When domestic abuse victims leave a relationship, we assume they are safe. However, 90% of coercive control victims report experiencing post-separation abuse (PSA). Post-separation abuse often harms domestic abuse victims for years or decades after separation. Researchers and scholars have described several forms of post-separation abuse (PSA), with a variety of terms used to describe different categories. When directed at targets who are parents, these tactics also harm children directly and indirectly.
Harmful Post-Separation Abuse Tactics
Economic Abuse. This may include blocking access to bank accounts and credit cards or canceling these; ruining the target’s credit or failing to follow through on needed (and sometimes court-ordered) payments. Economic abuse can be global and life-changing, such as stealing the target’s identity to take out loans in her name, which may disqualify her (temporarily) from even opening an account with the utility companies or securing a lease on a property. Economic abuse can also consist of a string of seemingly petty but ultimately costly actions, such as signing a child up for activities without paying the fee, so the target has to pay these unexpected fees or disappoint the child. Or sending a child to school without a winter jacket week after week so the target must buy multiple jackets. Abusers often quit or choose to “lose” their job rather than pay support to the other parent of their children, sometimes rendering that parent (and the children) homeless in the process.
Legal Abuse refers to using court proceedings and false reports of child abuse to control, harass, and impoverish the other parent, or seeking a change in custody as a means of continued control over the other parent. The domestic abuser acts in the role of a loving and caring parent who wants to have half-time or more with their children when their true goal is to maintain a continuous route of harassing the survivor. Frequently, the domestic abuser creates a false (gaslighting) narrative that the other parent should lose much or all of their parenting time because they are “mentally unstable.”
Isolation. Abusers often work hard to defame their targets, spreading rumors among friends, family, co-workers, or congregations. This may involve usurping their ex’s online identity to make them look bad or spreading rumors that the ex has “lost it.” Abusers may also tell false stories to clergy, physicians, therapists, and even their children’s teachers, to deprive their ex-partners of a support system.
Monitoring, Stalking, and Harassment. The abuser may continuously call their ex or send emails, texts, and instant messages. If there are children involved, these messages may ostensibly concern child-related matters, when their true intention is to interfere as much as possible with the ex-partner’s ability to live a peaceful life. The monitoring may include apps that track or record their ex-partner’s activities and communications.
Threats. Abusers frequently threaten their targets. These may be overt threats of bodily harm, or a deluge of messages in the lines of, “What if something happens to you, God forbid….”. Abusers threaten to release sexual images and ruin their ex’s reputation and livelihood. They threaten to drive them to financial ruin and block the target from ever seeing their children. Unfortunately, abusers sometimes carry out these threats.
Sexual Abuse. Some domestic abusers’ assault or coerce their ex-partners sexually. One abuser obligated his ex-partner to have sex with him when he had overnight visits with his children—threatening to molest their daughter if she refused. Another sextorted his ex-wife into sending ever more explicit images to him—on the threat of releasing sexual videos they had recorded in their marriage if she refused. Another abuser would not pay child support unless his ex-partner engaged in phone sex with him; She wept through these sessions.
Child Abuse or Neglect. If they are in a custody battle, clever domestic abusers try to avoid blatantly abusing their children. They might, however, fail to protect the child adequately from COVID-19 or allow the child to watch TV all day during their parenting time. One domestic abuser I know bought his young daughter high heels so he could sneak her onto amusement park rides where she did not meet the height requirement. Another bought his children sandwiches for dinner twice a week at the local gas station when he had parenting time, announcing to everyone who came in that the kids’ “no-good mother” had abandoned them. Other abusers will physically, psychologically, or sexually abuse their children, as a way to “get back” at their ex-partner.
Counter-Parenting consists of working against, rather than along with, the protective parent. Abusers don’t mind harming their children if they can harm their ex-partners in the process. People engaged in counter-parenting will foil the protective parent’s efforts to have children complete their schoolwork or will complicate the exchange of possessions or transitions from one parent to the other. One father who had never shown interest in his daughter seemed determined to turn her from a studious and popular child into a delinquent outcast, dying her hair green and then—when the mother objected—shaving the girl’s head. The daughter was so upset, that she begged her father to allow her to homeschool and the father withdrew her from school without the mother’s permission. Counter-parenting also includes making phone calls as tense as possible, rather than facilitating harmony.
Abusers rarely give up their control at the end of a marriage or relationship. Instead, they may try to sow chaos in the lives of their ex-partners and continue to exercise coercive control in any way possible—often through issues related to the children. The courts and other institutions need to be on their guard against unwittingly serving as an arm that extends the abuser’s reach post-separation.