Tactic #8 — Separation Abuse

This is the eighth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – afeteparation Abuse.

It’s commonly assumed women should just leave their abusive partner, that she’s stupid for staying, and that if she left him, all her problems would be over. But this is far from the reality for many women. Often when women decide to leave, their partner promises to change.

Controlling men are guided by a belief system – that women are possessions, the man is the boss, that women should serve men’s needs, that what he says goes and his sense of entitlement means he is the one who is right. Based on this belief system, men respond to women’s challenges for him to change, by denying wrongdoing, minimising harm done, and deflecting responsibility by blaming the woman. Therefore, the act of apologising is often used as a manipulative strategy to stop women from leaving. Some men block her ability to leave by holding her captive, whilst others emotionally blackmail their partner by threatening suicide saying “you either take me back or I’ll kill myself” (1).

Some men threaten to kill their partner, the children and her family. Women are most at risk of murder when they decide to leave or actually do leave. The main reason given by men who murder their wives is, not that she provoked him, but because they felt they had lost power and control over her (2). Such men believe they own their wife and children.

This blog describes what many men do to women after they leave. Women are more at risk of post-separation abuse if they have children to the controlling man. So it also describes some ways men use children to maintain control over women.

Post-separation abuse is not something that only begins at separation – it is part of an ongoing campaign of power and control.

Many men escalate their tactics post-separation by engaging in stalking campaigns. Sometimes men’s stalking behaviours look like acts of love from an outsider’s viewpoint. For example some men leave notes on her car windshield, perform favours, leave flowers and other gifts and make phone calls. BUT . . . when all of these actions are adamantly not wanted by the woman, and when favours are done without her permission, women feel violated, trapped and scared.

Other tactics include endless legal hearings aimed at diminishing her financial and emotional resources, using visits with the children as opportunities to harass the woman further. Using social institutions to emotionally blackmail women. This tactic is achieved by threatening to go for custody of the children, or by negotiating for custody and property by creating a climate of fear. It’s also achieved by falsely accusing women of fraudulently receiving single parent government benefits, or of neglecting the children and reporting them to statutory agencies for investigation.

When women experience psychological abuse and continually feel controlled, but never experience physical violence, most find their experience extremely difficult to label. Elizabeth said, “When I was in the relationship I never would have labelled it as abuse, I just thought that was the way it was.” So she, like many women, was shocked and petrified when her ex-partner began stalking. Usually, women expect as Adriana did that “after divorce things settle, or we don’t have to deal with each other.” But she said, “It’s not like that at all for me.”

Post-separation abuse tactics designed to get her back

The abuse Karen experienced throughout her relationship with Felix diminished when she first left. However, she said, “that was a deliberate attempt to get me back. Once that wasn’t working, it got very nasty. He can be Prince Charming with all the bells on and a very caring, supportive person and then he lost it completely and started smashing up cars on the motorway with his bullbars and it got very dangerous. Then I came home one day and the house was smashed up. But me leaving initially, everything toned down, and about a year after it got really bad.”

Men who wish to win back control, try a range of tactics to achieve this

Adriana said Steven “goes against my needs and wishes. Everything’s about getting what he wants. Very overtly – ‘This is what I want, this is what I want, that way or no way’. And what he wants keeps changing mainly to go against what the norm is, what we agreed, or what the court told us we were going to do.” Steven’s abuse escalated over time with “Phone calls getting worse and worse. Affidavits got crazier and crazier. His abuse went from me and then it went to friends and family. The circle of who he abused got bigger and bigger.”

Harasses her

Susan said that after she and Anthony split up, “He really did harass. He used to ring and ring and ring. In the end I’d take the phone off the hook coz I was so sick of it. Then he’d come knocking on the door.”

Uses the legal system to maintain control

Donna said, “There’s been many court hearings. We’d got to court and the judge would rule, ‘right the property has to be sold’. And then Frank would do the, ‘Give me three months and I’ll pay you’. So my lawyer goes, ‘Well you want your money so give him three months.’ Then I’d get a letter two weeks later saying ‘go to hell, you’re getting nothing, go away’. But then I’d have to wait for another year for a court date to come up.”

