Understanding Divorce Terrorism

Understanding Divorce Terrorism

Most often, the victim of Divorce Terrorism is the victim of long-term domestic violence of a kind that is subtle, manipulative and controlling, yet because of the nature of the abuse and the pervasive gaslighting that occurs in this type of relationship, the victims often question whether they are actually the one who “deserves” such behavior.  These victims have been taught, through years of abuse and fear that they cannot trust themselves, that they will not be ok if they leave, or that if they leave, their abuser will “burn them down”. 

When N first met with me, her first words to me were the words I have heard so often in cases that are about to get complicated:  I know what I’m about to say sounds crazy. 

I know what I’m about to say sounds crazy.

What tends to come after this statement is a litany of thoughts and feelings that come tumbling out like a drowning person gasping for air: 

I can’t believe I found myself in this position. 

I’m going to lose everything. 

No one will believe me. 

I feel so alone. 

I’m scared.

What I have found is when people who have been in relationships with mentally ill individuals, -and here I mean individuals with a diagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), and those who have severe alcohol or substance abuse issues – there are two characteristics that become evident at the outset, and may be keeping you from moving forward with the life you deserve without you even being conscious of it. 

1. Gaslighting.

No one will believe me when I tell them what he is really like because he has everyone fooled.

I’m going to mess this up, too.

This is all my fault. 

I know I don’t deserve what I’m entitled to because …

I don’t want to fight this person because I will lose. 

Gaslighting is common in relationships with any kind of power struggle: it is a psychological approach that makes the victim question their own reality or their own validity. It is so pervasive and common that it becomes a part of the mythology of the relationship.  

When N first met with me, I could sense she had experienced extreme gaslighting: her demeanor was apologetic and hesitant because she had been trained to believe that it was her behavior that caused him to react the way he did. In her head, she heard her husband’s threats that if she tried to divorce him he would take her kids, leave her destitute, burn her down because she would mess this is up, too.  

The hallmarks of gaslighting are blame shifting, minimizing your thoughts or feelings by making you believe that their feelings are what matter and you are being histrionic. They will distract you, discredit you, make you believe you deserved it. They lie, and a part of you believes it, but the part of you that doesn’t is that part of you that shows up at my office.   

2. Isolation.

She has isolated me from everyone in my family. 

I have lost contact with all of my friends.

I don’t know where the money is. 

Isolation is an attempt to trap the abused party by slowly eliminating options. 

If you have no friends or family you talk to regularly, no one will remind you of who you used to be, or how most relationships function, or point out that what your partner is doing is wrong.

If you don’t know how much money there is, how you spend money can easily be manipulated by threats that “there isn’t enough”. If you don’t know where the money is, you can never save up enough to leave. 

If you don’t talk to others about what you are experiencing, then you will never realize how bad it is. You slowly lose your frame of reference of what a “normal” relationship is. Have you heard the metaphor about how to boil a frog? If you put the frog in a pot of boiling water, they will try to escape.  If you put them in cool water and slowly turn up the heat to boiling, the frog won’t try to escape and will be boiled alive.  Non-physical abuse tends to slowly increase over time but is often not noticeable to the person experiencing the abuse.  

It is important to note that gaslighting and isolation do not stop just because you have filed a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. In fact, most abusers ramp up their behavior in an attempt to regain control. They will claim you don’t need an attorney (“attorneys will only drain all our money”), that mediation is an option (“I already made you a great offer”), or they will make power moves, such as forcing you out of the house while the kids stay with them, closing all the bank accounts to starve you into submission, etc. It is important to have a plan before you take the first step, and you should never have to take that first step alone. 

At Hart Ginney, we believe in a team approach because divorce is difficult enough without having to navigate the destructive mental health issues of your spouse. You don’t have to go through the process alone. Establishing a support team at the outset of your divorce can make a significant difference in how the divorce impacts your own health and welfare. If you are afraid of the next step, start by talking to someone who understands what you are facing and what options are available to you. We are a happy to set up a consultation with you or your current legal team to discuss options.   

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