On the last track, we discussed Helping Them to Cope. These will include infants, toddlers, five to nine-year-olds and adolescents.
Do you have a client coming out of an abusive relationship? How do his or her children respond? How do you counsel them through the crisis of change?
On this track, we will discuss Divorce After Violence. This will include explaining the violence, maintaining connection, getting back to a normal relationship with the abuser and life without the abuser. As you listen, think of your clients. What advice do you give them, and how does it compare with the suggestions on this track?
Maria, age 27, had just gotten divorced from Emmanuel, age 29, who had abused her. Maria stated, "I have two small kids, ages 4 and 2…and I just don’t know how to tell them about the divorce…they ask when they’re going to see Daddy again. He did love them…but they saw him hit me! Thank God he never hit them. If I hadn’t left, he might have hit them. How do I explain the violence? What good things can I tell them about their father, when their father was nothing but a lying, violent, drunk bum?!"
4 Steps to Follow After the Abuser has Left
Step #1 - Explaining the Violence
First, I felt I needed to talk to Maria about explaining the violence to her children. I stated, "The abuse and drunkenness might be true, but you are the one who evaluates if they are necessary things to say. Your children will want to know that their father’s behavior had nothing to do with them and that their father needs this time right now to take care of himself and get his life back on track." Maria asked, "What do I tell them that he's doing now?" I stated, "You might say if it’s true, that, ‘He is getting help to solve his problem so that he can spend more time with you in the future.’ If that statement is not true, however, I wouldn’t suggest saying it."
Step #2 - Maintaining Connection
In addition to explaining the violence to her children, we talked about the kind of connection for the children to maintain with Maria’s ex-husband, Emmanuel. Maria asked, "And how do I explain why they can’t see Daddy anymore without saying too much?" I stated, "Your children will probably need to feel some kind of connection with their father." Maria stated, "With that monster?! How could you suggest such a thing?!"
I stated, "It might be necessary to limit the contact between your children and your husband, for any length of time. However, striving to maintain a connection with your ex is about helping your children see their father as a whole person. They will probably want and even need to hear about his good traits, as well as his bad traits." Do you agree? Maria stated, "It’s been so long since there has been anything positive to say about him…I don’t even know if I can remember them anymore…"
I stated, "Think hard. You must have seen good traits in him at sometime, or else you would not have married him. Try to think about the goodness underneath the violence. As difficult as this may be, your children will need to know that their father is not all bad, even though he is a person who has made poor choices." Maria stated, "And those are not choices my children need to repeat!" I stated, "You’re absolutely right. But your children will need to learn that they can take the good traits they may have inherited and choose to make good decisions with them."
Step #3 - Getting Back to Normal
In addition to explaining the violence, and talking about the children’s connection with her ex-husband, Emmanuel, we talked about how to get back to a normal relationship between her abusive husband, Emmanuel and Maria’s children. Maria stated, "It would be nice if Emmanuel would try to develop a relationship with his children, but I don’t foresee that happening for a long time."
I stated, "It might take a long time before any semblance of a normal relationship between your children and your ex can begin, if it does at all. The violence is not likely to stop until the abuser is willing to take full responsibility for what he has done and acknowledge that he was solely responsible for his own abusive behaviors." Maria stated, "I don’t know if that will ever happen…he does love his children…but he would have to swallow a lot of pride to do that…"
I stated, "If Emmanuel does take the necessary steps to recovery, it could be possible to develop a peaceful co-parenting plan in two separate homes. In order for this to happen, as you are aware, you and your children will need to be out of the violent relationship and out of harm’s way. Emmanuel will need to ‘fix himself first’ before attempting what would be a new kind of relationship for all of you. You might want to work through your own grief and pain related to your experiences as well."
Step #4 - Life Without the Abuser
We then discussed life without Emmanuel. Maria asked, "And what if Emmanuel never gets to that point?" I stated, "Sometimes, the only peaceful resolution that can be had is for an abused spouse and her children to create a strong home together, apart from a violent parent who refuses to get help. If this is the case for your family, you can do that, but also go one step further by not condemning your ex." Maria stated, "That is the most difficult thing of all, you realize."
I stated, "I very much believe you. However, to condemn Emmanuel can cause you to get caught in the negative cycle of condemnation. This can use up your own energy and optimism. This lack of energy could inhibit your life." Maria stated, "You’re right…that would be like giving him or my memories a kind of power…and I don’t want that!" I stated, "Then you can deny your husband the power he could have in his absence by not condemning him in front of your children."
Do you have a Maria who is leaving a violent marriage? Might he or she benefit from hearing this track?
On this track, we discussed Divorce After Violence. This included explaining the violence to the children, maintaining connection after the abuser has left, getting back to normal relationship with the abuser, and life without the abuser.
On the next track, we will discuss The Language of Divorce. This will include the Language of Victim and Survivor, Old vs. New Language and Co-parenting Language.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Davidson, R. D., & Beck, C. J. A. (2017). Using couple-level patterns of intimate partner violence to predict divorce outcomes. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 23(1), 85–95.
Hardesty, J. L., Crossman, K. A., Khaw, L., & Raffaelli, M. (2016). Marital violence and coparenting quality after separation. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(3), 320–330.
Hardesty, J. L., Ogolsky, B. G., Raffaelli, M., Whittaker, A., Crossman, K. A., Haselschwerdt, M. L., Mitchell, E. T., & Khaw, L. (2017). Coparenting relationship trajectories: Marital violence linked to change and variability after separation. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(7), 844–854.
Schonfeld, D. J., & Demaria, T. P. (2018). The role of school psychologists in the support of grieving children. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 361–362.
Skinner, O. D., Sun, X., & McHale, S. M. (2021). Links between marital and parent–child relationship in African American families: A dyadic approach. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.
Steinbach, A., & Augustijn, L. (2021). Children’s well-being in sole and joint physical custody families. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.
Online Continuing Education QUESTION 4
What are 4 things to consider when explaining divorce after violence to children? To select and enter your answer go to .