I’ve often rued the fact that there is no official step-by-step guidebook for divorcing your abusive husband, that you just do it with every ounce and muster of courage and drop of support you can find. I was lucky to have a strong support network, full of therapy and attorney friends, and including my official therapist and official attorney, along with my extended friends and family. First of all, it’s hard enough to admit that these terrible things have happened, these things that you’ve hidden from the world, things that no one would ever suspect because he is so kind, so sweet, so intelligent, soft-spoken in the real world. And that’s the part any sane person would hold onto, out of love, love for the children, love for your commitment and marriage vows, love of being “a family.” And then the day comes when there is just one explosion too many, or the realization that begin sworn and screamed at for not boiling the spaghetti, that you know it will never get better, and that after the death threats and the ‘bullet through your head,” and the choking of the family dog and breaking of the children’s toys and kicking your daughter in her stomach, it is only getting worse. So after all the pain and heartache and terrible accusations that you are the crazy person, who is unfit to care for the children, and having it all played out in court for two years, the actual truth prevailed, you are safe, your children no longer have to live with Mr. Hyde, you can move on and build a safer, more positive life in your house.
Except, now you have to co-parent with your abusive ex. Which requires a completely different step-by-step guidebook, but of course there isn’t one, and likely, it’s because every situation has different nuances and complications, every family variation a complex algebraic equation, for lack of a better phrase. Divorce Poison is a great resource, and while dispensing sage advice, there is no one-size fits all. (Which is why I’ve taken to anonymous blogging and reading about others’ personal experiences).
So co-parenting with an ex who continues to emotionally manipulate your children, accuse you of being unsafe, of stealing their items, of demanding to know if you allow your new husband to bathe your children naked (gasp, how else would you bathe the children? and honestly the girls love taking their showers by themselves anyway, whatever), it is a mistake to think that once the ‘divorce’ is over, you have truly ‘escaped’ and are ‘finished.’ Yes, there’s a huge improvement over living with a mean-spirited, mercurial bully in the house, however, said bully is still joined closely to your world.
First there is the social aspect of entering your new life as a single parent. Likely, many people have taken sides, regardless of your truth. There may be a skeptical preschool teacher, who he subpoenaed, because of course she wouldn’t see anything concerning in the classroom at pick ups or drop-offs. Or others who pretend everything is just fine and what’s the big deal? Or still others who can’t handle it, because the subject is so clearly depressing, and that’s okay, because by now, after many years, you’ve figured out who you can really trust vs. who you can casually trust, and actually, now that there’s been lots of time under the bridge, you know how to navigate the divorce conversation landscape in civil situations however they end up (meeting your kids' friends' parents, at a birthday party, or when drinking a glass of wine with your fellow divorcee friends, or with your trusted people).
You grow a thick skin, so that your ex’s barbs don’t sting (as much), and are not as affected by other people’s assumptions. Because while it’s true it shouldn’t matter what other people think, sometimes it can hurt, still hurt even after all this time, when you know people in the world may be making judgments about you—that’s human to feel that way. You have a heart.
And secondly, there is the fact that even though you divorced your abuser, he will be in your life. I almost envy my fellow friends who left their abusers, when said abusers disappear in shame or wrongfully laid pride and never come back. I feel guilty for that and know either way it’s heartbreakingly difficult. Because I know my ex can be on ‘good’ behavior, and I know the girls adore him, like any child adores their parent, regardless of the flaws. So I know it’s in their best interests to be around him, as long as he’s not hurting them (but that’s a whole other post--he is capable of acting decent, it’s the subtle manipulation and neediness that has me continually worried.
However, even after cocooning yourself up with your blended family on a vacation far away from the drama, you do have to return to regular life, and you do have to navigate the same accusatory, controlling crap that comes from your ex. So here’s some guidelines I thought to share that have helped me, and maybe can help someone out there in the world in a similar situation:
- You cannot change how your ex behaves, even if your children come home crying and saying he got in a fight with their grandma. He will say, do, act in his way, always has and always will (unless there is some kind of therapeutic miracle, which I wish for, but know better than to expect). So, unless your kids are coming home and sharing information that directly impacts them (he was yelling at me, he was hurting me), then you can’t do anything about it. (Tell the play therapist, if you have one, about what you’ve heard from your kids re: family life at the ex’s, and let the therapist deal with the information and trust him or her to work with it—see #5).
