Category: Separation and divorce

This category is all about coping with major relationship change with an abuser in both legal and emotional ways.

Mediation: Seven tips for getting what you need from an abuser

In this post we covered some basic defensive tactics when you have to go into mediation with a narcissist or other kind of emotional abuser. We recognized of a painful truth—any communication with an emotional abuser can be difficult, even damaging and having a third-party is the room won’t necessarily help. Their emotional abuse can easily shift to the new set of circumstances. Mediation is a convenient place for an emotional abuser to jump on his self-righteous soap box, put on the boxing gloves, box you in. Expect it and be ready.

But not only do we need to have tools to defend ourselves, we also should be in offensive mode as well.

Let’s not forget that the reason we are in mediation is to come to an agreement. Now is the time to try and get the physical things you need from your abuser.

It helps to keep a few things in mind:

#1 Realize you have every right to ask for what you want. He may have run the show for a long time, but this is divorce and that means that things are splitting into two people—and you are one of those people! This is not the time to just hear what your soon to be ex-spouse thinks, believes, and wants. More than likely you’ve gotten enough of that while you were married to write a volume of books on his beliefs and wants and how he wants others to behave (a big book for the basics and each separate text for all the adjustments and changes and inconsistencies through the years.) You have a right too. 50% of the right, in fact. Now is your chance to legally and officially have an opinion and your opinion will be heard.

#2 Don’t attach your wants and needs to his wants or needs. Your desires should stand alone. They are your thoughts, not extensions of his thoughts. For example: He says, “I should have the kids every Christmas.” Your answer should not come out as, “Well then I want to have them every Fourth of July.” Imagine if he had not started asking for every Christmas, would that still be what is right for your new family arrangement? Think on your own.

#3 Don’t think of it as a me vs. him competition. You are not there to challenge and disagree with everything he says. Perhaps the situation above happened, “I should have the kids every Christmas.” You had thought about it and realized that he did do special things every Christmas with the kids and you’re Jewish anyway so Christmas is not that big a deal to you. It’s okay to say, “Sure, sounds good.” Even if you think they are coming from a place of argumentativeness and anger, try to ignore the emotion and just focus on what is best. He’s used to controlling you by telling you what to do. He’s still controlling you if you just automatically go against what he’s telling you to do. The point is to make your own choices regardless of what he says.

#4 It’s okay to delay responses. Phrases like, “Let’s circle back to that.” or “I don’t know, let me think about it.” or “Can we discuss this later?” are all okay and good responses to some things. Keep a clinical eye on your brain. If it is becoming flooded, triggered, or overly emotional s-l-o-w-t-h-i-n-g-s-d-o-w-n. The point is to give your brain time to process things fully and this is the exact time where your brain will want to freak out and jump to conclusions and react instead of thoughtfully respond. Give yourself time.

My husband told me that I should wait near the kids’ school for the two hours between when they got out of school when he got off of work on his placement days. My brain screamed, “No! I don’t care if it’s a long drive for him, why should I be helping him at all? Not going to do it!” I asked to circle back. Later, coming back to it myself instead of being prompted, I told him it would be fine. I would wait for him. In the time I gave myself, I had realized that making my husband drive an extra half an hour meant making my kids ride an extra hour. They would hurt more if listened to my initial gut desire. We learned for the time to enjoy the local library for homework time.

Notice that just like the #3 tip, my husband asked for selfish reasons (he didn’t want the extra drive time) but I was able to look at it from the outside a bit and chose to do it his way for good reasons. I didn’t go opposite everything he said just to prove that he’s wrong. If you give yourself some time to think though things clearly, you can make choices that are best and not simply reactionary.

#5 Plan ahead. One of the most interesting phenomenons I didn’t expect in my mediation was what happened with the homework requirements. Our mediator would send us home after a session with homework of what to research and decide. Every single time my narcissistic husband did none of it. I’ve heard and know that a narcissist will want to win everything, but somehow my husband didn’t do the smallest of tasks to actually help himself. I think this is two-fold. First, someone told had him to do it and he’s a slave to no one. Second, he already knows everything there is to know so what’s the point in any extra work?

