We understand there are a lot of dimensions to fear in ending a relationship. For some, it may take years to simply summon the strength to call it quits. Once down that path, there are many more challenges to face. Fueled by guilt, sadness, grief, and the power of the unknown, many simply plot the best path possible with fear as a constant companion.
Going to court is scary. Having a stranger in a black robe figure out your entire life by rummaging through the intimacies and financials is unnerving, to say the least. It is scary to roll the dice, play nice, hope for the best and wait to see the outcome. And during and after your divorce, your co-parent may be passively or overtly trying to use fear to their advantage.
Co-Parenting MythBusters: Divorce + Fear-Based Decision Making
There are some common themes when it comes to one co-parent making threats (in their many forms) and the other co-parent making fear-induced, often poor, and sometimes irrational decisions in response to those threats. Here are some of the most common threats facing co-parents during and after divorce.
In the U.S., there are 5 million cases of domestic violence each year. While many cases result in criminal charges and the separation of the victim from the abuser, many of these cases go unreported, resulting in a dangerous cycle of abuse that can extend for generations.
When the abuser sees that the victim is seeking outside help, it is common for them to threaten the victim with whatever holds the highest value in their life.
These threats take many forms and many dimensions, but they all aim to strike fear, extort, and destabilize their victim. For example, the abuser will:
- Claim that if they go to jail, then the co-parent will not get child support.
- Threaten to limit access and/or custody of the kid(s).
- Threaten deportation of the other parent or removal of the child to another country.
Out of the fear generated by these threats, the victim believes their only choice is to stay and endure the abuse. In many cases, the victim is financially dependent on the abuser, making it that much harder to leave the abusive situation.
As a former Presiding Judge and family law veteran, I am no stranger to these tactics. Coercive control means that the abuser wants to scare you, threaten you, abuse you in a way that controls your every action. Fear is the fuel that dominates your household. Fear of losing the children, fear of exposure of your personal imperfections, fear of exposing intimate things on social media, fear of deportation, fear of losing financial support or access to the car, fear that the abuser will harm the kids or kill the dog, fear of physical retribution and even death, fear of being homeless, fear of embarrassment, fear of almost anything.
Threat/Fear: Loss of Income
The threat of loss of income not only is a concern pre-separation but also once the separation has taken place. It is not uncommon for the co-parent with the higher income to threaten to cut off child support, and in some cases alimony, when they don’t get something they want, like extra time with the children. In many cases, because the original family income source was one person, the threatened parent has no choice but to comply with the demand.
That threat of lost income works in both directions. There is also the threat of lost access to the children if the high earner has a downturn in their income and no longer is able to secure the same wages. In these cases, they may be threatened with losing access to their children unless they can pay up.
Threat/Fear: Loss of Child Custody
The potential loss of primary custody, or shared custody, brings out the worst in many people, often creating a possessory conflict and fueling a desire to fight to the bitter end. When someone loses custody of their child, they lose leverage in what becomes of the child.
In desperation – and often in a misguided attempt to hang onto their “parental rights” – parents fight dirty and play the fear card to coerce and scare their co-parent into submission or agreement. Fear-based threats include (but are not limited to): making misleading mental health claims, making false accusations about criminal behaviors – including reporting the co-parent to I.C.E. – and cutting off all financial assistance for the child. Fearful of how this information will influence the court, the threatened parent withdraws their request for full custody of the children.
The facts are that if you are being threatened (*non-domestic violence) with either loss of income (i.e., alimony/spousal support or child support) or access to your children, you should consider getting third-party coaching or mediation to help you work through the issue. You may want to consider an app like “coParenter” – which provides on-demand live mediation and coaching services to resolves issues.
If persistent, engage with your local Department of Child Support Services and/or Self Help Center to file necessary forms to start a case to resolve the issue in court.
Threat/Fear: Ability to Stay in the U.S.
While less common than other threats against the co-parent, threatening to report their undocumented status in order to instill fear of deportation, is a desperate act. They are about to lose their kids to separation, and they see it as the only choice to keep their family intact or to get the other parent to not mention their less than acceptable behaviors to the court. This tactic has also been used to prevent spouses from leaving abusive situations.
These cases are tough, but overall, they represent a very low percentage of cases. They are commonly used as threats used to control the other parent, the (family) courts have blinders on to issues of immigration/alien status. This threat will not hold up in a divorce case.
Ironically and sadly, there are some cases in which U.S. parents and children are restricted from leaving foreign countries and returning to America. The New York Times recently reported a case in which an American-born wife divorced her Saudi Arabian husband last year, and has now lost her ability to access her bank account or to leave the country. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws require every woman to have a male guardian who makes all of their critical decisions – including obtaining a passport to travel. Her ex-husband will neither let her leave the country nor become a legal resident — and he has the legal right to do so. If she does find a way to leave, their 4-year-old daughter will almost certainly have to remain behind in Saudi Arabia. While this case is clearly an outlier, it reveals the need to discuss possible outcomes when issues surrounding crossing borders arise.
Threat/Fear: Removal of a Child to Another Country
When a parent takes the child out of the country without the consent of the co-parent, it’s considered kidnapping. While this is not a common occurrence, it is threatened in cases where the co-parent has ties to another country: they own property, have dual citizenship, or have family in the other country. This threat instills fear and causes one parent to comply with the radical demands of their co-parent. What instills more fear is the fact that many countries do not have extradition procedures to ensure the safe return of the child. In other words, if the parent who takes the child overseas decides to stay in that country, there is nothing the other parent can do to get their child back in the U.S.
As a pre-emptive measure, courts can assist parents by having passports surrendered reducing flight risks and the possibility of child abductions across international borders. Courts can make designations such as sole legal custody in an attempt to assist the aggrieved party. These cases are very scary for parents as you can imagine, especially when children have been abducted to countries that are not bound by Hague Convention.1,2
Divorce + Fear-Based Decision Making: Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
We realize that those of you living in fear have the dual responsibility of maintaining the health and safety of yourself and your children. In the case of physical, psychological, or emotional abuse, you need to make a safety plan, contact a local/federal helpline (listed below) and get you and your children to safety as soon as possible.
As a secondary cause of harm in situations like this, the children witnessing the abuse, or experiencing it first-hand themselves, learn and then perpetuate this type of behavior: either as the victim or as the aggressor. The statistics on how this affects children experiencing this is staggering.
Children who’ve experienced domestic violence often meet the diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); the effects on their brains are similar to those experienced by combat veterans. These same children are three times more likely to repeat the cycle in adulthood than their peers who grew up in homes free from domestic violence: growing up with domestic violence is the most significant predictor of whether or not someone will be engaged in domestic violence later in life.2 Breaking the cycle and getting yourself and your children into a safe space surrounded by the resources you need can be a generational determination – meaning your actions can literally stop the violence for you, your children, and your children’s children.
International Abduction – Understanding the Hague Convention | Child Find of America
Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction<
10 Startling Statistics about Children of Domestic Violence | Childhood Domestic Violence Association
U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233
Domestic Violence Helpline: (604) 875-0885
Judge Sherrill A Ellsworth ( RET) is the co-founder of coParenter and Past Presiding Judge of Riverside County. After 20 years on the bench and 10 in a Family Law Department, Judge Ellsworth saw the potential of CourtTech to fill a void and retired from the bench to focus on having a greater impact on today’s families by making our courts more accessible, effective, and efficient. www.coparenter.com