Jennifer* grew up in a loving, two-parent household in the suburbs. She didn’t think she was in an abusive marriage but she knew that after five years and two kids, she had to get out. On the day he started screaming at her in front of her mom, she decided she’d had enough. She kicked him out.
It was only later that someone gave her a label for what she had experienced: domestic violence or intimate partner terrorism.
“I was so naïve,” admitted Jennifer, age 41. “I am an example of someone who is educated and grew up in a loving home, but had no idea that emotional, financial, or psychological abuse existed – or what it was.”
A business and French major, Jennifer had gone back to earn her master’s from Carlson in business management. She dated Dave* for two years and they got married in 2011. Their son was born in 2013, and their daughter was an infant in 2016 when they split up.
No, she didn’t see any signs
“The number one question I get is ‘Did I see any signs?’” Jennifer pointed out.
“No I didn’t. That question isn’t helpful. People think I went to Vegas and married a douchebag. When we first started dating, he came across as very alluring.” He was well-groomed, took care of himself and was attractive. “He didn’t fit the mold of what I thought an abuser would be,” she said.
Now, Jennifer knows she’s the typical victim. “We’re all helpers,” she observed. “We’re all pleasers.”
When they were dating, Dave might mention that his back hurt. She was quick to call the chiropractor for him to schedule an appointment. She’d feel good that he felt better. “Five years later, you’re exhausted from doing everything for him and not helping yourself,” Jennifer said.
He always came across as a victim, even from the start – something she knows now should have been a red flag. His family life was horrible. He believed everyone was mean to him at his job. When he took a class, he leaned on Jennifer to do the work. All of his past relationships failed because of the women he was with. Things were never his fault.
Jennifer used to think that being abused in a marriage meant black eyes and physical beatings. But Dave never hit her.
He engaged in gaslighting behavior, telling her she was misremembering what he’d said and pretending that other things never happened. When they moved into their newly-built dream house in the suburbs, a fixture in their master bathroom didn’t work, so Jennifer had to use a bathroom down the hall to blow dry her hair. It was a bit of a hassle. One morning, tired from a night awake with her baby, Jennifer absent-mindedly plugged the blow dryer into the outlet – and it worked. She excitedly told her husband about it, and asked when he had fixed it. “It always worked,” he responded. “What are you talking about?”
Jennifer remarked, “He tried to make me feel crazy.”
During an argument, he would go on and on, and keep her up late. Other nights, he’d wake her up every two hours. She was exhausted. When she’d finally leave the room for a break, and then come back ready to talk anew about the 3.5-hour-long conversation they’d just had, he’d look at her and deny it occurred. At other times, he’d refuse to talk about something unless she could remember word for word exactly what he’d said previously – down to the right pronoun.
Everything was always Jennifer’s fault.
He’d hide her computer mouse or her keys. After she looked through the entire house, she’d find the item in the room where she had started, the room where he was.
He spent all their money and racked up credit card bills, buying things for himself but not Jennifer or the kids. “It was always about him,” said Jennifer. He was arrogant and entitled. At one time when they were strapped for cash, Jennifer agreed to give up a hobby for the month and let him take the $200 to attend a family event without her. He blew that and more at a casino – and never said thanks. He earned thousands in cash at side jobs, telling her he made less than he actually did. He quit a well-paying job and relied on her to cover their living expenses.
Every house they ever lived in had holes in the walls. He’d punch the walls or throw items at the walls. “He would hit other thing that hit me,” said Jennifer, even when she was pregnant. In fact, she’s learned that abusers often intensify when a woman is pregnant or they have a child because the attention isn’t focused on them anymore. When she was pregnant with their son, she shut a door and he kicked it open, hitting her so hard she fell down. When she’d tried to leave a room, he’d stand in the doorway and block her exit.
Sometimes she’d call Dave’s mom to come help. She found out later that his mom had helped remove the guns in every house he had ever lived in. That’s the kind of information she wishes someone would have told her before they got serious.
Dave said a lot of put-downs, Jennifer recalled. When she called him out on the mean things he had said, he’d retort, “Kidding, just kidding! You need to learn how to take a joke.” He tried to isolate her from family members and friends. He bullied and manipulated and lied, while showing her just enough affection here and there to give her hope.
These incidences didn’t happen every day. “This type of abuser will play the victim and then seem ‘normal’ for awhile before another incident,” observed Jennifer. “Each time I would make excuses for his behavior and there would be many days in between the next incident. The longer I was with him, the shorter the time in between incidents became. In the beginning it was maybe only monthly, if that. By the time I left, it was probably every other day.”
On the day Jennifer had finally had enough, it wasn’t that it was worse than it had ever been, but that the thousands of straws piled together finally broke the camel’s back. They had an infant, and he wouldn’t her sleep. So her mom came over so that she could get more than 45 minutes every three hours. Jennifer laid down and Dave came in to change the garbage can in their room, upset that she wasn’t cleaning their house. Then Dave insisted they run errands. Jennifer gave in, got up, and left with Dave. When they finally got back home, she was beyond exhausted. He started yelling at her in front of her mom.
“Because my ex showed his behavior to my close family member, it become real and I something I had to get out of,” said Jennifer.
Abuse affects kids, too
To help resolve disputes after their divorce, they were assigned to a parenting consultant (PC) with the understanding that they would split the fees equally. They did an intake together, and then meet separately with the PC, who immediately referred Jennifer to the Domestic Abuse Project (DAP) in Minneapolis after seeing the interactions between the two of them. “When he said that to me, I was so confused. Because he’s so mean to me verbally in the things he says?” Jennifer recalls asking. “I didn’t quite get it.”
