Few situations in marriage can leave you feeling more powerless and afraid than being in an abusive relationship with your husband.
It is not a situation that happens overnight. Abuse is a gradual process that goes down a long and dangerous slope and creates far-reaching emotional, physical and financial consequences.
There are steps an abused wife can take to escape, but these take planning and effort while still trying to manage the day-to-day minefields of an abusive marriage.
Recognizing the signs of abuse, understanding the motivations of the abuser and why an abused wife continues to stay in a marriage are all keys to a greater awareness that must be reckoned with as part of the process.
Ruth Darlene, M.A. is an educator, domestic violence advocate, social entrepreneur and Founder and Executive Director of WomenSV (Women of Silicon Valley), a domestic violence 501(c)(3) non-profit that serves women in middle-to-upper income areas who are trapped in relationships with powerful and wealthy abusers.
She also trains physicians, therapists, court staff and law enforcement to help them become more trauma-informed in serving victims of an abusive marriage.
I recently talked with Darlene about the symptoms of an abusive marriage and what steps a woman needs to take to divorce an abusive husband.
An Interview with Ruth Darlene, Domestic Financial Abuse Expert
What is domestic violence?
Ruth Darlene: Domestic violence used to be defined by the Department of Justice to include emotional abuse, psychological abuse, acts of coercive control, acts that make a woman, or make a victim feel afraid.
This also includes financial abuse, threatening gestures, intimidating behaviors that don’t necessarily involve physical contact.
Basically, it’s abusing power in order to control an intimate partner.
That’s how the Department of Justice was viewing domestic violence up until January of 2019.
As of February of 2019, the Department of Justice narrowed its definition of domestic violence to include only misdemeanors and felony acts.
That’s very concerning because let’s say a woman is just starting to do her own research and she goes on various websites looking for information, she’s totally lost the initial stages where she might have a better chance of extricating herself with less damage.
She may have no idea that what’s happening to her is a form of coercive control, which is emotional abuse, micromanaging her everyday activities and making her feel like a prisoner in her own home.
That’s a liberty crime because it’s everybody’s fundamental human right to be free and safe in their own home. And when you start to exercise that abuse of power over an intimate partner, you’re infringing on that right to be free and safe in your home.
Evan Stark wrote a book called Coercive Control and spearheaded a project that resulted in coercive control including financial abuse becoming illegal in parts of the United Kingdom.
We have a long way to go to catch up with the United Kingdom in that regard.
You touched on this, but what are the warning signs of domestic violence? What should people look out for?
It’s best to start by distinguishing between domestic violence and domestic abuse.
When we think of violence, we think of physical acts of aggression that often result in physical harm. When we think of abuse, we talk about abuse of power and there aren’t always bruises, scars or broken bones to show for that.
Domestic violence is an assault on the body. Domestic abuse includes an assault on the mind, on the spirit, and includes things like emotional abuse, technological abuse, financial abuse, and legal abuse.
These are things that get inside a woman’s heart and soul–and sometimes the man’s heart and soul–and works to dismantle their identity over time, contributing to their feeling of not having any power in the relationship and sometimes, ultimately in the world.
It’s incremental and it’s an insidious step-by-step chipping away at their self-esteem, their identity, and their sense of autonomy.
And most of the time, it’s women who are the victims?
From the reports we have, 85 to 95 percent of victims of domestic violence are female. But although my program is called Women of Silicon Valley, WomenSV serves women most of the time. I get about one or two male survivors per year.
The early warning signs of violence and abuse can be subtle.
Let’s say a couple is going out to a restaurant, and he wants to order for her, or he comes to pick her up on a date, and he suggests that she tries on another color or another outfit.
Or the advice that he’s giving her is starting to sound more pressuring, like do you really think you’re ready for that job promotion?
Let’s say she’s a writer, and she gives him something to look at before sending it in to get published, does his help begin with a few suggestions? Over time does he start to rewrite paragraphs? And in the end, does she end up feeling like she’s completely got writer’s block because, suddenly whatever she says is subject to his scrutiny, criticism, and found lacking some way?
Early signs can maybe be a joke here or there at her expense or teasing in front of other people. And then if she comments on that afterward, how does he respond to that? Is he throwing it back at her and telling her that she’s too sensitive?
Or can’t she take a joke or saying, oh, it’s just to lighten the mood, take the edge off, meanwhile putting her down so that he can feel more secure himself?
Perhaps he gaslights her and says, “I never said that,” or, “I would never say that.”
He could just begin to make her question her own memory of how things really played out.
Gaslighting is invisible. It’s one of the invisible bars that goes into a cage that ends up trapping a woman in an intimate partner relationship. And these bars begin to appear so subtly that over time she may find herself feeling trapped before she knows what has happened.
So violence and abuse, by their very nature, builds over time?
Think about it this way.
If he beat her, swore at her, called her names on that first date, there wouldn’t be a second.
