French lawmakers intend to pass a controversial bill that will ban “psychological violence” in marital (or cohabitation) relationships. This bill is controversial because on the one hand “psychological violence” is a difficult concept to define (and may be even more difficult to prosecute). On the other hand, a number of studies have linked psychological violence to physical abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and behavioral problems in children. Thus, proponents argue that prosecuting psychological violence may reduce or prevent the occurrence of physical violence in relationships.
Psychological violence (intimidating, threatening, insulting, verbally abusing) in relationships has been found to significantly contribute to PTSD symptoms in victims (Basile et al, 2004). Psychological violence also correlated positively with physical violence. Relevant to France’s recent decision, Basile and colleagues argue that it is important for policy-makers and public health officials to consider various types of intimate partner violence (IPV) — physical violence, psychological violence, stalking, and sexual violence — and the heightened effects of a combination of these on the PTSD symptoms of victims. Further complicating the picture, Clarke et al (2007) report that psychological aggression in marriages contributes to a variety of behavior problems in children.
The recent move by the French government can serve as a reminder of the difficult nature of bringing social scientific research into the legal setting. What counts as “proof” in one setting (statistical relationships and narrative accounts, for example) differs from the other (prosecutable evidence). While the detrimental effects of psychological abuse may have growing support in psychological literature the transferral of this finding into the court setting is far from straightforward. Much of the difficulty arises from the lack of a clear definition of “psychological violence.” Further, the evidence of such harm is not as clear as the evidence of physical harm. Sheehan (2006) documents the difficulties of arguing “emotional abuse” cases of children in courts and it will be interesting to see if future cases in France will parallel this struggle.
Basile, Arias, Desai, & Thompson (2004). The Differential Association of Intimate Partner Physical, Sexual, Psychological, and Stalking Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in a Nationally Representative Sample of Women. Journal of Traumatic Stress.