A woman who leaves abuse and then still has to share custody of her children with that abuser has a hard road.
She is expected by society to play nice, be amicable, put her “ego” aside, and unite with her dangerous ex “for the sake of the kids.”
She is warned by her judge to follow the rules of the parenting plan, at all costs, or risk looking like SHE’S the “bad guy,” and even risk the possibility of losing her kids. Let’s note: The warning is to both parents, but only she actually hears the judge and sets course to do right. The abuser will play by his own rules.
So, she is re-victimized by her ex, who doesn’t really care about the kids. He’s good at pretending, sure, to solidify his carefully curated reputation. He wants everyone to believe he’s a good man and father who could never have abused his partner. And those kids are handy, too, as pawns, so that he can keep some sense of power and control over the woman who dared leave him. You best believe he’s going to manipulate the dynamic to his benefit. More lies. More coercion. Stonewalling. Fabrication. New kinds of gaslighting. Continued abuse. All of which affects the innocent kids, too. Don’t assume they’re unscathed.
Eventually she sees that family court gets it all wrong. In the court’s effort to remain neutral and objective, they gift more power to the abuser. She and the kids, they aren’t protected.
Eventually, because she always followed the rules but doing so never helped her, she may decide she’s done “playing nice.” Maybe the best and healthiest thing for her — and the kids — isn’t looking the other way, or pretending her abuser doesn’t still abuse her family. She certainly isn’t going to pretend he’s her friend.
Maybe the best thing is putting her mental health first. That might look like firm boundaries, limited contact with her ex, and a refusal to act like he’s a good person who cares about his children.
Maybe, at some point, she starts sharing the truth. Maybe she wants to show the world that she isn’t free, that her journey is still shackled; and she starts to understand that by being honest about it, she reclaims her power.
So, she shares more of her story.
For this, she’ll be judged. There are folks who won’t know the nuances of abuse, or see the reality behind the smoke and mirrors. They will side with her abuser.
They will ask, “How can she talk about the father of her children that way? How can she be so bitter and disrespectful? Doesn’t she know she’s hurting her kids?”
To the contrary…
What matters isn’t how she talks about him, or that she talks about him, period. What matters is how he ever could have abused his partner and the mother of his children to begin with.
What matters is that, if he abused the mother of his children, what kind of father could he *really* be?
What matters is that if she meets society’s expectation by being amicable and pretending he’s harmless, she is complicit in the trauma her kids experience because of him.
What matters is the fear and bravery this woman is forced to live with.
How dare you judge her.
How dare you forsake those kids.
How dare you side with their abuser.
This topic is difficult to talk about, not just because of the subject matter and trauma triggers, but because the context and fullness are so complicated to master in a single post.
YES. Protect your kids. Shield them from hurtful truths as long as possible, especially when they’re younger.
YES. Follow your court-filed parenting plan. Not doing so is incredibly risky. And you’re in the long game here. If the ex wins a battle by exploiting the parenting plan, it doesn’t matter. Let him have it. Your purpose, with and for the kids, is to win the war.
YES. Define your boundaries. Decide that you will ONLY talk with your abuser about the children. [He does not deserve to know your personal life after him. Your life details are not safe with him. You deserve to build your own world without him being in it.] Decide that you want every exchange documented, which means you will ONLY communicate by email. This means you can avoid invasive, explosive, insidious texts and manipulative face-to-face interactions. YOU control how you’ll talk, about what, and when. Take this power.]
YES. Listen to your kids when they start to see and feel the effects of their dad’s personality disorder(s). Validate them. Help them understand that his abuse isn’t their fault. Instill in them proper coping skills, so they can navigate that world with as little long-term, damaging impact as possible.
YES. Share your story if you’re comfortable doing so. But read the room. Be diplomatic. Protect the details as necessary, so that you protect yourself. Weigh the desire to be transparent against the possibility of kickback for sharing.