But in the beginning, the type of person I’m talking about, the person that abuses their power, their wealth, their status, often their credentials, their technical knowledge, in the beginning, they’re often very charming.
This is the grooming stage where it’s hearts and flowers. He’s on his best behavior, and she thinks she’s found the love of her life.
Over time, as different situations emerge, she may start to find these little cues and clues that are kind of pink flags. Not red yet, but there’s this feeling in the pit of her stomach that something is off, something’s not right.
How is he talking about previous relationships?
Is he saying to her, “Oh my God, you’re so much smarter than any other woman I ever went out with?”
Or, “I’m so glad to meet a sane woman for a change. My ex, you won’t believe how crazy she was. And she stole everything from me.” Or “She tried to steal everything from me.”
Or “She ended up being put on a psychiatric hold, she was so crazy. I’m so glad I found you because you’re so put together.”
If you see this happening, should you do anything at this point?
It might be worth doing a little investigation.
We live in a world that’s more transient now than ever before. In the old days we grew up and we knew our neighbors, we worked for the same company and retired for that company. Life isn’t like that anymore.
People come and go in our lives. People come and go in our workplaces. We find relationships often nowadays online. You’re meeting total strangers. That’s a risk and there are lots of wonderful happy relationships that come about as a result of that, and there are nightmares that happen.
The ones that end up in nightmares are the ones that come and see me.
And often it’s after they quit their job, or they’ve moved to another state. They’ve had a second or third child. They’ve almost given up or had their power and their finances taken away from them and they’re feeling trapped.
We can save a lot of grief if we can educate people about early warning signs.
Is he controlling? Is he jealous? Suspicious? Does he want to know where she is 24/7?
Is he texting her multiple times a day? In the beginning, she may be thinking, “Oh, he’s so sweet. He loves me so much, he’s just always thinking of me.”
Well, over time that can start to look like stalking.
Also, pay attention to how he talks about previous relationships.
How did he treat his mother? How does he treat the women in his life? How does she feel about his mother? If she’s met his mother, is she starting to see controlling signs in his mother, similar to the son? So often you can tell a lot about somebody by how they treat the other females in their life. And how the other females in his life treat them.
Moms are a whole other topic. Because there are wonderful moms, and there are moms who can be controlling. When that’s the case, the son becomes an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
Abuse is a learned behavior and it can be learned often from the mother or more typically from the father. So early warning signs are important to look out for.
You mentioned some of the different types of abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse. I’d like to go into each of those and understand the signs of each and how they differ.
Let’s start with the signs of physical abuse.
In most cases, all of these forms of abuse are incremental.
It begins maybe with rolling the eyes, some passive-aggressive body language, maybe invading her physical space, starting to tower over her, getting that look, that angry look in the eye, the contemptuous sneer, or the fire that comes out the eyes.
He may also resort to a threatening look, threatening gestures, reaching out with a sharp gesture of the hand as if to say, Stop! or interrupt her, talking over her, taking her hand, taking her by the arm, holding onto her arm, squeezing the arm, pushing or pushing past her if he’s angry or when passing each other, the body check.
It may progress to cornering her, putting hands on the shoulders, shaking her, “Can’t you listen to me? What’s the matter with you?”
Physical can become sexual abuse as well in intimate encounters. The hands that begin on her chest that move up towards the neck, that starts to squeeze on the neck, that is squeezing too tight on the neck to the point where she can’t breathe and she’s starting to lose consciousness.
Eventually, physical abuse can lead to pushing, pinching, slapping, shoving, pulling hair, dragging her by the hair, shoving her down the stairs, breaking arms so that she ends up having to go to the ER.
And many times she won’t even disclose to the physician treating her how those injuries actually happened because of the shame and the fear of what’s going to happen when she goes home.
So, it’s incremental in most cases. Sometimes he’ll haul off and just do something physical right out of the blue. But often you see a gradual build up that’s coupled with emotional abuse.
So the gradual building of abuse seems the blend between physical, emotional and financial? Or are these kinds of abuse in different silos?
Let me do a “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” moment for you.
I think men have a tendency to put things in silos, and women have a tendency to blend things together. Things usually blend one area into another. If he’s abusive in one area, he’s typically abusive in another area.
However, the court system typically focuses on one type of abuse and puts it in a silo.
“He committed domestic violence against you. Let’s not talk about that now, because we’re talking about the property settlement.”
What the court system typically doesn’t realize is that if he’s abused his power in one area of his life, he is typically going to be abusing it in another area.
The abuse of power tends to spill over into every aspect of the relationship. And sometimes it is incremental, and sometimes it’s explosive.
There are cases where women have ended up being murdered by their partner where they’ve never been touched by him before. And there will be people on death row that will brag after having killed their wife and say, “But I never beat her. Never touched her before that day when she just pushed me too far.”
That’s the other thing there. It’s always about blaming the other person and never taking responsibility.
