In cases where there is the possibility of domestic violence, we sometimes have to make decisions a little differently than we would in another case. The main reason for this is that we have to keep the safety and well being of our client at the forefront of our mind. When we have reason to believe that the divorce proceedings might jeopardize our client’s health or well-being, we have to take strategic steps at all times to protect her.
A major part of that is making sure that, once the divorce is filed, husband and wife will be absolutely separate. In a violent situation, we always, always, always advise our clients to either obtain their own, separate living arrangements during the statutory separation period, or suggest that they move in with a close friend or family member. If your husband’s behavior towards you is unpredictable, don’t do anything that gives him access to you (especially when you’re asserting your independence by filing for divorce!).
We can also file on fault grounds if there is domestic violence. In Virginia, we can use cruelty, apprehension of bodily hurt, or even constructive desertion. That gets you into court more quickly, and allows you to have what’s called a pendente lite (that’s a Latin word that means “while the suit is pending”) hearing to establish a temporary level of support.
Cruelty and apprehension of bodily hurt are pretty easy to understand. Constructive desertion is another fault-based ground that allows us to say that he made the living arrangements so intolerable that you could not stay in the marriage. This is a bit tricky, because to do it you’ll have to file for divorce on the day that you leave, so it’s a good idea to talk to an attorney first if you want to preserve this fault-based ground.
In domestic violence cases, the husband has often been so controlling that his wife has little to no access to the family’s money. That’s part of the reason why a pendente lite hearing is so critically important—the court will award you temporary spousal and child support so that you can make ends meet until the divorce is final. The court can also, at that time, make other rulings to help protect your safety, and the safety of your children if you feel like they are also in jeopardy. The court can order you exclusive possession of the home, and order that he refrain from harassing or intimidating you.
Of course, there are other things that can be done to help protect you. Protective orders are usually good options, because there are serious penalties imposed for violating them. It also creates a judicial record of domestic violence, which makes our case easier to prove later on in court.
As an attorney representing women only, I’ve seen my share of scary, possessive, and abusive husbands. I do everything that I can to protect my clients, but the fact remains that I’m not going to be there if something happens. I can get a protective order, get you support, and have the judge order that he not harass, intimidate or interfere with you—but I can’t be a physical shield. It’s just not possible.
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel unsafe, you should use your best judgment. Come up with a plan for what you’ll do if you find yourself in danger. Find out where the nearest women’s shelter is. Don’t be afraid to call the police. Keep a change of clothes and some money at a nearby friend’s house in case you need to make a quick getaway. Find the nearest police station, and don’t be afraid to go there if you’re afraid that he’s following you. You have to be aware of your surroundings, recognize his triggers, and know when to seek out help from professionals. There are lots of resources available out there for abused women, and you should make yourself aware.
A good local shelter is the Samaritan House. For more information, click here.