The Terminology of Domestic Abuse from Gaslighting to Narcissism
‘Domestic Abuse’ is: ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality’. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:[i]
- Psychological abuse
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Financial abuse
- Emotional abuse
‘Controlling Behaviour’: Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
‘Coercive Behaviour’: Coercive behaviour is 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.
Since the issuing of a revised Practice Direction 12J to the Family Procedure Rules 2010, which came into force on 2 October 2017, and the increased focus on control and coercion, parties to private law children act proceedings have become (via the internet) more aware of other terms to describe the abuse they have suffered. Terms like ‘Gaslighting’[ii], and ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ (NPD)[iii] fill the internet. A colleague (from another chambers) considers all abuse goes under the category of domestic abuse and feels that further division of the existing terms is not helpful. Whilst this may be true, to the victim I suggest that further labels identify precisely what the victim has experienced from their partner and the label helps the victim to realise they are not suffering on their own and that others experience the same abuse. This benefit for the victim cannot in my view be underestimated in allowing them to move away from the abuse they have suffered.
‘Gaslighting’ is beginning to spread into our consciousness via popular media from the film ‘Gaslight’ to the film ‘Girl on The Train’ and press coverage of ‘Love Island’. Gaslighting therefore creeps through the modern psyche. For those who don’t know, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow doubts in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group making them question their own memory , perception or sanity. One would expect that anyone practising family work would recognise this term and yet I have been in Court this year where a Judge (not in West Yorkshire but elsewhere on the NE Circuit) claimed to have never heard of gaslighting as a phrase and told me (and the parties) that ‘they don’t have such a thing in his area’. Such ignorance, possibly faked for some inappropriate comedic value (such as that when a Judge in the 1960s asked for an explanation as to who The Beatles were) is of clear concern as it devalues the abuse suffered by the victim.
‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ (NPD) is a term often used by victims to explain the behaviour of the abuser. The Courts, however, are unlikely to acknowledge such a label. I recall in a fact finding hearing where I had cross-examined using a psychological tool to identify 12 personality traits of someone with such a personality disorder, the Judge found that the father had those 12 traits individually but then told me he couldn’t make the finding that the perpetrator was a narcissist, thereby giving the perpetrator a label, because he didn’t have an expert’s report to confirm that. A narcissistic personality disorder is defined as ‘a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, a lack of empathy, intense envy of others, a belief that others are equally envious of them and someone who constantly demeans, bullies and belittles others’[iv].
‘Parental Alienation’: the term ‘Parental Alienation’ refers to psychological manipulation of a child, by saying and doing things that lead the child to look unfavourably on one parent or the other. In essence, parental alienation amounts to brainwashing the child, and it can be done both consciously and unconsciously. The concept of parental alienation has been with us for some time, again many articles and features appear on the internet. It is often used by fathers who can argue that the mother of the children is manipulating a child against them. However, fathers can attempt to alienate children against mothers, fathers who continuously denigrate the mother to the children, or make constant undermining remarks about new partners are perpetrating abuse. This is abuse which is difficult to control and can cause significant anguish and harm to the children involved. It happens by stealth during contact and can be hard to manage but also mitigate.
Pathological Demand Avoidance’ (PDA): This has only been used once against a client I have been representing. The father in the case was seemingly throwing out any old term he had picked up on the internet (it transpires he was having a relationship with a woman who had just been through a fact finding hearing). The National Autistic Society includes the following as distinctive features of a demand avoidant profile:
- resists and avoids the ordinary demands of life
- uses social strategies as part of avoidance, e.g. distracting, giving excuses
- appears sociable, but lacks understanding
- experiences excessive mood swings and impulsivity
- appears comfortable in role play and pretence
- displays obsessive behaviour that is often focused on other people
- individuals who present with this diagnostic profile are driven to avoid everyday demands and expectations to an extreme extent. Their demand avoidant behaviour is rooted in an anxiety-based need to be in control
It is clear that a narcissist is the type of person likely to control and that gaslighting and parental alienation are forms of coercion so my colleague, using his broad brush approach, may have it right. The Courts themselves are finding it hard enough to come to terms with control and coercion and the impact it can cause never mind dealing with new concepts of abuse. The victim surely though needs to feel the abuse she/he has suffered is recognised.
Proceedings for Child Arrangements Orders are becoming more complicated and more specialised and quite often the parents themselves battle for ownership of the abuse agenda. It is therefore maybe not surprising that the gaslighter often tries to persuade the other party (namely the victim) that it is they (the victim) who attempts to control and abuse the actual gaslighter. The gaslighter may accuse the other party of suffering from PDA or NPD so practitioners need to beware and ensure they are able to empower and protect their client so that the victim is not undermined by tactical accusations from the abuser.
[i] The cross-government definition of domestic violence and abuse is taken from UK Gov website