How Do I Divorce My Abusive Wife?
I received the following email from a man who has finally realized that he is in an abusive marriage and that he needs to divorce. He describes his abusive wife’s behavior and concludes by asking, “How do those of us entrenched in these horrific relationships get out? What is the first step?” My reply follows:
Hello Dr. Tara
I’m so “happy” to have found your blog “A Shrink for Men” and have, within the last 12 hours, read every single article that you have published so far.
I am sitting at work having just spent the day doing absolutely nothing. This isn’t because I’ve been moping over my wife’s last screaming and yelling fit, but because during my wife’s last outburst she took my work computer and tossed it to the floor, fatally damaging the disks and losing me many months worth of documents and emails. Why such an extreme outburst? I bought her a spiral bound notebook instead of a glued notebook – who would have thought? – and she became quite aggressive: “you cant do anything right!”, “I should have done it myself”, “you just don’t care!”, “you’re an a**hole”. I made the mistake of telling her that I wasn’t taking this and that I would go upstairs and do some work. That’s when the bomb went off.
Today, of course, I lied to my boss and said that I had tripped on a child’s toy and the laptop had slipped out of my hand. How could I admit that my wife had grabbed it off my desk and lobbed it across a room? There’s quite a bit of stigma attached to “not being able to control one’s own wife” and I’m not taking any risks. As it is, I don’t think it really matters. This marriage has put such a strain on me that my once fantastic career is in tatters and within the next few weeks I will be facing the dole queue. I have watched myself go from being a successful, happy, professional with a lots of friends to a depressed, henpecked, debt-ridden, isolated man.
She is the absolute dictator of my life. She controls my finances, who I see, what time I come home from work. I have to take my shower by 10 o’clock, take off my shoes when I come into the house, feed/bathe the baby when I get home from my 12-hour working day, take care of said baby when she decides to go out with friends. Failure to do any of these things results in insults, silent treatments, screaming, yelling. Of course the content is usually the same: I am worthless, I do not take responsibility for my family, I am lazy, I am inconsiderate, I do not listen, ad infinitum. Any decision she makes is final and enforced while all of my decisions are up for debate.
Oh, I didn’t mention that she doesn’t work in any real sense. Last year she had the idea that she wanted to run a web business, so I helped her set it up (read: I did most of the work). Our baby is in day-care so that she can work, and I can honestly say that within the last 3 months, I don’t think she has put a single hour into her business. That’s not to say that she’s not interested in her work as all her friends know that she’s a “business owner” and that she “has an accountant”. All of this goes to her somewhat self-processed independence. She hasn’t brought in a penny since the business started. Of course, I don’t see a penny of my quite significant salary. It all goes into maintaining the house, our child and whichever whim she’s on (new front door, lumberjack to unnecessarily chop down trees, in-house child minder, groceries for her out of work sister….)
I have let her ride roughshod over me for so long that my finances and support network are gone. House payments will be due, there is my son to take care of, and I could well be out of work within a few weeks.
So my question is simple. How do those of us entrenched in these horrific relationships get out? What is the first step?
What is the first step to getting out of this kind of relationship? Be very clear about what you want to do and then pursue it clearly, purposefully and strategically. Don’t harbor any illusions about divorcing this kind of woman. A difficult wife equals a difficult divorce. Think of all her worst personality traits and then multiply them by 1,000. The divorce process is designed to be adversarial and will compound her entitlement issues, deceptions, distortions, vindictive streak and general cruelty.
Here’s what I tell my clients who are about to begin the divorce process:
1. Don’t tip your hand. Don’t let your wife know what you’re thinking about doing. Many men make the mistake of trying to be noble and honest. They believe they’re obligated to be up front with their abusive wives and tell them what they’re planning. Big mistake. Huge mistake. Alternatively, many men think telling their abusive wife that they want a divorce will scare her straight. It might get her to be nice to you for a short time, but it won’t last. Plus, that gives her time to make her own plans and or stage a drama and call the police on you.
First, you can’t be straightforward with someone who has no sense of right and wrong other than she’s always right and you’re always wrong. You can’t be open and transparent with someone who deliberately tries to hurt you. If you offer this information to her on a silver platter, she will use it to hurt you. This is a battle for your financial, physical and psychological freedom. Do not underestimate how low she will go just to “make you pay.”
