Am I a victim of domestic violence? How does it affect divorce?

Posted on Dec 13, 2021 by Katie Carter

Not every woman who has been the victim of domestic violence during her marriage really realizes that about herself. There’s a general misconception, I think, that if you haven’t been beaten, or choked, or stabbed, or threatened with a gun or something similarly horrible, that your case doesn’t rise to the level of domestic violence.

In some ways, the law reinforces that perception. Though grounds for divorce include both cruelty and apprehension of bodily hurt, it’s also pretty well accepted that in order to actually GET a divorce using those grounds, you’d need to prove that some kind of physical abuse occurred.

Though we see tons of cases where there has been physical violence – in some cases, even really extreme physical violence – that’s not always the case.
In every case, though, domestic violence is an isolating experience. In many cases, the emotional abuse suffered escalates slowly, over time, even before there’s a physical component – which is assuming that there’s a physical component at all.

Women blame themselves. In general, we get our sense of self worth from their relationships. Divorce, in many ways, feels like a failure (even though, in reality, it’s often anything but!). To feel like you’re struggling in your relationship isn’t something that’s easy to deal with, or necessarily even something that you feel you can talk about even with close friends and family. So, as the abuse progresses, it’s even more isolating.

If you told your friends and family, they’d almost certainly support you, right? But there’s a cost of their support of you – and it’s to their support of your relationship. If you have to face friends and family but you haven’t yet made the decision to leave your marriage, you risk exposing yourself to their judgment and criticism, on top of the abuse you’re suffering in the marriage. It’s an untenable and really difficult – and ultimately isolating – place to be.

There’s also psychological damage being done, which can certainly cloud your judgment and put you in a position where you’re not the best possible advocate for yourself. In many cases, abuse intensifies so slowly, and over such a long period of time, that it’s difficult to pinpoint what happened and where it all began. Its hard, too, to think of yourself as a ‘victim’ or as a ‘battered woman’, especially since those associations are so laden with negativity.

Your husband may also be suffering from a (diagnosed or undiagnosed) psychological condition, too, which can play into the impact that his abuse has on you over time. We see a lot of husbands who struggle with drug and/or alcohol abuse, narcissists, manic/depressives, and others – and those specific conditions also play a huge role in the impact of the abuse on the spouse.

Am I a victim of domestic violence?

It’s really not all that important to assign a label to it. What is important, though, is to recognize problematic behaviors in your marriage.

It may seem benign in the beginning, but abuse often intensifies over time. Don’t underestimate, too, the mind games that he may be playing on you to convince you that your problems are your fault. Abusers are typically really good at that type of behavior; at gaslighting, at making you feel like you’re the crazy or unstable one, of seeming charming or in control at all times while you’re freaking out.

I’m not saying that you are or you aren’t a victim of domestic violence. All I’m saying is that there’s a spectrum of abuse that can occur, and it might not look the way that you expect it to look. After all, it’s not all dark sunglasses, makeup, and long sleeves to cover bruises, right? It CAN be, and I’m certainly not discounting the experience of anyone who has suffered from physical abuse. But it doesn’t have to be.

A great deal of the domestic violence that many women experience is the direct result of emotional or psychological abuse over time.

My main point here is that I don’t want you to discount your experience or the abuse you may have suffered during your marriage just because he didn’t actually hit you.

What if my husband has been physically abusive to me?

If he DID hit you, of course, the road forward is clear. I know it’s difficult, and you may need to see a therapist – both to aid you in your recovery over the long term, and also to help you do what you need to do for the sake of your divorce (especially if you share children in common with your abuser).

Ideally, you’d document. Document, document, document. If he’s been physically violent with you, calls to the police are helpful. Documenting your injuries is helpful. Medical records or reports from visits to the ER are helpful. Even taking selfies on your own cell phone yields helpful evidence. If there are witnesses, write down their names. Keep track of the evidence that you have.

You may want to consider a protective order, especially if you feel concerned for your safety or if he’s making continued threats. I don’t mean to be dramatic here, but it’s never a bad idea to take actual threats VERY seriously. There are too many examples of women murdered by their romantic partners to NOT take threats of violence seriously, especially where he’s been violent once before. It can be important, too, in terms of custody and visitation (especially if his violence has impacted the children), and also to get you what you need to get back on your feet (like exclusive possession of the home you share in common, for example).

I’m not naïve, and I know that, in many cases, a piece of paper alone can’t protect you. But it’s something. It’s something in his record that will follow him, that will prevent him from having firearms in his possession, and that will ensure that there are criminal consequences for his failure to follow the terms of the protective order.

You can also use the grounds for divorce available to you – cruelty and apprehension of bodily hurt. You don’t necessarily have to move forward on a fault-based divorce; an uncontested divorce is possible, too. But I think you’d at least want to ensure that you have legal representation because cases where there has been abuse are not the ones that are the easiest to negotiate into a settlement. You’ll likely want to avoid mediation or do it yourself divorce, since your soon-to-be ex may use that as an additional means to manipulate and abuse you.

What if my husband has not been physically abusive to me?

It’s actually for you, reader, that I write this. In cases where there’s physical abuse, it’s pretty clear. We may not be able to get the woman in question to testify against her husband, to seek a protective order, or, ultimately, to get a divorce. But the evidence is there.

For many women, the actual physical abuse is the last straw. It’s the thing they notice.

But for others, because there hasn’t been physical abuse, women are able to convince themselves that it’s not domestic violence, or that it’s not abuse. That maybe they’re at fault for the behavior, too.

You may not be able to get a protective order – especially not without some kind of evidence. It’s possible, depending on the judge, that threatening text messages or emails or Facebook messages could get a protective order granted, but nothing is guaranteed. You may want to talk to an attorney one on one about your case to see whether its likely that a protective order would be granted.

You may also not be able to get a divorce using cruelty or apprehension of bodily hurt as your grounds. If you have psychological or emotional abuse, you may be able to FILE for divorce using these grounds (as opposed to actually finalizing on these grounds), which could get you into court more quickly, allow you to have a pendente lite hearing, or permit you to prioritize quick discovery. There may be a strategic advantage available to you there, so you should definitely talk to a lawyer about your options.

You should also avoid negotiating a divorce. Mediation is probably not the best option for you. Whether you attempt to resolve your divorce on an uncontested basis or go to court, you’ll likely want to have legal representation in your corner. Don’t rely on yourself to advocate on your own behalf; you may be super savvy, but you’ve also suffered extensively under the weight of the abuse. For awhile, as you regain your equilibrium and come out from under the fog of the abuse, verify your options (and the advantages and disadvantaged of each) with your attorney.

There’s not perfect answers here, except to say that you should, first and foremost, recognize the abuse you’ve suffered. Help yourself by involving a team of professionals – including an attorney and a therapist – who can help you get your feed back firmly on solid ground. It’s not an easy thing to do; abusers make sure of that!

But there’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t deserve this. You didn’t screw up a perfectly good relationship. You have suffered intense abuse, and you’ll need some time to slowly recover. Give yourself some grace.

Don’t blame yourself. Don’t feel like a failure – you’re not! Failure would be accepting his treatment and staying in the marriage indefinitely. Freedom is telling yourself enough’s enough, and reaching out for bigger, better, healthier things.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with a licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorney, give us a call at 757-425-5200.