I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The mistreatment from an abusive partner doesn’t end just because you live under different rooves or because divorce papers are signed. The whole purpose behind abusive behavior is power and control; and that can be achieved in many ways. If you are in a physically abusive relationship and you manage to get to safety, chances are that the emotional and mental abuse that accompanied it is still alive and well. So what is post separation abuse, how can we deal with it while preserving our safety and sanity, and what can our allies do?
- What is it?
Post-separation abuse is really just what it sounds like: abuse that continues and extends beyond the relationship ending. It can include stalking, financial abuse, child abuse or neglect, counter parenting, ongoing verbal and mental abuse (threats, harassment, intimidation, coercion), and legal abuse. Each of these tactics is another attempt to control the partner who was able to escape. And the consequences of this are a prevalent, but underreported form of domestic violence affecting individuals, families, and systems. These sometimes covert abuse tactics can seep into every interaction across platforms in an effort to undermine self-esteem and chip away at resolve. Many abusive people are not afraid of a court appointed communication or co-parenting smartphone app. They will switch up where the attack comes from so that feeling safe is not an option.
- What can you do?
Post-separation abuse can leave a survivor feeling helpless and hopeless. Since the ongoing social narrative is that the abuse stops at the doorway, this after-the-fact violence often gets overlooked. So once again, survivors, who may still feel like victims, are searching for ways to deal with this aggression and stay safe. Its tiring being the one to ignore threats or de-escalate situations. Sometimes, when someone is mean, you want to stand up for yourself and honestly, you have every right to. However (and I write this with a heavy sigh), the truth is they want your attention and every time you sling a really good argument for why they shouldn’t treat you in this manner, it feeds them, leaving an opening for more abuse. It can be helpful to remember a few likely truths. First, if you’ve never “won” an argument with your abusive partner in the past, you’re not about to start now, especially since you’ve taken some of your power back. Secondly, you were probably never allowed to air your grievances when you were together, so again, those efforts may be futile. I remember trying to express hurt feelings and being met with some combination of rage, dismissiveness, aggression, or stonewalling. And of course, I could never predict which response I would get, which added an extra layer of fear and anxiety. You may recall similar scenarios in which you attempted to make your point, got shut down, tried a different approach to help them understand, and ended up doing the conceding and consoling. Remember, an abusive partner does not want discourse. In their minds, they are not wrong, and if you suggest otherwise, then you are attacking them and need to reconcile the situation. If any or all of this sounds familiar, I suggest first, as cliche as it sounds, take a deep breath. This allows the parasympathetic nervous system to engage to help you feel safe in the moment. Once you are able to respond instead of react, think a few steps ahead. You’ve likely had a lot of practice with this. If you can even remotely anticipate the outcome of an attempt at dialogue, then make the next move accordingly since this person is likely (still) not interested in hearing what you have to say, feel or think. Try to respond only if it’s absolutely necessary and use short, cordial-enough phrases. If you can refrain from emotional interactions, then there is nothing for them to engage in. THIS WORK IS HARD. There is no doubt that staying quiet…AGAIN…is extremely difficult when all you want to do is assert and advocate for yourself. I will tell you this. You are strong without your abuser’s validation. They are not fooling everyone. There are people that see through them, and truly see you as the worthy person that you are. Let your support system hold you up rather than trying to dip from an empty well (or rather a well filled with vitriol and a desire to see you in pain).
- What can allies do?
That last paragraph is for the people on the receiving end of the post-separation abuse. This one is for those who have helped and continue to help them stay safe and seen through the process. Please remember that the abuse is ongoing. Many people feel like they burn out their friends with their heavy “stuff,” so if you are on the journey with someone and have emotional space to help carry some of the burden, please let them know. Likewise, if you don’t have the bandwidth, be honest with yourself and with your friend or family member. You can be a helpful resource if you are not depleted, so put your mask on first, as they say. Another consideration for allies is listening, not only to what is being said, but what is not being said. Giving advice when someone needs a listener, or even just a hug, can put undue pressure on the person looking for a safe place to open up. If they ask for opinions or ideas, give some. If they don’t, shhhhhh. For example, telling someone who has worked really hard to stay calm so as not to “poke the bear” might not want to hear, “Don’t engage.” They know, damn it! And if they told you every time they didn’t engage, you would get tired of the broken record. They are probably telling you about this instance because they weren’t “strong enough” that time. So listen. Because sometimes too many words can seem, and often be, condescending to someone who already feels bad. It’s okay to just be there, offering empathy or allowing a quiet space for processing. Ask what they need if you’re not sure. Offer words of encouragement. Remind this person who you love and care for that you see them still doing the hard work to stay safe and sane amidst ongoing abuse.
Domestic violence has many facets and like every other hard thing in human existence, it’s not black and white. It can be overt or subtle. Abusers use a person’s fears and vulnerabilities as weapons. And they may even throw in some psychobabble they picked up in therapy they were forced to go to in a gaslighting effort. To an abuser, you defy their power and their attitude of entitlement when you dare take yourself out of the scary and dangerous situation they want you in. So I applaud you. Even when you are afraid or angry or when you engage even when you wish you hadn’t. You’re human. You are entitled to love and safety without the requirement of perfection in the face of abject hell. Ask your support system for what you need. They want to be there for you, but might not know how. Use that safe space to practice speaking up, asking for what feels helpful, and walking away if you need to. This may be an opportunity to educate those who love you most about post-separation abuse and how rampant and harmful it can be. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You didn’t deserve to be hurt then and you still don’t now.