A number of months ago I attended a conference where I had the privilege of hearing a talk by two of the leading experts in the field of domestic abuse.
When the formal session was over, talks based on fresh and informative research, I thought to myself, “At long last, I’m with the experts, and I can finally get help with a problem that’s been plaguing me for years.”
With that, I optimistically approached the experts, presented myself, and presented my dilemma.
“I’m a Family Law lawyer in Israel,” I said, “And often have a very difficult time conveying to judges and social workers when a woman is suffering from emotional abuseby her partner, what the signs are, and what the dangers are. Do you have any advice as to how to effectively convey this?”
They both looked at me, shrugged their shoulders and said, “We don’t know, we have the same problem here in the States.”
There went my golden opportunity.
Perhaps they should all reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; it’s my opinion that the character of Heathcliff is a magnificent portrayal of an emotionally abusive love interest.
I thought of the incident from the conference recently since once again find myself bumping up against this phenomenon, this time with social workers, not judges.
I’m representing a couple of women who clearly suffered from extreme emotional abuse during their marriages. In at least one of the cases, since the divorce, the husband – as is fairly common in cases where there has been a dynamic of emotional abuse – continues the emotional abuse post-divorce, generally using visitation and other issues related to the children to intimidate and attempt to control the ex-wife’s behavior.
What’s interesting – and problematic – is that despite this pattern, the social workers involved will not name the elephant in the room, specifically, the ongoing abuse by the father, but rather, prefer to frame the ongoing conflict in terms of two angry post-divorce parents who need to learn to speak to one another.
This is more than simply misguided wishful thinking; the classification of the conflict as rooted primarily in poor communication rather than ongoing abuse, creates confusion and undermines the woman’s sense of reality. She feels doubly bullied; once by the ex-husband, and again by the system, since she is getting the message that if she can’t enter into a constructive relationship with a person who abused her in the past, and in fact continues to abuse her, then something is wrong with her.
Moreover, the system that has the mandate to help her – and her children –will not be able to provide the help that might actually ameliorate the conflict. As such, the ongoing unwillingness or inability to identify the dynamic ultimately becomes dangerous to the children, since there is no way to provide them with the help they need until the root causes are adequately identified. Consequently, rather than help the children, a failure to “name, blame and claim” in fact jeopardizes the wellbeing of the children.
As long as the analysis of the family dynamic continues to focus on the failure of the parents to communicate, the authorities are blind to the fact that the dispute is not about the manifest problem (which school should the child attend, what kind of visitation schedule should be established, whether the child should be allowed to see a therapist), but rather, the dispute presents a golden opportunity to the abusive parent to continue his abuse and control. As such, the abusive ex-partner has a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict, because it is only through the conflict that he satisfies his need to control and terrorize.
Thus, the manifest problem may be a dispute about a child’s school. Unless the father’s objection – for example – to where the mother wants the child to study is not accurately identified as an objection intended to punish and/or control the mother, the emphasis on having the parents learn to communicate will in fact only exacerbate the conflict, while the poor child is subject to staying in a school unsuited to his or her needs, testing by experts, speaking to judges, and other moves that undermine his stability.
The truly puzzling question is, why is this pattern so difficult to recognize? Or rather, is it in fact recognized, and social workers and/or judges are loathe to call it by name?
Unlike pornography, emotional abuse is not one of those things that we all recognize when we see it.
I do believe that there are those who are actually cannot identify what they see before their eyes. At the same time, I also believe that there are those who do recognize the behavior for what it is, but fear the label, since the label makes their jobs far more difficult, if not impossible, and may in fact call for brave decisions which they lack the gumption to make.
For example, as painful as the decision may be, once the behavior is identified for what it is, the child’s contact with the abusive parent may need to be limited. Or, a judge may have to make bold decisions regarding treatment or education for the child, thereby provoking the wrath of an abusive parent who feels wronged, or the social worker who takes this path then knows that the anger will be directed against her, and she’ll be subject to endless phone calls, emails, or visits to the office, if not worse.
Also, I do believe that part of this is a failure of our imaginations; we live in a culture where we would like to believe that given enough goodwill and proper communication skills, every conflict can be resolved. To admit that there are interpersonal conflicts which require drawing very clear lines, and perhaps even erecting walls, goes against the grain of how most of us have been raised and educated in the Western world.
Clearly, like the experts at the conference, I don’t have any good answers to this, only my musings. Perhaps I need to steel myself as I travel to another city next week to go back to court in a case where I have represented a woman for over seven years. The ex-husband keeps filing crazy petitions revolving around his child upon whom he has inflicted serious psychological damage, and, rather than hit him with court costs to deter him from continuing this pattern of abuse, I know that the judge will once again smile nicely at him – even as she makes sure the court security is in the room – and castigate me and my client for not doing enough to accommodate this poor man.
A final note: I realize I have used gender very heavily in this post, generally referring to the abusive party as male. I do not believe that women cannot be emotionally abusive to their spouses and their children; unfortunately, I have seen this more than once. However, in most of the cases in my own practice where I have seen this dynamic at work, it has been the male partner who is emotionally abusive. This is in no way an empirical claim for the gender distribution of the behavior.