Domestic violence, male entitlement, and our too-tolerant systems

begger family

There have been many recent news items about domestic violence, awful cases where men wipe out their families or drive down the street in peaceful Toronto mowing down women, aiming for them in particular because of an imagined grievance and a load of self-entitlement, terrible, terrible stories of abuse and murder. I thought it was time to write about this subject myself. While I collected my thoughts, a friend wrote to me, asked if she could send me her story and if I would consider publishing it here. I agreed. She wishes to remain anonymous because she’s still involved in a family court system that has doled out its own share of abuse.

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My marriage ended one sleepless night four years ago when I rose from bed for a glass of water and heard the sound of my husband’s phone receive a text. I read four innocent-seeming words, but the meaning was unmistakable. He was having an affair.

A year earlier, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was clear now that my husband had been carrying on an affair the entire time — through the mammogram, the diagnosis, surgery, the grueling treatment, and long months of recovery. There had been signs, no doubt, but I was focused on staying alive and ignored them.

This wasn’t his first affair. I’d forgiven him one ten years earlier when our youngest was an infant. I’d quietly promised myself that no matter how committed I was to our children living in an intact family, I would not stay married if he betrayed me again. When the moment arrived, however, I found myself wavering. That night, I sat for hours cradling his phone in my lap, re-reading the text, and considering the two options before me.

I could pretend I hadn’t seen it. I could creep back into bed, feign illness to explain my emotional distress, never say a word. Based on my experience living for ten years with a man who claimed to love me and yet betrayed me, I knew this would be personally hellish. On the other hand, my silent suffering would shield my children. They could still believe in their father, live comfortably in sheltering ignorance, grow up happy.

It was this thought of my children that pushed the other option into the forefront. One day they would learn the truth, and then what would they think of me? Could they respect me? Would they be invisibly affected by my decision to stay and by all the suffering I would inevitably endure? What was the right answer?

Partner abuse can come on gradually, as it did in my case. And when it does, it’s no less insidious than being thrown against a wall or a sudden punch to the jaw. There’s a well-known anecdote that explains what happens: if you put a frog into boiling water, it will jump out, but if you put it in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will remain in the pot until it’s cooked. That was me. Sitting in a pot, slowly dying, unaware of the danger. The text and the information it held forced me to face the truth and take action.

I knew both options before me would be hard. I knew leaving could in fact be the more difficult road. My husband was controlling and dominating. Over the years I’d learned that if I made him angry, I’d be swiftly punished. Not with punches, but with silences as fierce as curses, and with absences, disrespect, a stinting allowance, and the ever-present threat of another affair. He was used to me appeasing his moods, facilitating his relationships, accepting his demands — all to keep the peace. He is a man of cold rage. I wasn’t afraid of being beaten, but I worried just the same about the forms his revenge would take.

I was right to be worried. What I wasn’t prepared for is how the systems related to the Family Court inherently advantage abusers and allow them to perpetuate further abuse. I hired a lawyer, who quickly exploited my state of shock. My husband learned he could drag out the process and my legal fees would skyrocket. In the end, they were $40,000. I’m told it could have been worse. 

Over the ensuing months, there were costly mediators, social workers, family psychologists, ‘separation programs’, none of which helped in any way. Participating just intensified my pain and stalled healing. It was a way for my husband to ‘pretend’ he wanted an amicable split, when really he was using these professionals to maintain unhealthy control. 

At length, we sorted out a property settlement and our divorce was finalized. I looked forward to moving on. Then, my ex-husband had the idea to sue for custody. In the process, he accused me of alienation, domestic violence, defamation, and insanity. This required further psychological evaluation and more mediation. One unscrupulous mediator required us to continue expensive sessions with her by forcing us to sign a form that said, should either of us back out of her services, she would inform the judge of our unwillingness to cooperate, and it would undoubtedly influence his decision. I was too numb at this stage to recognize this as extortion.

None of his accusations came to anything. I was deemed to be an un-alienating, peaceful, sane, and caring mother. He was found to have a personality disorder. In normal circumstances, this would be a good result. But it’s the opposite for victims of abuse. Every time I read one of the reports, I would cower. The psychologists and social workers perhaps thought they were making things better, but I knew their reports would only further inflame my ex-husband. 

Things got worse when I was awarded 100% custody of our children. He stopped following court orders, refused to pay child support or spousal maintenance (which I had taken in lieu of a retirement amount). He found ways to hide his income and hired an expensive lawyer to have the property settlement discharged. After another year in court, the Judge ruled in his favor. Without solid evidence of hidden resources, he had no choice. 

My ex has objected to every assessment by the Child Support Agency. His thinking is that, as long as an assessment is being reviewed, he shouldn’t have to pay anything to support our children. As soon as the review process is done, he objects again. This is allowed.

That night long ago when I first learned of the affair, I predicted I would be severely punished for ending the marriage. What I wasn’t prepared for is how he would use the system for years to get revenge. Or that the system would let him.

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This is only one story. There are millions like it, each with broken hearts at the bottom of it. And it’s time for all of them to be heard.

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