I had a lady whose husband was strangling her, saying to her, “Why are you making you do this?”
In addressing the gradual build-up of abuse, we talk about the sort of incremental physical and emotional abuse that is coupled with a sort of passive-aggressive body language, with a harsh tone of voice or the silent treatment.
The silent treatment?
The silent treatment is very punishing to a person. Studies have shown that children actually do better when they are beaten than when they are being neglected or shunned by their parents.
Like any form of attention, even if it’s adverse, it is better than being ignored or neglected.
I guess that’s one of the reasons why prisoners get put in solitary confinement and why with Amish youth, shunning, is one of the ultimate forms of punishment, it is so damaging to a person. I call it “silent violence.”
In an intimate partner relationship, you may have somebody that gets angry at his partner and then doesn’t talk to her for days. She walks into a room and it’s like she doesn’t exist. That’s very punishing.
On the other hand, words that were once used to make her fall in love with him, the gestures, the loving tender caresses morph over time and the words become intimidating, hurtful, criticizing, demeaning, and undermining. Words as weapons. Anything in the hands of an abuser can become a weapon. Even words.
“I don’t think blue is the right color for you.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for that job promotion? Do you really want to abandon your family and go back to work?”
“You could stand to lose a few pounds.”
“What happened to your memory? What’s going on with your mind? What’s wrong with you?”
“Yeah, I know you’ve got the flu, but can’t you get off your ass and cook dinner?”
We’ve had ladies who have been going through chemo treatments and they’re being chastised by their husbands for not doing the same amount of work they had before being diagnosed with cancer. We’ve even had ladies whose partners have left them during chemo treatments.
It’s treating these women as resources, possessions, or objects. It’s a resource to plumb the depths of and then to dispose of when no longer found to be useful.
So why do abusers abuse?
I’m a domestic violence advocate not a therapist but if I can put my therapist hat on for a moment, let’s go back to an abuser being a little boy and maybe at some point in his life finding that he felt totally powerless.
Perhaps he had one parent or another or both of them that were abusive, and he felt that the world was not a safe place and he felt that a loss of control threatened his very existence.
This may have been followed at some point in his life where he decided he was never going to feel powerless again. The stage is now set as an adult for him to decide he is never going to feel powerless or a loss of control again.
I said before, that abuse is a learned behavior. They often learn at the master’s knee. If you talk to any one of the 1,400 women I worked with, in most cases, you’ll find that with their partners, one of their parents was incredibly abusive growing up. Sometimes he is born different—with an apparent lack of empathy. More often it gets drummed out of him.
In other cases, sometimes they fall in with the wrong crowd. They find other influences in the course of their life. They get intoxicated with power or money or both and it has a damaging effect on their moral compass in the way they treat others.
This is because we’re also a product of our environment but very often, it comes as a result of what they’ve seen as they grow up.
Growing up in an abusive home, it’s not a fait accompli that that person will grow up to become an abuser and it’s not a fait accompli that somebody growing up in an abusive home will become a victim of an abusive relationship.
They have three choices.
Typically, children growing up in an abusive home, they can learn to become like the perpetrator.
Or they can end up becoming a victim of abuse, feeling drawn to a relationship where there’s an abuse of power because it feels familiar.
They can also learn from a negative example to want to be a better person, to want to show the kind of love, understanding, compassion, respect, and equality that they didn’t receive growing up.
What about women in abusive relationships? Is there a profile of who they typically are?
There are two types of women who end up in abusive relationships. The ones who grew up in a home where there was abuse and it felt familiar to them. They were drawn to the familiar.
The other type is those who grew up in healthy homes where all they knew was love and compassion and kindness. Oh yes, every now and again somebody would lose their temper and say things they didn’t mean because we’re human, flawed, and we’ll make mistakes from time to time. But these people in these families, they all knew they were loved. They all knew they were safe in the home. They didn’t walk around in fear and shame.
When they met their partner, they met somebody who was charming, successful, professional, who said all the right things.
The people that they end up getting involved with, there’s a reason why they’re successful. It’s because they’re persuasive, because they’re charming, because they’re intelligent.
Over time, little signs start to emerge and because little girls and little boys are not taught to recognize these early warning signs of emotional abuse, they can end up in a relationship that’s very different from anything they’ve ever known because they don’t have the language to put on what’s happening to them.
That’s why one of the fundamental things I do is teach women language to put a definition on what’s happening to them, “Oh, that’s gaslighting. That’s coercive control. That sounds like traumatic bonding. That’s financial abuse.”
If we have language to put on what’s happening, that gives us more tools to deal with it.
From your experiences, why do people stay in abusive relationships? You mentioned earlier it’s incremental. Is that the key reason that people stay or what is it exactly where people are getting abused and they just don’t leave that abusiveness?
That’s a fabulous question and it’s so important to address. I often share with my ladies that it’s not their flaws that keep them in a relationship like this or that attracted a partner like this to them, it’s their strengths.
