuse. He didn’t blatantly say, “You’re ignorant,” or “You’re unintelligent.” No, those weren’t going to work on me. I’m too highly educated. He said I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was. He was big on word choice and used that specific word because he knew it would get under my skin. He was saying, “You’re not as creative as you think you are.”

Emotional abuse is underrecognized as abuse even though psychological violence — more than physical violence or sexual violence — is the strongest predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder in abused women and often precedes physical abuse.

The formal resources available to address abuse tend to focus on physical violence. For example, the primary method law enforcement agencies use to disrupt abuse in relationships is batterer intervention programs or education counseling programs — i.e., a form of therapy. However, to access these programs, victims must report to the police. Police, however, are likely to intervene only in cases of physical abuse. Victims of emotional abuse must navigate formal systems in a roundabout way.

Housing law in the state of Michigan where I live says that a tenant has the right to terminate a lease if they fear for their physical or mental safety. To break my lease in order to exit the abusive relationship I was caught in, I had to provide my landlord with documentation that I had experienced violence. “Do you have any court documents?” the representative for the property management asked me over the phone. I didn’t. But what I did have and what I submitted was a qualified third-party document signed by my therapist to show that I presented symptoms of PTSD, a direct result of experiencing violence. My freedom was granted.

Unfortunately, not every state includes mental violence in their definition as Michigan does. Legal definitions of “domestic violence” are not equal across states. For example, to terminate a lease in the state of Illinois, one must be experiencing domestic violence as defined by the state, which includes physical abuse, harassment, intimidation of a dependent, interference with personal liberty or willful deprivation — but nothing about mental harm or injury. For victims of emotional abuse, whether or not they escape their kidnapper may wholly depend on how the state in which they live defines the experience of abuse.

My bleak “jokes” masked a deep knowing. And just like I should have listened to myself then, policymakers, lawmakers and those genuinely concerned with addressing gender-based violence should listen to me now. Every state needs to expand the definition of domestic violence to include nonphysical forms of abuse. Because by expanding what abuse is, we can change how we respond and offer more means for thousands to escape their kidnappers.

So’Phelia Morrow is a doctoral candidate in the joint social work and sociology program at the University of Michigan and a Public Voices Fellow on Advancing the Rights of Women and Girls in partnership with The OpEd Project and Equality Now.