Saturday, June 25, 2011

Thinking of Leaving Your Relationship? Part 2 - Children Involved


In Part 1 of this article*, I brought up some things to think about before you end a relationship.  The list of considerations changes a great deal when there are children involved, even if there has never been an actual marriage.  Part 1 still applies, and is I hope good advice for preparing yourself for relationship breakup, but there are very important additional things to know if you and your partner have children together.

I am not an attorney, so nothing in either of these articles pretends to be or should be taken for legal advice.  The points I am making are aimed at helping you prepare yourself emotionally and strategically to make one of the biggest changes you can possibly make in your life, and in your children's lives.

Baby makes three, Judge makes four.  Over the past thirty years, divorcing with children has changed as the legal system tries to do a better job at handling highly personal family situations.  The results are stunning improvements in some cases, and failures in others.  Family law is a work in progress, to say the least.

Currently, instead of dividing the children like the rest of family property, custody of minor children is now a two-part agreement; legal custody (decisions about medical care, schooling, religious upbringing), and physical custody (who has the children with them and when).  The physical custody arrangement may be the basis of computing child support.  Even if you and your partner agree about these matters, the judge who signs off on your divorce, making it legal, may not agree, and request or even impose changes.

This happens because the judge in Family Court has evolved into a representative for the children's best interest, and what that involves varies not only from place to place (divorce is a local matter), but also from judge to judge.  Two examples:

1.  You and your partner agree that you will have full legal and physical custody of the children.  You appear in court to have the Judge sign off on your agreement.  Surprise!  It is quite likely that you will have to defend that agreement when the Judge asks you "Why shouldn't the children's father have a voice in making important decisions in their lives?"  The current position of divorce courts in the United States is that keeping fathers in the picture is important, and even very bad behavior on the part of the father may not exclude him from sharing legal custody.  This turn of events is something you have to be prepared for, with all possible documentation.  The Court will want, and may even insist, that you share decision-making with the person you are divorcing, even if that makes your life very difficult, and provides a continuing opportunity for an abusive person to continue tormenting you.

2.  You are splitting assets, and you agree to forgo child support to get other concessions.  Once in Family Court, the Judge will not allow the agreement.  Child support money is for the benefit of the child, and you do not have the right to deprive the child of that assistance, even if it makes for a clean break and there are other counterbalancing benefits.  Now you have to deal with the problems that come from getting a financial declaration from an unwilling spouse, and other complications if your partner refuses to pay, quits his job, blames you for this imposition, etc.

If you are divorcing with children, educating yourself  as part of your decision-making process is absolutely critical.  The things you didn't know when you decided your relationship was no longer salvageable are the things that will make your life much more difficult than necessary down the line.

Visit the NOLO website, buy or borrow the current books for the state where you will be divorcing, and learn everything you can WITHOUT COMPROMISING YOUR SAFETY OR YOUR PRIVACY.  You need time to think without revealing your thoughts and plans to family, friends, or your partner.  This is not the time to be an "open book"; you should be looking to people who know the legal system, understand your state support system, are informed about resources for keeping you safe, and who will share their knowledge with you while maintaining your confidentiality.  Talk to advocates at the local self-help legal clinic at a courthouse where you are not going to run into anybody you know, and seriously consider sitting in on some Family Court sessions.  The proceedings are public.  You will learn a great deal by watching other people get restraining orders, divorces of all kinds, and discuss custody, support, and safety issues with the Court.

Children as weapons.  You are ending your relationship for multiple reasons, and some of those probably involve how you and the children are being treated.  The sad truth is that the patterns of behavior that are breaking up your marriage will not stop after you leave and may even get worse.  Damned if you do, damned if you don't?

Actually no, you can get out and build a safe, peaceful life, but it's a process, and if you have children, you remain connected to a person who may use that connection to torment you until they are 18.  Planning for the reality of continuing problems, with the children used as pawns or weapons, is your best defense.  Even if you hope for the best, educate yourself about what might happen, and put yourself way ahead of the game.  Start by reading "The Batterer as Parent" and "When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse", both by Lundy Bancroft. 

"But my partner isn't abusive.  He doesn't beat me up.  He may be jealous, or spend money we don't have, have addiction issues, be unfaithful, uncommunicative, controlling, etc., but I'm not a victim of domestic violence".  In my experience as a domestic violence advocate, supporting women who are going through the process of leaving a relationship that isn't working, I hear this over and over again:  "I didn't realize how bad things were until I left.  In the middle of it, I had a protective shell of denial that I used to help me survive.  When I put aside that shell, I could look back and see how abnormal things had become."  What other women would tell you if they could is that educating yourself and looking at worst cases can be your best asset.  