Typically, the ladies I work with have lots of empathy, lots of compassion. They’re kind. They’re forgiving. They’re also smart and successful and they’re problem solvers, healers, nurturers, and peacemakers.
I also find anything in the hands of an abuser can become a weapon even a ladies’ very strengths. With all the qualities I just mentioned, the smarter a woman is, the longer she tends to stay in a relationship. It’s because there is this thinking there’s something that she can do to figure it out.
“Well, I’m a doctor. I’m a lawyer. I own my own company. I have success in all these other areas. This is a problem I should be able to solve.”
If she’s gotten more and more isolated from her friends, which is very typical, what happens in an abusive relationship is that she won’t have anybody to compare her experiences with and she will be more likely to end up believing he is right when he says it is all her fault.
And what are the implications of being isolated?
This will become her new normal and he will be very effective at convincing her that she’s the problem. Even if that’s not the case.
In other words, she’s so stupid, lazy, forgetful, uninformed, or incapable, that he would have to say or do the things she makes him do.
It becomes a form of brainwashing that happens. Yes, it’s subtle, it’s incremental, it happens over time. Slowly but surely, he takes her power away from her in a way she doesn’t have the language or understanding to grasp.
It’s like there are two different ways you can look at a relationship.
One where there’s plenty of love to go around, it’s give and take. I give sometimes, you give sometimes, I take sometimes, you take sometimes. That’s a relationship like a teeter-totter that has this sort of even balance over time.
There’s another way of looking at relationships and this is how abusers look at them. It’s a life and relationships as a zero-sum game. If you get more, that means I get less. I’m going to take from you so I can have more.
It does turn out to be a give-and-take relationship. She gives, he takes. She gives more, he takes more. The more she gives the more he takes. It will never be enough. She turns the other cheek. She forgives. She understands. Yes, he had a traumatic childhood. He was beaten by his dad. He’s got a drinking problem. He’s got stress at work.
There’s a difference between having stress, being an alcoholic, being bipolar and being an abusive person. They are all different categories and you can be an alcoholic and not an abuser. It’s separate. But one can make the other worse.
It appears fear and shame are big reasons for staying in an abusive relationship?
Yes, those two along with finances are primary motivating factors that keep a woman engaged.
Fear…she’s afraid of what he’ll do to her on so many different levels and he often threatens her on many different levels, threatening to destroy her, take the children away, turn her into a bag lady, hunt her down and kill her, damage or destroy her career, poison the waters in terms of her friendships and circles of support including any faith-based organization she may be involved with.
He’ll get to all their mutual friends, connections and social circles and start to work on them convincing them that there’s something “off” with her. That he’s getting worried about her emotional state, her mental state. He’ll drop little seeds in: bit-by-bit to cast doubt on her credibility, on her sanity, on who she is as a person over time.
As a result, over time, it’s going to be harder and harder for her to spend time with her friends, with her outside network. He’ll be very often controlling of what she does and who she does it with.
As her circle of support contracts, his circle of support expands. As her finances contract because he starts to take over the financial realm, his finances expand. As her power in the relationship contracts, his power expands.
Sometimes it seems like an even division of labor, “Well, he’s a financial analyst. Why shouldn’t he do the income tax returns and keep track of the budget.”
She may be a therapist or she’s more involved with the arts and sciences and the “touchy-feely stuff,” so why wouldn’t she do the bulk of the caretaking for the kids.
That could be a fair division of labor in a relationship where power is equally distributed. But what really matters is who’s feeling coerced and controlled, who has the power in the relationship, who’s abusing the power, who ends up walking on eggshells living in fear, living in shame.
And shame? That keeps a woman in a relationship. She’s so afraid to reach out because of the shame attached to it. She’ll think, “I’m a doctor. I’m a therapist. I’m an attorney. I’m a CEO. I run my own company. How is this happening in my life?”
Domestic violence and domestic abuse aren’t supposed to happen when you’re an educated person. It’s supposed to help you evolve morally as well as intellectually when you’re educated or when you are wealthy.
But that’s not true.
The more educated you are, the more power you have. The more status, letters after your name, the more tools you have to coerce and control if that’s the tendency and the direction you’re headed in.
So power corrupts?
Yes, and absolute power corrupts absolutely if you have that tendency.
Many women stay because they live in fear and they’re afraid of what’s going to happen if they leave. Is he going to hunt her down? Is he going to kill her? Is he going to pay somebody to kill her? Have her be involved in some kind of accident?
One of my ladies, her husband was a physician and when they were going through their property settlement phase, she actually reached the moment where she couldn’t take it anymore, she was still living in the home during the divorce.
Why? He had total control over the finances.
He had taken control of everything and hidden assets where she had trusted him in the beginning because marriage is a relationship. It’s a fiduciary relationship where both parties are supposed to act in good faith towards one another. That’s a fundamental assumption. But what if you’re dealing with somebody that violates that trust?