And it’s not just mine; I’ve heard it said about other narcissists. They phone in the actual real stuff and just fill in with emotion. Your strength will be that you are wise enough to know you don’t know enough and you take the time and effort to figure it out. Know everything about what you want and research it and document it and be ready.

I was ready for a huge fight over the high school choice for our eldest. I knew my husband didn’t like the area of town where my choice of high school was. When the time came he had not put any thought into it and, even after being assigned the research as homework, he came back in two weeks with no information. The choice defaulted to me because I knew. I didn’t even have to refer to my notes I brought but since I had them, I got what was best for our son. You don’t need to wait for the homework to be assigned. Plan. Be ready.

#6 Use facts. Those who emotionally abuse do it because they know emotion, because in fact that is all they are. Their emotion is translated into their own version of truth. Their strength comes from being so staunch and factual in their delivery of their emotional version of truth. “It’s all her fault” is not a fact, it’s an emotion presented as a fact.

Victims have the huge benefit of having the actual truth on our side. If we can present the actual facts, the reality of the situation quickly becomes clear. Don’t engage in his smear campaign presented against you based on emotion. Just give the facts. Just be ready and don’t be surprised because at this point he WILL lie. When I got to this point over and over it threw me for a loop every time– “he just said what?” He’s lied in the past to himself and to me but these were brand new ones, blam, thrown down as truths. Don’t bother with discussing lies but use the tips presented in the defense post. If you engage every lie he gets what he wants, round and round accusations and blame and emotion. Don’t engage with his emotional truths. Only discuss actual truths.

It may be hard to understand what actually constitutes a fact you can use when you have been gaslit to believe his type of facts. Think about numbers and be cautious of any superlatives. Stay away from words like: never, always, greatest, worst, kindest, meanest, etc. If you want to include a clause about bedtimes and he insists there is no need because he always has them to bed on time a bad response example is, “you always let the kids stay up too late!” instead try, “the kids’ bedtimes are 8:00 and 8:30 and last week I got texts from them after 9 on two different days.” There will be excuses and most likely lies at this point but you’ve presented facts that he can’t argue.

Use tip #6 to plan out your facts. Write down and research your own emails, photos, text messages, etc. to back up as many facts as you can. Just have them ready. Don’t lambaste him with them as soon as he walks in the room. Just have them ready in case you need them. What you don’t need could be helpful later.

#7 Fight clean. I get it. I do. After years of always being the loser, always succumbing to his desires, a chance to be heard can be intoxicating. Picture a kid, always picked on, finally getting in a good solid punch. In his excitement at finally standing up for himself he impulsively throws a punch to the groin. It will not end well. The truth is you’ve been trained what strength looks like and if you conform to that idea of strength you are like him. You have a different strength. Your strength comes from truth, not from ugly emotions like contempt or pride. So watch yourself. You will start to be heard and finally get a say but don’t gloat. Don’t use the opportunity for a smear campaign. Don’t try demanding more just because you feel you’ve finally got the upper hand. Wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove my friend. Be wise as a serpent but still innocent as a dove. We aren’t like them. We are kind. Don’t lose that.

Mediation is crazy tough but it can be a very good thing. This process starts when we are not ready but we can find that we were ready all along. Being abused has left us broken but it is amazing to find it has also made us strong. Draw on your strength. Mediation may be the road to get us to a much healthier place.

If your situation requires you to be in mediation, walk into it with your head held high. When you move forward the cloud of fear lingers behind. Keep moving forward, slow and steady, and you will get where to need to be. We are cheering you on.

Mediation: Six protective tips for working together with an abuser

Divorce is a difficult process. It’s made all the more difficult when you are divorcing an abuser.

