Divorcing an abusive spouse who has demonstrated abuse — including physical abuse — requires a whole other set of factors to be considered.
Putting an end to domestic abuse is not easy. Abusive partners seek to control and manipulate the other person. They often have sole access to financial resources, may track the activities of their partner through spyware installed on devices, or even withhold access to children. Attempting to leave an abusive marriage can also often trigger an increased level of physical violence or emotional coercion.
Tips to Follow When Divorcing an Abusive Spouse
If you are considering divorcing an abusive spouse, before you initiate divorce proceedings ensure that you have taken the following steps to keep yourself and your family safe:
1. Begin creating separate financial accounts
If you had only joint financial accounts during your marriage, ensure that you open your own personal checking and savings accounts. If you are in employment or receive a household allowance from your partner for food, start putting away a percentage every week in these accounts to prepare for your impending divorce so that you are able to support and protect yourself.
2. Figure out where you could live
Depending on the level of financial control during your marriage, you may not be able to move into your own place right away. Start by asking friends or family members (discreetly) if anyone could put you up in their home for a couple of weeks. If this isn’t an option, look into areas of refuge or homeless shelters, or ensure that you have money saved for a cheap motel unit.
Investigate suburbs or towns where you could live which are far enough away from your spouse that you are unlikely to run into them on a regular basis. This will help you make a clean break. You could also look at volunteering through sites like HelpX or Workaway which allow you to stay in someone’s home for free (often with free meals and utilities) in exchange for a few hours of work a day.
If you plan to stay with a friend or family member, be mindful that this is often the first place your spouse will look for you.
3. Keep a record of abuse
If you are divorcing an abusive spouse, keep a record of all forms of abuse. A spouse’s abuse or violence may worsen once you take steps to leave. Protect yourself in advance by keeping a record of violence or abuse prior to leaving. You may need these records during your divorce proceedings, if you need to take out a restraining order or if you get into a custody dispute.
Save text messages and take photos of any physical injuries. You should also keep written notes of the dates, times and specifics of events that took place behind closed doors. Whatever you do, ensure that this information is not able to be discovered by your spouse.
4. Get your devices checked to ensure they are spyware free
A successful escape and divorce from an abusive partner requires keeping your plans private. If they can track where you are or spy on your emails, your safety may be at risk. An IT technician or mobile phone expert can check your laptop, cell phone, and tablet for evidence of spyware software or hardware. They can then reconfigure settings and remove or uninstall these items.
5. Get professional support
In addition to hiring a divorce attorney, I highly recommend finding a therapist or support group (such as Codependents Anonymous) that can help you through the emotional turmoil of your abuse and divorce. Divorces are stressful at the best of times — even without the additional complications of an abusive relationship dynamic.
Therapy is often expensive but most cities have free counseling or therapy options through a refuge, homeless shelter, free clinic or university (where graduate psychology students work with clients as part of their program).
6. Re-establish normal routines
Abusive marriages often leave the abused spouse very isolated. This is intentional on the part of the abuser. Disconnection from friends, family, work, hobbies, and independent interests increases dependency and therefore makes it easier for a spouse to control you.
This is one of the main reasons why it often takes victims multiple attempts to leave their homes and marriages before being successful. Many people move out of the family home often to only return soon after due to feeling helpless and being unable to reintegrate to the wider world. Things like obtaining employment, self-care, playing sports, and joining groups and clubs become vitally important in helping rebuild supportive networks.
7. Emergency contacts
Make sure you have emergency numbers handy at all times. You can keep an encrypted note file on your phone or have a credit card-sized piece of paper with key phone numbers sewn into a secret pocket in your wallet or clothing.
Finally, if you are trying to support a friend or family member who is divorcing an abusive spouse, you can read about the physical and psychological symptoms of abuse or watch this video on high-conflict divorces and codependency.