She was living with her physician husband during the divorce because she had nowhere else to go. When her attorney says to her, “Why don’t you let me fight harder to get a fairer settlement for you? I could get so much more for you than you’re letting me go after.”
She said to the attorney, “Well, you know what he said to me the other night over dinner, ‘Do you know there are more than 40 ways to kill a woman and make it look like she died from natural causes?'”
He didn’t say, “I’m going to run you over with my Mercedes this afternoon,” so she could call the police on that, but she got the message loud and clear.
How does someone get the courage to leave an abusive husband when they find themselves in situations like this?
Thank you so much for asking that question.
You are clearly trauma-informed and enlightened to ask that question. Even in family court, the judges will say, many of them, not all, some are enlightened but many will say, “If it was so bad, why did you stay for so long? If it was so bad, why didn’t you call the police?”
Here’s an answer. What’s she going to do once the police leave? Even if he ends up in jail, what’s she going to do once he comes home, when he bails himself out? What’s she going to do then if she’s financially completely dependent on him?
I often say, as hard as it is to live with an abuser, it’s almost impossible to leave without outside support and internal support.
Outside support comes from connecting women with resources and people like you who are certified divorce financial analysts that can help them figure out their financial state, what paperwork and other things they need.
So many women, because they’ve trusted their partner, and they’ve entered into the relationship in good faith, they have no idea what their net worth is or even have no idea how to create a budget.
That’s because the word “finance” has become such a hot potato in a relationship because he gets angry and flares up at the mention of the word money. She has been financially cut off.
We connect her with resources depending on the areas that are under attack. In most cases, every area of her life has come under attack.
Financially, she will have to create stability to even start the divorce or think about living on her own.
She may be being stalked technologically. How do we help her protect herself against cybersecurity threats and stalking? We connect her with private investigators who are cybersecurity experts to help her develop a safety plan around her electronics.
Legally, what is she entitled to? What does divorce look like? What can she expect in the road ahead?
We connect her with clinics that offer free advice to give her a look at the lay of the land at what lies ahead but in terms of giving her the courage, we don’t give her the courage but we help her find the courage by helping her draw on her inner resources and her problem-solving abilities. We support her and encourage her, lift her up and keep reminding her she is not alone anymore.
So part of the process is changing the internal messages that may have dominated her life for a long time?
Yes. We start her on the road to thinking strategically by helping her create a safe space in our support group where she comes and meets other women and find that she’s not alone, that she’s not the only one going through this.
She’s not the only doctor, therapist, CEO, lawyer, stay-at-home mom dealing with this issue. She’s not alone anymore.
The first step is to get her to understand that what she is going through is abuse.
“I didn’t cause it. I can’t change it. I am powerless over my abusers, my partner’s decision to be abusive.”
That’s the first step just like in any AA or Al-Anon program. The first step they tell you is admitting you are powerless over… and then filling in the blanks with what the problem is—here it’s her partner’s decision to be abusive.
Once she gives up that belief that she has the power to fix his problem, that’s really scary in itself because if she can’t change it, that means she’s got to find a whole new solution that involves her choices and start carving out a brand new path.
She needs to mourn the loss of a relationship that she thought was going to last forever. It’s the death of a dream when you meet somebody and you fall in love with them, you’re hoping that’s the love of your life and it’s going to last forever, especially if you’ve had children with them and built a home and a life together.
Now, that’s all come to an end and it must be mourned. There’s shock. There’s denial. There’s grief that has got to be processed. It helps if she can connect with a therapist who gets it, not just any therapist, because most therapists are not trained to deal with partners who have power and control and abuse issues.
How will the untrained therapists attempt to deal with that kind of behavior?
Most therapists will treat it as a communication issue. Can you be more vulnerable? Can you be more assertive? Can you set clear boundaries? What’s your responsibility, your role in the dysfunction?
All of those go out the window when you’re dealing with abuse of power. It would be like saying, “What were you wearing the night you got raped?” She is not responsible at all ever for any kind of abuse.
When you point out to an abuser what he is doing to hurt you he will typically deny or minimize it, turn it back on you or become enraged and punish you—if not in front of the couple’s counselor then later when you get home.
He will try to charm and manipulate the therapist into believing that he is the innocent party. She is the problem. And it may end up with the two of them trying to fix her. In other cases when a woman threatens to end the relationship, he may suggest couples counseling as a delay/distraction tactic and then use that time to start hiding assets.
What is the next step?
The next step is learning language to put on the abuse—terms like gaslighting, coercive control, financial abuse. Building a vocabulary around it, helps her then begin to decide what to do about it. Like going to a doctor, listing your symptoms, getting a diagnosis, then a treatment plan.
Instead of operating in a fog of anxiety, depression, numbing confusion, denial, minimizing, isolation and fear, she begins to get clarity, starts getting in touch with her gut feelings and a sense of righteous indignation.
