How Co-Parenting with an Abuser Keeps the Cycle Going.
Co-parenting with an abuser is the hardest thing I have to counsel my clients about. Honestly, very often, I have no satisfactory solutions. I manage the legal aspects and do my best to manage expectations, but it is truly a problem without a permanent solution. The reality is that having to co-parent with someone who operates on power & control and who has done psychological damage, including PTSD and gas lighting, is daily agony. Courts, though, based on my personal experience seem to generally underestimate this issue. Abusers are relentless: any perceived infraction, even the smallest (being five minutes late for pickup) will be used to generate huge conflict, every decision will be a battle, every exchange will be ominous, and it is very likely that the children will end up in the midst of the conflict.
Co-parenting with an abuser keeps the cycle of abuse going because it creates opportunities for exerting power and control, for the abuser to demean and condescend his former partner, it allows gas lighting, and it can create devastating drains on financial resources for survivors who are already trying to piece their lives back together. Examples of all the above are as follows.
For starters, abusers can demand that children be dropped off or picked up on their schedule and at locations they choose. They can also demand that children spend certain vacations with them, regardless of what court orders or agreements may say to that effect. Abusers may withhold child support as a punitive measure. They can also write insulting or aggressive text messages and emails, at all times of the day or night. While this can be aggravating for someone who has not had a past abusive relationship with the sender, for an abuse victim this is entirely triggering and will have concrete negative psychological consequences for them. This, in turn, will impact their ability to perform at work and engage in activities of daily living, including the care of their children.
Continuing in this vein, abusers can and do gaslight. For example, an abuser will drop off a child late and then claim his co-parent was the one late for pick up. An abuser can provide dirty clothes with each child exchange, and then deny that ever happened. An abuser can say certain conversations did or did not happen, when in fact the opposite is true. This type of behavior also leads to so-called "crazymaking." Crazymaking is when a partner asks someone to do something, and then when they do it, they claim they enver asked or they did not ask that it be done that way. It makes victims feel like they are going "crazy" because conversations are never what they seem and expectations are always shifting. When co-parenting with a former intimate partner who engaged in such behavior, and continues to do it, the ongoing stress is exhausting.
In addition to the above, abusers can engage in aggressive behavior which is terrifying for victims & survivors. The behavior may be only verbal, through electronic communications and phone calls, but it is enough to use up so much of a person's bandwidth that it becomes debilitating. Even without an abusive background, any person on the receiving end of insults and demeaning communications would eventually say "Stop." Unfortunately, co-parenting victims do not have that luxury, communication is mandatory.
Finally, and more devastating than anything else, co-parenting with an abuser will often lead to repeated trips through the court system which is terrifying on its own but will also mean catastrophic depletion of resources. Between motions to modify and motions for contempt, new families can spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to keep their children safe and their sanity intact. Therefore, even when courts recognize domestic abuse (and this is still a challenge in a number of jurisdictions), regardless of a "good outcome," the process itself is exhausting.
There are no easy solutions to the issues raised above, but there are some. Having an attorney who at the very least understands the stakes and fully comprehends that "compromise" will not decrease conflict but, in fact, embolden the abuser on the other side is critical. Having an attorney who understands how to draw the line with the other side and that drafting crystal clear rules for every aspect of parenting is a question of survival is also very important. There are more practical things to consider and implement, but other websites cover those very well. These practical tips range from "parallel parenting," to using apps for communication, and ensuring agreements or orders are written with the most detail and clarity possible. I also counsel my clients to really slow down response time, carefully weigh whether every communication warrants a response, and to refuse to engage in arguments. This is much easier said than done, but we work on it over time and, when my clients see that it creates results, it gets easier to implement.
To people co-parenting with their abusers, I see you, and I am so, so sorry our system is so broken in that respect. There is nothing that can be done to alleviate your agony and my heart breaks for you all.