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.