She begins to understand now that she has a fundamental human right to be free and safe in her own home and that right has been violated. And it’s time that she starts to take her power back. That’s when she may begin to hear the call that invites her to step on a new path, a path to freedom where she can live free and safe in her own home.
That path is going to involve courage, and risk, and finding resources within herself, and outside herself, not alone anymore, but through connecting with other women that she may meet in a support group like mine.
She may need to connect with a therapist who can help her navigate all the risks and challenges ahead of her and build her inner resources through meditation and EMDR. EMDR is a technique that helps reduce the emotion around trauma triggers.
She may also need to access other things that help shore up her inner reserves, connecting her with financial, legal and technological experts that can help her create safety strategies in all those areas.
Then, as she gathers allies, mentors and companions around her, step-by-step she can begin to navigate all the challenges ahead of her that she will meet as she goes through the court system, especially if there are custody issues involved with young children.
So the best way to approach leaving is through a well thought out process?
Yes. I always say that leaving an abuser is a process, not an event. And as hard as it is to live with an abuser, it’s almost impossible to escape without outside support and a well thought out plan.
It’s a response to that question of, “If it’s so bad, why doesn’t she leave or why does she stay?”
Well-intentioned friends and family members may be saying, “If it ever happened to me, I’d get out of there.”
That’s an event.
But if you have gone from a relationship that you thought was a lifetime relationship to now living like a prisoner in your own home, I compare it to getting sucked into a cult through the influence of a charismatic leader that ends up trying to replace your version of reality with his. He wants to isolate you, to control you, to make you see things always from his perspective, making it very hard to get away.
In some cases, it’s even worse than becoming a prisoner of war because in the old days, you who knew who the enemy was. They wore a different uniform. They flew a different flag. You knew who you were fighting against.
Now, think how much harder it is when you’ve fallen in love with someone, married them, had a child with them, given up your career for them, shared a life with them, built a home together and now here is your intimate enemy living with you under the same roof.
Now, you have to forge a plan to escape from someone who has the power literally of life and death over you. That’s not to be taken lightly.
That’s a process, not an event.
The psychological impacts must be devastating. Gathering the courage and then creating and implementing a plan must take considerable effort.
The courage and the plan they go together. Most of my ladies have had feelings of suicidal thoughts at one point in the relationship.
Many of my ladies have thought, “Well, if I get cancer and die, that would be a dignified way out.”
Many of my ladies develop physical ailments as a result of living with this kind of stress over years.
It takes a tremendous toll on their immune system but sometimes death seems to be the only way out, the only escape. If they can find options, if they can cobble together a strategy and connect themselves with other resources that offer them hope, that’s what gives them the alternative to suicide as the way out. That’s what gives them another answer. That’s what gives them courage.
It’s a strategy where a domestic violence advocate can come in handy and often in collaboration with the therapist. It’s like holding their hands. Each one is holding a hand on one side, figuratively to support them in building this strategy so that they now have a path out of the darkness that has become their life.
The logo for my program is the bird fleeing the gilded cage. That’s because all the things that he has done, financial controls, the legal abuse, the emotional abuse, the coercion, the physical abuse, and even sexual assault that happens in many cases within a marriage, all of these things become bars in her cage.
The outside world doesn’t see them but every now and again, that door in the gilded cage, opens and if she can address each one of those bars with a strategy, then that gives her the hope and the courage that will guide her on the path to freedom.
I want to make sure I really stress that leaving is also one of the most dangerous times in the domestic violence relationship because that signals to the abuser that he is losing control. He will often do whatever it takes to get that control back.
He may even say to her, “If I can’t have you, no one else will either.”
Homicide becomes the ultimate act of domestic violence, the ultimate act of control.
You’ve mentioned financial abuse as one of the things that makes it really difficult for a victim of domestic abuse to leave. What are some of the signs of financial abuse?
There are a lot of them.
He may commit financial abuse by putting her on an allowance, questioning every purchase, embezzling funds from the joint account for his own private secret use, making her account for everything that she buys.
One of my ladies was beaten if she bought a new dress without his permission or put highlights in her hair.
Whenever I do a training or a presentation, I put this question out to the audience, “If you’re in a work situation and it’s discovered that an employee is stealing funds from his employer from the company, what’s that called?”
The answer I get is embezzlement.
If you’re in a marriage and you find out that your husband has stolen your life savings, what do you call that?
The answer I get is, “a bad marriage.”
It’s community property over time but what you accumulated before you got married, that’s yours and gifts and inheritance after you get married, that’s yours but otherwise, the debts and assets you accumulate, isn’t that community property?
I’ve had ladies whose husbands have frittered away large sums of marital assets.
For example, one lady who came to me had bought this beautiful home with her husband. They added on to it and they made a pretty penny on it and they put that money away in a joint bank account to be their nest egg for the home that was going to be the home of their dreams.
Because they were married and there was trust, it was a joint account and that was going to be their nest egg. That was put away, not to be looked at or used by either of them.
