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Domestic Violence

If It's "High-Conflict," It's Likely Post-separation Abuse

A lack of recognition of post-separation abuse limits legal protections.

Key points

  • Courts often blame both sides, referring to postseparation abuse as "high-conflict" divorces or breakups.
  • Many high-conflict breakups are signs of one partner exerting methods of coercive control.
  • Placing blame where it is due holds abusers accountable in a world struggling to do just that.
Source: Engin Akyurt / Pixabay
Source: Engin Akyurt / Pixabay

Many victims of domestic abuse are often shocked at how much worse the abusive behaviors are after the ending of a relationship— often much worse than they were even during the relationship. “I never thought they would do something like this,” is a common lament I hear from victims of domestic abuse after they leave. They say they never realized their ex-partner was capable of such malice.

In fact, when a victim leaves the relationship is often one of the most dangerous times for them, because the abuser fears they are losing control and will often lash out. The chance of danger increases greatly during this time. But, unfortunately, a common defense mechanism for victims is to go into a state of denial. They think the person will back off, or that their actions will eventually calm down, if they ignore it.

“They’re just hurt and angry”; “They’re just blowing off steam”; or “They’ll stop before it goes too far”: These phrases I hear all too often. Usually, this comes right before their ex-partner subjects them to extreme and often terrifying postseparation abuse. I remember saying similar statements, unknowingly intellectualizing and denying my own reality, even while spending my days assisting and advising other survivors. I could see the reality of their situation much more clearly than my own. But it is this denial that keeps many victims in a state of disbelief and inaction while the abuse continues.

“Why did you stay?” is the most common question I hear asked of victims of domestic violence—from police, courtroom judges, and even friends and family.

On the surface, the question is understandable. If someone stays in an unhealthy, dysfunctional, or even abusive relationship, our natural inclination is to want to ask why. The desire to understand why someone would stay in a bad situation is human nature. In our minds, we would not stay in such an environment, so having a reason makes more sense to us as observers.

However, even when well-meaning, this question takes the responsibility off of the abuser and puts it onto the victim for staying—this is victim-blaming. Instead, we should be asking the abuser why they abuse someone whom they claim to love or care for.

“Why did you stay” is often the same question people get asked when they first leave cults. According to Scarlett Jess Perrodin, a survivor of both, “The common themes between cults and abusive relationships include manipulative control, utilizing fear as a tool for dominance, and using a victim’s mind against itself. Both require our ongoing self-sacrifice” (Perrodin, 2021).

Without a full understanding of how intimate partner violence unfolds and the hurdles that victims have to jump through to seek protection, it can be easy for people to think that someone can just “leave”—a hand raises to a cheek in anger, and the person on the receiving end packs their bags the next day. But abuse does not work like that. The sequence of events is not so simple. It is repeated brainwashing, gaslighting, and psychological turmoil. By the time a hand is raised to a cheek, the victim is already so badly broken down that they no longer have the strength to understand that they could get away, or how to navigate doing so if they did.

While some abusive relationships are so from the beginning, this is not always the case. Many toxic or abusive relationships usually do not become that way overnight.

Often, days become months that turn into years. There will be good days that precede and follow bad days. Over time, it can become difficult to maintain the level of confidence and self-assurance needed to leave. Instead, victims pass their days putting one foot in front of the other just to make it through. When they do leave, these unhealthy or occasionally toxic relationships tend to get worse, and can quickly swing into a pattern of postseparation abuse.

In our court system, physical abuse is often the line in the sand. Too many people within that system excuse or even ignore abuse until it becomes physical. Judges, lawyers, and clerks more easily recognize a victim with clear signs of assault—bruises or marks—as abuse and grant them protection. And this is rightfully so, as physical abuse should never be tolerated.

But abuse is not always physical. Every day in courtrooms, victims are trying to free themselves from the coercive grasp of abusive partners who feel emboldened by the law's inability to stop abuse that is not physical. As long as they do not go near the victim and do not lay a hand on them, their coercive control is allowed to continue unchallenged—with behaviors that are often just as, if not more, harmful (Katz, 2022). This is why, for many of my clients, the abuse they experience after leaving the relationship is often worse than anything they experienced while still inside it. "At least before, I had the leverage of threatening to leave that would make him stop," one client said. "Now, he has nothing left to lose. I am an endless, nonmoving target."

With laws mostly surrounding physical violence, police struggle to understand or enforce domestic violence outside of that scope, but nonphysical abuse such as harassment and stalking are often precursors to violence and should be stopped before they escalate to physical violence. When victims are then severely harmed, following this distinct pattern of domestic violence, society often scratches its head, saying, “We never saw that coming,” but the signs were right there all along. Instead of a hierarchy where emotional and psychological abuse are seen as “less than,” the courts need to see all forms of abuse as just as bad.

Excerpted, in part, from my book It's Not "High-Conflict," It's Post Separation Abuse.

To find a therapist who understands, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory to look for someone who specializes in domestic violence.


Perrodin, Scarlett Jess. “Abusive Relationships and Cults: What They Have in Common.” Feb 24, 2021. Web. Accessed Oct 15, 2022.

Katz, E. (2022). Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives. Oxford University Press.

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