Co-parenting after a divorce can be complicated. This is true even in the best of circumstances. Understandably, after a marriage ends, emotions are often running high, not to mention the fact that an inability to work together cooperatively is often part of what ultimately leads to the end of a marriage in the first place. This is even more true in divorce situations where one spouse was abusive to the other. Sadly, abuse happens far too often – much more often than many people realize.
Unfortunately, in some cases, even despite a relationship that was abusive in nature, courts may still, depending upon the circumstances, award joint custody to the parents following a divorce, or at the least award visitation rights to the non-custodial parent. As a result, even though it may understandably be extremely difficult for the parent who was the victim of the abuse, co-parenting will, on some level be required.
The prospect of having to co-parent with an ex who was abusive to may be unsettling and unpleasant to say the least. Having to co-parent with an abuser can, understandably, make it hard for survivors of abuse to separate themselves and to psychologically heal from their experiences. Survivors may, with good reason, worry that being forced to co-parent with an abusive ex will only give the ex the opportunity to continue the abuse in one way or another.
At the Law Office of Dustin McCrary, we certainly understand these concerns, and would urge you to remember that your safety, and the safety of your children should always be your first priority. In that spirit, we offer these tips that we hope will be helpful as you attempt to take care of your children and yourself while co-parenting with an ex who may have made your life very difficult.
- Understand your legal rights: If your ex is abusive, chances are high that he or she is also likely manipulative. If so, understanding your legal rights, and the protections available to you under the law is very important. Don’t be afraid to be honest with the court and with other law enforcement officers about your circumstances. Some victims of abuse feel that being honest will only result in more abuse, but in reality, being honest is ultimately the only way to get help. Many abusers often present the best versions of themselves in court, so it is very important that you tell your side of the story, and back it up with pictures, documentation, the testimony of others, or whatever proof possible in order to paint a clear picture of your circumstances. Even in circumstances where courts may have initially awarded joint custody to the parents, you can (and should) always request reconsideration of the custody decision in situations where the abuse is ongoing. In some situations where the abuse is ongoing, you may need to seek and obtain a protective or restraining order. You have the right to do so, and it may be necessary to keep you – or your children – safe.
- Create clear boundaries: In all custody-sharing situations, clear boundaries and limits are important, but this is particularly so in situations involving an abusive and manipulative ex. First, it is important to ensure that you set clear, non-negotiable boundaries regarding how the custody exchanges will take place. If you feel unsafe being around your ex, then insist upon meeting in a safe, public place. Don’t feel obligated to meet with your ex alone under any circumstances if you feel unsafe doing so. Additionally, be certain that you and your ex are both very clear on the terms of the custody arrangement – whether through your own agreement, or ordered by the court. Be certain that your ex abides by the terms of the agreement in terms of drop-off and pick-up times, and if your ex fails to do so, be certain to document it. Do not allow your ex to use your children against you as a form of manipulation.
- Educate your children: Make sure your children know that they have a voice too, and that it is important for their voice to be heard. Let your children know that you take their worries and concerns seriously, and make sure that they feel comfortable and encouraged to be open and honest with you about what their time with your ex is like. Give them tools that they need to communicate quickly with you, like a cell phone, as well as a list of contact numbers and addresses. Make sure they know that they can reach you, or others who can help them, at any time.
- Keep a record: Carefully documenting any and all incidents of ongoing abuse, or even of circumstances where ex does not comply with the terms of custody set by the court can be very helpful and useful, should you need to seek modification of an existing custody or visitation order, or should you need to seek a protective or restraining order for any reason. Keep a journal. Take pictures. Make video recordings if you are able to do so safely. Many abusers will, of course, deny the abuse. Keeping a record makes it far more difficult for them to do so.
- Seek and accept help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends, or to seek help from a qualified professional when you need it. Counselors who are trained in helping victims of abusive situations can help to give you helpful emotional tools that can make a significant difference not only in the way you interact with your ex, but in your personal healing process as well.
Even in ideal circumstances, co-parenting isn’t easy. If you find yourself in a co-parenting situation with an abusive ex, though it may prove challenging, it is not impossible to navigate the situation safely and to continue to act in the best interests of your children while also caring for yourself. Don’t hesitate to be honest about your circumstances, to reach out when you need help, and most importantly, to always do all that you need to in order to ensure that you, and your children remain safe.