Five years later, when things have gone sour and she is getting ready to plan her escape, she looks at the joint bank account and you know how much is in it? Nothing!
He has taken it all. It’s not like there is a Lamborghini or a property in Tahoe to show for it. That money was stolen, frittered away.
You also mentioned money laundering. Can you give me an example of that?
What do you call it in the professional work world when you take money that comes from one source and you try to make it look like it’s coming from another source? You try to disguise where it came from and what you are using it for now? What do you call that? That’s money laundering, right? Isn’t that money laundering?
Okay, what do you call it in an intimate partner relationship when that husband starts to withdraw cash, significant amounts of cash, and then puts it into cryptocurrency or some other account in the Cayman Islands, what do you call that where his wife doesn’t have any access to it or puts it in his name in another country? What do you call that?
Breach of fiduciary duty?
That’s the legal term, but can you really go after somebody for that if it’s happened in the course of the marriage? The ladies I work with are having a very hard time tracking the money down and getting what is their due.
Another form of abuse is forcing her to make early withdrawals from her IRA account or taking Social Security early. That’s weaponizing money.
Does it make sense to start stockpiling money in a separate secret account, kind of like having an Armageddon or financial escape plan?
If she is starting to sense trouble, can she start stockpiling her money in a secret account just like he may be doing? Although the actions might look the same, the underlying motive is different. She’s trying to protect herself, save herself.
Keep in mind one of the main reasons a woman stays in an abusive relationship is financial, as she doesn’t want to go homeless.
I have ladies who have ended up homeless, living out of their cars and some have even lost their cars. They have to resort to couch-surfing. The risk they face is significant. It is war, and the regular rules go out the window when your partner has declared war on you.
She can start stockpiling money in a quiet way. Maybe if she is going to Safeway and the bill is $150, she could slip in a few vanilla Visa cards and add that on to the account to start shoring up some financial reserves.
That would allow her to start to save some quiet money and put away somewhere safe, maybe with friends or at work. This is a way she could save up some money for some consults with lawyers or then start to quietly interview lawyers paying in cash so there’s no paper trail.
She can get a phone that is not part of the cellphone plan that he has access to and start making these calls.
If she’s been a stay-at-home mom, could she start looking into getting some part-time employment. What’s her educational background? Could she start looking into that again? Could she go to a local employment agency and see what opportunities are out there for job training to get her back in the game again?
Does she run the risk of making her husband angry if he finds out about any of these things?
It’s a real concern. For example, would her husband “allow” her to take classes because of that imbalance of power? Is there any way she can convince him that she wants to get educated or have a “hobby” as an outlet? Again, the less he knows, the safer she will be.
She may need to pretend she is going to a book club when she is really learning how to do QuickBooks or learn some other skills that she can start to earn an income from.
How can she begin to protect her own financial interest? If there’s money in the joint account and when it comes time to leave, what does she want to do with that?
She should get some legal advice about what she is legally entitled to do. What I would encourage people to do is to talk over with their attorneys and make sure it’s all on the up-and-up and that the eyes of the court would look favorably on it in retrospect.
But in the moment, when a woman is deciding to leave an abusive/dangerous relationship, can she look at all the resources in front of her? Can she start to quietly gather information about bank accounts? Can she quietly start photocopying information and putting it in a safe place about bank accounts, joint bank accounts, his own personal bank accounts if she can get some information about that. The same applies for income tax returns.
Can she get copies of deeds to properties? Can she discreetly gather as much financial information on the relationship as possible and put it in a safe place that he doesn’t have access to?
Can she get some idea what their net worth is? Could she consult a certified divorce financial analyst, for example, and get a picture of what her share of the community property would be? Can she look at what’s liquid and what’s solid assets or frozen assets?
Can she see what she has quick access to and factor that into what she is entitled to for her share of the marital property?
Let’s say a couple has $50,000 in the bank and they own two properties with both names on the title. Its physical property and that will be divided out through the course of the divorce.
But with that $50,000 in the bank, now she’s got a choice. Is she going to take 50 percent of that hoping that she will get 50 percent of the community property later?
If she is afraid at all that he is going to do something to hide any of their assets, she’s got to really consider what she is going to be doing in terms of one bird in the hand against the worth of two in the bush.
How much of that liquid asset is she going to take upfront with the understanding that those assets that she is legally entitled to may be hard to gain access to after she leaves. Right now, she needs money for rent, to feed the children, to feed herself, to have a roof over her head.
I have women who took a little bit of the money and sometimes 50 percent of the money of what they were legally entitled to from the cash assets knowing, hoping, trusting, that the other assets they were entitled to would be justly divided and evenly divided down the road–and it never happened.
They are now living with friends and the children are living in different homes because no single one family can take them all in. That’s not right.
Are you finding that the same types of men that are abusive towards their wives are also abusive towards their kids? Are these two separate buckets? Do you have any steps that you recommend to protect kids from an abusive husband?
