It’s not uncommon for a marriage to go awry, but the parents to remain dedicated to their shared children. Sometimes, even, a marriage can be tumultuous, perhaps even contain abuse from one spouse to the other, but the children remain unscathed.
When that happens, imagine how challenging it can be for the abused party to have to face their abuser again and again as co-parents.
In most divorces where there are children, the ex-spouses still have to deal with each other – at least until the children turn 18, but often long after. In my co-parenting counseling practice, I work with a lot of victims of emotional and verbal abuse, including domestic violence, and they still have to co-parent, as painful as it is.
There is real abuse, and there is imagined abuse, and unfortunately the word abuse has become such a buzzword. Sometimes, a person claims abuse when both parties were vicious toward one another. Other times, they’re describing toxic relationships and a back-and-forth dynamic where both partners were verbally and emotionally abusive to each other.
There is a distinct difference between those things and true abuse.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, economic, and emotional/psychological abuse.
Lack of equity between partners where one uses their power inappropriately renders the less powerful partner stuck and helpless. It is complicated and not always straightforward. I advise people who do not understand to watch the series “Maid” on Netflix which really highlights the nuances of abusive relationships and how destructive power dynamics can lead to abuse.
There is a myriad of examples of abuse. It can be financial, where one person keeps control of the money and does not share it with their partner or gives a small allowance that is unreasonable.
It can be forcing a partner or spouse to have sexual relations without their consent or using manipulation tactics and threats to coerce the other into agreeing to sexual relations.
Abuse can come in the form of threatening to harm your pets or your children, threatening to take the children, threatening to out you for past transgressions such as DUIs or affairs. It can include physically hurting someone, spitting on them, pushing them, any form of physical violence.
Verbal abuse happens where the other person has more power and they are constantly putting the person down, such as telling them they’re worthless and nobody will love them.
Abuse can arise from a person experiencing a Substance Abuse Disorder who is wonderful when sober, but verbally and/or physically assaults you when high or drunk. This typically takes on a pattern which is typical of many forms of abuse – the person apologizes and begs for forgiveness when sober or calmed down, but then turns around and abuses you all over again.
From a brief Internet search, I found that approximately 25% of divorces in the United States are related to Domestic Violence!
Being a victim of abuse is hard to move past after getting divorced.
First, you must do work on yourself, find yourself again, become empowered, and recognize that the other person was brainwashing you with untrue, hurtful rhetoric.
Especially when the abuser has isolated their partner and convinced them that they are unworthy, it can take a long time to build back your strength, reclaim yourself, and find your personal power. It begins with evaluating who you believe you are, and deliberately working toward becoming the person you want to be.
It also includes surrounding yourself with people who support you and treat you positively – friends, family, a therapist, a support group.
Domestic violence is not about the person being abused. It’s about the abuser needing to feel powerful by making someone else feel small. What they say and how they behave has no truth about the other person; it’s a reflection of the problems they have with themselves.
Once you are free of that toxic relationship, you can rebuild a sense of truth and fiction, and start to trust your assessments, banishing their voice from your head.
If your children have witnessed domestic violence, they need to know you are strong enough to get yourself together and get out. The modeling that they see of a parent pulling themself together and setting healthy boundaries is part of the children’s healing process as well.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can avoid co-parenting if the other parent has shared custody and/or parenting time. So here are some tips for handling that interaction and not falling prey to the abuser’s ways all over again.
- Set strong boundaries. Communicate via a coparenting app where all communication can be seen by professionals if requested, like Our Family Wizard. This way, the court can witness what goes on between you. It’s verified and transparent because you can’t alter those emails, and there are time stamps when people open and send them.
- Document everything. Use tracking tools and apps, and only communicate through them. Never text or get on the phone with your abusive ex.
- Avoid phone calls. In phone calls, the person will use that opportunity to continue their abuse where nobody else sees. Most abuse goes on privately behind the scenes where nobody can prove it happened.
- Don’t take the bait. No matter what that person says to you, do not respond in emails to insults, attacks, and wild accusations. Only respond to specific requests for information about the children.
Have parenting time exchanges in a public place or a police station where there are cameras around and the police are available as needed. I’ve talked to police officers and they say there’s probably 30-40 parenting exchanges that go on at their parking lots every Saturday and Sunday. They are well-trained to manage the situation.
- Be 10 steps ahead of the person. Know their games, know how to anticipate and manage their actions.
- Seek help. Find a therapist or divorce coach to walk you through the interactions. This is the only individual counseling I do for people – working with previous victims of abuse to learn how to manage emails and phone calls, set structure and boundaries.
- Teach your children to self–advocate. Separate your experiences from your children’s experiences. There are times when a person is able to parent more effectively than they are able to be in an adult romantic relationship. You can pick another romantic partner, but your children cannot pick another parent. And if things are bad, bring in the court early on, requesting court-ordered family therapy for that parent and the children, so an objective professional is involved and can assess and assist in the situation.
- Get your children individual therapists. If they witnessed abuse during your marriage, they will need help from an objective third-party to process what they saw and make sense of everything. You’re not objective anyway, so your kid comes to you with problems with your ex, it’s nice for you to say, “This is a good thing for you to discuss with your therapist,” so you’re taken out of the equation and can’t be blamed for turning the child against them.
- Never be alone with the other parent. Even if they say they’d rather speak face to face because texts or emails can be misunderstood, don’t fall for it. Or if they say, “Let’s drop the lawyers and work this out with each other, it’s costing too much money,” don’t buy it. This is their way of trying to isolate you from people who are providing support and sound legal guidance. Don’t let them get through the wall of protection you’ve built around yourself!