Emotional, verbal and psychological abuse are the most common types of domestic abuse in South Africa

Psychological abuse takes the form of various techniques used by abusers towards their victims, though these are not well understood.

Children raised within psychologically abusive relationships, may pick up these techniques from their parents

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development revealed in its most recent annual report that the highest number of domestic violence instances lodged in the reporting year related to emotional, verbal and psychological abuse (38%), almost double the figures of physical abuse (20%) (DOJCD Annual Report 2018/19 p46).

The definition of this category of abuse in the Act, summarized as a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct including insults, ridicule, name calling, threats, jealousy or possessiveness, falls well short of properly covering its nuanced permutations.

While it does cover the most basic and obvious forms of this type of abuse, the definition does not include many techniques commonly used by the more intelligent psychological abusers

These techniques are often difficult to spot, and are so subtle that victims and abusers alike are usually not consciously aware that they are at play.

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Even once the victim begins to gain awareness that something is awry, it is usually difficult for her to explain the patterns coherently to someone who has had no exposure to psychological abuse, and unlikely that her confidant will have the awareness to grasp its seriousness. The results are devastating, and given the number of reported cases, a broader awareness and deeper insight is called for.

Unlike physical abuse, psychological abuse is as dangerous to men as it is to women

Throughout this article, the feminine will be used for the victim but it should be noted that in the context of this type of abuse, gender is nonspecific.

In most cases, psychological abuse starts off very subtly and, with multiples of nuanced manipulations over a number of years, has the effect or breaking the victim down into a shadow of her former self. These manipulations include a combination of techniques that the abuser has picked up and honed, often unconsciously.

Often right from the beginning of a relationship, the abuser gradually cuts the victim off from her existing support system

This can happen through the repeated drip-feeding of negative ideas and narratives about the people she usually turns to for support, or through a change of location and subtle discouragement of contact. Over time, the victim finds herself isolated and without any support outside the relationship.

Abusers use affection as currency, withholding it more and more until the victim becomes preoccupied with adapting her behaviour to please him, even if this means doing something she is not comfortable with or taking blame for something she is not responsible for. Silent treatment and passive aggression are common, pushing the panicked victim to find ways to make things right.

Frequently, an abuser will manipulate his victim to doubt her memory or sanity

This technique, called gaslighting, is sometimes done overtly, for example by repeatedly referring to her as absent-minded, forgetful or crazy. Other times it is done more subtly by tricking her into doubting herself or by deflecting her attention away from the facts on the pretence that the actual issue is something completely different.

Over time, this has the effect of chipping away at the victim’s self-confidence and ability to notice and act upon her worsening situation, eventually succumbing to what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’.

Then there’s triangulation, through which the abuser subtly drip-feeds narratives into the minds of others (often colleagues or family members) with the intention that those people will eventually abuse the victim (for him), usually verbally.

In these cases, the narratives fed are ones of the victim’s alleged bad behaviour towards the abuser (who casts himself as the victim). These third parties become more enraged over time, until they decide to intervene in the defense of the alleged victim (the abuser). The third party abuse usually happens while the abuser is nowhere to be seen, and leaves the victim confused and even traumatized.

Usually once the victim has been broken down over time, the dynamic in the relationship becomes such that blame for all difficulty is shifted to the victim, who by that stage starts to believe that she is the problem in the relationship

Usually once the victim has been broken down over time, the dynamic in the relationship becomes such that blame for all difficulty is shifted to the victim, who by that stage starts to believe that she is the problem in the relationship.

In this state, she will accept blame for incidences in which she did not participate or was not even present for, in the bona fide belief that she is the ultimate reason for the abuser’s transgressions.

Once this point has been reached, it is almost impossible for the victim to muster the strength, wherewithal and support to seek help, sinking deeper and deeper into despair.

More concerning though is the reality that, more often than not, children are being raised within this dynamic, unwittingly taking notes as to what relationships should look like and how they should function.

We learn how to be in relationship from the images – the imagos – of our parents

This makes the problem exponentially more serious, and attention to it more urgent. Without a broader awareness, psychologically abusive tendencies and patterns will continue to move from generation to generation, followed by an ever-widening path of destruction.

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There have been some welcome proposed changes to the Domestic Violence Act (the Act) (in the Draft Domestic Violence Amendment Bill), and The Warrior Project has proposed additional inclusions to broaden this category of abuse in the hope that the public, victims and court officials are more knowledgeable of it. It is a difficult balance to strike, however, because ‘psychological abuse’ is often opportunistically alleged by acrimonious couples abusing court process on this ground to advance their positions in divorce proceedings. This is a problem in itself, which will no doubt stir debate again when the Act is reviewed.