- No matter how s4!++y the emails/accusations are about your parenting and decisions, do not rise to the bait of such petty nonsense. This was a skill that took a long time to navigate, and part of it has to do with breaking old patterns. No, you do not have to placate him. No, you don’t have to defend yourself, because there’s nothing to defend. No, he is not entitled to the private details of your personal life. Let him rant and rave, like a child temper tantrum vomited up in single-spaced long emails. In the rants and rave, pick out what exactly needs to be addressed, and address it with as few words as possible. Does he have questions about pick-ups, drop-offs, healthcare, childcare, education, extracurricular activities? Then filter out the garbage—it’s white noise on a broken TV. Note: The less you react, the more he may try and bait you, but disengage as much as you can. His words do not matter any more. (think Labyrinth and the Goblin King, shout out to Liv,—“You have no power over me…”) If you are unfortunately subjected to phone calls and texts, simply respond, “I’ll be happy to talk to you when we can discuss this in a more civil tone.” Then, hang up. If in person, do not let him to continue to berate you--walk away. Disengage.
- Stay upbeat and positive when the children share stories about fun things they may have done with dad. It’s great they are having fun—and in my case, I know he has a good side (it’s the scary side for which I stay vigilant). Stay neutral and never say anything denigrating or negative about their dad, even if you’re driven to distraction by the latest crappity crap things he’s said to you behind closed doors, and even though you remember and know first hand what he’s capable of. If he’s not acting badly right now—that is GOOD for the kids. On the other hand, upbeat and positive does not mean overly cheerful and affected. I.e. “did you have fun at dad’s house?” puts an expectation of “fun” in the children’s head. You know your ex-husband, things might not be ‘fun,’ especially if he’s busy bullying his mother or brother in front of them. Instead you can say, “how was dad’s house?” and if they respond happily, then you can smile and be supportive.
- And yet, DO address negative things the children may share that dad has said about you or your husband. Out of fear of being “neutral,” I have tread very carefully on this one, but here’s an example, “daddy says you have to do this mommy.” Respond, “you know, it’s not daddy’s job to say what mommy should do, honey, it’s mommy’s job to decide what to do.” When your child looks at you a bit wide eyed, you can follow up, “do you ever hear mommy tell you what daddy should do?” And when your child shakes their head with knowledge that this is, indeed true, due to #3 on this list, you can follow up with, “don’t worry if daddy says things about mommy honey, it’s not your job to worry about that. Daddy loves you and is happy just to have you near him, you don’t have to do anything more to make him happy.”
- Any concerns that you have about dad’s behavior and stories the children report—take to a neutral third party. If there is a co-parenting mediator involved, a play therapist, and you trust those people, take it to them. Nothing YOU can say or do will make him change, nor will it help the situation. If you attempt to address it directly yourself, it will only invite vitriol and defensiveness from him. (Remember when you tried and asked and maybe begged him to do something different--to save the marriage way back when? Well, the same response holds true now--he will not change unless HE wants to change.) Also, if you DON’T trust the neutral third parties in your case, find a new one. Because ultimately, this is about the kids, not about you or your abusive ex. It’s about working with a shitty situation that you unfortunately got yourself into, and courageously got yourself out of, but it sure can feel like you’re still “in” it when your kids tell you concerning stories, and you need to trust the people involved with your case.
- Get into therapy to help you get strong to deal with these things. It’s emotionally draining, the barrage after barrage of crap. The one constant in all of this is—he will not change. The only thing you can change then, is how you respond. Do your best to let go of “he might be thinking” or “he might be doing,” even though your worries are based in valid concerns—address only what is right in front of you. Otherwise, you will drive yourself crazy. And therapy is a great way to help you release stress and build up your strength. People go to the gym to make their muscles strong, or run or lift weights or take up the stairmaster or swim and bike to train for triathlons and marathons and the like. Therapy is training for your mind and heart. It helps you build your mental energy to protect yourself and it also has a gentler side to it--to help you accept and love yourself when you may have felt like nothing.
- Lastly, it’s okay to totally mess up everything on this list once in a while. You are human. You have a heart. You are strong, but even the strongest person will be worn down and that’s okay. The important part is to not beat yourself up from your mistakes and also learn from them. Each day will make you stronger and more able to handle the b.s. Strength comes in waves, some days you will feel wildly confident in all the decisions you’ve made, others, not so much. Reach out for support on the down days, and know that the good ones will return.
I wish I could say with 100% guarantee, all returns accepted, that it will get better. I believe it will get better one day, and I hope more than anything that it does. In the meantime, last night, I made messy s’mores with the girls, eyeing the microwave with keen eyes as the marshmallows grew into large, sticky globs, then ate them while giggling. So that makes me happy and for just a moment, I knew with certainty that despite the storms and rages of someone who used to live with us, our life is definitely better, and it will continue to improve, because we are growing and becoming stronger, too.