A family violence expert is calling for a national discussion about relationships after finding that more than half of New Zealand women have suffered psychological and emotional violence from their partners.

NZ Family Violence Clearinghouse co-director Dr Janet Fanslow found 51.5 per cent of a sample of 2700 Auckland and Waikato women have been subjected to emotional violence by a current or previous partner, including 17 per cent within the past year.

Twenty-seven per cent said their current or most recent partners had also tried to control them through behaviours such as always wanting to know where they were.

Dr Fanslow said New Zealand had some of the world's best programmes to tackle physical violence, but had barely started thinking about the emotional elements of relationships which were often the early warning signs of abuse.


"It's about raising the conversation and broadening people's definition of what we are concerned about," she said.

"It's what is a healthy relationship? How do we negotiate fairly? How do we have disagreements in a way that is not damaging to people?"

She asked Kiwi women the same questions as in a 2005 World Health Organisation study of 10 countries, where women reporting physical violence from partners ranged from 13 per cent in Japan to 61 per cent in Peru.

As reported in 2004, she found 32 per cent of Kiwi women had suffered physical violence from partners - higher than in Japan or the only other developed nation in the WHO study, Serbia and Montenegro (23 per cent), although lower than the nearest developing nation in the study, Samoa (40.5 per cent).

In her paper Sticks, Stones or Words? she says Kiwi women also reported more of all kinds of psychological and emotional violence than women in Japan, Serbia or Samoa.

Almost half (46 per cent) said current or previous partners had insulted them or made them feel bad about themselves, 30 per cent had been "belittled or humiliated in front of other people", 26 per cent said partners had "done things to scare or intimidate [them] on purpose", and 19 per cent said partners had threatened to hurt them or someone they cared about.

Asked about controlling behaviours, 18 per cent said their current or most recent partner "insists on knowing where you are at all times", 11 per cent said he "ignores or treats you indifferently", 10 per cent said he "gets angry if you speak to another man", 9 per cent tried to stop her seeing friends and 5 per cent tried to restrict her family contact.

Dr Fanslow said some of these behaviours, such as "saying something that makes you feel bad about yourself", might not be intentionally abusive. But they were still regrettable.


"I don't think being insulted or made to feel bad is a good thing to do.

"It does say to me that these are things we need to be looking at quite seriously in our relationships," she said.

Relationship Services' national practice manager, Jo-Ann Vivian, said "put-downs" from partners often damaged people's self-esteem and had long-term impacts on both emotional and physical health.

"Contempt is one of the hallmarks of a relationship which is in very deep trouble and likely to end," Ms Vivian said.

She called for more education in schools about how to communicate with "healthy, respectful interaction" in relationships.