It is important to recognise that after the relationship has ended there are ways in which the abuse may continue. For many, it is not that they are stuck in the past or can’t move on from the abuse, it is that the abuse is still happening in the present, it’s just taken on a different look.
But it still follows the same rules. It is often covert, so it is hard to highlight and gain support. It is often just within the borders of acceptability – in terms of behaviourally, legally and what is socially expected – but because it is relentless the survivor has a constant undercurrent of abuse to cope with which is difficult for others to detect. It is cyclical, so follows the same pattern of building tension, abusive incident, manipulation and period of calm, but the behaviours and abusive incident are not the same as if you were still in the relationship and living under the same roof.
It is important for survivors themselves to recognise that they are not crazy or not failing to cope with standard post separation behaviour – that one of the reasons why it feels so intense and provokes the same responses as when you were in the relationship is because it is still abuse. Although recognising this in itself doesn’t change the situation, it can help alleviate feelings of guilt, shame or worthlessness to acknowledge that the behaviour being dealt with is still abusive, as well as feeling less isolated to know you are not alone in these experiences.
Here are some types of post-separation abuse which may be experienced:
Document everything. There is a difference between saying ‘they constantly threaten me with court over nothing’ and saying ‘they have threatened me with court 28 times in the last 6 months over the following minor issues…’ It is necessary to build a clear picture of the pattern of abusive behaviour. This goes for any of the points mentioned in post separation abuse. If you can present a clear and concise argument of the pattern of abusive behaviour, it increases the ability for other to see and to gain further support. It doesn’t have to be significantly detailed, just the key points and dated, and even just one word to describe the impact of their behaviour.
Boundaries in Communication. The best form of communication in this situation is via email. Everything is in written form and it also gives the opportunity to only access emails when you feel prepared and to respond when you have had the opportunity to process the communication. Keep boundaries around child contact handovers, such as not allowing them into your home. If they harass you via phone, do not give them your phone number and have a separate number for them to contact you on when the children have contact. If they cannot remain respectful at handovers, move handovers to a public location.
Detached communication. Although it is extremely difficult, the best form of communication is to only respond to what it necessary. This means not responding to any of the emotionally provoking communication. Only responding in a factual manner to issues relating to the children or the divorce process, for example. There is no need to defend yourself against any abusive, critical and accusatory communication. This is another reason why communicating via email is optimal.
Self care. Remember that this can be extremely difficult to cope with – it is abuse – and you need to take the time to adequately care for yourself. Your world does not revolve around catering to the demands of the abusive person, regardless of what they would like you to believe. Try to remember that responding in a timely manner is acceptable, even if the abusive person expects you to respond within 24 hours. Try to remember to give space and time and energy to other aspects of your life so that you can breathe some fresh air into your day when the abusive person is trying to feel it with smoke and toxicity.