One of the hallmarks of the divorce process is the dividing. Everything needs to be divided and once papers are filed, the courts turn to you and effectively say, “So you two—tell us how you are dividing your lives into two.” What this then means is that you have to communicate in order to decide what to tell the judge.

When the hallmark of your relationship is that your voice is not heard, your opinions are mocked, your communication is broken—this can be terrifying.

All of the conventional wisdom is that abusers should be left and narcissistic abusers especially should not be contacted. (Called specifically, “No contact.”) How frustrating is it when you are searching everywhere for answers and the answer always is, “go no contact” and yet the court is saying “work it out.”

For years I tried to get my husband to go to counseling. I knew our communication was broken. I always ended up in tears and broken and he always used communication to attack, condemn, and bully. When he finally said we would go I was so excited. Finally a third-party would be there and could keep things balanced. I was wrong.

Emotional abusers work on the assumption that they are always right. Depending on their level of disorder this means that not only may a third-party not help, it may make it worse.

My husband went into that counseling session with a litany of wrongs I’d done against him. He used the space as a platform to proclaim loudly and proudly that I was the source of all that was wrong. As ridiculous as I knew many of his complaints were even at the time, it did not stop him from seething with “righteous” indignation at my flaws for an hour and forty-five minutes during an hour-long session. It was a terrible, terrible experience and I never wanted to do that again yet he had filed for divorce and now the court and our lawyers were saying, “Gotta go to mediation and communicate so you can split your lives.” So again I had to go into a setting with him where his opinions were asked of him and he was ready to respond. It was like I was placed in front of an oncomming bus that I KNOW is not going to swerve.

Now, my husband had a legally sanctioned and encouraged platform to explain why he was best and right and how I was 100% at fault and wrong. The first thing he did was attack and I was triggered. I cried and fell right into our pattern. I tried to defend myself but he started running circles around me. The mediator, not there to repair our marriage but to help us decide how to split us, stopped his attack but by this point he was a half a dozen points in and she just wanted to move on. So, unable to defend myself, I just started the meeting half a dozen points behind. So now I was triggered AND the power was unbalanced. What a mess. I was labeled the “emotional one” and accusations of acting emotionally and eschewing sanity seemed realistic.

I believe you find so little online about mediation with a narcissist (the most common type of emotional abuser) because no one has good news. It’s easier to say, “go no contact” with a small note that you may have to have contact because of kids. Well I’m going to give you more—I’m going to tell you all the tools I learned to cope. I pray that if you must go through this, you can go in wiser at the beginning than I did.

#1 Know it will suck. Even with all the wisdom it will stink. Know this and give yourself grace. While you’re at it give grace to the mediator and your abuser too. It will not go well and everyone will make mistakes. Expect it and embrace it even. It does not help to have unrealistic expectations. Things will be okay and you can do well even amidst the suckiness.

#2 Detach, detach, detach. This is so difficult and yet it is so helpful. You are emotional for a very good reason (see number 1) and you have a right to be sad, angry, defensive, accusatory, hurt, etc. However, feeling any of these feelings in this moment is not only useless, it’s damaging. Feel the feelings… later. In the moment though you must do everything you can to detach. This is the trapeze act and is not the time to focus on the fact that you’re scared of heights. Here are some tips to perform this death-defying act:

  • Be the investigator/reporter. Be the person behind the pen. Don’t look down and see how far the fall is. Don’t look at your abuser and see how he perceives you. Take notes. Be an outsider gathering information. This can come in handy when you’ve forgotten everything later because of that lovely fight/flight/freeze response. This can come in handy when you’re talking with your lawyer later. But the main point is just to keep looking at the page and to keep your hands busy and distracted. Don’t worry about taking good notes. Scribble, “I like tacos” over and over again if you need to. These notes are just for you. No one needs to see and you won’t be graded. Just stay occupied.
  • Be the curious observer. Pretend that your abuser is a lion. He is dangerous and his roar is terrifying. You are looking at him and taking it all in there, just a few feet away. But you’re not on the open savanna. You are behind the foot-thick plexiglass at the zoo. It’s an amazing sight but he can’t hurt you so you can just watch and marvel at this creature.
  • Be the doctor. See your soon-to-be ex-spouse as a patient in a mental institution. You are the doctor. Does a doctor go in to the patient who thinks he’s the Queen of England and tell him over and over that he’s wrong? No. The doctor is kind and calm will try to help the patient come to that realization when the time is right and after medications are balanced right. Now is not the time to force a fix on the patient. Now is the time to be compassionate, knowing you’re right and he’s ill.

