In episode 312, I received a question from a listener looking for advice on dealing with an abusive ex-wife that they have to maintain contact with due to sharing joint custody of their children. In this post, I talk about the impact of emotional abuse and offer my thoughts on how to safeguard yourself while maintaining a functional relationship for your children.
Hey Dr. Duff, Big fan, I hope you see this question.
I am a nurse and I am in school to be a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, graduate in March. I’m telling you that to tell you that you are a person that I want to model my practice off of. That is not why I am writing to you, however. I am writing to you because I want to know if you have any advice on how to deal with an abusive ex that you have children with so you are forced to interact with on a regular basis. Here is some context into my situation.
I’m a 32-year-old man, and I have two children with my ex-wife, with whom I was dating and married to for about 12 years. She was an extremely controlling and emotionally abusive person, so much so that I was pretty much blind to it and just excepted it without questioning. I came to accept over those 12 years that I meant nothing to anyone and I deserved nothing from her, emotionally or otherwise. She isolated me from my friends and attempted to isolate me from my family, which was successful in many regards, but I have since repaired that aspect of my life.
I’ve never had any sort of therapy or counseling apart from an employee assistance program which consisted of two zoom calls with a counselor. I deal with depression and anxiety because of my past. First off there’s a stigma that men cannot be the victim of abuse by a female, which I have to deal with pretty regularly. The main issue, though, is that I have to talk to her several times a week in regards to my children. Every time that I have to talk to her she makes me feel like she used to, little and inferior and with no confidence or hope. I get so stressed out and depressed even though I have been divorced from her since 2018.
What can I do to handle these interactions? She threatens me and belittles me and tells me that I am the worst father in the world, yet my kids want to live with me full-time and cry every time they have to go back to her house. We have 50/50 custody so deal with each other a lot.
Thank you for the kind words about me and my practice. I think that it’s great that you are going into school with an idea of what sort of practitioner you would like to be. That probably speaks to your authenticity as a person. Thank you as well for the question. This is a tough situation.
The impact of emotional abuse
I think it is pretty common to fall into situations like this where you are being abused and you aren’t aware of it until you are already on the other side. A lot of times the abuse isn’t as overt to start with and it’s sort of a gradual fading out of the honeymoon period into a more abusive dynamic, so you are like a frog in boiling water unable to notice the changes happening. You mentioned isolation in your question. Isolation is one major way that abusers maintain control. Basically, they are trying to limit influences on you so that they hold all the power. If you think about it, it’s pretty hard to make someone feel small and unimportant if they are spending time with friends that tell them they are awesome and their wife is the terrible one.
Having been in this relationship for so much time has really worn down your self-concept. I’m so glad that you have been able to advocate for yourself and start reclaiming your life. That’s amazing. Reconnecting with your friends is also a major part of your recovery from this, so great job. It’s totally reasonable for you to have anxiety and depression symptoms because of what you’ve been through. You were consistently insulted and told negative things about yourself. These thoughts work their way into your own mind over time and make you doubt yourself. Then there is probably also some regret involved. Regret and sadness for having spent so much time with someone that treated you poorly. You’ve been divorced for a few years now, but 12 years is a long time to be in that type of a relationship. It will take some time to keep recovering from what you’ve been through.
Abuse against men
What you said about there being a stigma against men that are victims of abuse is true. It makes sense, right? We are the ones that hold the majority of power in society and are more often the perpetrators of abuse, but abuse is also common against men. It doesn’t make it any less real, as you’ve experienced. Because of these attitudes, abuse against men is sometimes underrecognized or downplayed. Certain forms of abuse, especially if they are not physical, are also very insidious and not obvious from the outside. Instead, it can make it look like everything is fine or even that the abuser is actually the victim if they play the situation right. It’s also common to have the pattern that you talked about where you fall into a familiar headspace and interaction style with the person that abused you when you are around them. I hear about this often when people have to be around parents that had abused them. They report feeling like they are a kid again and like they have no power. All of this is to basically validate you and make sure you understand that you aren’t just being dramatic or anything.
Now, some things to keep in mind to cope with this:
First off, it’s totally valid to limit interactions with her as much as possible. Obviously, since you have joint custody, you are going to have to see her for handoffs of the kids and such. You will cross paths and have to interact, BUT you don’t need to play into her games while doing so. I’ve used the term “drop the rope” before and that’s totally applicable here. You don’t have to engage in conversations that you don’t want to. She can try to pull you into arguments and conflict, but you literally do not have to say anything to her that you don’t want to. You can take the kids and bail. I’m not sure what she gives you shit about these days, but if she’s like oh I saw xyz on social media, I can’t believe you’re such a loser blablabla – instead of getting into a fight, you could ignore the statement completely and just be like “okay, kids do you have everything from the car? Say bye to mom.”
In the end, this is a legal arrangement. You don’t need to be friends. But she does legally have to allow you to spend time with the kids. I’m not sure if this would be possible, but have you ever thought of bringing someone else with you for pick ups? Would she be as mean and demeaning if there were another person to witness it? You can also consider this when deciding where to do drop offs. If it’s at the house right now, you might consider meeting in a neutral location instead so there are people around.
Building a stong sense of self
Aside from limiting her ability to lay into you and make you feel upset, there is also the issue of self-concept. It’s so tough, but the best defense against someone trying to make you doubt yourself and your own mind is to develop your own strong sense of self. You said that you haven’t really done therapy aside from those couple sessions through your EAP. Do more therapy. You need it and you deserve it. The EAP counseling was probably a poor representation of the type of care that you should be getting. You may also want to reflect upon and tune into your values as a person. What matters most to you? How do you want to live your life? These are the deeper things that are more important than squabbles with your abusive ex.
I like idea of keeping track of things and physically writing down things that you are doing well in your life, things that you are proud of yourself for, what you are doing well with the kids, and what other people appreciate about you. These are anchors to your reality rather than the reality that your ex is trying to spin. Additionally, you could keep written reminders of your realizations regarding her behavior and the abuse she has put you through. This is something that you could review before seeing her to remember who she is. Then you can really consider the source when she is berating you. It’s in character for her to be mean and terrible in these ways. You know that she is abusive. So why would you put stock in the things she says? It’s sad actually. You aren’t together anymore and she’s still trying to put you down. You have removed yourself from the relationship, you won 50/50 custody of the kids, and you are rebuilding your own life and self. She does not have the same power over you anymore.
If things get to the point where they are really damaging and hurtful, you could also talk to your lawyer about options. I’m not sure what the legality is, but if there is some sort of intervention that can happen legally, you may pursue that. Also, I’m not sure if it’s something that could be worked out, but what about recording interactions that you have while handing off the kids for documentation purposes. Don’t be afraid to seek reassurance about this. You are not weak. You are worthy and worthwhile. Not just with your therapist, but get reassurance from your friends and family that understand the situation. Let them know that she’s been trying to screw with your mind again. Describe the situation and let them reassure you that you are not actually that terrible.
It sounds like your heart is in the right place. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this sort of treatment, but I really get the feeling that you will be able to move forward with your life and continue reclaiming your own power. You got this!
You can listen to this on Episode 312 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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