Threatens to kill her

Adriana said her husband Steven “threatened to kill me. The moment that happened I called the police, I called the lawyers. I was concerned that he would try. It’s been ongoing court battles concerning access and custody. He believed that he was having access that weekend and I already told him prior to this conversation on the telephone that it wasn’t his weekend. He left a message on my answerphone saying that he was going to come and pick our daughter up. I called him back because I didn’t want him to make a fool of himself and travel and get stupid again. So I gave him a call and said, ‘No, it’s not your weekend’. Then he just threatened to get me killed. It was really bizarre. It was shit. It wasn’t good.”

Susan said her lawyer who did the protection order for her said, “‘it takes seven years to get out of a relationship’ and it was seven years of trying backwards and forwards. That really surprised me because you think get out of a relationship and it’s over, but it’s definitely not over when you’ve got children.”

Anne McMurray interviewed men and women about the experience of separating parents who did not gain custody of their children. One of the men described a common motivator that drives some men to abuse and control their female partner after she leaves: “You spend a year ‘score levelling,’ having conquests, not relationships. You inwardly cheer when an estranged wife is shot – like a victory – a chalk that one up.” (3)

Elizabeth said David’s responses to her leaving were, ‘anger, anger, anger lots of anger, lots of put downs, lots of undermining. He used to threaten me about having affairs, ‘If you try anything like that I’d give you the lead treatment.’ I wasn’t scared he’d shoot me but I was scared he could hurt me. He didn’t have a gun.”

Elsie said that, “Every duck shooting I get scared. Leon shoots where I live, so I always get scared that I’ll bump into him, so I usually hide for the duck shooting months. When I left him he said he’d get me. At the same time I don’t think he would. I think he’s too much of a coward.”

Misuses the custody order

Elizabeth said that one of the things in her custody order was that David provide clothes for the children when they were at his place. She said that David, “decided he wasn’t going to do that anymore and they had to bring clothes from my place and they didn’t want to do that coz it means packing their bags and toing and froing. So one of the girls decided that she didn’t want to go to dad’s any more so she stayed at my place. The other one decided she still wanted to go to dad’s, but she didn’t want to take clothes. She went there one weekend, didn’t take clothes, he dumped her back. So neither of them went for a while. My oldest son is now living with me coz he got kicked out of his dad’s coz he started to speak up for himself just the way I did and of course they didn’t agree with each other so he got kicked out. It was meant to be punishment ‘go and live at your mother’s’. Now my son’s decided he is not going back there so there is a whole lot of drama going on there now. Now it’s, ‘you’ve got custody, I pay you to look after these children.’ It’s like, ‘We haven’t got a court order, if it doesn’t suit me I don’t have to have them.’ So the orders suit him when they suit him and they don’t when they don’t.”

Inflexible over child sharing arrangements

Elizabeth talked further about ways David used the custody order to maintain control over her. She said that his attitude had been to always totally stick to the order, no flexibility. At one stage I had to go into hospital for a few days during the school holidays, and of course we split the holidays it was in the order. I suggested we just swap the weeks over so that while I was in the hospital the children were with him and that I would have them the following week. ‘No, no, no, no you need to make your own arrangements we’re sticking to the order.’ The order was God. Then one day he decides ‘oh no I don’t really want that any more’. The good thing about the inflexibility was at least he was incredibly reliable, I could count on him to stick to it.”

Uses the children to maintain power and control over her

After Susan and Anthony split up, Anthony “threatened to take the children away. He threatened to get custody of them. I guess he figured with that he’d have control over me with the children. He’s done that a few times. He rung up one day and said ‘I’ve put something in the letterbox for the kids’. I sent the oldest out to the letterbox. She brings in this something. I opened it up and it was a vibrator. I quickly wrapped it up again and put it in the rubbish. The thing that got me was that he used the kids to pass it on to me.”

Eight years after leaving her husband, Elizabeth said “there is still stuff going on with the kids. He was going to have the kids for the first week of the holidays. And Thursday night, ‘Oh no it’s not convenient.’ I’d arranged to have a holiday, then suddenly, ‘hello here are the kids to look after’. So it’s like he still does this stuff.”

Alienates the children from the mother

Elizabeth said, When I finally got into a place of my own David wasn’t going to let me have the kids at all because I was the one that walked out. He would tell the kids, ‘Your mother doesn’t love you, why would she have left if she loved you, if she loved you she would still be here.’ Then the few things that I did take to put into my new place it was like, ‘Your mother stole those things from you.’ They’d come round and they would say, ‘What are you doing with that? You stole that from dad.’ He wouldn’t let me take any of their toys, their clothes, none of their bedding, nothing. I wasn’t allowed any of it. So they’d come around from this well setup house to my house I was renting, but they weren’t allowed any of their stuff. I had no money to buy them anything so they were there with paper and crayons.”