All of those scenarios help you detach and observe instead of reacting in the moment.

#3 Create new dialogue. Your relationship has established routines that leave you broken. Sit down and write out what you will probably hear and how you will respond. The shorter the better. You will find certain phrases powerful, easy, and useful in many situations. These phrases include classics such as:

  • “I don’t agree.”
  • “That is a personal issue and doesn’t need to be discussed here.”
  • “My feelings haven’t changed”
  • and my personal new favorite, “No.”

All these phrases are best used as stand-alones. Don’t say:

  • “I don’t agree so explain it to me again so I can understand you.”
  • “That is a personal issue and doesn’t need to be discussed here and I will get a response to you later this week.”
  • “My feelings haven’t changed since the last time we discussed this but let me explain it to you again.”
  • Or “No, no, no, what a jackass you are to think that.”

Let them all be said as facts, not as ramps to the emotions.

#4 Practice, practice, practice. Your new dialogue is short and easy but it can be terribly hard to remember in the moment when you are in the throes of unhealthy communication. It sounds stupid but practice saying them in front of the mirror. Especially “no.” No is a powerful word and no two letters can be said in so many different ways. Practice a strong, compassionate no. Don’t use it clumsily or in a reactionary way. I like to think of my no’s as an answer to a question. Your abuser may say, “Your parents have the kids so often and they’re trying to turn them against me!” Think that he said, “Do you think your parents are using their time with the kids to turn them against me?” Voila! A simple “no” works great. Just answer the question. The only way to have it ready to go when the time comes is to practice. My counselor helped me write out and practice “I will not concede. I get taken advantage of when I do. I will stick to the court order.” I only used it once out loud but with practice I had it in my head before the mess of the second meeting began and it made a huge difference.

#5 Bite your tongue. And I mean literally as well as figuratively if you need to. While you are biting remind yourself this: it is much more effective for your abuser to show his true colors than for you to out him. If you try to rip off the cover you can be seen as an attacker and your abuser WILL jump on that. (Mine jumped on that with me even when I wasn’t attacking him. It’s like he was waiting for it and when it didn’t happen he just launched anyway at the tiniest thing.) Plus, no one likes a tattle-tale. While he is tattling about you, let him and don’t respond in kind, no matter how right you are. Interject your “I don’t agree”s and “no”s and a simple head shake from time to time but less is more. The more you find yourself disagreeing with your abuser, make your responses that much smaller and quieter. DON’T ENGAGE. THIS is what will make it clear to the mediator what the true situation is. Don’t call him a narcissist or even say he is acting like a narcissist. Let the mediator see it themselves. When you don’t react like he’s used to, he will have to ramp up his triggering and while he’s busy spinning his wheels his intentions will become more and more obvious. I know it’s hard and it seems so foreign but just sit and let him.

#6 Plan for after the meeting. With all these stifled triggers and emotions you will feel very, very, very drained. I’m not exaggerating; it will be ridiculously hard. Although it seems odd to be more worn out than an athlete after a big game when all you did was sit and work on keeping your mouth closed, it will happen. After that first meeting I learned to try to arrange meetings on days when I did not have my kids and arranged instead lots of post meeting self-care. I gave myself time to nap, to call a friend, to go for a walk. Each time you will need less recovery time but plan anyway. That way when you’re in the meeting you will know that soon you can let it out. You can face the emotions, it’s not that they don’t matter. They matter very, very deeply. They are just wasted on him and whatever his reaction, it will only make things worse.

