Some studies have shown that intimate partner violence (IPV) accounts for more than 15% of all violent crime in the United States. IPV is not limited to physical abuse but extends to psychological, sexual, and financial harm as well. Leaving the relationship is the best solution for a victim, but divorce attorneys warn that great precaution is necessary because the statistics show that IPV victims are at even greater risk of significant harm when attempting to get out of the situation.
Organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline warn that the most dangerous time for a person in an abusive relationship is when trying to leave. In other words, no matter how bad it has gotten, you should recognize that there is the potential for it to get even worse. Abusers tend to be narcissists or at least have personalities with narcissistic traits or possess other personality disorders, and when people like that lose control, they are even more prone to irrational behavior. They will often heighten the abuse to regain control, and there is also the facet where they want to make you pay for this transgression against them and perhaps for any mistake that they deem that you have ever made.
Mental health professionals who specialize in abusive relationships also caution people to be aware of cognitive dissonance. This is a form of psychological stress that can involve many aspects, including actions, objects in the environment, feelings, ideas, values, and beliefs. In simpler terms, a victim who is seeking to leave an abusive relationship will often feel confused and disoriented. If you are one of them, you may experience feelings that perhaps would not make much sense if you were able to distance yourself and look at them objectively, but they are no less real and influential in the moment. It often makes the past abuse seem surreal, and it can lead to doubt about leaving the relationship and taking the necessary steps to protect yourself.
That disorientation can often lead to an expectation of rational behavior, and divorce lawyers often encounter this in situations involving domestic abuse. Abusers not only act irrationally but often lack empathy, and it is important for the target to be aware of this so as not to be blindsided when the abusive behavior intensifies and becomes even more erratic. Many experts recommend expecting this behavior and shielding yourself from it proactively. In the case of divorce, it may be necessary to avoid any contact between the spouses, and if there are children involved, then a parallel co-parenting plan may be necessary in order for the children to have a relationship with both parents while protecting the victim. A temporary restraining order, TRO, will be necessary in some cases, and that order can eventually be upgraded to a final restraining order.
Safety planning is the process through which you put safeguards in place before initiating the end of your relationship. Be mindful that this is not a process you have to go through alone. If you are getting divorced or require other legal assistance, you may lean on your family lawyer and heed their advice. If you are going to therapy, which we will touch on more in an upcoming section, your therapist can help with your plan, and there are therapists who specialize in that kind of work. There are also resources available through the NDVH and other similar organizations.
There are two core phases to the planning process. Time is of the essence, and so the first phase is to protect the living: children, dependents, family members, friends, and pets. What do they need to be safe once the breakup begins, and how do you put those measures in place? You will also want to secure and make copies of important paperwork, adoption paperwork, veterinarian bills, and any other materials that could later play a role in a custody battle.
The second phase is focusing on your possessions, and it is important that you prioritize and begin with the most important items first, such as bank accounts. Victims in these situations are often caught unaware when the IPV evolves to include financial abuse. Focus on passports, medical documents, and legal paperwork, and do not forget sentimental objects as the abuser will likely be inclined to use those against you as well.
You can find extensive checklists through the resources mentioned earlier. Pare those checklists down to what is relevant and important to you, and be sure to prioritize them as well. With that in mind, divorce attorneys warn that there are items that are commonly overlooked, such as not changing the passwords to all email and other important accounts. Make copies of house deeds and all other critical documents, and safeguard them in the event you lose access to the originals. Protect your phone. Change social media access, and begin monitoring your credit through a service that can alert you. You should also change physical locks for homes, storage units, workplaces, and anywhere else where the abuser could do you harm.
Family law attorneys recommend therapy often even when a divorce is amicable. Many people underestimate how great the stress is and the toll it takes, and that stress is even greater for the person being abused and having to take all of these additional steps. Even if you cannot afford therapy, there are free options out there, and if you are worried about your privacy, getting therapy is easier than ever thanks to online resources.
Marriage greatly complicates an abusive relationship because there is the added legal entanglement and obligations. Family lawyers recommend seeking legal representation as soon as you consider leaving the relationship. Even if you are not sure yet what you intend to do, your divorce lawyer can help you begin to prepare and perhaps begin putting the safeguards in place to protect you if you do decide to leave. It can also help just to have your case reviewed and to hear an objective voice that comes from outside your bubble.
There are many resources available to IPV victims. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline any time of day or night: 800-799-SAFE. Help is also available via live chat on their website and through text. Text “START” to 88788. Another online resource to investigate is the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.
If you live in New Jersey and are in an abusive marriage, Lawrence Law is here to help. We are a law firm that focuses on divorce and other family law matters, and we have extensive experience navigating divorces involving domestic violence, including those that require restraining orders. You can meet with one of our family law attorneys to have your case reviewed and to schedule that appointment, you can call us at 908-645-1000 or reach out to us online.