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Outlawing Psychological Aggression in Couples
The French National Assembly has passed a bill that criminalizes "psychological violence" within couples. Under the bill, repeating actions or words that could "damage the victim's life conditions, affect his/her rights and his/her dignity, or damage his/her physical or mental health" would be punishable by up to three years imprisonment and a fine of approximately $105,000. People under court order to stay away from their partners could be forced to wear electronic monitoring devices. The bill, which has both conservative and liberal support, will go to the French Senate this summer.
Emotional abuse specialist Steven Stosny of Washington, D.C., author of Love without Hurt, believes we need a similar law in the United States. "We already have laws to protect strangers and coworkers from harassment, intimidation, and verbal assault," he says, "yet we exempt intimate partners from equal protection." Taking a stand against psychological abuse would help define our legal and social norms, as well as increase couples' safety, he says. Psychological abuse is often a prelude to physical abuse, and studies have shown that it can be more damaging than physical abuse because of the continual erosion of self-value and sense of control that it causes.
The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that, in 2005, three women were murdered by an intimate partner every day—higher than the 2.2 women in France. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated in 2000 that 4.8 million women were victims of intimate partner physical assaults and rapes annually (compared to 2.9 million men who are victims of intimate partner physical assaults each year). It's a safe bet that most of these victims also were subjected to psychological abuse.
Sociologist Patricia Tjaden, who's researched violence in America for years, supports the passage of such a law in the United States, but points out the difficulty in defining psychological abuse. Proponents of the French bill argue that abusive or threatening text, e-mail, and voice messages meet a standard of psychological violence. Tjaden notes that the CDC wrestled with the problem of definition in 1999, concluding that psychological violence had to include an act or threat of physical or sexual violence within the previous year, and that the definition of psychological abuse could be partly determined by whether something felt abusive. Like the 20-year effort to criminalize stalking, Tjaden says, the CDC definition says that psychological abuse "manifests itself through a multitude of behaviors, at times idiosyncratic to the individual victim." Therapists can easily accept such a standard—if something feels abusive to a client, they can accept it as abuse—but the law usually requires a more objective basis.