With domestic violence rising, the consequential changes to the definition of domestic violence by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women undermine victims. Previously, the Obama administration expanded the definition based on national experts in the field to include types of nonphysical abuse. The Trump administration walked back these important changes in ways that now leave many victims vulnerable, unheard, and unprotected.
Defining Domestic Violence
In 2015, the US Department of Justice defined domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one intimate partner to gain or maintain power and control over another partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.
“Experts have long recognized that the manipulative behaviors identified in the Obama-era definition as restricting a victim’s liberty or freedom can cause greater and more lasting damage than physical harm. I know this from my experiences over a decade working with survivors of domestic violence. In nearly every case, the bruises and broken bones eventually heal, but the psychological scars can last a lifetime.” (Nanasi, Slate, 2019).
The current definition of domestic violence developed by the Trump administration claims only when the harm constitutes a felony or misdemeanor crime can it be called domestic violence. Eliminated are behaviors of manipulation and coercion that intend to undermine, intimidate, and disempower the targeted person.
“So, for example, a woman whose partner isolates her from her family and friends, monitors her every move, belittles and berates her, or denies her access to money to support herself and her children is not a victim of domestic violence in the eyes of Trump’s Department of Justice.” (Nanasi, Slate, 2019).
Psychological Abuse Compared to Physical Violence
Psychological abuse, the aspect of domestic violence that's the most elusive, is more pervasive than physical violence, often a precursor to violence, and endangers women the most impacting their mental and physical health.
The Center for Disease Control in a 2010 survey identified: “Nearly half of all women in the U.S. (48.4 percent) have experienced at least one form of psychological aggression by an intimate partner during their life time. Women identified verbal aggression such as their partner’s angry gestures that seemed dangerous, being degraded, insulted, or humiliated; or their partner’s use of coercive control.”
One research study showed that women who endure psychological abuse have physical health problems that resemble those of women who experience physical violence. And women facing psychological abuse are twice as likely to identify physical health issues than women who are not abused (Coker et al. 2000).
An even bigger consequence of psychological abuse is the traumatic impacton mental health. When psychological abuse is compared to physical violence and other types of abuse, psychological abuse shows up as the strongest predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder (Pico-Alfonso, 2005).
Studies have shown that subtle psychological abuse (undermining, discounting)—without overt psychological abuse (dominating, demeaning) or violence—can be traumatizing and correlates more with women’s emotional states than acts of sexual and physical violence (Marshall, 1999).
When you live with a manipulative partner, it’s just not possible to feel well or be at your best because you’re at a very high risk for a multitude of health issues including trauma. These findings make a strong case not only for reinstating the 2015 definition of domestic violence, but taking it further–criminalizing psychological abuse like France and the United Kingdom.
By removing the nonphysical abusive language from the legal definition of domestic violence, the Trump administration is sanctioning the use of harmful coercion in intimate relationships by one partner, usually a man, to gain and maintain power over the other—often a woman.
Coker, A. L., P. H. Smith, L. Bethea, M. R. King, and R. E. McKeown. 2000. “Physical Health Consequences of Physical and Psychological Intimate Partner Violence.” Archive of Family Medicine. 9(5):451–7.
Marshall, L. L. 1999. Effects of Men’s Subtle and Overt Psychological Abuse on Low-Income Women. Violence Victimization 14(1): 69– 88.
Nanasi, N. Jan 21, 2019. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/01/trump-domestic-violence-def…
Pico-Alfonso, M. 2005. “Psychological Intimate Partner Violence: The Major Predictor of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Abused Women.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 29(1): 181–93.