Forum: Don't focus only on physical violence in domestic abuse

I thank the Ministry of Social and Family Development for its letter "Task force emphasises whole-of-society approach to tackling family violence" (Oct 28).

As a counsellor and friend to several women experiencing partner abuse, I have observed how psychologically destructive such behaviour can be, whether or not there is physical violence involved. Yet protections against family violence appear to be focused on physical violence.

The Ipsos 2019 survey on perceptions of Singaporeans on domestic abuse showed that people do not understand the insidious nature and devastating effects of emotional and psychological abuse - specifically coercive control - and its effects on partners and children.

Many abusers control their partners through a mixture of criticism, verbal abuse, economic control, isolation, cruelty and manipulation.

The women I have supported often felt confused by their partners' quick mood changes, mixed messages and deception. The abuser is often preoccupied with his own needs, and has an innate sense of entitlement, superiority and possessiveness.

When children witness their mother being disrespected by their father - called names, bullied, or made to feel worthless - they are naturally distressed. Moreover, they are sometimes manipulated as a way of getting at the mother, for example, through threats of being taken away from her.

The effects of partner abuse unfortunately continue post-separation. The women I have supported have been baffled to find their husbands fighting for custody or access despite being largely under-involved in caregiving.

Research shows that abusive men are more likely than non-abusive men to seek custody in cases of divorce or separation because of the numerous advantages over their partners in custody and litigation.

The majority of abusers project a public image that is in sharp contrast to the private reality of their behaviour, which makes it hard for third parties to detect abuse.

Around friends or relatives, many abusers may behave in gentle, caring or attentive ways.

Children can be fairly relaxed around an abusive parent as long as outsiders are present.

Some children's most positive memories of the abusive parent may involve public or social situations, in which their abusive parent is charming and humorous. Thus, court-appointed counsellors and custody evaluators should pay close attention to how children behave around an alleged abuser, and refer to multiple sources of testimonials and visitation sessions to make their evaluations.

We must all do more to spread awareness about abuse tactics commonly used before, during and after separation, to build better family justice interventions and child protections.

Elisa Kang Geok Sue

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