But she did start a 16-week support group at DAP in late 2016, and it was life-changing. When she heard the stories that the other women in her support group told, she couldn’t help but cry. “They all said something that was just like my life,” said Jennifer. “It was freaky.” One in three women have been in an abusive relationship, which means that Jennifer is far from being alone in her experiences.
She admits, “I feel ashamed and stupid that I should have known better, but also so glad and strong for getting out. It also was important to hear that these men, more than likely, will not change. I stuck around for a long time hoping he would change... that never will happen.”
In her support group, Jennifer learned that abuse isn’t just physical and verbal. It’s also psychological, sexual, financial, and emotional. And it doesn’t just affect the mom when a dad engages in intimate partner terrorism. It negatively affects the kids, too, and those issues continue after the divorce.
“When I left my abuser my kids were tiny (newborn and 3-years-old). My son had already started having issues with anxiety,” said Jennifer. “During our separation and long process to divorce, my son developed emotional trauma/PTSD. He has issues learning and issues with memory. He has regressed and speaks in ‘baby talk,’ and gets frustrated easily. Overall, both kids are extremely attached to me – and have to sleep with me at night.”
Both have a lot of emotional issues compared to their peers and have trouble focusing.
One of the things that Jennifer learned during her support group really sticks with her: “If you help a mom, you help the kids.”
No justice in family court
Jennifer has not found justice in the court system. Instead, Dave has continued to abuse her, changing some of his tactics but not the controlling behavior and disrespect that drive his actions. “He can be as abusive to me as he wants and there are no repercussions,” Jennifer said.
When it came time to sell their dream house after the divorce, he moved back in and refused to cooperate with a real estate agent in order to put the house on the market. He wouldn’t respond to emails about the sale. Jennifer didn’t have enough money to pay the bills due to the financial abuse and had to move back in with her parents. The high cost of continuing legal bills means that she’s still living with her parents.
Mediation didn’t work. “It didn’t matter what I said, he said no. He was that entitled,” said Jennifer.
When it was time to exchange the kids, he would give her an address in Blaine. Then he would tell her they were actually in Chanhassen And then he’d say they were in Woodbury. If she responded that he could drop them off at her house, he’d refuse and insist that she come to him. A PC advised her to do that anyway, and then go home and wait. But she struggled with her kids’ needs, to eat and go to bed and not be pawns in a game of power and control, and how to balance those things. Today, she’s protected somewhat by an order to exchange the kids at a local police station, thanks to a PC ruling.
There isn’t much she has to say that’s positive about the court system she’s now been involved in for three and a half years.
Jennifer has been shocked that the court system recognizes that Dave is abusive and has mental health issues, but has still granted him overnights with the children. “When people hear just a portion of my story they assume I have full custody,” she observed. “People outside of divorce have no idea that custody equals three things: physical, legal, and parenting time.”
Jennifer and Dave have shared joint physical and legal custody since their divorce, which means they have to reach decisions together on things like education and health. “He always wants more parenting time because if he gets it, he pays me less child support,” said Jennifer. Dave currently has their 6 and 4-year-old for two overnights once a week, 24 hours at a time. Jennifer is concerned about her kids during that time as their dad doesn’t always feed them, refuses to take them to a doctor when they have a fever, “forgets” about occupational therapy appointments, leaves them sitting in poopy pants, and ignores safety issues.
“I picked up my son one day and he had a Cascade dishwasher pod in his mouth,” recalled Jennifer. When she said something about the dangerous poison to Dave, he yelled at her. “Don’t tell me what to do on my parenting time!”
When she asked the PC about it, she was told, “Something needs to happen for something to happen.” In other words, the child needs to be hospitalized, require surgery, or die for the court system to restrict his parenting time. “The slogan should be ‘Reactive not proactive,’” said Jennifer, who wishes that the courts would put the well-being of children first and enforce the statues that limit parenting time and custody in cases of domestic violence.
“It’s sad because the system is so reactionary. Instead, when abuse is proven, all custody should be given to the non-abusive parent, and the abusive parent should need to earn their way back,” said Jennifer. “Sadly, I do not see the system changing.”
It doesn’t take long for Dave to get mad and fire a PC, leaving Jennifer to pay the bills. It takes about three months or longer to get another one, and things are pretty difficult during that time as he refuses to follow any previous agreements.
‘You need to get along for your kids’
Jennifer has been frustrated when they get a new professional involved in their family as each time they tell her they will be drawing a line in the sand and moving forward, and that the past is in the past. She believes that what has happened before is important to know to understand what they’ve already done and what their situation is, but is told to essentially forget about the past. Move on.
And so it keeps repeating itself.
It’s a situation that’s common enough to have its own term: domestic abuse by proxy or post-separation abuse, as in domestic abuse through the kids after the couple has split up.
The police in her city know them by name because of how often Dave has called complaining that she is withholding the kids from him when they’re sick or when it’s not actually his parenting time. He threatens and yells at Jennifer and her parents regularly at their home. But it is never enough for the police or courts to take action. Recently, their new judge told them he wasn’t going to restrict Dave’s involvement despite his threats and parental negligence because “he loves his kids.”
Jennifer often hears the refrain, “You need to get along for the sake of your kids. You guys need to figure this out for your kids.”
She asks, “How do I?”
Editor’s note: *Names changed for protection.
Contact editor at Tesha@MonitorSaintPaul.com
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