When it comes to ending a marriage, uncertainty, fear, and stress are normal parts of the divorce landscape. No matter the terms you and your spouse are ending on, it’s not uncommon to experience a wide range of conflicting emotions that can be unsettling and even debilitating.
However, in some instances, your spouse or co-parent can purposely feed those negatives emotions with threats in an effort to manipulate you and coerce you to make poor, fear-based decisions. The problem with this behavior – known as spouse harassment during divorce – is that decisions made out of fear are often irrational and almost always for the benefit of the abuser.
With divorce proceedings contentious by nature, individuals may wonder what is considered harassment during a divorce, or what crosses the line from normal conflict and anger into actual abusive, concerning behavior. Divorce harassment makes an already unpleasant, emotionally draining experience and turns it into a potentially health-threatening situation that fosters long-term fear after divorce.
How Domestic Violence Factors into Divorce
In numerous situations, domestic violence and divorce go hand in hand. When it comes to the domestic violence divorce rates in the United States – or the number of divorces linked to domestic violence – approximately one in three women have been physically abused by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and about one-fourth of divorcing couples label domestic violence or abuse as at least one of the contributing factors. Additionally, many cases go unreported.
Within the toxic environment of domestic abuse, the abuser tends to use threats to keep the victim bound in fear, and even to extort and destabilize them. This can lead the victim to believe their best option – or only option – is remaining in the relationship and enduring the abuse. In other cases, domestic violence escalates or becomes an issue when one spouse brings up or files for divorce. Their partner, wanting to hold onto the marriage for whatever reason, may resort to violence, including psychological, physical or emotional abuse, or other forms of harassment and intimidation to exercise coercive control over the person who wants out.
Most Common Threats Facing Co-Parents During and After Divorce
In the process of building a relationship with someone, you begin to share several important elements within your lives. As the relationship is severed, it is natural to have a sense of instability, insecurity, and uncertainty about the future of these areas. However, abusive partners take it a step further, making threats to coerce their ex-spouse and/or co-parent into accepting their radical demands out of fear.
Here are common areas where you may experience risk if the other co-parent uses them as a basis for threats during divorce:
Loss of income
An often-overlooked form of harassment is financial abuse in divorce. Finances tend to be a big issue in almost all divorce proceedings, but in some cases, it can turn into a weapon. If one spouse is more financially dependent on the other, it creates a toxic power dynamic where the higher- or sole-wage earner can threaten their spouse with financial insecurity as a form of retaliation. Additionally, a spouse may warn their co-parent not to report their abusive behavior, threatening that if they are imprisoned, they won’t pay child support or offer other financial support.
Losing custody of a child
Threats and harassment from a co-parent before or after divorce often revolve around children. In fact, children are one of the main reasons cited by many individuals for enduring a toxic or even abusive relationship when they wanted desperately to get out. Parents worry about how divorce will affect their children, even if the separation is mutually agreed upon. In terms of abuse and divorce, a spouse can use custody and visitation rights as a bargaining chip, threatening to deprive the co-parent of these privileges if they “step out of line” or report abuse.
Loss of residency in the U.S.
Another less common threat that can be made in a divorce to illicit fear and provoke fear-based decision making is reporting an undocumented status to the authorities. Victims of domestic abuse who are undocumented citizens feel trapped between a rock and a hard place, worried they can’t report the abuse without bringing focus to their status and risking deportation. If the abuser is aware of this situation, they can use it as a tool for coercive control.
On the other side of the spectrum, individuals who have ties to another country in some way – dual citizenship, property ownership or extended family living overseas – can use that as a basis for threatening their co-parent with taking their child out of the U.S. Not all countries have a robust extradition process that ensures the safe return of the child, which causes the parent left behind in U.S. to feel helpless. As a result, they are more likely to acquiesce to their partner’s demands.
The Cycle of Fear-Based Decision-Making
Fear is a powerful motivator. When you are trying to protect the health and wellbeing of yourself and your children, its impact is amplified. The concern about facing threats or retaliation from an abusive co-parent is valid. However, there is no winning by staying with an abuser. They can continually use the same threats against you once they confirm that extorting you brings about their intended outcome.
If you are experiencing psychological, physical and emotional abuse, there are resources available to support you in removing yourself from the situation and finding a safe, secure, and healthy environment. An additional impetus for someone to take action if their ex-spouse is perpetrating physical or psychological abuse in a divorce is the trauma it can inflict on children and dependents. Children who witness domestic violence, divorce abuse, and other types of aggressive behavior first-hand are three times more likely than their peers to mimic this learned behavior and perpetuate the cycle of violence in adulthood.
An Experienced SLC UT Divorce Lawyer Can Help
In addition to reaching out to friends, family members, hotlines, and other advocacy resources for survivors of domestic violence and harassment, you also should seek legal services to aid you in obtaining protection from an abusive ex-spouse or co-parent during and after the divorce. Attorneys with extensive family law and divorce experience have worked through a myriad of cases involving threats, harassment and abuse and are acutely aware of how to help you avoid fear-based decision making and survive your situation.