This kind of woman views divorce as the ultimate rejection. It’s a huge narcissistic injury. The primary reaction to a narcissistic injury is rage and violence. The violence may not be physical. However, purposefully setting out to bankrupt you and destroy your relationships with others—including your own children—is an especially cruel form of violence.
You need time to plan without her trying to manipulate and railroad you. I know it’s difficult. It was probably hard for you to set and enforce boundaries with this woman during your marriage. It is imperative that you and your attorney do so during the divorce.
Lastly, don’t talk to mutual friends and family members about this unless you’re absolutely certain that they won’t betray your confidence. I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to keep her in the dark during the earliest stages. Don’t think of it as lying; think of it as not volunteering information. Don’t fall into the familiar pattern of being her hapless victim when it comes to divorce.
2. Do your homework. Visit divorce and father’s rights websites. Schedule consultations with attorneys in your area. You want to find a lawyer who:
- Has experience and is respected in your local family court.
- Has experience working with high conflict personalities. That’s lawyer talk for crazy Cluster B women and men.
- Has experience working with negative advocates. Controlling abusive women gravitate toward attorneys who are adversarial (or more adversarial than the norm), drag out the legal process (to inflate fees) and encourage them to make up false abuse allegations. Water seeks its own level, so you want representation that knows how to handle “peers” who engage in what should be illegal law practices.
- Inspires realistic confidence. How your attorney handles your divorce will impact your quality of life for years to come—including access to your children if applicable. Don’t go for the cheapest representation (by the way, the most expensive attorneys aren’t necessarily the best). If your attorney is incompetent, an appeaser or doesn’t have experience with high conflict personalities, it will end up costing you far more than attorney’s fees in the long run.
3. Documentation. Start keeping a record of abusive incidents—especially if they occur in front of the children. Invest in a small digital recorder to keep on your person. If you do a lot of direct childcare, keep a record of how many days you drive them to school, bathe them, prepare their meals, watch them, attend parent-teacher meetings, etc. This will serve as evidence when your wife later claims that she does most or all of the childcare and should thus have full custody.
The digital recorder will also come in handy if your wife is the type who likes to call the police. Remember unless you have some record of what goes on behind closed doors, it’s your word against hers. You can be the one with the black eye and cut lip and the cops will still cart you off to the county jail.
4. Protect your ass-ets. Many abusive woman take financial control in their marriages—especially when they don’t actually have a job. This has always mystified me. Nevertheless, if your wife has kept you in the dark regarding your finances, it’s time to get up to speed.
Begin to quietly (i.e., don’t alert her to what you’re doing) gather copies of any and all financial records that you can get your hands on. Scan them and put them on multiple disks or thumbdrives that you can store in a safe place. Create a new email that she can’t access. Get a personal mail box if necessary. If she monitors your calls, get a new pay-as-you-go phone for divorce related communication and keep the phone in a safe place. Don’t surf divorce websites on your home computer if she tracks your internet activities. Use your work computer or go to the public library.
These four steps are just the beginning of the process. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst possible case scenarios. Don’t be duped by your wife. Many of these women claim that they want to amicably separate, but their actions belie their words. You don’t want to be wondering 6 months into the divorce process how she managed to trick you and twist things around just like she did in the marriage. Figure out what leverage you have and then maximize it.
Rest assured, if your wife has shown you little to no empathy, has treated you unfairly and made outrageous demands during your marriage; she will be the same, if not worse, during your divorce. Even if she is the one who initiates the divorce, this kind of woman typically has a seek and destroy attitude. You know too much about her and for that, you must be punished and discredited. If this kind of woman “wins” in the divorce, she takes it as proof that she’s in the “right”—the “injured party”—and you’re the bad guy. Your assets and shared children become her war trophies.
Pretend you’re planning to invade the beaches of Normandy. That’s the degree of thoroughness and secrecy that’s required when trying to free yourself from one of these women. Also, don’t let her push your buttons. If you lose your cool at any time throughout the process, it will be used against you. Negative advocates have been known to coach their female clients on “how to get him to hit you.” It’s sick, it happens and you need to be prepared for anything. The good news is that once you get through the process, you can start to rebuild your life rather than let her stress and torture you into an early grave.
Shrink4Men Coaching and Consultation Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.
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