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Toxic Family Relationships

When the Abuse Doesn’t Stop…Even After You’ve Left Him

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I would really appreciate your advice about how/whether to support my estranged husband with his mental health without jeopardizing my own. Backstory: my husband was verbally and emotionally abusive throughout our long marriage, from which we have four kids (ages 2-13). When the abuse turned physical it was almost a relief because it felt like permission to leave. My husband was arrested last fall and we’ve since lived apart.

I have confided in mutual friends out of a desire for support and a need to share my story…I guess for the sake of healing. It feels like I’m starting to find myself again and become a stronger mother to our kids. It hasn’t been easy; we lost our beloved family dog right afterward, I am in the process of selling our house alone as we can no longer afford it, we have a looming court date to resolve custody and support, and hardest of all was the passing of my dear father one week ago.

Loss happens to all of us and many have far worse problems than I do. I’m currently receiving counseling and take medication for depression and anxiety, which I’ve been prone to since childhood.

I think I can make it through, but an ongoing challenge is my estranged husband who frequently contacts me to discuss how his life has been destroyed by my choice to call the police and tell friends about his behavior. He says he feels alienated from everyone, from family to friends to former colleagues (he is on stress leave). He says his reputation and finances are destroyed (note: he did have numerous conflicts with others before this all happened, and has been spending recklessly for years, though he was a good provider while I stayed home with the kids). He says he feels trapped and hopeless. I’ve asked him to discuss these feelings with a therapist because it upsets me and makes me feel guilty, and he has replied that perhaps I should feel some guilt once in a while. He says I’m the only ‘friend’ he has left.

He does receive regular counseling and is enrolled in a program for abusive partners. I end up ruminating after these discussions, wondering how to alleviate his pain and whether I caused it. This undermines my own ability to rebuild from the abuse, be strong for the kids, grieve my father and support my widowed mother.

How do I decline my estranged husband’s request for support without seeming cold, alienating him (he has partial custody of the kids, and I’m grateful for the occasional childcare relief) or feeling guilty?

Thank you in advance for your guidance.

First, I want to heartily congratulate you for packing up and leaving this man, and for calling the police on his abusive ass. It’s so, so much harder than people on the “outside” will ever understand, so for whatever an Internet stranger’s opinion is worth: I’m really, really proud of you.

Set up stronger boundaries

But what you’re describing in the rest of your letter is abuse. This asshole is still emotionally abusing you, every time you answer the phone or open a text or message. The cycle may be a bit dented but it’s still far from cleanly broken.

You are not his support group, his therapist or his “friend.” You are his victim, and you are DONE with that role and everything that goes with it. You are now a survivor. Go ahead and decline his requests for “support.” Go ahead and seem cold. Throw up some boundaries and reinforce them with spikes.

Please tell your counselor about this, if you haven’t already. I know you’re working through a LOT of grief and loss and upheaval right now, but I want to make sure other people in your life are aware that living separately isn’t enough to fully protect you from this man. Read your letter to them so they get the full picture of what he’s continuing to put you through. Ask for help in setting wider/taller/bigger boundaries with him. Work towards absolving yourself of any responsibility or guilt for his life and mental health.

(And I have no idea about the rules or ethics involved here, but I’d be SORELY VERY TEMPTED to make sure his lawyer and his counselor and his program know EXACTLY what’s going on — that he’s continuing to push unwanted contact with you, with the explicit intent to manipulate and inflict further emotional abuse. This is another point to get advice and support from your counselor and lawyer. The fact that abuse is continuing is absolutely relevant to your upcoming court dates and custody decisions.)

Get some more advice from the appropriate professionals

Going forward, at a bare minimum, your only contact with him will be cursory, not-in-person communications re: custody arrangements (as in pickup/dropoff times and places). I’m not sure I’m even comfortable with that, considering things have escalated to physical violence before. So again, please lean heavily on the appropriate professionals and third parties here for advice and guidance, especially when it comes to delivering any potential ultimatums or confrontations. Perhaps all communications will need to come through your respective lawyers or a court-appointed mediator/social worker instead. And if he still somehow continues to contact you with thinly-disguised cries of self-pity and “I need your supporrrrrrt” that are actually just straight-up emotional manipulation and guilt trips, then it’s time to rethink “partial custody” and instead opt for “restraining order.”

I’m not a lawyer, obviously, and your custody arrangements are yours to arrange and you did not ask for my advice on that piece. And of course, I truly understand and empathize with your need for some childcare respite. But the price of that childcare simply CANNOT involve his continued, cruel access to your emotional well-being. Or allow him to shift the path of manipulation to run through your children. Please remember that as the court date to finalize custody looms closer.

