Abusive relationships come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. No two abusive relationships look exactly the same, and I think that can make the experience of abuse or domestic violence all the more isolating.
There’s a sense that, well, he hasn’t hit me, so what he’s doing to me doesn’t rise to the level of actual domestic violence. In fact, I hear that from women all the time. They’ll say things along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing here) “If he hit me, I could leave,” or even, at least once that I remember, “It doesn’t count if it doesn’t leave bruises or scars.”
I can understand and sympathize with those statements, even though I also feel that, ultimately, they’re neither true nor particularly helpful. The way the system is set up, it really doesn’t help domestic violence victims along, or even help us to really understand what domestic violence can (and often does) look like.
In many cases – like the ones I’ll be talking about mostly today – there isn’t physical abuse. There’s emotional abuse, which can be (and often is) just as damaging. Even though, technically speaking, the fault based grounds of divorce of cruelty and apprehension of bodily hurt generally require proof of some kind of physical injury, that doesn’t mean that what you’re experiencing isn’t abuse or domestic violence. (And it doesn’t mean that the court isn’t seriously behind the times on this – but I’m not here to debate the legislation or the case law, just to explain issues and options for women who find themselves in this situation.)
A lot of emotional abuse comes down to control. We can look at the abuser himself and diagnose him with all sorts of issues – mental health issues, narcissism, substance abuse issues, or whatever else, and that’s helpful to some degree, but it doesn’t spell out what that means for you or what your options might be under the circumstances.
No matter what defect of character he’s suffering from, you still have to be able to find workable solutions to protect yourself, whether you’re separated or just considering it. Divorce is a big deal and, for many abused women, they consider it for a long time before they actually take action. This in between phase – between considering separation and reconciliation and actually taking the steps towards divorce – are some of the most challenging.
For a lot of women, one of the issues is that he’s using shared computers or devices to track you. Whether it’s on the computer – via shared or saved login information, or just knowing you well enough to know your passwords – or your phone, or whether he’s attached a tracking system to your car or some other method, this kind of behavior is a concern.
It’s hard to gather information or begin to plan your next steps, especially in an abusive situation, if you’re overwhelmed with fear that he’ll find out what you’re up to and that you – or your children – will pay for it. I never want to downplay concerns about physical security because these threats are very real and, even if he hasn’t been violent before, that doesn’t mean it’ll never happen. In fact, as these shifts take place, violence is more likely to happen because he’ll sense that he’s losing his control over you.
No matter what he’s doing or not doing, you should have a safety plan in place. If the situation becomes dangerous, or you suspect it might, have a place to go. A friend, a neighbor, a hotel – any of these can work. I’d also plan to keep a change of clothes and other necessary items in the car or at your destination, if that’s at all possible.
Or maybe even just buy a gift card with a little bit of extra money on it so that, if you have to make a quick getaway, you have a bit of money tucked away that you can spend that he won’t be able to see – whether to book your hotel, purchase another set of clothes or toiletries, or whatever. (Obviously, you don’t want Holiday Inn to show up on your credit card if that’s where you’ve gone!) You can often cover up transactions like this in a generic Target or Walmart trip by just putting it in there with your other purchases. Some cards are reloadable, too, so you could add money to your card over time without him noticing too much.
It’s safer to be surrounded by people than not, obviously, but there’s also some merit to going somewhere that he’d never guess to find you. Some random Holiday Inn in a neighboring town or city would be harder to guess than, say, your mom or sister’s house where he could show up and make a scene. Of course, you could call the cops if he did, but there’s still some risk factor there.
I’d also talk to an attorney and consider options for a protective order. On a temporary basis, you could go to the magistrate’s office to get one in place, but to establish a permanent protective order you’ll need to have a full hearing. Your best chances of success with this will come from having an attorney there to represent you.
Okay, but what do I do if he’s logging into my email and accounts?
You’re right – now we’ve got the safety stuff out of the way, I can get to the meat of what I came here to say.
It’s pretty common that phones, email, and social media accounts get hacked. First and foremost, I’d change all of my passwords and logins and two factor identifications to select things that he would not be able to guess. Store them in a place that he can’t access, or, better yet, don’t store them at all.
Don’t use shared computers or devices. Consider purchasing your own and password protecting your devices.
Turn off location services on your phone.
Create new email addresses that he doesn’t know about. You could even keep your old address, if you wanted, and let store promotion emails and other things go there, but send your more important correspondence (like divorce book requests from women only family law attorneys, for example) to a different email.
If you suspect you’ve got a tracker on your car, you could always take it into a mechanic to check and have it removed. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this type of surveillance, but you can always look for cyber security professionals who can help as well. There are tons of them.
If you have a specific set of concerns, its always a good idea to address them with an attorney one-on-one. An in person meeting, after all, is hard to hack, so you can be sure that at least that communication is privileged and he won’t get wind of it. (As a suggestion, though, you should probably pay for the appointment using a card or account to which he does not have access!) You can even leave your phone in the car. And, also, make sure to turn off location tracking on EVERY device that you carry with you! If you don’t feel safe, we can always help walk you to your car afterwards – or even meet you in the parking lot and walk you in.
These days, we’re so connected that there are lots of ways to keep tabs on people. Some of it is fine; normal, even, by today’s standards. But when it starts to take on an abusive character, you really do have to pay attention and find ways to make sure that you are protected. As you’re considering leaving, you’ll want to pay extra close attention so that you don’t give him extra ammunition or information that he can use against you.
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