I’m writing a series titled My Family Court Story for Family Court Awareness Month, which has been declared November by Tina Swithin from One Mom’s Battle. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Once a survivor decides to leave an abusive relationship, if there are children involved or a marriage, there is another bigger battle to be fought – navigating the family court system while learning how to manage post-separation abuse.
In Part Three of my story (below), I discussed my experience with the family court system. It was a long, harrowing, and expensive process. There was always a way for Robert and his attorney to counter our allegations. This is the conclusion of my story. Thank you for taking the time to read it. It was not easy to write or share such a private part of my life. But I hope sharing it will help others in similar situations. And I hope we can begin to enact some changes in the family court system.
Today is the Student of Yesterday
It was 20 months from the date Robert was served until the judge signed our dissolution agreement. For 12 of those months, I was protected by a restraining order. I wanted to have the order continued. But to do so, I had to go back to court and pay more attorney fees. And even then, the extension wouldn’t be guaranteed. After asking myself, “Was a piece of paper really worth it?” I decided to go paperless, with the protection of the powerful lessons I’d learned along the way as my guide.
Sure, I did the work. I chose growth. I chose life. I chose joy.
When I initially left the relationship, I had many symptoms of C-PTSD. I’m thankful my trauma-informed therapist helped me process what I’d been through, what I was going through, and how to get to the next part of my life. Sure, I did the work. I chose growth. I chose life. I chose joy. But my therapist held my hand throughout the entire process. She showed me the ways in which my thinking was flawed. She taught me what a normal life could look like. She showed me how to shine light on my shadows and accept them. I had so much respect for the woman she was. If she could love me and be proud of me, certainly I could learn how to love and be proud of myself.
One of the hardest things to grasp while experiencing post-separation abuse is how to respond, not react.
For example, I’d get a nasty text message like, “You are a disgusting person. I can’t stand the thought of you let alone the sight of you.” My first reaction was anxiety followed by the need to defend myself. But I learned I didn’t have to react. I could wait until my blood pressure was down. I could wait until I was ready to respond. And I was able to learn I didn’t even have to respond most times. If I replied to the insulting messages, he’d know he was still getting to me. I had to learn feeling anxious at first was okay, but I didn’t have to let his words affect my life. He could keep spewing his vitriol, and I could keep living.
Malevolence isn’t Visible to the Naked Eye
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) abusers are not typical villains. They don’t wear black hats or masks. They don’t tend to walk around punching random people in the face or belittling everyone they meet. In fact, they rarely show their dark sides in front of other people. They tend to treat others well and have a decent reputation. Even at the beginning of most relationships with abusers, they seem easy to love and incredibly generous.
So how do we expect a family court judge to be able to identify such perpetrators with only minimal exposure to them? Why are judges given the ultimate power over situations of abuse when they don’t know (or care to know) what went on behind closed doors? And why are the survivors burdened with proving abuse that was inflicted behind closed doors?
The presumption of innocence is the bedrock of our legal system. But in family court, in cases involving IPV, that presumption requires stringent validation. Since most abuse occurs in the home, behind closed doors, with no witnesses, IPV advocates must evaluate each situation – not a judge with minimal exposure to the abuser. Properly trained advocates must take measures to verify the abuse, to testify in court, or to have formal depositions presented to presiding family court judges. Proving abuse beyond a reasonable doubt is an unduly onerous burden to place on survivors and their attorneys.
What about the children?
I may be safe at this point in my story, but I still have to send my children to see their father, unsupervised. After our day in court, the judge deemed him safe enough to have unrestricted visitation. I fear for their safety – physically, emotionally, and mentally. But I’ve accepted that I won’t know what happens, and I can’t control it. The best way to play my part is to make sure my children are as mentally healthy as they can be. I teach them to know their worth. I teach them to love themselves. I teach them I will love them unconditionally. And I teach them to feel all their feelings. There is a long road ahead, but we’ll walk it together.
They gave me the strength to leave my former situation. They taught me what unconditional love was. They are my greatest teachers. And in return, I’ll fight for them whenever I need to. I’ve navigated us this far. I can navigate us no matter what the future holds.
If I could go back and tell the JoAnna in Part One of my story one thing, it would be this from Nelson Mandela. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” And I’d also thank her for being as brave as she was. Without her courage, I wouldn’t be standing here today. I wouldn’t be living this life.
And I now know it’s a beautiful life to live.