Separating from an abusive spouse and parent

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Q: I have three wonderful kids, ages 7, 5 and 2. Because of my spouse being cruel, emotionally abusive and controlling, I have realized that I need to get divorced. I spoke to a lawyer, and she said the default is 50/50 custody unless we agree to something else. I have no idea how my spouse will react, because I haven’t told him yet. He gets stressed easily when trying to manage the kids, and when he is stressed, he yells and grabs. Therefore, he doesn’t watch them for more than an hour or so solo right now.

I have been trying to stay married for their sake, thinking I can shield them. But I don’t want them growing up seeing this as something that is okay, and I can only shield so much. He still yells at the kids and me. (Mostly me.)

It’s hard to imagine being separated from them for even one night, but I am an adult and will manage. But how can I help them get through this? My spouse will either flip out or come to his senses and shape up. He loves the kids and is a good dad when he’s not stressed or yelling. I was abandoned by my own dad, and my greatest wish is for them to have a good relationship, even if it’s too late for him and me.

A: Thank you for writing; I am sorry that you find yourself in this difficult situation. There is so much unknown for the future, but I commend you for clearly seeing your present as fairly untenable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t begin with a couple of basic checks here: First, are there guns in the house? As the gun violence prevention group Everytown reports: “Every month, an average of 70 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner.” And guns are frequently used to keep an abused partner within a relationship. You can check which states have laws that support removing guns from abusive households, and please proceed carefully if there is any violence in the home. Please know: Emotional abuse is abuse. Yelling and grabbing are abuse.

As for your custody worries, my parent heart knows how afraid you are to leave. The idea of splitting time with him, as well as how he may manage the children on his own, feels untenable when you are at a changing threshold like this, so I would recommend that you slow down.

Safely find an excellent lawyer who specializes in domestic abuse and custody. According to Bretta Lewis, a lawyer specializing in divorce and family law, “there’s no ‘default’ rule when it comes to custody cases. Your outcome is going to depend on a variety of factors (in Virginia, there is a specific code section that lists them out), as well as what area you’re in, who the judges are and how the evidence shakes out.” A good legal team will help you navigate this.

In the meantime, find a therapist who specializes in trauma and abuse. You are only at the beginning of what may be a very long journey, and your abandonment issues will need to be addressed for you to stay steady and clear. You are not seeking to separate your children from their father, and it is possible for him to change, but you have to work with the reality in front of you. And that reality is that he continues to be controlling, cruel and emotionally abusive toward you, and he continues to yell at and grab the kids.

If you think your spouse could be open to it, and it would be safe for you to do, ask him to go to co-parenting classes, or hire a coach or therapist who specializes in co-parenting. Co-parenting doesn’t just mean “divorced” parenting; it simply means working together to create the best environment for the children. You can do this as you quietly consider your options.

Although you still may leave the marriage, working on the parenting while you are still in the marriage will also give you time to build a case that shows that your spouse either can or cannot change, and it shows good will toward trying in a more public way. This, however, should only be done if you think you are not in immediate danger. “There is no question that you will be stressed and worried when the kids are with him, and if you can’t relax knowing they are with him, you should consider addressing his parenting deficits in therapy before you separate,” Lewis says.

Finally, safely find a group of people to support you through these brave transitions. Family, friends and community or religious groups, for example, can help you financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. You cannot do this work alone, so be explicit in what you need and when you need it. I have found that people are more than happy to help, especially when women take the brave steps of leaving abusive marriages. Take small actions every day (please be very careful where you keep your lists and notes), and you will make it through. Good luck, and be safe.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

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