All of these are the defensive tactics. Right at first it’s all you need. Once you have gathered information in a detached and quietly staunch kind of way, you can move to asking for what you need.

 

What It’s Like To Leave: life will get better, right?

I don’t know if things really got that much worse at the end or if I was just starting to see more clearly what had been happening all along. It was probably both. An interesting aspect of ending abuse is that it actually gets worse at the end. I think that I was slowly coming out of the fog instead of doing it quickly like the standard suggestion for escaping abuse (i.e. have a bag pre-packed and ready, have money set aside and then, when it’s not expected, go, go, go!) Unlike the cold-turkey abuser quitter, who is wise enough to hide somewhere safe when things get worse, I was experiencing the uptick because I was still there.

I was also becoming more cognizant of how unhinged a lot of it was. Note: I said “more cognizant” and not just “cognizant” because I still couldn’t wrap my head around how crazy it was. It just seemed off. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset and disgusted with me because I didn’t follow politics and news like he did (and he did at a fanatical level.) I didn’t understand how even after double-checking locks on my vehicle they always seemed to be unlocked and how he was always the one to catch that I had left my own vehicle unlocked. (I got lectured several times a week.) I couldn’t understand why I seemed to get in trouble because I had friends. (He literally complained during a counseling session that people liked me. He said it as an insult. “I’ve seen it, they will write her notes about how great she is!” Apparently thank you notes were not acceptable for me to receive in his reality.)

I saw it more because I was getting help. I had told some people and they were speaking truth to me. Finally, I heard what I thought was true the whole time but still didn’t see as truth because he had me convinced I didn’t know what I was talking about. (I was an unsecure, uninformed, well-liked idiot of course. He had proof. He’d seen the thank you notes.) At this stage it’s most important, I am sure of it, that you only talk to people you trust. These people should be those that won’t hurt you (there’s enough of that going on, thank you) and that you know to be stable, reasonable people. I trusted their viewpoints, not just because they aligned with what I expected to be truth, but because their lives testified to it.

Important note: Sometimes well-meaning, truly good people can still give bad advice. Not everyone can really understand and may say things like, “just try to do one thing a day to make him feel special.” They don’t understand, it’s not their fault, they just don’t understand. It’s like telling a woman who’s had her arm broken because she served her husband a cold dinner, “just make sure you heat it up in the microwave when you hear he’s home from work. Do you need a microwave? I’ll buy you one.” This is a kind, well-meaning, giving, load of truly hurtful crap. Recognize it as such, thank them for caring and move on.

I also saw it more because it really did get worse at the end. Every little thing seemed to provoke offense. I don’t know if he ever was really offended or if it was just some excuse to mete out punishment. There was always some reason he found that he shouldn’t have to be kind to me. One of the offenses at the end was that I had picked up his phone and turned down the volume on the advertisements (being clear that I would turn it up for him again when the advertisements were over.) He spent 10 minutes on this issue in the counselor’s office. Everything I did was offensive to him and worthy of his self-righteous anger.

There is a reason the standard advice is to flee. The realization by an abuser that their power is gone is often answered with a temper tantrum. It makes sense really. It’s what they’ve done before but just now on the biggest-scale production level. Telling you you’re stupid or worthless without them, whether by the actual words or action, is what has made you stay so long in the first place. So it makes sense that their natural reaction is more of the same.

If their temper tantrum doesn’t work the next tactic is usually a wild swing opposite. Next comes the apologies, the gifts, the compliments. I’m so sorry, this stage is totally fake. There’s nothing a battered woman (or man) wants to hear more than words that show her or his partner cares. The horrible part is that he or she doesn’t. I really am very sorry. I wish this information wasn’t true. There’s a reason that you will see it everywhere concerning abusive relationships, it really is fake.