Some men attempt to alienate the children from the mother by making accusations to statutory agencies that she has harmed the children, so whilst investigations proceed she is only allowed to see the children under supervised access. Many men tell their new wives that their ex-wife was abusive, is an unfit mother and some men recruit their extended family and friends into siding with him. I’ve counselled many women who have had such experiences and when they talk to the man’s previous wife or wives, they discover all the women have experienced the same forms of abuse and control.

Uses the children as spies to gather information to use against her

Elizabeth had a new boyfriend, but did not live with him and she also had lazer surgery to her eyes. She was able to afford this because when she was still with David she had medical insurance, which she maintained after leaving him. But she said David said to the, “Is your mother a prostitute, how could she afford to get that done, is she sleeping with the guy?” Then David approached WINZ (the Work & Income government department who was paying her a single parent benefit). Elizabeth said, “WINZ then investigated me for trying to just jolly well get a few extra dollars here and there occasionally to try and keep the kids fed and clothed.”

Elizabeth lamented that David was “there on his $200,000 a year salary begrudgingly paying child support, but I wasn’t seeing anything of it because you don’t when you’re on the benefit. And hauling me over the coals, because of meeting some guy who is prepared to come and give me a bit of help with this and that and the other and possibly get into a relationship with. And sending my own kids into the house to spy, to find out how many nights a week he stays, so it can be reported back to WINZ.”

Elizabeth found David’s treatment of her, and mis-use of the children “Intolerable. I have just despaired about it. I’ve never wanted to say to the kids, ‘don’t tell daddy this or don’t tell daddy that’, because I believe the kids should be able to speak freely and that whatever information either of us get about the other, we just put into a place and disregard it. He wouldn’t let the kids talk about me when they were at his place. Don’t talk about her at all I don’t want to hear about her. So the kids would have to start censoring what they were allowed to talk about, or if things would happen over there, ‘Don’t tell your mother.’ So I never wanted to get into that with my kids, because I didn’t think it was right. But then I am like, ‘well what do I do here?’ because yes I am seeing this guy, but I don’t want to say to them don’t tell daddy. So it’s like your values are constantly being undermined and compromised. Here’s someone coming into the inner sanctum of your bedroom as to who you spend time with and how often you might be sleeping with somebody, having that reported across town and through government agencies. Something that is absolutely and totally private and none of their bloody business.”

Economic abuse

Teresa said Patrick abused her economically. He did this “by what he did with the house and by living in it for six or eight months without me and me still paying half his mortgage.”

After Donna moved away from Frank she said she had “the threat the whole time of, ‘If you make this happen I will make you bankrupt.’ But see I’ve told the truth and the whole truth and I truly believed the justice system would see me right but it hasn’t. He’s lied. Not once in his whole time has he ever had to prove anything he’s said. It’s just been accepted which blows my brains. And he’s said some horrific things about me.”

For Donna, the negative consequences of leaving Frank went on for years. For example, after Donna left the relationship, Frank went into debt. She said that, “Because he has now borrowed so much money and gone into so much debt, if I force the sale of the farm, by the time the debt’s paid there will be no money for me. Because the place is now a dump – and it was beautiful – now he’s telling the judge that it’s an absolute dump and the only thing left is for it to be bulldozed. I’ve had no access to any money where he has used my tax number in the business and now I owe the tax department $7,000. I owe the legal aid $7,500 and the Social Welfare $14,000, so yeah I come out of it not getting my money. The agreement was that he’ll pay me $10,000 and the legal fees, the legal aid will be tagged onto the property, but I still have to pay the tax department. So every direction you look I’ve lost. Lost, lost, lost, lost, lost.”

Elizabeth said, “there was an insurance policy that David had continued to pay that he decided was a mistake and he wanted me to pay back all this life insurance money. It took eighteen months to go through the whole legal process and ended up in the disputes tribunal and he didn’t get what he wanted. So, the very next day he is into the Inland Revenue Department with an administrative review for paying child support. It’s been this constant ‘what’s coming next, what’s he going to do this time?’”

