Divorcing an abuser is no easy feat. And when children are part of the equation? It’s a tightrope walk with no net.
I never felt that sense of fear and powerlessness quite so acutely during my own journey, as when I was faced with the family court system’s answer to “warring” parents: Co-parenting counseling.
Domestic violence victims stuck between a rock and a hard place
What I didn’t realize early in our custody and placement litigation was that professionals involved in family court proceedings—from judges and attorneys to Guardians ad Litem and therapists—were largely unfamiliar with the nuances of the domestic violence dynamic.
(This isn’t a local problem, mind you; it’s an issue voiced by abuse survivors and domestic violence advocates across the country.)
“The system” sees parents mutually engaged in a heated litigation, not an abuser’s post-separation power and control tactic.
They see parents who fail to recognize what’s best for their kids, not a parent fighting mightily—perhaps for the first time—to protect her children from further abuse.
So, they suggest these parents come together for the good of the children, that they work through their differences via their tried and only-occasionally-true tool: Co-parenting counseling.
And, here in my home state of Wisconsin, where refusal to communicate with the other parent is a factor in determining custody and placement, domestic violence victims may feel that they have no choice, but to cooperate.
It’s a notion that confounds me.
In no other context would we ever expect the victim of a rape or physical assault to sit down in a confined space and talk through her “differences” with her perpetrator. And yet, that’s what’s expected of domestic violence victims.
Without the kinds of medical and law enforcement documentation to establish the relationship meets the legal definition of domestic violence—acts that largely go unreported—they feel they have two choices: expose themselves to further abuse in order to demonstrate their ability to “work together” or protect their own mental health and risk losing custody of their children.
Rock, meet hard place.
Trapped in my own no-win situation
I found myself faced with this very scenario.
As disagreements about the parenting of our children bubbled up (or, rather, “exploded”), it became patently obvious to the psychologist and GAL involved that we couldn’t work together; at least, not without some sort of intervention.
So, when the psychologist recommended co-parenting counseling to our GAL and asked me to participate, I felt I had no choice. It was crystal clear to me that I couldn’t afford to be viewed as an obstructionist parent.
With grave reservations, I agreed.
And for days afterward, I vacillated between rage and an overwhelming sense of despair.
I tried to see a way through the upcoming sessions, seated next to the man who had abused me in every way possible. I couldn’t.
Approach the sessions openly and honestly, and I’d be sharing my children’s fears with the one whom they feared; a scenario that would certainly come at a great emotional cost to my children and I.
Continue to protect what our kiddos shared with me in confidence, and I’d appear as though I had absolutely no reason to keep them from Darkness. And it would be documented.
While I trusted the psychologist and he promised to protect me, I just couldn’t see a way to safely navigate the treacherous waters ahead.
My counter to co-parenting counseling
It was at about this time that I started reading Lundy Bancroft’s work—and within the pages of The Batterer as Parent, I found my counter argument:
“Present throughout the work of Johnston, Roseby, and Campbell is the assumption that improved communication between the parents will reduce the child’s postseparation distress and make it easier for the child to visit with the noncustodial parent. This insight, although useful in certain contexts, is erroneous if applied to cases involving abuse. For example, it is appropriate for a mother to use caution in deciding how much information to give a batterer regarding a child’s statements or behaviors, as she needs to be concerned about the possibility that the child will be retaliated against, pressured, or shamed by the batterer…
“…pressuring a battered mother to reinvolve herself in unhealthy patterns of interaction with the batterer is likely to be detrimental to her mental health and thus to have negative repercussions for her children over time. Furthermore, improved communication cannot solve a batterer’s problems of self-centered, neglectful, or abusive parenting and his teaching of destructive values to the children. There is no substitute for addressing such issues through appropriate specialized batterer intervention services. Approaches that push battered women into increased communication with the batterer overlook the important role that the battered mother’s recovery and long-term freedom from abuse play in the well-being of her children.”
Darkness and I didn’t have a “communication issue,” he had a control issue and a values issue—and these were not something that could be remedied with co-parenting counseling. Not ever.
I remember sitting on the couch and re-reading that passage over and over again, tears welling in my eyes.
I knew I’d found my relief, and here’s why:
Despite the unrelenting assault by Darkness and his attorney, I was lucky in one very important way: I knew the kiddos’ psychologist would be open to hearing this information—and acting on it.
And, I was right.
After sharing what I’d read, he agreed that the joint sessions would be inappropriate and canceled our appointments.
Talk about dodging a bullet.
Information is power. Arm yourself.
The path to divorcing an abuser is fraught with landmines. That is why I write.
Because, armed with the right information, we can forge a safer path; one that lessens our exposure to abuse, not heightens it.
So, educate yourself and travel safely, my friends.