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Violence in Divorce: Towards Safety

The fourth installment of the malignant divorce series

The topic of the malignant divorce is as endless as the black hole it represents. Not only do these couples find themselves dealing with abuse of all sorts, but our system is simply inadequate to handle the ferocity of what is going on. Earlier in this series, we outlined ways that people deteriorate under stress and become more dangerous as a consequence. After all, it takes only one seriously unhappy person to ruin it for everyone.

Here we will look more closely at keeping safe when under the threat of a malignant divorce.

The Truly Crazy Ex: If an ex spouse is frankly psychotic or a raging drug abuser, in many ways it can be easier. The courts like black and white problems, and who can blame them? A dangerously psychotic ex or an actively abusing addict poses an obvious threat to you and to the kids. The courts can take some measures here, which are sometimes effective, but not always. When an ex has a personality disorder or a term that I defined as a character trap, it all gets more murky and dangerous. Personality disorders by definition precede the divorce and are deeply maladaptive ways of functioning that can sometimes be identified and dealt with effectively by looking at a person's past history. A paranoid personality disorder or an antisocial personality disorder, for example, can be very dangerous in a divorce, but you (and sometimes the courts) can see it coming. Character traps are trickier.

The Character Trap: This is a useful term because it describes a less obvious type of dysfunction in a divorce. Some of the more common character traps are: The Victim, The Narcissist, The Control Freak and The Avenger; all of whom can be a source of danger. Characteristics found in this unhappy situation include, deceitfulness, a wish for revenge, a belief in one's victimhood, a tendency for paranoid thinking, an urgent need for control, a chronic feeling of desperateness, and a powerful sense of self righteousness, among others.

For those professionals reading this, think of a Character Trap as a Stress Induced Personality Disorder. In other words, under the intense stress of the divorce, a relatively normal but vulnerable person can develop severe psychological pathology. Another model that served as inspiration for the notion of character traps is Otto Kernberg's Borderline Personality Organization.

A character trap may be generated by a divorce and remain active for years until the stress subsides and he or she returns, more or less, to normal. The Intelligent Divorce: Taking Care of Yourself lays out ten different character traps, and what you can do about them. This problem is dangerous in divorce, because you may not see it coming. Here is a comment to this effect from our last malignant divorce post on Psychology Today from Anonymous:

I'm over a decade down this nightmare road and it has only escalated unfortunately. I am just
now realizing the magnitude of the type of person my ex has become. I'm nowhere close to living
again. The kids have a few more years in school but once they have served their purpose with
him and are of no use to him as a way to destroy me, I'm well aware that he may come after me
directly then. I'm not worried about myself, only saying that to give you an idea of the extent
of his mental illness and how his "blame," "I have to win," I'm the victim" etc mentality has
morphed. He didn't start out this bad. How I wish I could help others to keep from going down this

I feel so bad for my kids. He has destroyed huge parts of their lives and what should be normalcy to them.

This is a note from a person that I do not know. It could be that it was from a victim type or
it was exaggerated, but the text has a ring of truth that is worth unpacking. I obviously cannot
get into the head of the person in this note, but it is useful to generalize about cases like this one,
when an ex spouse (man or woman) is swimming in a toxic psychology that includes elements of
The Victim and The Avenger, a dangerous combination.

Pay attention to the following:

  • This husband is not remembered as malignant in the marriage; he became malignant. This is the hallmark of the character trap that differentiates it from a personality disorder and makes it so surprising.
  • The writer, Anonymous, now recognizes what she's dealing with, and possesses a surprising degree of acceptance about what's going on. Paradoxically, this actually gives her some power. Knowing what to expect gives her more opportunity to plan her approach to this danger intelligently.
  • Note that ex husband won't let go. Domestic violence stems from a loss of control. The perpetrator believes that he is a victim and that a "wrong desperately needs to be righted." Unless he moves on to another victim or he gets carried away in a relationship that has some health engendering energy, he will not let go. Some people simply nurse their wounds, waiting for the right moment.
  • The children can be used as weapons by capable ex husbands or wives. You don't have to be a woman to perpetrate alienation; men are quite capable of this poison as well.
  • The woman in this case is fearful of a man. Most acts of spouse-on-spouse domestic violence, particularly murder, are perpetrated by men. It is a fact. To me this makes perfect sense because men tend to "act out" their pathology (like addictions or violence, including suicide) and women tend to "act in" their pathology (like anxiety and depression). Also, men tend to have weaker social networks that can help a person metabolize the hurt and sense of injustice in a divorce.
  • The ex wife feels safe as long as the kids are around. Sometimes this works, because many parents, no matter how disturbed will not want to expose their own children to violence; but it can backfire. Recently we had a murder suicide in our community and the children were home. Normally, a deranged ex husband (or wife) will protect the kids, but not always.

In an effort to provide the public with a series that has some coherency, let's return to the original post in this series, The Malignant Divorce:

Keep safety at the forefront of your mind. If living in the same house with her is too dangerous, then
something will have to change. If you feel threatened when he drops off the children, then meet him in a public place, and in broad daylight. Just know that anticipating violence is not a perfect science; so if you think you got it wrong and need to move out, seriously consider it.

According to the Department of Justice, 14 percent of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated by an intimate partner. The total in 2007 was 2,340, including 1,640 women and 700 men. In another study, separated and divorced men and women represented the highest rates of
homicide. This should pose little surprise because there's no question that the period of separation and divorce can be a powerful trigger to violence.

This series began as a response to a local event: the nightmarish Friedlander murder, suicide, and since then another tragic murder, suicide took place not far away. According to news reports, MaryAnn and Michael Boccardi had recently separated. MaryAnn was spared when Michael, allegedly, waited for her to return from a dinner with a male friend, and then shot this innocent man. Mr. Boccardi then turned the gun on himself, thankfully sparing his soon to be ex-wife. According to reports, the children are safe.

We started this post talking about the black hole of divorce. The Boccardi and Friedlander murders are too close to home but they could have happened anywhere.

Reaching out to men: What I am about to say is not meant to be sexist, just the truth. The fact is that men, as a generalization, really need support during a divorce. A recent study shows that men as a group grieve differently than women, focusing more on loss. Too many men have only a TV or some addiction to turn to. We need to acknowledge that there are critical times when violence is more likely to occur:

a) when someone is a man (women are capable of bad things, but are less violent as a whole)

b) if the potential perpetrator believes that he's losing control in a fundamental way.

I can only make inferences about the Boccardi case, and no more. Let these poor families grieve in peace. But I can raise the red flag that we must be aware of the emotional tinderbox that abandonment and loss of control can represent. Men need to protect themselves against their own
tendency to regress in ways that can lead to violence and women must consciously know when danger may be upon them. In this regard, Anonymous has a leg up on other women in her situation.

We will continue this conversation with more in the coming months.

Questions to come:

  • How do you protect yourself?
  • Is an Order of Protection worthwhile?
  • What do I do if I am a man and I am being falsely accused?
  • 700 murders by women are not insignificant, so can women be a malignant force in a divorce?
  • Aren't women more likely to be child abusers, from a statistical point of view?
  • Is Parental Alienation Syndrome just another weapon in the hands of a malignant ex husband?
  • Are the debates about Domestic Violence and Parental Alienation Syndrome some macabre battle of the sexes?

In the meantime, here are some useful numbers. 1800-799-SAFE, Domestic Violence Hotline 1800-4-A-CHILD


The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course , newsletter and radio show is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.


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