During the first few months after leaving her husband, Elizabeth said David “was wanting to settle the matrimonial property, so I said, ‘what would it take to get you to stop this terrible violence that was going on’ – verbal, not physical. He said, ‘Just agree to my proposal, sign the matrimonial property agreement and everything will be fine.’ Of course I just really wanted to believe that, so I said, ‘Okay’. And my lawyer said, ‘Well I still think we should…’ I said, ‘Look he said this thing will end if I sign this I don’t care about the money, I am going to sign it.’ He stayed in the house, my boys were pretty much living there, and I was out of the house. I had this access thing where I could go and see the boys after school. He broke his promise. The day the matrimonial property agreement was signed he drives around in a new car and hands me a trespass notice, which effectively cut off my access to my boys. I know I was totally naïve, but I was devastated coz I thought ‘hang on a minute that’s not how it was meant to be.’

Stalking aimed at driving her crazy

Teresa elaborated on stalking tactics that Patrick used: “After I moved out he would watch me from his car. He’d park round the corner and spy on me. He would ring me up, leave 12 messages on my phone in a day. When he moved my stuff he got a key cut for my new house and I’d come home and there’d be stuff inside. He would have come in and done the dishes, or put flowers on the table, or folded the washing. I had a 30th birthday party and he wasn’t invited and he wanted to come and he asked if he could come and I said ‘No’, which was very selfish. He parked around the corner to watch to see who was coming and stayed there to see what time people left. He was a constant presence. When we were together we’d been on a weekend away one time and there was a sex shop there and we’d bought a vibrator. He came around to my house and took it because he didn’t want me to have any kind of pleasure if he wasn’t there to give it to me. He’d do was listen to my messages coz I’d kept the same pin number on the call minder and I’d ring up and I would have gone to work with zero messages and I’d come home and there’d be four saved messages.

In response to Patrick’s stalking campaign, Teresa said, “I changed the pin number and I changed the lock and he was really pissed off. It was just awful, it was absolutely awful. I felt really powerless against it, I didn’t know what I could do about it and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings or be mean. I’d come home and pull all my curtains in the middle of the day so he couldn’t see me. In the kitchen there was a dishwasher space under the bench without a dishwasher in it and I had this huge urge for about two months that all I wanted to do was just crawl into that and just be in there because he wouldn’t be able to get me. I slept as well, my sleeping grew even more once I’d moved out coz he couldn’t get me when I was asleep, and I was doing something he didn’t know about.”

Stalking campaigns aimed at undermining her sense of security

Heather said Luke was obsessed and infatuated with her. “He’d say, ‘I know where you’ve been today’. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. I thought, ‘he knows I work these hours, he could easily wait up the road and watch where I go after work’. I found it quite strange and then some little things he’d say I started to think ‘maybe he does’. I started looking around the house thinking he might have little cameras there watching me. He’d say to me, ‘I could just about tell you when you had your last dump.’ I thought, ‘my God what a thing to say, maybe he’s got this place screened somehow and I didn’t know’. I thought ‘maybe he’s tapped the phone’. I started to get all these funny thoughts going through my head.”

Heather thought, “‘I am having a baby with him, I’ve got to really think about that, we’ve got to remain friends’. Then he’d turn up at my door, ‘You can’t leave me standing out here, look your neighbours are looking.’ He’d put his foot in the door and say, ‘Let me in, I’ll just stand in here, let me just talk to you for a minute.’ I had 13 missed calls in an hour on my mobile. He was the only one that had my phone number. I’d just got it as a present from mum and dad for Christmas. I don’t know whether they knew something and wanted me to have it for an emergency. I actually got quite scared. He’d say, ‘I’ve been thinking about you all day. I’ve been moping around here all day hoping that you’d ring me.’ I thought ‘this isn’t healthy’.

Some women leave their partner, whilst others stay in their home and arrange for the man to leave. In the latter case, many men believe they still have the right to access that house whenever they want. Pauline said Chris “would come into my house, and one day I came out of the shower with a towel around me, and came up the hallway and he was in my lounge and I just went ballistic. I said, ‘Don’t come into my house like that.’ It felt weird after being married and with him for so long to suddenly feel creepy that he had seen me in a towel that he could have seen me partially naked it felt so creepy.”