It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.  You are  going to be co-parenting with your children's father until they are 18 unless your situation is very exceptional.  You will go back to court or mediation numerous times to change the support order, legal and/or physical custody orders unless your situation is very exceptional.  A vanishing ex-spouse can reappear and want parental privileges, children grow up and decide or are bribed to leave you and go live with your ex.  In other words, it's going to be a long time before you can walk out of court and say with confidence "Well, that's finally over with".  Planning for a marathon instead of expecting a sprint makes all the difference in your ability to go the distance with dignity.

You will quickly learn that the Court and your children are uninterested and even hostile to being drawn into the personal drama that is the death of your relationship.  They may even be unsympathetic if abuse keeps happening.   You will probably find yourself sucking up a lot of low-level stress and harassment because it doesn't rise to the level the legal system will respond to, and hiding things from the children to keep them as protected as possible. In a word, you are going to need a support system to help you recover and build a new life over the next decade.

Therapists are the classic support source, but there is another one you might hesitate to use - the support groups managed by local nonprofit domestic violence shelters.  Call a local domestic violence hotline and speak CONFIDENTIALLY to an advocate about what you are going through and ask what resources are available for you, either in their agency or others near you.  Going to a support group where you are in the presence of other women going through divorce, through the courts, dealing with Child Protective Services in some cases, may not be for you, but give it a try.  It could be the safe space you need to energize you for the task ahead.

*Read Thinking of Leaving Your Relationship? Part 1 - No Children

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Thinking of Leaving Your Relationship? Part 1 - No Children


This two-part post is based upon my observations working with women who are leaving relationships where there is intimate partner violence.  I have learned by watching them solve the problems that come with the decision to leave that there are things you can do to help yourself prepare for and endure the process you are considering making your next step in life.

The reason this post is divided into two parts - this is the first - is that having children in common with your partner changes things.  Acting like it is the same for a couple to break up and a family, however dysfunctional, to break up ignores reality, to say the least.  This post is about breaking up with no children in common involved.  There may be stepchildren you have been raising, but when breakup time comes, those children stay with their natural parent.

It's no longer "we", it's "me."  Shifting from "we" to "me" is a basic shift in thinking that goes against most women's idea of being not only a good woman, but being a good person.  But if you don't make it, you will find "we" thinking sabotaging your efforts at every turn.

Even in situations where women are in for a fight for their lives by trying to leave, there is the hope that, once the dust settles, the partner will come around and they can be friends, or friendly, or no hard feelings, or something along those lines.  Mentally flipping ahead to a wished-for resolution instead of concentrating on the reality of tearing down and breaking up sets you up for big problems.

Problems like trying to share things which need to be divided, i.e. a home, a business.  Failing to obtain copies of all the paperwork involved in running your family business like income and bank statements, tax returns, trusting that your partner will hand over complete copies at a later date.  Staying, or allowing your partner to stay in the same residence during the divorce.  Sharing an attorney, trying to do without legal help.  Assuming friends and family will still be your support system, and letting them know your plans or even your emotional state.

The end of a relationship changes all your other relationships.  Acting like you are an independent person, starting to build a life, is not cold or selfish.  It mirrors the fact that this is a Big Shift and by taking a firm stand as your own person, you give friends, family, the Court, your attorney, and your support system the assurance that you are ready to move forward.  Staying in "we" mode signals you have a foot in two camps.  Which "you" are people to believe?

By yourself but not all by yourself.  It takes help to leave a relationship, before, during, and after.  The most common mistake women make is to draw that help from pre-existing friends, from family, an attorney, and maybe a therapist.  Your attorney is not your friend.  He/She is not your enemy either, by the way.  An attorney is a guide through the maze of legal procedures and paperwork involved in a relationship breakup with the predetermined goal of getting you a divorce document that covers all the bases, one that a judge will approve.  More about that later.

Therapy is a must, not a luxury.  You might have to wait for a while to gather the time and energy to find someone, but processing how the breakup happened and who you are post breakup eventually requires a trusted, experienced advisor.

