Co-parenting after you’ve left an abusive relationship

Leaving an abusive partner doesn’t always end the cycle of violence, but these strategies can make it easier to cope.

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While statistics can’t do justice to the heartbreak of intimate partner violence (IPV)—whether it’s physical, sexual, emotional or financial—they do give us a sense of its alarming prevalence. Recent data from Statistics Canada show that 14 percent of respondents reported experiencing economic or emotional abuse from their spouses at some point in their lives and about four percent had experienced physical or sexual violence during the previous five years. Men are also victimized, of course, but women are twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence. Between 2007 and 2011, women were four times as likely to be murdered by a current or former partner.

A 2016 report by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer details the alarming health risks associated with domestic abuse. Both women and children exposed to IPV are at a higher lifetime risk of developing chronic diseases, cancer and mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and IPV survivors have shorter life expectancies.

While living with abuse has clear consequences for survivors, the path to freedom isn’t so obvious. According to the Ontario Ministry of the Status of Women, it takes an average of five attempts for a Canadian woman to finally break free of an abusive relationship, but even then a clean break is unlikely when children are involved. Pamela Cross, a lawyer who consults on violence against women in Kingston, Ont., notes that women often find themselves tethered to their abusers because of their kids. “What we see a lot of the time is that parents who were not that involved before separation suddenly appear in the family court process and want to be the parent of the century,” she says. Cross points out that many abusers successfully gain shared custody or access to the kids, possibly because they have more money for legal fees or come across better in court (they aren’t suffering the lingering effects of trauma after all).

Whatever the reason, co-parenting with an abuser makes it hard for survivors to separate themselves and psychologically heal from their experiences. Linda Coates, a professor and psychologist based in British Columbia, points out that ongoing communication about the children and face-to-face child exchanges give abusers opportunities to continue the abuse. Worse still, an abuser can also use his time alone with the kids to torture a former partner in new ways, such as abusing the children emotionally, physically or sexually or threatening to do so. Either way, a survivor may live in fear of her kids being hurt. “What happens is the children become, very literally, a weapon they can use against her for years to come,” says Coates.

For women who’ve struggled to break free, it’s hard not to despair when the abuse continues after the separation. Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, urges women to remember that “leaving is a process, not an on-and-off switch.” Although women can’t control what their abusers do, there’s plenty they can do to support their healing and protect themselves and their children as they rebuild their lives.

kids using thumbs upA mother's nightmare: My ex-husband kidnapped my kids1. Make a safety plan
Abuse can escalate after a woman leaves. “We know that women are at the highest risk of being murdered after they leave or after they tell their partners they’re leaving,” says Reimer. She recommends contacting a women’s shelter or family violence support service to create a safety plan to protect yourself and your kids—emotionally and physically—in the aftermath of a split. If you haven’t left yet, get help planning a safe exit.

Cross advises women to never compromise their own safety, even in the name of a court order. If it doesn’t feel safe to drop off your children to your ex, don’t do it. Instead, document why you chose not to, including any communication with your abuser, and share the information with your lawyer if you have one.

2. Create a safe child exchange
Across Canada, there are organizations that offer locations for safe child exchanges between parents. If you don’t have access to such a service, Coates recommends involving a third party (like a family friend or relative) to drop off or pick up your children on your behalf at a public location. “It can make transitions safer and more pleasant for children and mothers,” she says.

3. Go “grey rock”
Kirsten Marsh, a domestic abuse survivor and an advocate in Airdrie, Alta., strongly believes that going “no contact” with an abuser is best for healing as it gives survivors a chance to break the confusing trauma bond (the psychological mechanism that helps human beings endure abuse) with their abusers. When no contact isn’t possible, the second-best strategy is to go “grey rock”—that is, be as dull as possible by communicating only very necessary information about the children. She suggests using a parenting app (such as TalkingParents and Our Family Wizard) instead of emails, texts, phone calls and shared calendars.

4. Don’t take the bait
For Susanna*, a survivor with two children in Ontario, separating from her ex did nothing to stop the psychological abuse nor her impulse to defend herself. When she decided to disengage from the abuse—responding only to parenting-related queries, not abusive rants—she began to feel much better.

It can be tough to create boundaries with an abuser, so Coates suggests slowing down your response time. Give yourself a longer period of time to craft a response (say, 24 hours) and think carefully about what requires a response. If you don’t respond immediately or with emotion, the abuser will find the abuse less satisfying and may even stop sending abusive messages.

5. Focus on self-care
In the aftermath of her separation six years ago, Susanna struggles with the fact that her ex continues to be emotionally abusive to their children and feels as though she has little control over it. (While Children’s Aid has investigated her claims, they have ultimately absolved her ex-wife of any wrongdoing.) She focuses on taking care of herself so that she can support her kids better. “That’s been my touchstone all the way through this,” she says. “If I’m not healthy, the kids won’t be happy.”

Reimer advises women to seek out community supports, such as support groups for survivors and therapists with knowledge of abuse. Contact a local women’s shelter for help finding resources in your community.

6. Parent separately
After years of ongoing abuse, Susanna has realized that cooperation isn’t possible with her ex-partner. “We absolutely do not co-parent,” she says. “We parent in our own houses, and that’s it.”

By parallel parenting rather than co-parenting, survivors make everyday decisions about the kids and consult with their exes only when larger decisions, such as choosing schools, need to be made together.

7. Document everything
Even if it has been years since you’ve separated, don’t give up hope of getting better legal protections for yourself and your kids. “What family lawyers like to say is that there’s no such thing as a closed file,” says Cross. She advises survivors to keep track of what their exes do in case it can be used in court one day. At the same time, she advises women never to cross-examine their children to dig up information about their other parent.

*Names have been changed

Read more:
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3 books that helped me co-parent

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