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Co-Parenting With An Abuser

All of us survivors know that our ex will at least verbally and emotionally abuse our children. We survivors also know how hard that type of abuse is to prove, and even proving it doesn’t mean your ex will have less time with our children. Proving non-sexual or non-physical abuse typically results in therapy if it results in anything at all. Therapy doesn’t work unless the abuser wants to change. They don’t want to change which is the reason you left them in the first place.

If you are in this position, then you have to fight back through education and love. That is easier said than done, but it is very important to “do it” more often than you don’t.

  • Educate your kids about bullies, sexual predators, and dating violence.
  • Empathize with them when their other parent hurts them, remind them how great they are, and have faith that your children are smart cookies who will continue to talk to you about their problems.
  • Introduce your children to therapy, keep your eyes open for signs and symptoms of abuse, and report any allegations or proof of sexual or physical violence as soon as you see it.
  • Create a new safety plan with your children. Make sure they know what they can do if they feel afraid while at your ex’s house. You may have to be very careful about this because focusing on “what to do if you’re at mom’s house and she starts hitting you” could have negative effects. Instead, create a safety plan for your home, the babysitter’s, grandma’s, their friend’s and your ex’s. Make it a general “what to do if I am scared” plan without singling anyone out, then practice it with them.

Yes, it feels horrible to know that your kids cannot escape the emotional manipulation and pain like you did through separation or divorce. It is very difficult to cope with your kids’ visits to your ex when you truly believe it is but a matter of time before your children are injured on the outside too. It is a helpless feeling to watch them go off to your ex’s home, knowing “something bad” is waiting for them there. However, you cannot allow yourself to remain attached to your abuser through the children. So long as you feel like a victim (out of powerlessness to help your kids like you want to) you will remain a victim.

Remind yourself that now you are free of your ex’s daily abuse, much stronger and smarter, and therefore in a better position to support your children in helpful ways. When you lived with abuse, you did not have the freedom to combat it that you do today. Remember to be grateful that you set an example for your children and try to stop beating yourself up every time they visit their other parent. Your kids visit your abuser because the court says they have to do so, not because you want it that way.

Forgive yourself for being unable to protect them 100% from their abusive parent. You can’t protect them all of the time anyway. Children must learn hard lessons about all kinds of things on their own. They will be grateful that you were there for them, their safe place, if the other parent abuses them. They’ll see the difference in the two of you in time. Let that awareness be as natural for them as possible (meaning don’t habitually point out the other parent’s flaws even if they talk badly about you).

Protect Yourself

You are no good to your children if you allow yourself to be abused by your ex.

  • If you stay on the phone while your ex admonishes you for your poor parenting skills so you can eventually talk to them about the kids, you’re allowing the abuse to continue. Hang up the phone at the first insult and send an email instead. Write only about the children.
  • Don’t allow your ex to enter your house without knocking and respect their home in the same way.
  • Keep your personal boundaries strong. Let your children see that your ex can’t get to you (at least not for long). They need to see you as separate from your ex; they need to know they have two homes, two parents, two different families to love. (They do love their other parent, always will – let them, and be there without “I told you so” if your ex lets them down.)

Your way of parenting will not affect your ex’s ideas about parenting. Don’t let their way of parenting affect yours. The idea is to work with your ex when it is reasonable to do so, but remember that you have separate homes and separate lives. You get to set the rules at your house.

  • Don’t let them talk you into spanking when you prefer time-outs, not even “for consistency between households”.
  • If your ex grounds your daughter from her cell phone (for good reasons) but you feel more comfortable if she has it on her at school, then take it from her as soon as she gets home.
  • Drop any expectation that your ex will enforce a punishment you set for your child while the child visits them.

Realize that your children will play you against your ex sometimes. Your kids are smart; they know both of their parent’s well. Our kids do not label us “bad” and “good” people. We’re “mom” and “dad”. If you think you’re being played and that your child is doing something dangerous, email your ex to tell them about it.

  • You may get no response or your ex could degrade you for your thoughts, but keep in mind that, most likely, your ex wants your children alive and well too (If they don’t, you probably have proof of that and already took it to the authorities).
  • If you receive a nasty reply, read it (I know you will), then archive it. I add my ex’s emails to a folder labeled “Jerk” – it feels really good to hit the button sending it to that folder! I save them just in case I need proof of something in the future. I don’t reread them, and I don’t give them a second thought. I did what I needed to do when I informed him about our child.

Remember that you cannot see the future. Your gut instincts and intuition do not determine destiny. Your fears may never come true. Trust that if they do, you will have the presence of mind to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons.

Do the best you can today. Take a deep breath, hug and kiss your kids, and talk to them. Parent the best way you know how, keep educating yourself so you can teach your kids how to live free of abuse, and keep your ex abuser’s voice out of your decisions.

Keep your focus on your relationship with your child. How your ex fixes or screws up their relationship with your child is beyond your control.

You can do this. It isn’t easy, but you can do it.


You can find Kellie Jo Holly on her website, Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.


108 thoughts on “Co-Parenting With An Abuser”

  1. This is terrible advice. Bail on the children to protect yourself? This goes against all nurturing tendencies of a parent. Better off to stay in the relationship–this is the only way to fully protect the child. Get a counselor and support team who can support you on your very difficult life journey. Document everything so that if worse comes to worse, you have evidence to present to the courts.

    1. Staying in the relationship would only teach your children that it’s ok to allow yourself to be treated that way. You are your child’s role model, and if they see you being regularly abused, then they will go into relationships of the same type. There is no easy decision, but you can be the guidance to help teach them self-awareness. Staying in an abusive relationship if far more detrimental to a child’s well-being in the long run. I left my ex when I was a few months pregnant, and I am so happy that I did. It’s still a fight, but I stand my ground with what is right, and won’t allow him to take our son if he is unable to control his emotions. Both choices are difficult, but with leaving an abusive partner you are teaching your child how to protect themselves.

  2. Here is where I struggle: I know my husband is an abusive and mentally ill man. So how do I leave him and then leave my small children to fend for themselves? He has endless resources and much like a sociopath, can mamake himself seem like a very likeable and “fit” parent and human being, as needed. I am so afraid for my children to have to deal with what my stepchild had to deal with. Also, when I threaten to leave him, he says he’s going to call CPS on me (with lies). I just see the road being so difficult for both me and my kids so I just keep sticking it out. But I also feel myself falling into depression, anger and despair. Has anyone ever been in this situation? I keep hoping his mental
    Illness will lead to proof that he is unfit…probably a long shot.

    1. I wish I had better news but this article seems trite. Courts ordered me to go be abused by myself with my father when my parents split. I fear they would do the same to my child. I bend over backwards to pacify my ex to remain in a limbo where his Aspergers abuse dictates our lives, just so I can keep his time with my child supervised because I don’t trust the courts to do what’s in my child’s best interest. They’d be more concerned about the abuser’s rights than the child’s.

    2. I was married for 19 years to an abuser. I finally left when my children were old enough to decide if they want to be around him. I’m so glad I stayed to protect them but glad I am out now. My children were 18, 16 & 14. They want very little to do with him and we are all in counseling. When I was married I made it all about the kids and I. I avoided my husband as much as possible. Yes it is a sad way to live but I was protecting my kids. When we divorced it was almost like nothing changed…it is still the kids and I. They don’t miss him at all, and see him less and less.

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