Julie Griffiths is an unlikely celebrity, but over the past three years she has earned herself the attention of the British tabloids with greater frequency and prominence than many a showbiz star.
The latest incident saw her being arrested for an alleged assault while her husband Norman was shepherded by police to a safe house for his own protection, as a victim of domestic abuse. Even this escalation has not been enough to dissuade the headline writers from employing variations on their chosen epithet, 'Britain's worst nagging wife.'
If I could choose one word to magically banish from my sight and earshot for ever it would be 'nagging', in all its variations. Everything about the concept is pernicious and grotesque. Its traditional usage has grown like a boil upon a culture in which household chores were (and to an unfortunate extent still are) assumed to be women's work. To talk of a nagging wife is to conjure a host of stereotypes, jokes and clichés, many of which are little kinder to the husband than to her.
The word 'nag' can be employed to dismiss or belittle a woman's complaints within a relationship, however much merit her complaints may have. It is a powerfully gendered word that shames women for deviating from a strictly patriarchal relationship model. A man can behave like the most unreasonable, entitled, lazy slob imaginable within a relationship, but at the first suggestion of nagging, suddenly she is the one in the wrong.
In darker days, a wife could be brutally restrained in an agonising scold's bridle as punishment for nagging. These days we are much more civilised, of course.The misogyny is now packaged up in ironic banter, as seen with the 'nag gag' on sale recently as a novelty item in a men's fashion retailer. One could say this is progress, of sorts, but it scarcely fills the heart with joy.
At the same time, the contemptuous and comedic undertone to the term belies the grave brutality to some dysfunctional relationships. Describing genuine bullying and abusive behaviour as 'nagging' simply throws a euphemistic cloak across deadly serious issues.
The case of Julie and Norman Griffiths is instructive in many ways. The media first took notice of their case back in 2012 when she was issued with an anti-social behaviour order on grounds of noise abatement, as she was verbally assailing her husband so loudly it disturbed the neighbours. Every breach of the conditions saw her name reappear in the national press. Shortly before Christmas last year, Norman was reported to have been hospitalised after an incident described by papers as "a row."
The reports of her terrifying, overbearing behaviour carry many of the hallmarks of what counsellors call emotional terrorism or coercive-controlling violence. This is the type of domestic abuse which is most likely to escalate dangerously and which can have appalling consequences on the mental and physical health of the victim. Despite this, the authorities pursued Griffiths, not to prevent her from harassing and terrorising her husband, but to prevent her from disturbing the neighbours with the noise. Why? One explanation might be because the police and other authorities, just like the media, squeezed her behaviour into a convenient box marked 'nagging wife.'
Archaic and ugly values
There is an ugly clutch of words and phrases that are applied to violent, abusive and conflict-riven relationships. They might reflect archaic and ugly values, but their continued use helps to keep those values aflame. They include not only the nagging wife, but her stereotypical companion, the henpecked husband - a phrase which explicitly and deliberately shames and emasculates a man for allowing himself to become a victim of abuse. When someone asks 'who wears the trousers?' in a household, they not only punish those who deviate from patriarchal gender scripts, they celebrate and reinforce those same corrosive norms.
It is not just our society and culture that struggle to understand and describe complex relationship problems, the law and governments struggle too. In 2013 the government redrew its own definition of domestic violence as 'any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse,' with coercive behaviour defined as 'an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.' This is, in my view, an accurate, comprehensive and correct definition, and it most certainly describes many abusive relationships which could easily be tagged as nagging. This does not of course mean that every relationship which involves hectoring and verbal humiliation is necessarily a case of domestic violence, but it does certainly mean that it could be. The full implications and consequences of this rewritten definition are yet to play out.
Of course we cannot ban or banish words any more than we can ensure every human relationship will be kind, respectful and equal. We can, however, attempt to consider and describe abusive relationships in ways that do not normalise or trivialise them. Human relationships are unfathomably diverse, complex and often messy. When we approach the issues with a vocabulary that is steeped in assumption and prejudice, those inevitably infect our values and our decision making. That is bad for service providers, bad for policy-making and, above all, disastrous for those who need our help.
Ally Fogg is a freelance writer and journalist based in Manchester, UK, who comments and blogs widely on issues of social justice, politics and male gender issues. He has previously worked in community media as a project manager and as lead author of the Community Radio Toolkit, as an editor and staff writer for the Big Issue in the North, and as an academic researcher in clinical psychology and epidemiology.
He can usually be found arguing with people on his blog at http://freethoughtblogs.com/hetpat/ or on Twitter @AllyFogg.