A co-worker, “Pat”, confides to you during lunch one day that her “marital bliss” has all been a sham and that she thinks she has just learned to accept her husband’s abusive behavior. All of the stories she shares at work about her family are lies and have been for years. You are shocked. Of all of the people you know, her marriage has always seemed like the one true love story. In fact, before you met your own husband, you often hoped you would find a man like her husband, “Sam.” Because she trusts you and has known you for years, she now asks for your help in leaving her husband of over 20 years. You want to help, of course, but you are wondering about the best way to do so, whether you are the right person to do so and whether it is safe to leave an abuse marriage. What should you do?
Unfortunately, this scenario is an all too common one. At some point in time, maybe it’s after the kids are grown, the woman decides that even if it costs her everything, she has to tell someone and she has to get out of this marriage. It is usually a trusted friend or family member. The good news is that “Pat” finally felt that she could tell someone and is now willing to seek help in her situation. While it’s difficult to predict how “Sam” will react to his wife leaving, let’s walk through this scenario.
Is domestic violence a part of this situation? In our example, what if “Pat” has endured abuse (physical, emotional, financial, or all of the above)? As in any domestic abuse/violence situation, safety has to be the first concern. If Pat is being physically abused, urging her to always place her safety first is the best course of action. Pat should contact the police if there is an active domestic violence situation. The police will document the situation with a report, take photos (if necessary), perhaps separate the parties and make arrests (if necessary). Consider a restraining order if there is immediate fear of bodily harm. The police will advise you of these rights if there is a domestic disturbance. Important to note is that the ability to get an order is not restricted to times when the Court is open for business. Should the need arrive for a restraining order outside of Court hours, the police can assist you with obtaining an order.
More often than not, a primary concern for someone leaving a long term marriage, and one that has been focused on abuse or authority, is whether they will be able to support themselves, pay rent, buy food, take care of children. If the other spouse makes all of the money, how will the spouse leaving survive? There are two forms of support when one talks about separation or divorce: child support and alimony. Child support is calculated according to a formula. Alimony is more of a “needs based” determination (though there are calculators that provide an idea of what one might expect to pay/receive). All of that said, the best way to quell these fears – or at the very least, to know what you are working with – is to seek the advice and counsel of an attorney.
You do not, nor should you, do this alone. Friends and family are great, but you may not want to tell them everything that went on behind the scenes. With a therapist, you can open up, vent about your feelings and come to terms with your anger, hurt and any other emotions. This person is your neutral party that is there for you only with no bias and your support for this process. This is a key component to taking steps in a situation where you need support and may feel unstable.
Often women who leave an abusive spouse feel guilty. Years of victim blaming have kept her in the home, making her the target of the abuse over and over. After all of those years, she has naturally begun to question herself. “Pat” may wonder “why did I stay?” or “maybe it was all my fault”. A therapist will help guide her through those feelings so that she can learn to feel confident again. A therapist will provide that stable, supportive environment.
It can take years for someone to feel good about themselves again. After all, it took years for “Pat” to lose her confidence, her ability to speak out for herself or her desire to walk away. Now that she has gained these things and made a new start, she may have days where she is confused, scared and even willing to go back to “Sam” because it is all she has known.
Be patient with your friend. This is new territory for her. If she feels the need to reach back out to “Sam”, understand that he was all she knew for most of her life. Don’t be frustrated when she decides she made the wrong decision or that she wants to go back. There is a comfort in that. Help her find support in a group of new friends who can build her up without tearing him down. She needs to find positive support moving her mind away from him without revenge and anger.
If you are like “Pat” or personally someone in that position, please know that there are people who will help you. Abusive situations are very difficult to predict. Contacting an experienced family attorney for advice on how to proceed will protect the communications, including protecting the disclosure of any locations where you may need to relocate for your safety. Contact us here if you have questions or need information.