Ireland Just Criminalised Emotional Abuse. Here's Why Australia Should Too.

This month, Ireland made history by making psychological abuse in intimate partner relationships a criminal act, putting it in the same class as physical and sexual abuse in domestic relationships.

The new ‘Domestic Violence Act 2018’ came into effect at the beginning of the year and provides recognition and new protections for victims and survivors of coercive control, defined by Women’s Aid UK as "an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim."

READ MORE: Domestic Violence Is a National Crisis Leaving Children Without a Voice

It has raised some important questions around whether being a victim or survivor of coercive control can and should be seen as a mitigating factor in instances where someone who is being abused in an intimate relationship commits an act of violence or homicide against their abuser.

The UK passed similar laws criminalising psychological abuse in 2015 -- those laws are now leading to older judicial decisions being reviewed. In one instance, a woman convicted of murdering her husband in 2011 is appealing her case next month, with her lawyers citing the laws as a new potential defence for her case.

In Surrey, Sally Challen was jailed for her husband Richard’s murder, after confessing to attacking him with a hammer.

READ MORE: Why We Need To Talk About Reproductive Coercion

The UK deems physical violence in a relationship a mitigating factor in homicide cases, meaning that if lawyers can prove that the person who was killed was abusing the person who killed them, the person who committed the homicide may be given a less harsh sentence. The same could now apply for survivors of coercive control -- depending on how the news laws are interpreted and applied.

Sally Challen is appealing her life sentence for murdering her husband Richard Challen, citing psychological abuse laws passed in 2015. (Image: Family Handout)

This doesn’t mean that someone would get a free pass for murdering a violent partner. That would be both immoral and irresponsible. Rather, the sentence itself may be less harsh.

In Australia, research shows that one in four women have experienced emotional or psychological abuse at the hands of a current or former partner.

"Emotional abuse can include verbal aggression and fits of rage, threatening to leave or self-harm as blackmail, regularly criticising, correcting or making fun of a partner to undermine their self-worth and confidence, and ‘gaslighting’ -- tricking and lying to make a partner question their own sanity,” a spokesperson from Our Watch said.

READ MORE: Australian Attitudes On Violence 'Progressing' But Not Enough: Report

Currently, there is a ‘No Excuse for Abuse’ campaign running in Australia, aiming to raise awareness around what emotional abuse looks like and the consequences.

“It is important to recognise that violence against women is not always physical and that non-physical forms of violence can have serious impacts. They are often a precursor to physical abuse or are occurring at the same time as physical abuse,” Our Watch told me.

READ MORE: The Domestic Violence Signs That Are Still Overlooked

“Perpetrators of these kinds of abuses will often offer excuses for their behaviour -- for example, they may say they followed a partner home to ensure she arrived safely.”

It begs the question -- with 25 percent of Australian women reporting having experienced emotional abuse in their relationships, should we be considering a similar update for our laws?

At the moment, Australia’s domestic and intimate partner violence laws, support organisations, and education programs are a scatter of federal and state laws and initiatives. For someone who is living in an unsafe domestic partnership, it is incredibly hard to leave the relationship.

Many women subjected to domestic violence have no means to escape the relationship. (Image: Getty)

Things like having limited, or no access to money, being isolated from people outside the home and having your mental health and well-being eroded by a partner who uses emotional manipulation to convince you that you are going insane, imagining things or simply making stuff up (commonly referred to as 'gaslighting') serve to keep someone trapped in the home with no means to leave.

READ MORE: Home Is The Most Dangerous Place For Women

Even more so, using love and concern as excuses for this vile behavior is even more unfair and confusing, and leaves victims even more unable to seek help. You don’t go to the police because your partner loves you too much.

Literally trapping someone in a relationship they don’t want to be in is an act of violence. It’s time we legally recognise emotional abuse and manipulation in relationships for what it is.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, dial 000. If you need help and advice, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, or Lifeline on 13 11 14. A range of domestic and family violence resources based around the country can be found here.