Ooh, Damn. That Change Stings.

I was seated, and happy to be. Standing would not have worked out for me in that moment. There’s something about being in front of a judge, even when I’ve done nothing wrong – even when I’ve absorbed all the wrong – that makes my knees weak. Heart fast. Hands sweaty.

It is a strange feeling to know that your brain is suddenly oblivious to the existence of another part of your body, yet still finds a way to make that part of your body shutter. The involuntary nature of those moments is unnerving, adding salt to a nauseating wound you’re already facing head-on. 

Because, you have to. You can’t let the terrorizing continue.

Even after all this time, after all the hearings, all the victim statements, all the lies in open court that I just have to hear and ignore — quietly, without making noise. The whole scene still makes me shake. 

“This doesn’t qualify as domestic violence.”

That’s what I heard the judge say. And you don’t talk back to a judge, especially if you haven’t been invited to and especially if that judge has clearly made a decision about your life. He had. 

Those six, terribly misinformed words hung there, not accessible to change or feedback or further evidence or explanation. That was it. 

But, if his daughter had been enduring what I was, I’d bet he’d feel differently. I’d bet everything I have on that wager. He would have done anything to stop it.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when a friend sent me an article from Slate the other day detailing the very quiet changes that have recently been made to domestic violence policy – on a national level – changing the lingo used for protective frameworks and disavowing the dangers of emotional abuse. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that the changes were made without fanfare for an issue that thrives in the dark, behind closed doors and curated facades. I wasn’t surprised when I read it. I was sick. 

Yes, the changes were done by a certain administration from a certain political party – adjusting policy from a different administration from an opposing political party – but partisanship shouldn’t apply to something as dangerous and insidious as abuse. The long and short of the biggest policy change is that emotional abuse is no longer recognized within the Justice Department’s definition of domestic violence.

It is hard to measure how perilously myopic that definition is, now that it’s gutted of the very ingredient that fuels domestic violence in the first place. 

Emotional abuse is the bedrock of domestic violence. It is the firm foundation. It is why people stay, why people get lost in a relationship that makes sense to only one person, and why people get hurt.

There is no other way to say it. Emotional abuse is the biggest hammer in an abuser’s toolbox. To not recognize it in a definition of domestic violence is not only misinformed, it is negligent. 

Why is it important? It is a thermometer, for one. It sheds light on the true internal temperature of a relationship, despite an abuser’s best efforts to conceal it. 

Without going into days and days of details of the abuse I field, regularly, despite being divorced from the person convicted of multiple counts of domestic abuse against me, it can best be described as general fuckery. General fuckery for the sake of general fuckery — and then general fuckery for the sake of continued manipulation, for those “cover my abusing ass” moments and the other “let’s see if this still works” incidents.

It’s terrorizing, for the fun of it. It’s lying, about literally anything. It’s bombing an inbox or a phone with ruthless ferocity. It’s dropping grenades throughout the day. 

It’s unending. And it’s the only way an abuser gets away with abuse. Without it, an abuser is just a one-punch pony. Because, as every expert notes, if a man punched a woman on a first date — they’d never have a second one.

It’s the long game that an abuser loves and needs. The time it takes to build a foundation of manufactured untruths, of gaslighting encounters, of emotional hostage situations. The emotional abuse builds and absolutely qualifies as domestic violence. 

It is a certain kind of mental terror, a web from which the abused have incredible difficulty escaping. 

What wasn’t domestic abuse — according to that judge? Email harassment — an unending stream of nonsense and threats from a person clearly not enjoying reality as the rest of the sane population does. Calls to my employers, threatening lawsuits if they continued working with me, targeting my own financial independence and my professional reputation. General daily disruptions that would qualify as harassment by any rational, thinking human.

To that judge, that was nothing. To an abuser, though, those six words that hung in the air — from the mouth of a short-sighted judged who knows about 15 minutes of the unnecessary and abusive bullshit I endure — it is empowering.

Then he’ll keep going. He’ll continue lying, because there is no consequence. He’ll continue using the children as pawns, because there is no consequence. He’ll continue issuing threats and intimidating and firing off an utterly insane amount of emails, because there is no consequence.

One day can include all of that. And for those who still live with their abusers, one day is a full 24 hours — because there is no escape. 

For a nation that talks about the sad state of mental health, for politicians who vow to improve mental healthcare for those who need it, it’s mind-boggling for me to comprehend how that same nation of policymakers and promisers can cast aside — outright ignore — the mental health implications of emotional abuse.

It is the much-needed context for every conversation on domestic violence. It’s the flour to every loaf of bread — without emotional abuse domestic violence isn’t really a thing. Or at the very least, it’s much, much less of a black eye on our society.