What of family and friends?  Can't they be your trusted advisors, maybe even help you with some of the legal-type decisions?  In a word, NO.  They may love you, be on your side (or not), have gone through divorce themselves, etc.  But they lack one important thing, objectivity.  Your breakup shakes up their world and they need time to process the change in your situation and the change in you.  They don't know you anymore, and you'd be surprised who decides they liked the old you better, and who steps up to welcome the new you with open arms.

Build a team of experts, learn from them, become your own advocate.   If you are thinking about leaving an intimate relationship, step 1 is to educate yourself.  Hit the bookstores, library, and internet.  Use your brain and your gut instincts to ferret out information about yourself, your partner, and divorce or dating breakups that adds to your understanding of what you are going through. 

Get a NOLO state-specific do-it-yourself divorce book even if you have no intention of doing it yourself.  Find out if your relationship is a controlling abusive one.  Look for the phrase "coercive control" and information that acknowledges the devastating effect of emotional abuse, financial abuse, jealousy, and fear in an intimate relationship.

Call a domestic violence hotline, either national or local, and have a frank, completely confidential talk with the trained counselor who takes your call.  Do you need financial help, do you need a place to get away where your partner can't track you down, do you need a restraining order, do you have an escape plan?  What are the resources out there in case things start to go badly.  Your partner may know you are unhappy and be on supergood behavior in the hopes that you will stay, but if you make it clear you are leaving, he is more than a little bit likely to do a 180, something you need to be prepared for.

Get legal help.  You don't necessarily get what you pay for when it comes to divorce attorneys.  An hour at a Bar Association Legal Clinic at your courthouse can serve you better than a high-priced lawyer who never returns your calls or treats you like a moron.  If you can, hire a lawyer you respect and like.  But don't depend on him/her to "get" you a divorce.  There is no substitute for knowing where you are in the process, what your options are, and what your attorney should be doing.  The lawyer is there to get you a solid, complete divorce decree and hopefully, make sure things are signed and filed properly.  You will probably have to do some of that yourself.  The best divorce is the one you babysit all through the process.  No one cares more than you do about the new life you are trying to build.

Good luck!  Millions of women have ended bad relationships and built new lives and new relationships.  You can do it!

(Graph from The Journal of Economic Perspectives)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cheated On While Pregnant? You're Not The Only One


Check out this startling photo gallery of celebrity cheating while wife is pregnant at Slate.com  (click on the individual pictures for the backstory).  Did you realize these guys had pregnant wives at home while they were roaming - some getting other women pregnant at the same time as their wives were carrying their babies?  I must have missed that part, or maybe it isn't played up much in the reporting that gets done.

There's plenty of speculation, personal experiences, and even a pretty good article here and there on the web on cheating and pregnancy, but nobody seems to have any statistics to tell us how frequently this happens.  Is it 10% of the time, 20%, 50%, inevitable?

There is agreement that pregnancy doesn't make a man a cheater.  While "she's too fat to be attractive" or "she doesn't feel like having sex" might be heard from guys as excuses as to why cheat on a pregnant spouse, the consensus is that pregnancy doesn't turn a faithful guy into a cheater, and guys who cheat ultimately need no excuse, or rather, any excuse will do.

It does appear to be true that becoming pregnant, either by your boyfriend or your husband, makes it more likely that you will experience intimate partner violence (domestic abuse).
The Center for Disease Control defines domestic violence during pregnancy as “Physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence, or threats of physical or sexual violencethat are inflicted on a pregnant woman.” In a household survey, it was found that pregnant women are 60.6% more likely to be beaten than women who are not pregnant. Violence is cited as a pregnancy complication more often than diabetes, hypertension or any other serious complication. (“Battering and Pregnancy” Midwifery Today19: 1998).  [World Health Organization Fact Sheet]
Emergency rooms know about pregnancy abuse, police know about it, DV hotlines, Departments of Family Services, and social workers have it on their radar.  The ones who are in the dark, and usually taken completely by surprise, are the women themselves.  Having a baby with a man you love makes you a family, is supposed to create a wonderful bond between the two of you, and if there are troubles in the relationship, conventional wisdom says there's nothing like a new baby to change the dynamic.  The little one is half you/half him so loving your baby can't help but make you closer.  Makes so much sense, but apparently not real life.

If you'd like to know more about abuse during pregnancy, here's an excellent article, complete with a hotline number to get more information and help.  The World Health Organization Fact Sheet cited above is also excellent although currently inaccessible for some reason.  Both articles have a downside is that they focus on physical abuse, and say almost nothing about financial abuse, jealousy, isolation, psychological harassment, stalking or other demeaning behaviors (I would put cheating in this category).

