Divorce from an Abuser

Posted on Aug 24, 2020 by Katie Carter

I actually got into family law as a result of two abusive relationships, so I understand the ways it can shape you, affect your thinking, and alter the future.

The first was a run-of-the-mill abusive boyfriend. I didn’t think about his behavior in those terms at the time, of course; it actually took me several years (and a new, healthy relationship – with my now husband) to help me gain that perspective and see all the problematic behaviors. By the time I was offered and ultimately accepted this job, he was a distant memory. Still, as I started to represent my own clients and to hear stories from my clients and others with whom I’ve come in contact because of my position here, I’ve started to see the ways that that experience shaped me for this job.

In fact, I think it was through this job that I first realized that his behavior was abusive, and began to apply that label. I was teaching one of our Second Saturday seminars, and was speaking to a therapist who had come to see me. She told me how she realized her husband was abusive when he threw some pasta she had made against the wall to show her how poorly she had cooked it. Before that moment, she said, she thought that she could go around behind him, checking all the boxes and making everything perfect. Before that moment, she thought SHE was in control of how he reacted. But the pasta he threw showed her that it wasn’t her, it was him.

Her details – the going around behind him to make sure nothing aggravated or upset him, really rung true to me. I realized how long I had done that, and how toxic and – there’s no other word for it – abusive it really was. I realized how much it had affected me, how it had shaped me, and how all these little things I hadn’t noticed at the time changed me.

The other was a relationship with a family member, my aunt by marriage. I’ve disliked her for years, in fact, and the reason I chose to go to law school was so that if my uncle decided to divorce her, I would be able to help. Now, of course, that idea formed in my head when I was like ten years old, and it would never be a real solution, but still – at the time, it sounded like a really good idea. They’re still married, and she’s still terrible, but it was definitely a relationship that had a pretty profound impact on me as a person.

These relationships shaped me in a lot of different ways, and ultimately led me to law school and, specifically, to my career here, as a family law attorney.

In that respect, I think I’m in a good position to talk about narcissists and abusive relationships and mental illness in general. Though I wasn’t married to either of them, and we didn’t deal with the difficulty of sharing children in common, I can understand a lot of the challenges.

If you are married to your abuser, your divorce may be extra challenging – and you would do well to prepare yourself for that. I understand, after years and years of being the recipient of abuse, you may not feel as mentally strong as you would be had you not experienced this, but it’s a good idea to take steps to prepare. Whether that means seeking the help of a therapist, a religious advisor, a doctor, or a good friend, it’s smart to be prepared to withstand the pressures that you might experience.

Abusers are good at what they do. Their behavior often follows predictable patterns. Gaslighting, blame shifting, making wild allegations, violence (or threats of violence), verbal and mental abuse, etc can follow once you start asserting your independence as their lose the control over you that they used to enjoy. They’re often charming, and can confuse and distract would-be supporters. They often blame you of the same behavior that they’ve engaged in, which can make the back and forth he said/she said game exhausting and hard to follow.

Today, I’m not making particular points about the things that you should do or shouldn’t do. I’ve actually written a lot already about narcissists, abusers, and other issues that you may be up against in your family law case.

Today, I’m writing to tell you about a realization I had recently, and one that I found very helpful in dealing with these people. Though my ex boyfriend is long gone, my evil aunt (as I call her) is not. She’s still horrible. It has been very painful for my family to deal with over the years, but I won’t go over any of the details except to say that, in a conversation with another aunt of mine, a wonderful woman, I realized something that is important.

These people are mentally ill. They’re not (or at least, not often, I don’t think) delighting in the misery they’re causing. They don’t cause drama, and then retreat to their towers to gleefully watch the scene below as it implodes.  They’re not happy people.

They’re sick. And as much as their sickness makes you unhappy, it makes them unhappy, too. In fact, these two people that I’m talking about today are probably some of the most deeply unhappy people I know. Unhappiness surrounds them because they’re too sick to extricate themselves from it. So, to make themselves feel better, they treat other people crappy. They insult, they gaslight, they abuse. But it doesn’t make them any happier. How could it? It doesn’t change their brain chemistry. It just drags you right down along with them.

I’m not trying to paint a sympathetic picture. I’m trying to free you from the chains of the abuse. I’m trying to tell you to allow yourself to let it go, to not blame or accuse, but to instead spend your energy bringing your own mental health back. Because you’re fine. You’re normal, you’ve just been suffering under terrible conditions for too long. It hurts you, sure. But you can get back on track, even if you can’t save that person from themselves.

Talk to a therapist. Talk to a doctor. Talk to a friend. Really open up about what you’ve been experiencing, and put the steps in place to get yourself back on a healthy path. Wherever that person’s harmful inner monologue pops up in your brain, firmly push it back down again. Let your own inner monologue be one that is positive, inclusive, and that brings you (and other people around you) happiness.
Divorce yourself, mentally, emotionally, and legally, from your abuser. And realize that their behavior is the result of something deeply wrong with them, not with you. Find peace with yourself and who you are.

I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to come to this realization. That the abuse I experienced wasn’t so much anything personal to me but a reflection of these other people’s deep unhappiness and mental illness. It was so freeing.

Divorce can help free you, too. If you need more information about escaping an abusive marriage give our office a call at 757-425-5200, visit our website for access to our free books and materials, or consider attending one of our upcoming seminars.