Emotional Abuse on TV

When hearing about an abusive relationship, people often think of the physical violence that comes with visible bruising and scarring. But behind this there is often a life of fear, of terror, of unbridled anxiety about what to wear, what to say, and how to speak, with the ongoing threat of experiencing physical violence. However, many survivors experience similar abuse without any physical assaults - and the impact can be just as devastating.

‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ explored this very issue in its recent episode entitled ‘Part 33’, where the detectives are conflicted over the case of domestic abuse survivor Annabeth, because she was emotionally abused, not physically.

This episode highlighted the debate that surfaces around emotional abuse, embodied through each detective in turn. Detective Rollins represents the ignorance around emotional abuse as she cannot comprehend a situation where someone would not be able to leave an abusive partner and in fact asks that very question. If he wasn’t physically hurting her, threatening her, why was she inclined to stay? Although she cannot understand it, representing the same lack of awareness within society, detectives Benson and Carisi address the real psychological, mental and emotional manipulation that imprisons survivors just as effectively as a gun might.

Emotional abuse is the manipulation, degradation, and control enforced by one partner to another. Annabeth describes exactly how emotional abuse impacted her life when in the court room scene, she explains:

“My heart pounds when I shop for food. Will he like this? Or will he dump it on the floor for me to clean up? My hand, it shakes when I answer the phone. Will it be him telling me his friend saw me flirting with someone at the cleaners? I used to take business classes at college- he told me to quit, said I was too stupid, said it was a waste of money… I used to have friends, lots of them. He said they weren’t good enough for us, now all we have are his friends.”

Annabeth’s husband never hit her. But that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t abused.

Special Victims Unit demonstrates the control that emotional abuse can have over a survivor’s life, whilst also representing the lack of understanding of abuse that can arise when there is no physical evidence. Domestic abuse can be seen in a variety of forms that do not always involve physical violence and this episode displays exactly what this abuse can look like, and the traumatic impact that it can have.

Mums In Need wants to tackle this lack of awareness about emotional abuse, and ensure that survivors know that we understand what they have been through. We believe that the media has a very powerful ability to combat this ignorance and so we are showing our support for episodes and shows such as this one that help to counteract incorrect assumptions about abuse. We want emotional abuse to be recognised as the very real abuse that it is and we are grateful that more and more films and tv shows are beginning to raise awareness of this abuse.