France now has a law against psychological violence in marriage. I personally loathe government interference in our personal lives. But having treated more than 6,000 perpetrators, victims, and children of emotional abuse in America, I ‘m convinced we need a similar, though more precise law to protect families.
We already have laws to protect strangers and coworkers from harassment, intimidation, and verbal assault, yet we exempt intimate partners from equal protection. The law recognizes that withholding education from children is harmful, yet it ignores the serious harm to children of watching their parents engage in psychological abuse. Children of abusive homes are at increased risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, criminality, emotional disorder, and poverty. They are much more likely to become either abusers or victims themselves.
An American law to protect families from psychological abuse would need to distinguish abusive acts from abusive relationships. A psychologically abusive act is deliberately making someone feel devalued, demeaned, inferior, afraid, or humiliated. It can happen in any intimate relationship that is under stress and is likely to occur with excessive use of alcohol or amphetamines. In other words, most people can get upset or impaired enough to violate their deepest values by hurting those they love. What typically happens after an abusive act is you come to your senses - or sober up - and realize you've been a jerk. You apologize and diligently strive to eliminate such aberrations from your behavioral repertoire. Isolated abusive acts do no lasting harm.
In psychologically abusive relationships, abusive acts occur frequently - far more frequently and with more lasting negative effects than violent acts in violent relationships. They occur with the intention of dominating, controlling, isolating, or intimidating. If there is apology at all, it is tempered with self-righteous justification - "You pushed my buttons," or, "It's so hard to be nice to you," or, "Stop being so sensitive and wallowing in self-pity," or, "What about what you said to be," or, "I might be a louder abuser but you're a quieter one."
Function of the Law
The primary function of law is not to punish bad behavior but to prevent it. Laws against speeding, drunk driving, and faulty building construction, for instance, are designed to prevent physical harm, although many of those violations lead to harm at a lower rate than psychological abuse leads to physical violence.
Our domestic violence laws have prevented acts of serious assault by catching the downward spiral of violence early in its cycle, before more harmful behaviors become entrenched habits. Relatively minor behaviors like pushing, grabbing, or shoving, which very often turn into more serious and life-threatening violence, now get perpetrators ordered into counseling, where they can learn to regulate behavior that harms them as well as their loved ones. Laws against psychological abuse will no doubt result in repeat offenders being mandated to learn in treatment how to regulate self-destructive and harmful behavior before it becomes entrenched habit.
Two crucial functions of the law are to protect individual rights while sensitizing society to the collective morality. This point is ignored by the most common objections against family abuse laws of any kind: "Why doesn't the victim just leave?" and, "He/she is provoking the abuse."
As a young child in the early 1960s, I remember hearing, "If they don't want to be abused, why don't they just eat in their own restaurants or live in their own neighborhoods?" This sentiment, widespread then, seems alien to common decency now. One day it will seem just as alien to recall that, before the law intervened, people were once required to leave their homes or give up their children to avoid psychological abuse.
Freedom from abuse is a civil right.
A foundation of modern morality is the relationship of power and responsibility. The more power you have, the more responsibility you bear. (Inherent in the definition of abuse is the use of power without responsibility.) When we form emotional bonds - when we love and are loved - we gain a great deal of power over the emotional health and well being of the loved one, whether we want it or not.
Accompanying that power is the responsibility to protect those we love from deliberate and repeated psychological harm for the purpose of controlling or manipulating them or merely for the adrenalin rush of feeling superior. It is the responsibility of everyone to love without abusing the power that goes with it, and it is the civil right of everyone to love without suffering intentional and repeated hurt.