"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
A proposed law in the U.K. defies the old adage, implying that not only is untrue but that some words, if they constitute emotional abuse, are criminal. But is the law a step forward in protecting victims of domestic abuse or is it a slippery slope trying to legislate interpersonal conversations?
Anyone who's ever been in a fight with a loved one knows how easy it easy to say something terribly hurtful in a moment of anger. Teresa May, the Home Secretary in England and the backer of the new law, says this is not what the proposed law talking about. She's looking to strengthen the current definition of domestic violence to include both physical and emotional abuse, and give victims a legal recourse even when bruises aren't visible. Using words to coerce, intimidate, isolate, threaten, or otherwise inspire fear can be just as harmful as a punch or a kick.
"Words can be weapons," says Wendy Walsh, Ph.D., founder of the Great Love Debate. "It's wrong to separate physical and emotional abuse because our minds inform our bodies and vice versa," she says, explaining that even if a person is "only" verbally attacked, they will feel depressed, anxious, and fearful, which will cause harmful physical effects.
She says emotional abuse can be more damaging than physical abuse when it leads to the victim staying in a threatening relationship. "People often ask, 'Why doesn't she just leave or walk away?' but they don't understand that the abuser has manipulated their emotions to the point where the mental bonds are stronger than any physical bonds," she explains, adding that some people are naturally more susceptible to this type of verbal control than others, and that perpetrators often recognize this and seek out victims who are less likely to stand up to them.
This type of law is an excellent first step in protecting those vulnerable people and acknowledging that abuse goes much farther than a trip to the E.R, she says. "We have laws on the books that govern this type of speech in relation to stalking, but this is the first time anyone's attempted to look at close interpersonal relationships."
The biggest drawback to the statute is that unless a victim has evidence in the form of texts, e-mails, or voicemails, it very quickly becomes a case of he-said, she-said, making legal experts worry it will be unenforceable. Without so-called hard proof, lawyers would have to establish a long history of coercion and abuse to make it stick. Others worry that this type of law would lead to a rash of false or tenuous reports made by an angry person in order to get back at a partner. And then there's the question of how exactly does one define when someone's speech progresses from angry to abusive?
Legalities aside, Walsh says education is the single biggest thing people can do to protect against emotional abuse. Law enforcement needs to be taught how to recognize when emotional abuse is happening instead of simply saying "No gun, no hitting, no arrest." Women need to be educated about what kind of speech is acceptable from a partner and what to do if it happens. In addition she says men need to be educated because they can be victims of abuse as well, pointing out that men who become abusive to their partners were often also abused as children.
"Everyone involved, including the perpetrators, needs help, compassion, and education for the cycle to stop," she says. In the meantime, a law like this, even if it's not perfect, can help victims just by starting the conversation and raising awareness of emotional abuse.