If you find yourself in the very scary and traumatizing position of forced co-parenting with your abuser, you are not alone and you are not going crazy.
Yes, you are right: There is something wrong with a system that acknowledges that when your ex has committed a crime against you, a crime that can earns those caught, tried and convicted jail-time, can now enter family court as if that never happened and have full parenting rights and court-sanctioned control over you.
I ask myself why would anyone assume that a person willing to beat a loved one in order to gain advantage in a situation, would then be willing to “work cooperatively” simply because the court said so. If an abuser is willing to stoop to such levels, doesn’t that show said abuser doesn’t have the moral compass to work in the best interest of the children. Oh yeah, and now without consequences.
Reform is desperately needed in our family courts around the country that should include evidence-based custody hearings, domestic violence investigations and training for all professionals involved in such cases, often labeled, and hence diminished, “high-conflict divorce.”
The tide is turning and more and more research is documenting the damage that post-break-up domestic abuse is having on children.
Until family court begins to seriously reform its process of evaluating custody and holding domestic abusers accountable, you, like many parents are stuck trying to navigate very dangerous terrain in raising children and protecting yourself against trauma.
Victim-blaming in domestic violence may not be considered fair or healthy anymore in criminal court, but somehow that practice is still going strong behind the closed doors of the family courtroom, where in a large percentage of cases, past domestic abuse is ignored, even when there is a felony. The propensity to assume that domestic violence is somehow a couples’ dynamic problem is still common in the family court system. Many attorneys still advise clients to stay quiet for fear the judge won’t respect their colleagues for using such a tacky ploy. Judges and parent coordinators still commonly issuing simple and condescending directives to parents to get along. Oh, if it were that easy.
I’ve been researching victims’ experiences. Most want to “get along” for the sake of the children, and often at great personal expense, but their parenting partners continue to abuse and terrorize.
“I want my children to have a relationship with their dad in some way. How do you encourage a relationship with someone you are afraid of?” one mother said recently in a survey on victims’ experiences with child custody issues after a violent union. “Where are the program’s monitoring child-parent relationships during and after orders of protection are issued. We need structured transitions for allowing children access to parents after domestic violence has occurred based on a team approach including counselors, parents, law guardians etc.. It seems that there is nothing out there.”
Too often, domestic violence long after the break-up and certainly shared parenting gives the abuser many avenues to continue to abuse their victims.
So what can you do to raise emotionally healthy children within this playing field? Not everything you hope, but more than you think.
Here are some tips to consider and to review with the experts in your situation:
- Children need at least one emotionally healthy parent, so you need to do your best to be that for your child, no matter what your abuser is doing.
- Since number 1 is almost impossible to do if you are still being terrorized by your ex, you need to get help. It is common sense to try to stop someone from abusing you first, but in the current climate of family court, it is hard to do and really hard to do if you are in survival mode. It is essential that you seek competent, trauma treatment therapy above all else. Not because you need fixing, but because you need healing. Domestic abuse creates trauma injury and like any other injury, you need treatment to heal it. This can be scary, or seem like a luxury or one of those sacrifices moms make because of time and money. Don’t let any of that stop you. This is the most important step to providing emotional health to your children, who need you desperately. It is also important that you be very, very picky about the type of therapy you get. Don’t go to an eye doctor for a broken leg. Don’t go to a therapists not trained in domestic abuse dynamics, trauma therapy, PTSD, and so on. Social workers make the best clinicians in treating trauma after domestic abuse, according to recent research on the subject. Get referrals from your local domestic violence center.
- Know your legal rights. State law governs most issues related to family court and criminal acts. There are some federal laws regarding stalking and emails and definitions of domestic abuse. It is important that you learn, for example, that no one, including your ex, has the right to harass you or lie about you. You may not be able to get authorities involved in everything, but some stuff you can. For example, if your ex is sending you lots and lots of nasty emails. Take those emails to the police department and ask for help. You are not suppose to take abusive behavior from anyone and federal law now recognizes that victims do not have to allow their domestic abusers to cypher stalk them. You might consider pointing this out to your abuser.
- Tell everyone about the abuse. I mean everyone. Don’t lie or whisper about it any more. Don’t condemn your ex either. Name calling behind your ex’s back may make you feel better, but save that for venting with friends or your therapist’s office. But, tell the school counselor, all your friends, the soccer coach, etc., that your co-parenting comes with unique challenges. A lot of people won’t understand or will think you have given them too much information. People don’t expect such sharing of “dirty laundry.” You have also spent a good deal of time hiding this part of your family life. But exposure is incredibly important. It is not “dirty laundry” to tell those around your children and often in charge of your children, that your family is juggling some very difficult and dangerous issues. Not to mention, your child’s behavior may need some explaining, too. Here is an example: “Teacher Smith, I want to let you know that there is a history of domestic abuse in our family. I co-parent with my abuser and that creates a sometimes traumatic dynamic that is hard to navigate. If you every have concerns about my daughter’s behavior or anything, I hope that you will let me know right away. Thank you for listening.”
- Limit your contact with your ex to the very minimum ordered by court. I am a firm believer in a very detailed, written, court-ordered parenting plan that can create more of a parallel parenting style than a co-parenting style until family court is reformed. This will enable the victim to create the necessary distance from the abuser in order to heal and limit opportunity for further abuse. But, parallel parenting is not the norm and not easy for a victim. Read more about it here if you are interested.
- Document everything. It is critical to have a written record of your abusers behavior, but also your child’s. If you end up back in court for any reason, written records trump verbal testimony much of the time. Use emails as a way to communicate. Don’t share emails with others though, as this can get you into trouble. But, do keep those emails until your child is 18.
- Lastly, be present with your child. Your emotional healing is so important so that you can be there for your child. You have left your abuser, but your child will always have an abuser for a parent. That dynamic will be a challenge for your kids for the rest of their lives. They need a parent they can count on as they begin their journey with an abuser. Remember how it felt in the beginning of your journey? They may have a very long way to go, as you might have had. But, they will have you by their side. The more emotionally healed you are, the better for them. You will be a better parent, able to act using your own values, rather than out of fear if you are healed from the trauma of abuse. It is why the first step is treatment. The child of an abuser needs validation and empathy, just like you did. Set your parenting boundaries of course. Have consequences for teenager slips, sure. But, know that your child needs someone to listen without judging and guidance with love. Reducing your stress with treatment gives you the best chance to do that for them.
Of course there is more that you can do, like get a good attorney, register with the local domestic abuse center, and if I have missed something, I beg you to comment below. Others will read this and your tips matter.
There are many days that I am angry or sad at the injustice of domestic abuse and think I would do anything to turn back the clock. But, those are just feelings that come and go. The truth is of course, that this is nothing I can change. I can however, learn from it, take steps to heal from the emotional injury and accept my life’s path now. No, I don’t have the white picket fence or the father of my children to grow old with, but I have some incredible things in my life, gifts from God. And for that, I am grateful.
Julie Boyd Cole is a mother of two sons, a journalist, writer and business woman. She has written for the Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Yahoo.com, among many publications around the country. Currently, she is the chief executive administrator of a non-profit in North Florida. And Julie is a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband, an NFL sportswriter, and today is an advocate helping other victims sort through the trauma of domestic abuse. Julie also writes for bruisedwoman.com and @bruisedwoman on Twitter about the topic of domestic abuse, co-parenting with an abuser and the emotional damage caused by narcissists and personality disorders.
She can be contacted at email@example.com