When was the last time your partner asked you to stop nagging? Can't recall? Well start looking for another way to communicate with your spouse rather than flaring. And yet in France, before the year is over, lashing out at your partner could become a criminal offence.
French couples could head for court if a new bill criminalizing "psychological violence" between married couples becomes law. The bill appears to "cover everything from nagging, to false accusations of infidelity, to sustained campaigns of verbal abuse, to a failure to supply the correct answer to the question: Do I look fat?
The legislation, put forward by the Sarkozy government, aims to combat bullying and verbal abuse in relationships—but is so broad it could end up finding illegal abuse in just about every relationship. It doesn't distinguish between "the normal friction thrown up by two human beings going through life's frustrations together, and the actions of the criminally cruel."
For starters, there's the question of defining an act of psychological violence: as it stands, the legislation would appear to cover everything from nagging, to false accusations of infidelity, to sustained campaigns of verbal abuse, to a failure to supply the correct answer to the question: "Does my bum look big in this?"
Most people have horror stories about relationships past and present. But it would be incredibly hard to draw a line between the normal friction thrown up by two human beings going through life's frustrations together, and the actions of the criminally cruel. Even the most flippant jokes can inadvertently create lasting insecurities. And who's to say this law won't be misused for seemingly trivial cases?
All this is not to belittle the serious purpose of the proposed legislation. It follows a video campaign, backed by the French government, which showed a woman being pursued by the bullying voice of her husband, which mocks her as fat, useless and worse as she goes about her daily tasks. The message is that psychological violence is as unacceptable as physical violence.
It's hard to argue with that: abusive relationships of any kind ruin lives, and a straightforward campaign to stigmatise this sort of behaviour and encourage its victims to seek help is eminently sensible. But by taking that further step of criminalising harsh words, the French government risks turning law enforcement into the policing of morality.
It is a terrible thing for men to bully and belittle their wives – and vice versa. Terrible things happen in life, and not all of them are illegal, because the state cannot and should not attempt to dictate all the terms of human decency.
How many couples do you know who constantly seem to niggle at another in public, but who share some private bond which has kept them together for 30 years or more?
In real life, psychological abuse is a sad and sticky area which deserves to be taken seriously. But let's hope British legislators have the sense to avoid any similar legislation. However noble the purpose, giving every squabbling couple the chance to air their dirty laundry in court will do little for those who truly need help.