This post was submitted anonymously.
I loved being married and the adventure of creating a family. We had a home, our two beautiful sons were happy and healthy, we had a community with other families who were interested in living fun, active, healthy lives. We had our differences, and some challenging reactions to conflict, but sought family counseling to help in this area.
The more I developed my conflict management skills, and the calmer I was able to be when faced with our differences, the worse husband’s behavior became. He would run away from the family home and live transiently, camping in the bushes near his work, for up to 3 weeks at a time. It was my fault because I was emotional and raised my voice, or criticized him unfairly. But then, when I learned calmer responses, and simply stated that I did not share his view or opinion, I was told that I had to agree with him or he would run out the door. No raised voice, no criticism or disrespectful actions, just a simple statement that I do not share his view, and the acceptance that if he needed to run out the door, I would not stop him. On his way out the door he would tell me the kids and I would never see him again – I thought he was sincere and I was crushed for our young sons.
In counseling we agreed that I would not raise my voice, or wave my arms when upset, and the counselor and I agreed that husband would not abandon family when upset. I understood what I had agreed to and why, and did the work to get to a healthier place. He would not stop abandoning the family as it was never his fault, in his view I was the one to blame and I was the only one in need of counseling. The counseling helped me get to a place where I understood I could not change his behavior, but I could not accommodate it either. I let him know that the next time he made this choice we would have to separate.
We agreed that he would move out. He wouldn’t tell me where he moved to, and he didn’t have a cell, but he named a family I could get hold of him through. After a few weeks he said he wanted to share the kids 50/50, so I sought Collaborative Family Law to assist us in creating a separation agreement and plan the transition to a shared parenting schedule. He wouldn’t bring a lawyer – a requirement for Collaborative Family Law – but both our coaches and my lawyer kept moving us forward, advising me to agree to his demands with the hope that he will come properly to the table.
He surprised me with $75,000 in debt that I was unaware of – I agreed to secure it to the rest of the line of credit on the family house as I believed any court would consider it family debt as it was incurred during the marriage. Once we had a shared parenting schedule that gave him almost equal time during the school year, and week on/week off during the summer holidays, my lawyer drafted a proposal for asset division. He walked away from the table and stopped contributing to any of our debt: the mortgage and line of credit on the family home and the mortgage on the rental property. The tenants moved out of the rental property, and he decided not to allow it to be re-rented as he wanted to spend some time there in the summer, so now that income was gone. I was still accommodating his behavior. I took a better paying job to cover all of the bills myself. I had no strategy, no means of getting him to collaborate, and I had no idea why he was behaving so combatively.
On one occasion, that is representative in form to many other incidents, he entered the house unexpectedly when picking up the kids, saying he needed their ski clothes. He already had their good ski gear as I had sent them to him in that gear and it had not returned to me. So I told him no, he could not take my ski gear as he already had his own. But no was not an option and he continued to search through the house, pushing past me as I held up my arms, telling him “no, you cannot do this, you must leave now”. The oldest son got between us and told us to stop, which brought my focus to him and his brother. I thanked him for pointing out that we were behaving like naughty children, but when I saw his younger brother looking straight ahead at nothing, frozen in his spot, I was crushed to realize how much our conflict was harming the kids.
On their way to the ski hill, the estranged husband stopped in another town to file a police report on the incident, and had the oldest son make a statement. The police officer who contacted me was kind and compassionate. I asked if I should have the locks changed and she suggested I first ask for the key to be returned. I surprised estranged husband with that request when he returned the children, and he gave the keys to me then and there. Then I changed the locks.
He decided he wanted to change the shared parenting schedule, so he started picking the kids up from school on days they were scheduled in my care. The men he spoke with told him he had every right to do this as we had nothing to enforce the schedule.
I filed the court application; he was the defendant which is his position of strength. He represented himself. We had several occasions in family court, in front Masters and Justices experienced with family court, and they quickly understood his behavior, especially when he stated that only by having his voice heard in court could a fair decision be determined – though he would not comply with the terms of their orders. Our trial judge was a prosecution judge, not a family court judge. She perceived him to be credible, even when faced with evidence showing him lying on the stand, and she believed that he had only run away and lived in the woods to remove from conflict at home.