On this issue, we go back to the very common tendency in our world to put things in silos, “Oh well, he may have been abusive towards her but he was such a good dad.”
And then in family court, they may say, “Well, yes. There was a restraining order against her and maybe it even covered the kids too but we’re going to give overnight visits to dad because our underlying assumption is that we need to have frequent ongoing continuous contact of all family members for the best interest of the child. But they’ve got to look further.”
I’m not an attorney and I’m not here to interpret the law, but there is something in Family Law Code Section 3044 that says, if one parental figure has been abusive to another parental figure, then it is detrimental to the best interest of the child to be in the custody of that abusive parental figure.
Then it’s a rebuttable presumption that can be overcome by several steps, many of which are typically not effective.
One of those is the Batterers’ Intervention Program where the type of abuser I am talking about learns the tricks of the trade, learns how to abuse without getting arrested. Most savvy abusers are too smart to end up in a Batterers’ Intervention Program.
Statistically, abusers who control, coerce and abuse their partners also control, coerce and abuse their children and the incidents of sexual abuse of children increase significantly in homes where there is domestic violence.
Children are at risk for emotional abuse and often physical and sexual abuse as well. Even if the abusive parent has not physically abused the child, the fact that he has abused the mother is already a form of abuse for the child. One of the most important lessons a father teaches a child is how a man treats a woman, how a husband treats a wife, how a father treats a mother.
There’s something called the ACE studies, which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. It’s a study that was done by Kaiser and the Center for Disease Control a few years ago. They looked at thousands of people, mostly in the mid to upper-income range who were in this obesity study at Kaiser.
They couldn’t figure out why are these people in our weight loss study losing weight but then gaining back even more than they lost before? What’s going on here? They started to probe and ask questions, digging deeper and deeper back into their family history, into their childhood.
They found that the more categories of abuse they had growing up, the more likely they were to develop emotional, behavioral and physical health issues that were lifelong. If there were enough categories of abuse, it could end up shortening their lifespan by 20 years.
Children growing up in an abusive home can end up often in school looking like they’ve got ADD or ADHD.
Sometimes that’s because their brains work differently, and they are in totally legitimate happy loving homes. Their brains are just wired differently.
But sometimes they’re showing these symptoms of having a hard time paying attention or acting out or being disruptive because they’re modeling what’s happening at home.
Children, if they don’t see that there’s another way, end up thinking this is what home looks like. Children are very good at keeping secrets as well and even if they blurted out at school what’s happened to them, by the time CPS gets involved, often they will have changed their story because they tend to gravitate towards the more powerful party in the family situation. It’s a question of survival.
They are afraid of what dad will do if the truth comes out. Over time, the kids learn to turn things inward where they end up with self-harming behaviors like cutting, drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, or looking for love in all the wrong places.
They can end up in abusive, violent relationships themselves, resulting in teen dating violence. They can become schoolyard bullies or victims. They may be withdrawn.
Some can end up committing suicide or becoming hyper-achievers because their fathers will define them in terms of their GPA, just as they define themselves in terms of their own net worth.
The children’s worth often ends up being defined by their GPA and God forbid they don’t get into that Ivy League School.
Some children end up committing suicide because they’ve got emotional health issues, anxiety and depression that are genetic conditions and it has nothing to do with the parents.
They come from homes with loving parents.
But some kids internalize the voice that they’ve heard saying, “You’re stupid. You’re useless. You’ll never make it in the world. You’re worth nothing. What? You only got a B on that paper? You don’t deserve anything. You’re a nothing boy.”
They internalize that voice and it can end up killing them.
Do you find that domestic violence is the same or different in affluent marriages?
Both. The power and control dynamics are the same no matter what economic area you come from.
But with more affluence, an abuser has more power, more money, and more influence. It also may mean an abuser is more technically savvy and sophisticated, creating more tools to wield that power and control.
When you have enough money and power and social status, you can make it very hard for a woman to escape from an abusive relationship, keep custody of her children, or to have anything like the kind of standard of living that she had before.
Abuse in affluent areas is under-reported and misunderstood. I’m grateful to you for the opportunity to increase awareness that abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere, no matter how rich or poor you are. And sometimes the more money there is, the harder it is to escape—especially if your partner is powerful, wealthy and vengeful—and used to winning.
Looking for more great divorce tips? Here are a few of our favorite resources:
- 101 Financial Pitfalls of Divorce
- What Are The Types of Divorce
- The Ultimate Guide to Divorcing a Narcissist
- 29 Warning Signs That You’re in a Failing Marriage
- The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children
Ruth Darlene, M.A. is an educator, domestic violence advocate, social entrepreneur and Founder and Executive Director of WomenSV (Women of Silicon Valley), a domestic violence 501(c)(3) non-profit that serves women in middle-to-upper income areas who are trapped in relationships with powerful and wealthy abusers.