January 10th, 2010
07:40 AM ET

Dear President Obama #356: Marital spats: My word!

Reporter's Note: President Obama is a truly gifted speaker. And that could come in handy if he travels to France with his wife in the near future. Or, for example, if he ever decides to call me about one of these daily letters to Pennsylvania Avenue.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/07/art.wh0107.gi.jpg]

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

So the French, with their often amusing and impenetrable logic, have decided to outlaw “psychological violence” in marital affairs; meaning, as best I can make out, that if you yell at or unduly insult your wife during a spat, or she does the same to you, that will constitute a crime.

You don’t have to spend long chewing on this croissant, to know that it should have been tossed into “le dumpster.” I’ve covered enough cases of domestic violence to take the issue tres seriously. The things that people do to their significant others can be truly horrific, and we should certainly do all we can to reduce it. But language, as terrible as it may be, is simply too hard to decipher apart from its context to make it criminal in these cases. Drop by a contentious divorce hearing some time. You’ll hear enough blistering “he said/she said” accusations to peel the enamel from your teeth. And the truth can be mighty hard to extract.

On top of which, it seems to me such a law is custom made for passive-aggressive types; my wife will tell you in a heartbeat that the madder I get, the quieter I get, and the more it drives her nuts. So I could be completely at fault, she could be the one who tips over the edge, and guess who winds up carted off to the Iron Bar Hilton? See the problem? (And btw, just so I don’t wind up in a dispute, we’ve been married for more than 23 years. We long ago figured out that no disagreement is worth letting the pasta get cold, or missing the movie.)

This is a French law, so what am I worried about? Because I worry about any law anywhere that restricts what people can say. We, as a society, have long accepted some standards of censorship as reasonable: you can’t openly plot the assassination of a president, you can’t slander private citizens, and you can’t yell “theater” at a crowded fire…or however that goes.

But I think people have to be able to talk. Even when they are angry. And maybe especially when they are angry. Does that leave some people offended from time to time? Sure. But as a friend of mine once said, “Living in a free society means being offended from time to time. Because someone is going to use that freedom, now and then, to do something you don’t like. Get used to it.”

Anyway, it was on my mind, so I thought I’d bring it up. Hope I didn’t break any laws.

But just in case, I’m going to sign off now.



Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    If "psychological abuse" is outlawed will physical abuse increase in frequency? The anger is still there – if one can't vent it through language will it be vented in more physical ways? This may be a law that increases the frequency of another problem.

    January 10, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
  2. David, Indiana

    Anywho a good column, Tom.

    January 10, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  3. David, Indiana

    It's an interesting article, but neglect is part of this too, what you say and what you think and what you do can hurt someone, but also what you do not say, or think of, or do. Neglect is a problem too.

    As for President Obama, the endless continued vetting is a problem. He is the President isn't he? Ironically we're not talking about healthcare reform at all for a month.

    There is I think much enlightened discussion about how couples handle conflict. Considering Person, place, and time, as my therapist says is one thing. Seems like many couples anyway learn how to handle arguements.

    January 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  4. Michele Turley

    How about the verbally abused just leaving the relationship? How about that? To stay suggests you are a "victim". "Victims" are becoming the rulers of countries via their passive agressive behavior. This "victimization" is costing billions to countries who play into the hands of "I didn't know" – "The mortgage broker told me the interest rates would drop" – "My dad beat me when I was little" – "I'm from a broken home" – "Alcoholism runs in my family". How about taking responsibility for your inability to grow up and figure out why you accept (and most likely invite) that kind of treatment – or continue down the path of destruction? I promise your life will be happier and more in control than you could ever imagine.

    January 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
  5. Lori

    I think this has something to do with frequency and intent. However, I see your point and also think that this could result in some very interesting cases and testimony in family court. If you ever want to get perspective on life, spend a day in a family law superior court room. The stories are unbelievable.

    January 10, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  6. Erica

    While I agree with your statements, playing devils advocate, I think you need to truly determine how they are defining Psychological abuse. In many cases spousal or child abuse does take the form of psychological abuse. It may not be immediately apparent but has lead many people to depression, act out, become suicidal, develop low self esteem among other things.... It isn't just arguing or yelling and calling names... That being said, while I do feel that in some situations it is definitely a problem and can actually be much more detrimental than physical abuse because it cannot be proven easily and or isn't necessarily socially unacceptable, it is sadly too hard to prove and thus, seems like a wasted law on the books...

    January 10, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  7. cindi stahl

    Right on the line of all that is on my mind at the moment...

    January 10, 2010 at 9:24 am |
  8. Norma Labno

    I wish it were actually possible to outlaw "psychological
    violence" examples of which might be "storm clouds brought
    inside the home," "one, shaking the fist at the other – inches
    from the nose," "stony silence" or, worse, "indifference" to a
    passionately held & articulated point-of-view and on and on.

    There are undoubtedly many cases of provoked suicide, or one
    member of a household literally driving another mad; but proving
    any of this in a court-of-law; not likely SO; only by default, I agree
    with you!

    This is a law that DOES NOT belong on the books or in a

    January 10, 2010 at 8:51 am |
  9. Kellie

    I think this law is meant to protect people against verbal abuse. Verbal abuse in relationships is real. There's a huge difference between having a healthy argument with your partner and being verbally abused by your partner. A lot of times the scars from verbal abuse run a lot deeper than those of physical abuse. Now maybe it will be hard to prove verbal abuse in a court of law, but I think France is on the right track. Abuse is abuse regardless of whether it's physical or emotional, and it should be against the law to abuse your partner.

    January 10, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  10. intrpd04

    That's the French for ya!

    January 10, 2010 at 8:01 am |