It seems that the courts would have more sense when it comes to co-parenting with any abuser, but especially a proven-in-a-court-of-law abuser found guilty of domestic violence, child abuse, or any sexual crimes. There is a disconnect between criminal court and family court that endangers our children with the mistaken belief that two parents, of any sort, is preferable to protecting our children from dangerous people.
And yet, many of us find ourselves co-parenting with our abusers. We must allow visitations, and doing so causes great stress. Carmen is “unable to breathe” when her daughters leave to visit their father who was convicted of a sex crime and shows evidence of enjoying child pornography. Can you blame her? She does everything she can legally do to prevent her daughters from going to their father’s home, yet family court allows and enforces the visitation.
Finding Peace When Co-Parenting With Your Abuser
Carmen, like most of us survivors who left abusive relationships after having children with the abuser, feel re-victimized and helpless after our ex-partner receives the go-ahead to continue abusing by the court. Nevertheless, this violations to humanity and good sense become our reality. Our job, believe it or not, is to make this reality more bearable. Being “unable to breathe” when your spouse has the children does not benefit you or the children. In some ways, by NOT finding some peace within this situation, you are allowing your abuser to continue controlling you, whether they know they’re controlling you or not.
Always remember that your children (unless or until they experience abuse) have a much different perspective on their other parent (OP) than you do. In fact, even if OP does sexually or otherwise abuse them, they will always have a different feeling for their OP than you do because OP is their mother/father. I know a 14-year-old, sexually molested by her father for 3 years until she told and he went to jail when she was 12, who contemplates creating a relationship now that he’s out of jail. She knows how bad he is, but he is her daddy. She’s receiving counseling, but the example illustrates what we’re up against so far as protecting our children from their OP. It ain’t gonna happen – at least, not completely and not forever.
Talking badly about OP will only aggravate the situation. Your kids may turn on you – especially if OP turns on the charm and wisely chooses to only insult you in agreement with them (are they teens yet? When they are, believe me, they will play you two against one another like a banjo duel!)
SO – what can you do for yourself? For your kids?
Do everything you can legally to protect your children and keep detailed records concerning their time with OP. Remember that the law cannot charge until a crime is committed, and if/when that crime is committed, your detailed records of how much time they spend with their OP, what they do with them, and their comments regarding their visit will be crucial.
Do not insult their OP in their presence. (We’ll get into how to talk about OP’s behaviors in a minute.) Insulting OP will drive a wedge between you and your kids, no matter what their age. Plus, when the kids high-tail it over to OP’s place, OP will get every bit of that damaging information from them (willingly or through coercion). You know OP – OP will use it to build a case against you.
Educate your children about bullying and sexual abuse. Use examples from the news or just have conversations on those topics regularly. The talks don’t have to be a big deal – just an offhand comment like “I saw on the news today that a little girl was hurt by her mommy (use the female gender in your examples too!). The little girl stayed quiet about it but she felt so horrible that she killed herself today. Do you know who you can talk to if one of your friends are hurt by their parents?” (I don’t know how old your children are, but make the conversation age appropriate).
It is okay for your kids to know that OP hurt you and how. This is your experience, and you have the right to share your experience and wisdom with your children. You can even tell them that you worry about them when they aren’t with you, and that is why you prepared a safety plan for ALL of you, just in case something bad happens.
Create an age-appropriate safety plan with or for your children. Provide them with any tools they need to enact their safety plan (cell phone for emergencies only? contact numbers for you and family near where their OP lives?…) Write a phone list on a piece of paper and put it in their bag. Let them know where it’s placed (hidden) without any fanfare. You know how kids are – if you make a big deal of the phone list, they’ll be sure to mention it to OP.
You can also program the numbers into their emergency or personal cell phones, but make sure they have a hard copy, too. The phone list should include phone numbers for OP’s family members too, just in case OP finds it. Remember, this safety plan should appear to be as neutral as possible and designed to cover any generally scary situation – not specific to their OP.
With your conversations about abuse of all kinds and through sharing your experience and what you know about their OP, your kids will understand, in the back of their minds, that they have to watch out for OP, too. This is unsettling enough for your children. Knowing that you can’t really trust someone who says they love you is difficult, to say the least. As a prior victim of abuse, I am sure you understand the conflict that knowledge creates.
As time goes on, you will feel more comfortable when they leave to see OP. You will know they are educated about abuse, and that they have a good plan in place to help them if they get scared. On your side of things, you will know you’re doing everything possible to cover yourself legally – whether OP accuses you of trying to turn them against him (parental alienation) or you discover that OP did abuse your children.
To gain the clearest picture of what happens at OP’s home, you must detach from the possibility of what could happen and focus on the facts, the ones you can gather through what your kids tell you and what you see for yourself during drop-offs/pick-ups. Your imagination, worry and fear have no place in the protection of your children – you must learn to detach from OP and the possibilities if you want to gather the facts.
Send them to their OP’s prepared, and welcome them home with love. While they’re gone, learn some relaxation and visualization techniques to help you through the rough spots and begin to create a life for yourself, too.
To sum it up:
1.) Keep Detailed Records
2.) No OP insults in their presence.
3.) Educate about and discuss with them bullying, sexual abuse, and your experience with their OP (age-appropriately)
4.) Create a safety plan that is easy for them to remember.
5.) TRUST that your children are armed with the best, most loving information possible.
6.) Detach from the abuser by learning to observe them objectively instead of with your heart.
6.) Learn to live your own life in their absence.
If you try this plan, I truly believe you will find some peace. You’ve spent your whole life protecting your kids from their OP – you did it even before you realized OP was an abuser because there were signs that something was wrong. I know in my heart that you’ve dedicated your every waking moment to them.
However,…your reality is different now. They spend time away from you with the person you fear. This would naturally cause anyone to “be unable to breathe” when the children leave. But your reaction, although understandable and genuine, must change if you are to be the clear-headed and intuitive person who parents their children with great love. You must learn to let go, just a little, and make room for you in this life of yours. It will feel strange to ask yourself, “What do I want to do today?” with excitement instead of reacting to everything going on with your children and their OP with fear. But in time, the guilt will disappear, you will find better ways to spend your time away from them, and you will become better able to handle the stress of co-parenting with an abuser.
This article by attorney Ashley Buckman Schepens is helpful from paragraph four down.
This one by Deesha Philyaw is also a good one with lots of resource links.