Professionals leave but the abuse and control continue

[Photo credit: Liz Bannish]

Written by Lisa Aronson Fontes, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This was first published by Psychology Today. Permission to publish on the SVRI Blog was given by the authors.

Abuse and control persist long after professionals think “the case” is closed.

The victim has stopped contacting the police or meeting with her domestic violence advocate. She’s given up on her lawyer. The protective order has expired. Professionals assume the domestic violence is “over.” But all too often, abusers interfere with the lives of their former partners for months, years, or even decades after services and systems have moved on. People often treat domestic violence survivors who talk about what they are experiencing as if they are crazy, exaggerating, or making up stories. It is difficult for people to believe that the formal end of a relationship (such as moving out or a divorce) does not always mean the end of the abusive or controlling behavior. All too often, the abuse just takes on new forms. The persistent abuse can show up as:

Harassing: Every few months, Sally’s ex-husband would throw things at her house in the middle of the night. He would continue doing this until she turned on the light. Once he knew he had woken her up, he would leave. This behavior continued years after their divorce, and even after he had remarried. The police told her that there was no way to prove that her ex-husband was responsible. They also said that because the house was not damaged, there was “nothing to prosecute.”

Disguising Intimidation as Kindness: Tracie’s ex-boyfriend broke into her house every few months and cleaned it. When she called 911, the dispatcher replied that she wished that she had “a burglar like that.” The dispatcher did not understand the feeling of someone entering Tracie’s house without her permission and touching all her things; especially a person who had once caused her great harm. Other abusers send birthday and holiday cards, leave flowers on the doorstep, leave “love notes” on the target’s car, and engage in other acts that are not overtly violent but are still designed to intimidate. While these behaviors technically qualify as stalking, prosecutors rarely pursue them. Unfortunately, sometimes judges, police and family members see these behaviors as “sweet” or romantic, underestimating the fear they induce. These behaviors are intended to invoke fear and communicate to a former partner, "You will never be free of me."

Sexually Coercing: Cassandra abused alcohol while she was married to a coercively controlling man, Tom. Although she sobered up when they separated, Tom destroyed her reputation in court and gained full custody of their young daughter. For a decade, Tom forced Cassandra to perform humiliating sex acts if she wanted visits with her daughter. When she tried to change custody or fight for more visitation, he would drag up her history and wreck her in court again. Then he’d deprive her of visits for weeks. If Cassandra wanted any contact with their daughter, she was obligated to comply with his sexual demands.

Stalking: Margarita reported occasionally being followed while driving by her ex-boyfriend after they separated. When she contacted the police or discussed the situation with friends, she was met with questions such as, "How do you know he wasn't just going the same direction as you?" Once, when she believed she was being followed, she made four right-hand turns around one block. And then did it again and again. Each time the vehicle behind her turned with her. The police dismissed her concerns, saying that this behavior was not illegal, that her ex would tire of it, and that her best option was to “wait it out.” This continued for years.

Stalking through Child Visitation: Commonly, judges will ask women who are getting protection orders how they are going to make sure the father still has access to the children; They rarely assure that the children's exchanges are safe for the mother. Similarly, they rarely ask the mother if the children are safe visiting the father or want to see the father. They typically do not ask the fathers if they are interested in visitation with their children. All the responsibility for arranging the paternal visitation falls on the victim, who may have to chase down the father to appease the judge. Abusers often use visitation for stalking, following victims home after visits or even placing trackers on the victim’s vehicle or in the children’s belongings.

Manipulating Children: Even after the relationship is over, abusers recruit children into spying on or tormenting their mother or turn the children against her. When a victim has finally managed to separate from an abuser, she might find herself subject to abuse by proxy, through her children.

Monitoring and surveillance: Laura’s ex-husband worked in technology. When they lived together, he had secretly installed cameras throughout their home, used a keystroke logger to monitor her online activity, and tracked her whereabouts through her cell phone. She bought a new cell phone and had her computer cleaned of the malicious software. A detective screened her home for the secret cameras. She installed a security system in her house, and was careful to use a new key code. When she was driving with her son in the car one day, the father asked the boy for the key code to the security system, so he could pick up something the son had left at Laura's house. Not wanting to "make a fuss" in front of the children, Laura gave him the key code. She gave up on the possibility of privacy.

Stalking by Proxy: Although Harry broke up with his boyfriend, Michael, he still made clear that he didn't want Michael dating anyone else. Harry began dating the only other gay man at Michael's office and queried him regularly about Michael's habits. He spread rumors in the office about Michael through his new boyfriend.

"Paper Abuse:" Some abusers harass their former partners for years through the courts. They file numerous petitions for changes in custody or visitation. They call authorities to report their former partner for child abuse, knowing that she is innocent, just to disrupt her life. They refuse to grant a divorce and drag out the proceedings as long as possible. They may even file for a "reversal" of their divorce.

Even after they have separated, some victims know they will never be entirely free from their abuser. The abuser just won't let go. These victims walk a very lonely path. Sometimes they are no longer eligible for services or even for a protective order. And professionals may not be interested in helping them when the abuse has transmuted from acute to chronic. These long-term victims become silent about their experiences. 

Stephanie Russo, LMSW, describes her personal experience of post-relationship abuse in her video, The Art of War. She describes falling in love and becoming a soldiers’ wife, then facing years of difficult choices in her efforts to survive. 

While some prosecutors and police departments take these intimidating post-relationship tactics seriously, others do not. State laws vary in the protections they offer. While not perfect, in England and Wales, coercive and controlling behavior of a current or former intimate partner is illegal. Without these protections, having at one time been in a controlling and abusive relationship can be a life sentence for victims—even when they have done "all the right things" to break free.

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References

Miller, S.L., Smolter, N.L.(2011).  "Paper abuse": when all else fails, batterers use procedural stalking. Violence Against Women, 17, 637-50.

Russo, S. The Art of War: Surviving a Survival-Based Batterer. Available from The Family Peace Initiative.

__________________________________________________________

Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer and researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, as well as numerous other popular and scholarly books and articles on violence against women and children. (Here's a link to the book, in case you can include it: https://www.guilford.com/search-products/fontes )

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