Invades her privacy

Susan said that after she left Anthony, “he took away my space by following me everywhere. I’m pretty sure that he tapped my phones, I know that he was under my house, I know that he was listening and watching outside the windows. There were lots of things he did when I was with him, but I didn’t think they were a problem until I left and it got worse. He drilled holes in my bathroom floor so he could spy and holes in my bedroom floor, big four inch square holes. He made those right where you get undressed. The last time that we split up my biggest fear was that he would rape me . . . I think if you cut holes in people’s floor and underneath the bathroom there was a glass and a stethoscope.”

Susan did a lot of the crying over Anthony’s stalking behaviours. “When we had split up the last time and he was doing these things, I had my friends’ support. I locked myself in the house. I got a confidential number. I wouldn’t go anywhere alone. When I went up town I would find that he was usually across the road, or behind me, or in the shop. And the thing that’s really scary was, how did he know where I was going and what I was doing?”

Although some stalkers stalk women who are strangers, extensive research in USA highlights that most stalkers are women’s ex-partners. It is ex-intimate partners who are more persistent pursuers than are stalkers who are strangers (4).

Using the tactic of divide and conquer

Teresa said, “Patrick said a lot of things about me to other people and he was careful about who he said it to. He didn’t say anything to my closest friends because they wouldn’t have listened. But to the people at work he did and he told a lot of lies to people. I couldn’t ever negate any of it, because I didn’t know it had happened until later.” Teresa had to work with Patrick for the next eight to 12 months. His abuse entailed ongoing “nastiness, always when other people weren’t around, and the charm when they were. So I’d think I was imagining it. It’s amazing what you think you imagine. When I look back now I think ‘how could I have thought that?’ but I did.”

Separation abuse is extended to abuse against her supporters

Adriana said Steven “repeatedly called me a fascist and a bitch. Repeatedly. He intimidated a good friend in person. He came and destroyed bits around the house. He wrote affidavits, which were extremely damaging, not just to me but to the family, to his mother, brother. It started out I was a bad person, I was the one who was the bitch, but it went to all the people who supported my daughter and me as well. It was very hard because I cope much better with myself being the focus of the attacks and the intimidation, but when it generalised across to people I love and care for, that made it harder because I love them and I know how difficult it is for them to cope with that. They tried as much as they could to support me and help me and assist me, but now they have to keep themselves safe as well as try to help me.”

What does it mean for women who leave a partner after months or years of being controlled by him? Some women become free of the abuse, but many women do not. Separation from such men does not always lead to a better life. If women share children with the abusive man, they may never fully be able to escape the grips of his possessive control, even when children become adults, the abuse can continue around shared family gatherings.

These men are often very dependent on the woman they control. They believe that making her fearful will make her dependent. Men stalk, degrade, manipulate, harass, attempt to have their ex-partner criminalised, attempt to deplete her of her emotional and financial resources and attempt to block her ability to flourish, or enter a new relationship – because they want to limit her autonomy and independence. Attempting to make his ex-partner dependent on him is a strategic ploy aimed at getting her back. Other men want to punish her for humiliating him. When women leave, many men conclude that they have lost control over their possession and this humiliates them – as men – men who are socialised to be in control of “their” woman.

For any woman who has lived with a man who has been consistently controlling over time, the act of deciding to leave, or actually leaving should not be taken lightly by onlookers or the woman herself. Of course not all of these men go on to maintain a stranglehold over their ex-partners – but many do – so it’s important for women to follow their gut instincts and tell the truth to themselves about such a possibility and make arrangements that take the reality of separation abuse into account.

For safety planning ideas on how to stay safe when leaving a controlling partner checkout this blog post here.

 References:

  1. Hearn, Jeff. (1998). The Violences of Men: How Men Talk About and How Agencies Respond to Men’s Violence to Women. London: Sage
  2. Mahoney, Martha R. (1991). Legal images of battered women: Redefining the issue of separation. Michigan Law Review, 90(1), 1-94.
  3. McMurray, Anne M. (1997). Violence against ex-wives: Anger and advocacy. Health Care for Women International, 18(6), 543-556.
  4. Craven, Zoe. (2001). Book Review: Stalkers and their Victims: Newsletter No. 6 – Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Isolation
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, minimising, blaming
Using the children
Economic abuse
Sexual abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic slavery
Physical violence
Cyber Abuse

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.