Her order was fair, assets were split equitably, the kids shared equally, and I had first option to purchase the family home as I had remained in it the entire time and by trial date I had been paying 100% of all costs for 3 years. The first family court judge we saw had given me final decision making power, and the trial judge retained that in her order. In her reasons, however, she stated that the ex’s high-conflict behavior was because I was too inflexible. It took almost a year from the date of the order to get the order filed, because the ex wouldn’t sign it. My lawyer kept arguing with him and charging me for her time – she told me I could not remove her as my representation.
The court clerks informed me otherwise and I was able to remove the lawyer from my representation – my trial lawyer just had to be the one to sign the final order as she had been my representative at trial. The ex made several requests to court to argue the terms of the order, which allowed me to get a draft of the final order to the trial judge for her review. She stated to the court that it was a fair representation of her order. My lawyer wanted to continue to meet in the court system to “settle the terms of the order”, but I had been meeting other lawyers for different perspectives and one law firm gave me very useful advice: get the drafted final order signed by my trial lawyer, and provide this to the court clerks to forward to the judge to finalize. Along with the signed final order, I submitted a dated listing of efforts made to obtain the ex’s signature on the order that the judge had already deemed to be accurate. I checked in with the courthouse every week until, almost 8 weeks later, the judge signed the final order, without the ex’s signature, and it was filed with the court. He tried to appeal this filed order but was denied. I had to file another small application to dispense of his signature on the property title transfer form so that I could transfer the home into my name, put the financing in place, and pay him out for his interest in the home. This application included conduct orders which included a fine if he did not remove his belongings in two weeks – the garage was completely full of his things waiting for him to remove them for 5 years – and another fine if the garage remote was not returned by the same deadline.
By the time the terms of the order were settled, it had been five years from the date of separation, with constant battles the entire way. It cost almost $150,000 in legal fees for me, and my earnings exceed legal aid threshold. My parents secured a line of credit on their home to cover the trial fees, which I was able to pay back once I could finance the home in my name.
– Negotiate a flat fee for trial – I was able to negotiate a flat fee significantly lower than the first quote of expected cost based on time
– Speak with your lawyer about how to get in front of a Master or Justice trained for Family Court
– If the ex is coaching the kids, then a View of the Child report is of no use, the kids will parrot what they are told. If a psychological evaluation of the ex is not feasible, consider a Needs of the Child report – much more expensive but allows the court to get a more complete understanding of the challenges the children face.
– No matter how combative his behavior, I had to always stay calm and not react
– Seek counseling/emotional support from professionals with experience in high conflict divorces, they will understand that shared mediation or counseling is not a safe option, it is an opportunity for further abuse. Also, when communication choices are questioned in court, you can say the choice was made with the consultation of a professional experienced in these situations
– Keep communication written – it reduces combativeness and provides documentation
– Send your drafted response to a third party – friend, family, or counselor – before sending to ex to ensure you’re not engaging in conflict behavior
– Document every incident – keep a current journal as courts consider documentation done at or close to the time of incident to have greater credibility. The ex would make up lies, but would journalize it or film himself talking about it, therefore the court treated it as credible as I did not have a journal to contradict his. I learned to use my cell to video our interactions, or record the phone calls, as it both reduced his conflict behavior and did not allow him to fabricate alternate versions of our interaction
– Develop a better understanding of what is fueling his behavior helps you to stop engaging – he is an abuser and you cannot change that, your only option is to not engage in his conflict
– I added a term to the order that the monthly child support offset would not change unless there was greater than 10% change to our earnings – we are both in government jobs with little change to earnings, so this removes the opportunity to battle over small amounts every year
– As an abuser, and specifically a gas-lighter, he craves engagement in conflict so that he can manipulate the situation into him being a victim. Learn whatever strategies you can to NOT engage.
(that I didn’t read until after trial, dangit!):
Lundy Bancroft: Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.
Amy J. L. Baker, Paul R. Fine: Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex – What to Do When your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You
Sharon Strand Ellison: Taking the War out of Our Words – The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication
• With Randi Kreger: Splitting – Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder
• So, What’s Your Proposal – Shifting High Conflict People from Blaming to Problem-Solving in 30 seconds
• High Conflict People in Legal Disputes
• BIFF – Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns
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