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8 Common Post-Separation Domestic Abuse Tactics

Abusers try to ruin the lives of their (ex)partners long after separation.

Key points

  • Separating from a domestic abuser may not stop the abuse.
  • Domestic abusers will vengefully harm their own children to get back at their ex.
  • Coercive control of a partner continues long after a relationship ends.

When domestic abuse victims leave a relationship, we assume they are safe. However, 90 percent report experiencing post-separation abuse for years or decades after the relationship ends (Sharp-Jeffs et al., 2018). When directed at targets who are parents, these tactics also harm children directly and indirectly.

Harmful Post-Separation Abuse Tactics

Economic Abuse. This may include blocking access to bank accounts and credit cards or canceling these, ruining the target’s credit, and failing to comply with needed (and sometimes court-ordered) payments. Economic abuse can be global and life-changing, such as taking out loans in the target's name, which may disqualify her (temporarily) from opening an account with a utility provider or securing a lease on a home. Economic abuse can also consist of a string of seemingly petty but ultimately costly actions, such as signing a child up for activities without paying the fee, so the target has to pay these unexpected fees or risk disappointing the child. Or sending a child to school without a winter jacket, week after week, so the target has to buy multiple jackets.

Abusers often quit or choose to “lose” their job rather than pay support to the other parent of their children, sometimes rendering that parent (and the children) homeless in the process. One abuser delightedly informed the mother of his children that he had failed to pay for heating oil for the home where she lived with their kids, as obligated by the court, and he would be coming to pick up the children later that week when her home got too cold to be safe. (She managed to avert this outcome by selling some of her clothes to pay the oil bill).

Legal Abuse refers to using court proceedings and false reports of child abuse to control, harass, and impoverish the other parent or seeking a change in custody as a means of continued control over the other parent. Domestic abusers often act the role of a loving and caring parent who wants to have half-time or more with their children when their true goal is to maintain a route for harassing the survivor (Morrison, 2015). Frequently, the domestic abuser creates a false (gaslighting) narrative that the other parent should lose much or all of their parenting time because they are “mentally unstable.” Abusers and their lawyers often accuse protective parents of parental alienation when in fact, the child is afraid of the abuser because the abuser intimidates the child and has hurt their protective parent in the child's presence (Meier, 2022).

Isolation. Abusers often work hard to defame their targets, spreading rumors among friends, family, co-workers, and congregations. This reputation assassination may involve usurping their ex’s online identity to make them look bad or spreading rumors that the ex has “lost it.” Abusers may also tell false stories to clergy, physicians, therapists, and even their children’s teachers, to further isolate their ex-partners.

Monitoring, Stalking, and Harassment. The monitoring may include apps that track or record their ex-partner’s activities and communications. The abuser may continuously call their ex or send emails, texts, and instant messages. If there are children involved, these messages may ostensibly concern child-related matters when their true intention is to interfere as much as possible with the ex-partner’s ability to live a peaceful life. One survivor told me that her ex texted her every two hours when she had the child with her, more than a dozen times a day, demanding that she tell him what she and her child were doing.

Threats and Homicide. Abusers frequently control their exes with threats. Abusers threaten to release sexual images and ruin their ex’s reputation and livelihood. They threaten to drive them to financial ruin and block the target from ever seeing their children. They may overtly issue threats of bodily harm or a deluge of messages such as, “What if something happens to you, God forbid….”

Unfortunately, abusers sometimes carry out these threats, demonstrated by the high number of post-separation homicides. (However, although the risk of intimate partner homicide is highest in the first three months after a separation, separation still lowers the risk of intimate partner homicide overall) (Spencer & Stith, 2020).

Helena Lopes/Pexels
Source: Helena Lopes/Pexels

Child Abuse or Neglect. If they are in a custody battle (Jeffries, 2016), clever domestic abusers try to avoid blatantly abusing their children. They might, however, drive at dangerously high speeds with their child in the car, or fail to protect the child adequately from COVID-19, bug bites, or sunburn, or allow the child to watch TV all day during their parenting time.

One domestic abuser I know bought his young daughter high heels so he could sneak her onto amusement park rides where she did not meet the height requirement. Another bought his children chips and soda for dinner twice a week at the local gas station when he had parenting time, announcing to everyone who came in that the kids’ “no-good mother” had abandoned them (which was not at all true!). Other abusers will physically, psychologically, or sexually abuse their children as a way to “get back” at their ex-partner.

Counter-Parenting consists of working against, rather than along with, the protective parent. Many abusers don’t mind hurting their children if they can harm their ex-partners in the process (Peled, 2000). People engaged in counter-parenting will foil the protective parent’s efforts to have children complete their schoolwork or will complicate the transitions or exchange of possessions from one parent to the other.

One father who had never shown interest in his daughter seemed determined to turn her from a studious and popular child into a delinquent outcast, dying her hair green and then—when the mother objected—shaving the girl’s head. The daughter was so upset that she begged her father to allow her to homeschool, and the father withdrew her from school without the mother’s permission. Counter-parenting also includes making phone calls and virtual visitation as tense as possible rather than facilitating harmony.

Abusers rarely give up their control at the end of a relationship or marriage. Instead, they may try to sow chaos in the lives of their ex-partners and continue to exercise coercive control in any way possible—often through issues related to the children (Fontes, 2015). The courts and other institutions need to be on their guard against unwittingly serving as an arm that extends the abuser’s reach post-separation (Saunders et al., 2016).

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Holt, S. (2011). Domestic abuse and child contact: Positioning children in the decision-making process. Child Care in Practice, 17, 327-346.

Jeffries, S. (2016). In the best interests of the abuser: Coercive control, child custody proceedings and the “expert” assessments that guide judicial determinations. Laws, 5.

Meier, J. (2022). Questioning the validity of parental alienation labels in abuse cases. In J. Mercer and M. Drew (eds.). Challenging parental alienation. Routledge.

Morrison, F. (2015). “All over now?” The ongoing relational consequences of domestic abuse through children’s contact arrangements. Child Abuse Review, 24, 274-284.

Peled, E. (2000). Parenting by men who abuse women: Issues and dilemmas. British Journal of Social Work, 30, 25-36.

Saunders, D.G., Faller, K.C., & Tolman, R. M. (2016). Beliefs and recommendations regarding child custody and visitation in cases involving domestic violence: A comparison of professionals in different roles. Violence Against Women, 22, 772-744

Sharp-Jeffs, N., Kelly, L., & Klein, R. (2018). Long Journeys Toward Freedom: The Relationship Between Coercive Control and Space for Action—Measurement and Emerging Evidence. Violence Against Women, 24, 163–185. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801216686199

Spencer, C.M., and Stith, S.M. (2020). Risk factors of male perpetration of female victimization of intimate partner homicide: A meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 21, 527-540.

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