YES. Hold your head high. Put your peace first. What others think — especially those who choose to misunderstand you and your circumstances — doesn’t matter. Your self-preservation and healing do.
If you have questions or need to talk privately about this topic, message me using firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few weeks ago I was invited to the SAGE Community podcast show.
Founder Erin and I talked about what abuse looks like, how survivors need to tackle their healing with patience, some special tools that help, and more. It was really, really good.
I’m proud of the warm and real conversation that is our end result.
You can access episode #23 | Janna, Woman Determined on the SAGE website here:
Choose from Spotify, Stitcher, and Apple.
Let’s talk about self-image.
How comfortable are you taking pictures of yourself?
What do you think when you look at you?
Does your abuser’s voice still narrate your perception of self?
This is me in 2014. I had been divorced a few years already, but was still learning how to look at myself in healthy ways, and what to think about who I saw.
(Apparently on this day, I was feeling confidence for the camera. I wish I could go back and find out why. What prompted that particular self-love mood?)
I have mixed feelings about selfies. Women (and probably men, too, as well as our nonbinary peeps) can be harshly judged for selfies.
“She’s showing off.”
“She’s so full of herself, and just looking for superficial validation.”
Too, I’m aware of that internal conflict that abuse survivors harbor, having been belittled, humiliated, shamed for so long, and having been conditioned to believe we’re the self-absorbed, arrogant, hollow ones.
“Who cares about seeing a picture of me?”
“Am I too much?”
“Look at [insert abuser’s insult about physical appearance].”
That conditioning, that self-doubt, takes years to eradicate.
So a selfie can feel like a weapon, like a hamper on healing, but it can also be an exercise toward self-love. That’s why I have the mixed feelings. Because why *shouldn’t* we be comfortable taking pictures of ourselves? Why can’t we look at ourselves from all angles, see our vulnerabilities, see our beauty, and find something to love and celebrate?
Why should be we judged by people who think we’re being superficial attention-seekers, when all we’re doing is testing our sense of self-worth? And speaking of, who says positive validation from others isn’t part of what helps us navigate our sense of self-worth — especially after all the negative damage from abuse?
I say we embrace the selfies, because we are beautiful and worthy.
Because you’re the real one.
You’re the one who cares about others.
You’re the one with emotional intelligence.
You’re the one with legitimate goals and ambitions.
You’re the one willing to reflect and self-assess.
You’re the one who strives to be better.
You’re the one who would never abuse someone else.
Your worth is rooted and authentic. Your abuser knew this on some level, that’s why they picked you for a victim. They pretend, and they’re excellent at pretending, but they don’t have worth like you do. It’s why they have to put you down, make you feel small, and do everything they can to control you. Because that’s the only thing they have to help them feel worthy (in their own flawed system of assessment).
Even then, it’s only a feeling of worth and it’s hollow, short-lived, and so, so pathetic.
It gets easier.
It gets easier to recognize what it was about your abuser’s behavior that made you feel small,
then understand that it was never your fault,
then repair the hurt that came from the degradation and condescension.
From there it gets easier to see, in the moment, when others try to make you feel small,
then understand it has nothing to do with you, but their own feelings of inadequacy and intimidation and smallness, and that belittling others is the only way they’ve learned to make themselves feel better,
then hold fast to the worth and self-love you’ve found
so that no one gets your permission to make you feel small ever again.
Letter writing and journaling are important exercises that assist our understanding of what we’ve been through.
But sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.
I’ve designed a free printable with this in mind. It’s yours for the taking! Please download, print, and use as prompted at your discretion.
Disclaimer: This letter is for you only. DO NOT SEND IT. Burn it. Shred it. Hide it in your closet. But do not give it to your abuser, as that will not bring you peace. Your abuser will never hear or validate you, so asking them to read this will only serve to bolster any sense of power and control they still believe they have over you. Write it, then discard it.
“At least he doesn’t hit me.”
Raise your hand if ever that was part of your inner monologue.
Physical abuse is the easiest to see and prove.
