Domestic Abuse services are fantastic, I can’t think of enough good things to say about them and the people who work in the shelters and on helplines. One area where there are just about zero supports however is for after women leave an abusive relationship. Which is a time when women (and men who have been abused but I am going to speak of women here as they are the gender statistically abused much more) really are in need of supports. This is especially the case with women who have children. There is very little support available for a woman who has just left an abusive relationship. There is no extra financial help, so she must go through the same degrading experience applying for social welfare as everyone else. There are no free childminding services dedicated to helping vulnerable women out if they need to sit in the health service office awaiting their number to come up for emergency relief money, or if they need to go and look at flats or houses to move into. There are no parenting supports to help them to de-program their children from the cycle of abuse they have now been exposed to for however many years. And there is no guide to how to co-parent with someone who at the least hates you and at worst wants to kill you.
Many women are forced to co-parent with abusive exes and these men will pull out all the stops to attempt to continue to control and hurt the woman who has left them. I am going to outline here some of the common tactics they use when co-parenting and some strategies you can utilize in response.
- Setting their preferred narrative about the breakup/you. Anyone who you care about you should tell them the truth before he gets in with his lies. I have never not known an abusive person to try and set an untruthful narrative. A common narrative is to try and make people question the woman’s mental health. Some even attempt to paint themselves as the victim.
- Attempting to discredit you to your kid’s school. When you leave go in and chat to the Principal and explain that you have left an abusive relationship. Make sure your kid’s teacher knows what is happening too. If you are not satisfied with the responses you get complain to the board of management of the school. It’s important that the school is aware of your child’s circumstances and that you don’t allow your ex to set the narrative.
- Attempting to turn your kids against you. They will do this in a variety of ways from the obvious and extreme (‘Your Mum’s a bitch’) to far more subtle ways. It’s a good idea to say to your kids that you are not with their dad anymore because you didn’t like how he was disrespectful to you. That is all you need to say. You don’t want to get into anything else with the kids, it would not be good for them or you. Let them know that it’s not kind to say mean things about people. Be sensitive to their needs when they come back from their dad’s and check in if they seem disturbed or upset. If they disclose that he said something awful about you make sure you take them to a counsellor or therapist so they can help your child and also to have it on record.
- Using the privileges that come with coparenting to control you. This could be anything from refusing to sign school or medical permission slips to neglecting their child’s clothing or other needs when they are in his care. I have seen abusive men who were not feeding their kids properly, who wouldn’t let their children shower, who sent their kids home in clothes that were too tight every time they had them – forcing the mother to constantly buy more, changed previous agreements regarding pick ups at the drop of a hat, refusing to sign for a special needs assessment, insisting on only picking kids up from the mother’s house, letting themselves into the mother’s house without her knowledge or consent, being aggressive and angry with the mother at every hand over, being rough with the children during hand over, sending manipulative texts while they have the children “Xxxx is crying, they want you to come and pick them up.” etc. They will use anything they can to continue to control their ex partner, even using their own kids. The best thing to do ios to keep detailed records of all they do, try and get witnesses and get your kids as much support as is available/you can afford. Get your kids weekly counselling/therapy sessions and have everything their dad is doing that is harmful recorded by a professional. Judges usually don’t trust women and will only listen to professionals. Act as if you are preparing for a custody court battle, be constantly building your case against him with as much evidence as you can. That way if it does go to court you will have all the expert opinion and a paper trail of the imapact of his abuse on the children.
- He will try and physically see you as much as he can. He will use the kids to attempt to physically see you. It is a good idea to insist on written only communication (as that is accountable). Try and avoid seeing him if you can and never see him on your own under any circumstances. You are trying to cut off all his chances to be abusive.
- He may try and be the ‘fun’ parent and your kids might come back feeling resentful of you because your house doesn’t have all the fancy computer games/you don’t eat take out every night etc. He may deliberately be trying to paint you as the unfun parent, this is sometimes just to win them over, other times because he is looking to have full custody. All of these things are chances to teach empathy to your kids and to get them to understand why you make the choices you do. Be really wary if it seems like he is campaigning with them to win them over to move in with him full time. Try and teach your kids to be discerning and to be aware of people’s motivations, which is all good life learning anyway.
- He may try and threaten you with legal letters or with social services. Remember that he has a lot more to be worried about than you. This is another good reason to keep loads of records of all the awful stuff he does.
- He may send texts or emails to you that imply he is going to hurt himself and/or the children. Speak to the police and social services if he does this, especially if he does it while he has the kids. These kind of communications should be treated very seriously. He may be trying to control you but he may not be too. Call the police.
- He might stalk you. If he does call the police and get a barring order or whatever equivalent there is in your area. I have known abusive men who have climbed in open windows of their exes house, had spare keys made unbeknownst to their ex and let themselves into her house when she wan’t there, men who have left letters and photos in women’s beds. All not ok.
- He might be cyber spying on you. Change all your passwords. I’ve come across 3 tech-savvy abusive men in my time working with survivors. These men were reading all their exes communications on facebook and on their phones. One man had even installed hidden cameras in his exes house.
This is far from an exhaustive list but it outlines a lot of the common issues women the women I have worked with are dealing with.
Finally I would suggest getting as much counselling as possible to deal with the trauma you’ve been through. The stronger you are the better parent you’ll be and the more you will be able to be there for your kids. It is hard for them having a father who is role modelling an abusive mindset and who is interacting with them from this space and they will need a lot of help and support too.
I have written a survivors guide with a section on co-parenting strategies if you would like a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org and I will reply with a copy attached.