A proposed law in France would make psychological violence in marriages and among cohabitating couples a criminal offense. Supporters say that if the law passes, it would be the first of its kind in the world.
The bill's aim is to protect women from the verbal threats and intimidation that often lead to physical violence. But skeptics say verbal abuse is next to impossible to prove, and that the law would clog the courts with "he said, she said" cases.
The proposed law covers every kind of insult, including repeated rude remarks about a partner's appearance, false allegations of infidelity and threats of physical violence.
The French parliament is expected to approve the legislation in February, and the government says the law will be in place within six months. If convicted, violators could face fines or jail time.
Some media reports have poked fun at the legislation, jibing that screaming at your wife could now make you a felon in France.
But parliamentarian Martine Billard, who helped draft the bill, says psychological abuse is a serious matter.
"There are situations where the man constantly degrades the woman with his remarks and destroys her, little by little. And this is often done in front of the children," he said. "This law will allow these women to bring charges and rebuild their lives."
Billard rejects critics who say the new law would allow couples to be hauled in for having an argument. She says it must be proved that the abuse is repeated and done with the intention of destroying the victim's dignity.
France already has a law against psychological harassment in the workplace. This one would simply apply an equivalent standard to the home front, Billard says.
A woman dies every two days at the hands of her husband or partner in France, according to crime statistics. The French government recently declared ending violence against women a national cause. Several chilling public-service ads on television warn viewers about conjugal violence, while giving a new telephone hot line to report it.
One TV spot shows viewers how kids learn violence from their parents. Two young children are playing dress-up and having tea. When the tiny wife mistakenly spills some tea in front of her tiny husband, an adult-style clash unfolds.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon recently unveiled an array of new measures to fight conjugal violence. Among them: electronic bracelets for violent repeat offenders, more women's shelters and booklets about gender equality to be handed out to new immigrants.
"And this new law will allow us to react to insidious situations where the violence leaves the victims destroyed psychologically, but with no physical trace," Fillon said.
On a recent afternoon at a women's shelter in northeast Paris, several mothers and their young children relaxed in a small living room with a children's play area in one corner and a washing machine in another. The shelter provides a temporary escape and counseling for women abused by their partners.
But shelter director Viviane Monnier says that she fears the new law, because it also applies to men, will end up being used in a perverse manner.
"While men inflict physical violence, many people say women engage in psychological violence. We foresee a dangerous situation where this law will lead to charges against the victims by the perpetrators, who will claim they are the victims of verbal abuse," Monnier said.
France will soon find out whether banning psychological abuse helps to diminish domestic violence.