That’s why some abusers avoid it, and choose — yes, CHOOSE — the “quiet” and “subtle” abuses. They’re usually interwoven and overlapping. Every version is about power and control.
Abuse can be verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual, spiritual, or financial.
Yelling, berating, and name calling is abuse.
Degradation and condescension and character assassination are abuse.
Gaslighting — the art of making a victim question her sanity — is abuse.
Yes, a spouse can rape their partner. That’s abuse.
Using religion and Scripture as a weapon is abuse.
Giving an “allowance” and hiding money are abuse, as is making the victim feel like she isn’t “contributing” in life or to the family unless she, too, is earning money.
Any of this familiar?
We should also review that physical abuse manifests in more ways than a punch to the face.
It can be:
*physical intimidation or restraint
*starvation or a forced diet/exercise
He may never lay a hand on you, and yet you may be victim of severe abuse with long-lasting effects and damage.
If you need help understanding the abuse at work in your life, message me using email@example.com. We’ll talk about it carefully and confidentially.
Last year I drove by myself to Des Moines from the Kansas City area. It was a Saturday in May, nice weather. An impulsive decision. I decided to drive up for tacos and drive back, no joke.
I made that afternoon up-and-back trip for these reasons:
> I had free time and gas money, plus the gumption
> no one could question me, or tell me no
> I wanted to take Iowa back
Because the last time I saw Iowa, years ago, the experience was contentious, at best. Travel with my abuser always was. You’ve been there. You’ve felt the tension, the discord, when it’s supposed to be “vacation.”
And so I wanted to go back, just me. Me and my peace as a new, healed-and-healing person.
People might laugh at you, and others won’t understand your need for revisiting and reframing places that once held uncomfortable feelings. But guess what? They don’t need to. It’s another thing you can and should do for yourself. No one else matters.
My journey, of course, wasn’t about the tacos. It was about choosing a thing I wanted to do and then making it happen, then holding a memory of my own making — without someone else’s infringement on my experience.
We each have our own pace. Our own awareness. Our own willingness. Our own awakening.
That is our hope, anyway. Right? That each victim awakens and undergoes her journey toward survival and then, eventually, she thrives.
Some women know on some level that their partner is toxic but avoid dissecting what that really means, because if they acknowledge the abuse, they have to figure out what to do about it.Some women opt, then, to tuck their head in the sand and stay where it’s “comfortable.” That isn’t to say abuse is comfortable, because we know it isn’t, but when it’s habit, routine, secure in the sense that, at least, you halfway know what to expect, it can be easier to stay on that path than accepting some hard truths, figuring out an escape plan, worrying about what happens to your children or how you’ll afford *anything* if you leave, etc. etc.
I’m not saying that a woman in this situation actively *chooses* to stay with the abuse, but rather that she doesn’t allow herself to consider, really consider, that she has another choice.
This woman who can’t see her situation, that she in fact has a choice and should choose leaving, needs our grace. And support. Perhaps gentle encouragement. But that’s it. Hard advice to leave will fall on deaf ears. Her own, independent awakening has to come first.
We all need grace. Every woman on her journey — no matter the pace, no matter the progress — needs grace.
**Please know that it is never my intention to victim-blame here. If you ever read something that feels contrary to that, please comment on the post or message me so we can talk through it. | Janna
Some days I feel like a shadow of my normal self.
Surviving is hard.
Thriving is hard, too, because you can easily fool yourself into thinking that when you’ve been through so much, and after you’ve come so far, you have to stay up, stay positive, stay strong.
But one hard-won lesson I’ve learned is that no one can sustain the good stuff every day.
No one can be strong all the time.
No one has to to track constant progress or growth.
It’s okay if there’s a down day
when something steals your motivation, or pisses you off, or makes you sad, or gives you a case of the mopes. It’s okay to allow stagnation once in a while.
Because we are survivors, absolutely. We are warriors. But we’re also human.
It’s okay to be a shadow once in a while.