In my situation I was slowly getting my legs under me. I learned about boundaries and I started walking away from anger and accusations and closing the door. I felt I found a neat trick. Sure, he just got more angry more often (ramping up) but I could just walk away more.  Finally, I told him we would be separating in two weeks. Something strange happened almost exactly one week to that deadline. Something totally unexpected. He texted me that he would be coming home late from work and asked if I needed anything from the grocery store. Now this might sound benign to you, but this was HUGE! Seriously, this man had not done anything for me in so long that 1) informing me he was going to be late and 2) thinking about my needs, was enough to turn me into a caricature of a 19th century southern belle, “Oh dearie, the object of my affection has taken a likin’ to me. Catch me, I’m fixin’ to swoon!” Not to mention he told me the items he was buying from the store. He was letting me into his life! “I do declare! Do go on, honey…” Maybe the correct idiom here is that I was “happy as a dead pig in the sunshine” because this was our swing opposite. This was our version of the gifts and kind words. A few days later he asked me to go out with him and our kids shopping. Again, totally out of line with how he had been treating me. Seriously, this man would not make eye contact with me before this. When I came in a room, he would leave it. Me? I figuratively turned my head to see if someone else was standing behind me. He was really paying attention to me? Fiddledeedee.

But I was determined. I was healed enough to know that one or two kind gestures does not a healed relationship make. (It was later pointed out to me that these weren’t actually kind gestures but just actions of a reasonable human being.) If he can do it once or twice, he can continue to do it after we are separated and we can heal together and build a healthy relationship. I mentioned something along the lines of not wanting to buy anything special for the kids because we weren’t sure how things were going to go and moving it back and forth would be difficult. That was it. The normal human being spigot was cranked shut. It wasn’t genuine. It was just a ploy. As soon as he realized it didn’t work, that I was still planning on separating, he stopped.

The next stage of leaving an abuser, especially a narcissist, if they can’t scream or woo you back is to simply write you off. All of the sudden it’s like you never existed and none of your feelings, history, or rights matter at all. Just one week after I moved he filed for divorce. He wanted nothing to do with me. If I wouldn’t play his game, then no game for me. He did things like leave the kids home alone and go to work, even though I was available because I didn’t exist. He went out and bought the entire back to school list on his own (even though I had always been the one to do it) because I didn’t exist. (Neither did the kids apparently, they weren’t invited to their own back to school shopping.) No more marriage, no more wife, no more history. Poof. Gone in a flash.

*****

Here’s something I’ve learned in Celebrate Recovery. When you are needing to make amends, the possible repercussions can get in your brain and keep you from making that step. Being vulnerable enough to admit you were wrong in order to say you’re sorry is terrifying. But I’ve heard testimony after testimony about this phenomenon and the general rule is, the worst-case scenario you’ve built up in your mind rarely comes to pass. Usually people are forgiving or even have totally forgotten or didn’t see how you had wronged them. Your fear was unfounded and in the end you have the freedom of being released of the guilt and shame of what you did to wrong the other person. Making the next emotional step and having a difficult discussion with someone is rarely as bad as you expect.

Through this whole post I’ve talked about the negative possibilities of breaking up (divorcing/separating/setting boundaries) with a narcissist. It surely sounds horrific and miserable. I’m here to say when it comes to an abuser, oftentimes when you are finally vulnerable enough to say, “I can’t do this anymore” your worst fears DO come to fruition. He really does spew hate, trivialize loving gestures into manipulative tools, and write you off as nothing. (Not what you were hoping for, eh?)

But, I’m here to tell you, in the end it’s still all worth it because in the end you have the freedom of being released of the guilt and shame.

Of course it’s not that easy. As the saying goes: it’s simple, not easy. To be honest, it’s hard to let the guilt and shame go sometimes, they were constant companions. There are also unfathomly huge waves of fear, insecurity, indecisiveness, and  loneliness.  So in my case my worst-case fears did come true. But I’m telling you, it’s worth it.

It’s worth it.

Believe me. It’s worth it. We’ll talk more later, okay? For now just know it’s hard but it’s worth it.