I’ve often rued the fact that there is no official step-by-step guidebook for divorcing your abusive husband, you just do it with every ounce of courage and drop of support you can find. I was lucky to have a strong network of friends, a therapist, an attorney, and family.
It’s hard enough to admit that these terrible things happened, things you’ve hidden from the world, things no one would ever suspect because he is so kind, so intelligent, soft-spoken for all to see. And that’s that abused women hold onto. We hold on out of love for hour husband, love for the children, love of being “a family.”
Then the day comes when there is just one explosion too many, that you know it will never get better. After the death threats and the ‘bullet through your head,” and the choking of the family dog and shattering the children’s toys and kicking your daughter in her stomach you lose hope of “things changing for the better.
And then, after all the pain and heartache and terrible accusations that you are actually the crazy, unfit person playing out in court for two years, the actual truth prevails, you are safe, your children no longer have to live with Mr. Hyde, and 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 complications, every family variation a complex algebraic equation. Divorce Poison is a great resource, and while dispensing sage advice, there is no one-size fits all. 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.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1. You cannot change how your ex behaves, even if your children come home crying and saying he got in a fight with their grandma. 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.
2. No matter how shitty the emails/accusations are about your parenting and decisions, do not rise to the bait of such petty nonsense. No, you do not have to placate him. No, you don’t have to defend yourself. No, he is not entitled to the private details of your personal life. Let him rant and rave, like a childish temper tantrum vomited up in single-spaced long emails. Does he have questions about pick-ups, drop-offs, healthcare, childcare, education, extracurricular activities? Address them, everything else is nonsense. Walk away. Disengage.
3. Stay upbeat and positive when the children share stories about fun things they did with dad. It’s great if they have fun. Stay neutral and never say anything denigrating about their dad, even if you’re driven to distraction by the latest crappity crap things he’s said, even though you remember 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, 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.
4. DO address negative things the children may share that dad has said about you or your husband. 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 true, you can follow up, “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 to have you near him, you don’t have to do anything more to make him happy.”
5. Any concerns that you have about stories your children share with you—take to a neutral third party. If there is a co-parenting mediator or play therapist involved, take it to them. Nothing YOU can say or do will make him change, nor will it help. If you attempt to address it directly yourself, it will invite vitriol and defensiveness from him. Also, if you DON’T trust the third parties in your case, find new ones. When your kids share things that are upsetting, you need to trust the people involved.
6. Get into therapy to help you deal with this. It’s emotionally draining, the constant barrage of crap. The one constant in this—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,” you will drive yourself crazy. Focus just on what’s before your eyes. Therapy is a great way to help you release stress and build up your strength. People go to the gym, run, swim, and bike, to train for marathons and the like. Therapy is training for your mind and heart. It builds up your mental energy to protect yourself and it also has a gentler side--to help you accept and love yourself when you may have felt like nothing.
7. 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. 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% certainty, all returns accepted, that it will get better. I believe it will one day, and I hope for it with all my heart. 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, and then we 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.