If only women could know in advance (maybe a blood test?) who those cheaters are, that would be the greatest leap forward for pairing up and starting a family since eHarmony's "Scientific Relationship Questionnaire came online.  I can't imagine that any of the women pictured in the Slate.com photo gallery of cheaters married their guy thinking he would behave as badly as he did, even while they were pregnant with his children.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Good Bye T-Shirt/Hoodie


Make the point that you need some space, need to re-establish your personal boundaries, would like the chattering mob around you to “f” off, without being crude or starting a flame war. Just the understated facts, please.

“Good Bye to You All”.  Pick your shirt/hoodie style and color here.

When you're done, come by Lyn Southworth Words and Pictures to see what else is going on.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jaycee Dugard Speaks at Captor's Sentencing

Aerial view of the backyard prison/home for Jaycee and her daughters
Jaycee Dugard, released with the two daughters fathered by her captor in 2009 after 18 years of being hidden "in plain sight" of parole officers and neighbors, spoke to the man who terrorized her in a statement read in court today by her mother, Terry Probyn. Read the full transcript of Jaycee's statement here.

Phllip Garrido, now convicted of multiple rape and sexual assault charges, will spend the next 431 years in prison for his scheme to kidnap 11-year-old Jaycee to take care of his perverted sexual needs:
"In the beginning he said that I was helping him and that, you know, he had a sex problem and that, you know, he got me so that he wouldn't have to do this to anybody else. So I was helping him," she said.
This article at Huffington Post gives previously unknown details of the girls' captivity, based on testimony to the Grand Jury which was unsealed after the defendants left the courtroom.
The documents provided another window into Dugard's ordeal even though Judge Douglas Phimister had ordered that all descriptions of the sexual activity Phillip Garrido forced on her and often videotaped be withheld.

"Some of the testimony is absolutely disgusting. The graphic description of these events that occurred would shock adults, even adults who have a distorted view of intimacy," the judge said.

Is this TOO MUCH INFORMATION?  He's in jail, she's fine, in fact got $20 million from the State of California for bungling probation investigations that should have revealed her presence in Garrido's back yard.  It's over now, so let's move on, you may say.  Not so fast.

In 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped by a crazy imitation holy man and his wife.  Nine months later she was identified by a police officer as the three walked the streets of a small town only 18 miles away from her home.  In 2009 suspicious officials apprehended Phillip Garrido shortly after his tract distribution trip to the UC Berkeley Campus with his "nieces" - Jaycee's daughters - caused campus police to do a background check, ending Jaycee's 18 year imprisonment.

So two blonde girls are abducted  by weird religious perverts and their blankly obedient wives and/or recovered within a fairly close time frame.  After the initial buzz of stories and photo spreads in People Magazine, the girls insist on their privacy and disappear into protective families, waiting for the law to take its course. If you have melted these two cases into one in your mind and memory, that would be perfectly understandable. That's certainly what I did.

But now that Garrido, his wife, Brian Mitchell, and Wanda Barzee are convicted of multiple felonies and are serving jail terms, the similarities are falling away and, back in control of their lives, Elizabeth and Jaycee are telling their stories, Elizabeth in interviews and Jaycee in a book. Turns out here are many more differences in their experiences than similarities, but it would seem that we ought to pay attention to their full stories, in their own voices, since we paid attention to the partial preliminary bits and bytes in the voices of reporters and commentators.  A question of fairness, and also a question of accuracy.

WNL comments:  The biggest difference I see between Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard is that Elizabeth, in every interview I've seen, is so normal, so upbeat, a triumphant survivor of her ordeal almost before it was over.  She's fine!  She is certainly entitled to be fine, but I'm left wondering....  Jaycee, on the other hand, went through something and needed to recover, is probably still recovering.  Maybe there are just many ways of moving on, I don't know.

While Elizabeth gives us nothing but a lovely smile, Jaycee has something to say. There's a lot of trauma around these days and Jaycee has written a book (available at Amazon in July, 2011) about her experience of the loss and recovery of her life.  The book - along with the statement she asked her mother to read in court today - is the proof of the return of her voice.  Listening to her version of what she lived, rather than making you a lowbrow crime junkie, may resonate with something that has happened to you, and help you understand your life or the life of someone you love. 

Elizabeth Smart's book is available here.