Emotional Abuse in the Family & Probate Court

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Your relationship with your former husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or other romantic partner was abusive. Perhaps you ended that relationship because of the ongoing abuse and manipulation. Unfortunately, the divorce (or break-up) is not always the end, especially when there are young children involved.

Too often, victims of abuse contact my office in the midst of an ugly divorce or child custody case. Much to their surpise, their abusive ex is "winning" (gaining favorable temporary orders, winning motion hearings, etc.) "How in the hell is this happening?" they want to know.

Each case in the family court is unique with different facts and circumstances. There are numerous reasons why a judge might grant a motion or pick some temporary orders over others. However, my unscientific personal opinion is that many master manipulators and abusers have charisma and likeability. Even my abuse-survivor clients likely agree that their exes had some redeeming or charming qualities when they first met, even if that charm turned out to be part of an act.

Few of us would agree to that dinner date with a screaming, belittling, abuser. A Family Court judge would, similarly, be reluctant to grant custody to a parent who acts this way. Your ex knows this and believes that if he, she, or they, can keep the act going long enough, they will get their desired outcome. In some cases, they are correct.

If you believe that the judge is persuaded by your abusive ex-partner, it is especially important to keep your cool (at least on the outside) and maintain decorum in the courtroom. When circumstances are unfair, it is easy to stoop to a lower level and demand the fair outcome that you deserve. However, too many times, I have seen people implode at this stage and push the judge further away from listening to them.

Here are some tips for coping with an abusive ex-partner during Court proceedings:

1. Keep externally calm - Screaming, yelling, and eye-rolling will get you nowhere. Shouldn't you be angry? Of course. Call a friend while you wait for the case to get called, complain to your lawyer, jot furious notes in your notebook, or use that anger to push yourself through the emotional challenges of the case. Do not, however, act out in front of the judge or in front of you ex and/or his or her lawyer.

Your ex wants a reaction from you, he or she wants to feel in control, and their attorney wants ammunition to propel their case forward. Do not give this to them.

2. Hire a Lawyer - A family law attorney can listen to your concerns, guide you through the process, help you set goals for your case, and push for those goals in court. If you have evidence of abuse during the relationship, an attorney knows whether that proof is admissible in Court, and how to get that proof in front of the judge in the most persuasive way possible.

3. Speak to a Therapist or Counselor - I cannot emphasize enough how helpful this can be when working through trauma.

4. Document, Document, and Document Some More - The best time to document is during the relationship, but I fully realize that hindsight is 20/20 and it may be too late to journal as the abuse occurs. Nonetheless, list memorable events and incidents, including where the incidents occurred and who witnessed them.

If your ex is contacting you through text messages, e-mail, or Facebook messenger, save those messages. Yes, all of them.

5. Keep it off of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat - On the topic of social media, keep case details off of your social media pages. Exercise caution sharing anything deeply personal on public social media pages, and do not post disparaging comments about your ex-partner -- especially if you are in the midst of a custody dispute. Someone will find that post (probably your ex-partner's attorney), because it is the low-hanging fruit, and use it against you.

6. If you feel unsafe or feel your life is in imminent danger, contact the local police or call 911 - If your life is at immediate risk, contact the authorities.

7. With Temporary Orders, remember "This Too Shall Pass." - If temporary orders are undesirable, articulate how and why. You or your attorney can present this to the Court.

8. Stick to Your Guns and Prepare for Mind Games - In no way am I suggesting that you refuse to negotiate on the issues, especially if you have an attorney present and protecting your interests. What I mean is, prepare for your ex to minimize your concerns while making mountains out of mole hills when it comes to everything that you say and do.

Do not drop important issues and concerns merely because your ex (or their attorney) insists that they are minor. Common lies include:

- "It's not even a big deal."

- "I can't believe you're upset about that."

- " (Insert thing here) is normal. Ask anyone."

- "The judge isn't going to care about that."

If something feels wrong to you, tell your attorney (if you have one) or consult with an attorney. Many Massachusetts counties have Lawyer-for-the-Day programs and Legal Aid offices for indigent people. If your ex-partner spent a relationship minimizing your feelings, they will continue doing so in Family Court.

9. Do Not Agree to Unfavorable Terms for the Promise of Seeing Your Child - A manipulative ex-partner may threaten to bring up things from your past (e.g. substance use and abuse, severe mental illness, a different unhealthy relationship, a criminal record, or prior DCF involvement) if you do not agree to their terms. An attorney for this individual might remind you that the judge could decide anything (which to an extent is true) and that agreeing to their terms is better.

If something feels unfair or undesirable, talk to your attorney or consult with an attorney before signing. Trust me on this. Judges strive to make decisions in the best interests of your child(ren). If you have an imperfect past, and almost all people do (we are only human), the best thing that you can do is show how you have changed and why your involvement benefits your children. That sinking feeling that you get when your ex brings up "the thing" -- whatever it is from your past -- is normal and what your ex-partner uses to manipulate you.

Do not cave before getting advice from a legal professional who advises and advocates for parents in your position on a regular basis.

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