He may be in therapy and enrolled in a program, but he clearly hasn’t even taken the barest level of personal responsibility. He’s still actively blaming you, the victim, in TEXTBOOK abuser gaslighting fashion, for everything that’s a direct result of his messed-up actions and choices. Maybe YOU should feel some guilt once in awhile? Efffffff that. There’s only one guilty party here, and it sure as hell ain’t you.

You are STRONG

I’m so, so sorry that you’ve had to go through so much. You are amazingly strong and will get through it all and come out the other side even stronger. And that’s, frankly, a terrifying thought to an abuser, whose entire M.O. involves making their victim feel weak and wrong. But in reality, you have all the strength and power you need to fully break free.

 

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Anon
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Anon

Please take Amy’s advice to heart. I was emotionally abused in a relationship that lasted over half a decade (though, thankfully, we were young and I got out before we got married/had children). I know firsthand that it can leaves scars just like physical abuse. This man is still abusing you. It needs to be said from another person, even an internet stranger. The line about maybe you should feel guilt sometime… it’s a line I can hear my ex saying to me too. You are not responsible for his life choices or the fallout from them. You are not… Read more »

Chip
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Chip

I heartily agree with Amy’s response to this. It is so, SO hard to get out of an abusive relationship, especially if you’re being constantly gaslit, and an internet stranger is proud of you for managing to dig yourself out. You have absolutely nothing to feel guilty for. This mess is HIS fault, and he refuses to admit that. He’s going to wallow in self-pity and lash out at you. Do not let him have any power over you any more; that’s what abusers crave. I’d also be a little leery about your kids being around this guy, since he… Read more »

Caroline Bowman
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Caroline Bowman

please hold onto any and all evidence in the form of text messages, voicemails, emails, anything that proves that this man is still abusing you. Yes he is! Your only guilt should be ”why didn’t I get my kids and I out much sooner”. His life, his problem. All that upheaval, all that you have been through was EXPRESSLY so that you didn’t have to be his support any longer! You have officially resigned, effective immediately. Please tell your lawyers and your therapist. To be strictly fair and reasonable, next time he starts self-pitying texts, text him back ONCE and… Read more »

Veronica
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Veronica

It is possible to exchange children without seeing each other. There are social workers or other personnel who can help move children from one parent to the other without any physical contact. Throwing that out there because there may be good reasons for not being in his presence in any shape or form. Similarly a third party could be used to help set up exchanges. (Not saying that he deserves to get partial custody just that if he does that is not a reason for you to see/talk/text with him.

CMC
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CMC

Have you heard of the gray rock method of communicating? It has saved my marriage. DH uses it with his ex. You only discuss pertinent info and facts. Nothing else. You basically have a business relationship with your husband. Look into it! It also works because the other person “gives up”. They begin to understand that you won’t take the bait. You are boring AF; a gray rock.

Holly
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Holly

I do this with my ex! I had no idea it had a ‘name’. It took time – like, probably almost 2 years, but it worked/works.

Cat
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Cat

I work in the DV field. This is ongoing battering. As he is in a men’s group, I’m assuming he’s on probation for domestic violence. Please open up to his PO if the behavior is ongoing. Many states allow for criminally enforceable no contact orders as terms of probation. Giving up childcare is a necessity right now. Please research Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and the long term effects of battering on children. You need a clean break for their sake. Lastly, it is astonishing how many therapists out there who are totally unprepared and poorly educated in battering. Please make… Read more »

Dani
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Dani

I don’t tend to reply but I’m joining in the chorus here to offer support. 1. You have nothing to feel guilty for. NOTHING. His problems are of his own making. You are protecting yourself and your children. 2. You have the permission of a total internet stranger to be cold and alienating. Go for it! Pretend you’re someone else, one of your favorite characters who doesn’t take crap from anyone. What would she do? Then do that. You don’t owe anyone politeness or emotional support or your time or your energy. You owe your ex, in particular, nothing at… Read more »

Kit
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Kit

Hey! Friend of a DV a survivor, and she gave me permission to share a thing: she uses a court authorized and monitored app for texting and phone calls with her wildly abusive and unpredictable, mentally ill and unmedicated (almost) ex husband. They’ve been in divorce proceedings for 3 years now, and she often times played the nice guy to avoid a conflict over custody. Turns out! She was the only one playing nice, and ultimately ended up fighting tooth and nail to get issues recognized when it was clear that he was not going to be safe around their… Read more »