By Colleen Honquest
The most frequent types of questions that I hear from people who are separated or divorcing are those that involve how to respond to an ex spouse whose calls, texts, and emails are negative and harassing in nature. Usually, there has been a pattern of abuse in the marriage and the separation or divorce tends to escalate the abusive behavior as the ex-spouse feels abandoned or a loss of control over their partner. The spouse who is the target of the harassment doesn’t know if they need to respond and, sometimes, feels compelled to respond so as not to be seen as non-communicative- in the case of a co-parent- by the court. They are not given clear direction as to how to cope in a way that shows that they want to co-parent and communicate but not on the abuser’s terms. In addition, I often hear, “If I don’t respond then am I saying that what he’s doing is ok?” No. It’s important to be able to set limits and not feel constantly at the mercy of your ex and their unchecked emotions. And, in my experience, your efforts should be to remain the non-emotional and rational person rather than part of the “he said, she said”. If you are wondering if your marriage or relationship is abusive, here is a good book by Dr. Jeanne King, Domestic Abuse Dynamics-Identifying Abuse. Keep in mind that as a parent, how do you want your kids to remember you? Sane, rational, and focused on them. If you do participate and respond to every negative text and email, not only will your energy be drained but judges may believe, because they simply have no way of knowing the truth, that BOTH parties are the problem. I am giving you ways to find peace and not be drawn into the melee. Don’t give fodder to your ex to somehow be used against you.
I recommend setting up guidelines for communication early on in the separation or pending divorce. You can utilize an app that will enable you to capture all of your documentation in one place such as Our Family Wizard. If there has been abuse, be clear that all communication should be via email so that you can maintain clear records and easily look up important dates, times, and information that these may contain. No phone calls or texts. Ask your lawyer how to get this written in a court order so that both parties must use the communication app. This is a positive thing for both parties. Clearly define what an emergency is and that you will be using this app (Example- Our Family Wizard) and send it to your ex in an email. You may even want to print out the email and send it certified mail. Keep copies. I had a Naperville police sergeant tell me that If there is a need for an Order of Protection later, the judge knows that you tried to stop the harassment without involving the court first.
Trying to go back through texts and find information is time consuming and texts can be easily lost if accidentally deleted or if the phone is damaged. Your cell provider will not produce transcripts of texts for you. Phone calls are not recommended as a person can claim that someone said something that they did not. Sure, that shouldn’t be relevant or even offered up in court but funnier things have happened. Why even open yourself up? In the case of a high conflict divorce where communications may be looked at by a lawyer, judge, or court advocate, it is simply easier to create copies and files of emails. Trying to save texts with date and time stamps intact is harder and messier. It is all about creating less chaos and re-claiming your quality of life as you move forward. Chaos and confusion are the hallmarks of the abusers strategy to keep you half insane and off of your game. I remember hearing about a magician who was hired by the FBI simply to create distraction for a famous case. His name was John Mulholland. He simply employed techniques to make people “look over here, not over there.” I often see abusers and some family lawyers employ the same techniques to create distractions so that all of the real issues are swallowed up and pushed aside. Court time is spent focused on unimportant issues and issues like children and financial needs are lost in the mayhem.
Emails are easy to find and file, saving and filing texts is a time drain. I have seen clients who lose hours and hours trying to save and file texts from their ex. Their job suffers. Their time with their children is eaten up by the task of compiling “evidence” that usually will not be seen by the court. You should ask your lawyer early on to support your decision to use email only. If you have an ex who claims that emails are not sufficient and exclaims, “What about an emergency?” I hear that all of the time. That argument has no merits. Good or bad, communication via email can now be instantaneously known to the recipient. Settings- Notifications- Email- ON. Unless there is blood spurting or someone is in an ambulance, an email is as good as a text.
Always pause. Take a breath. Is it even necessary to respond? Unless there is an issue that directly concerns your child’s acute emotional or physical health, there is no urgency. No need to respond. Simple.
Do not feel that their deadlines are yours or that their claims of what may happen if you do not comply are even relevant. I often find that abusive ex-spouses have a way of making their partner feel as though they know the law or have some inside information as to the way the court will decide things in their case. I was the same way in my own divorce. I would hear my ex husband rant about how he would take everything if I fought him and that I would lose. He would call me 10-20 times a day on my cell phone and home phone and leave long rambling messages about my character and lack of parenting skills. He would claim that I was not cooperative if I did not respond and engage. Looking back, I find it unbelievable as to how much power I gave to his words when, in reality, he had so much to lose and that he wouldn’t have called me incessantly if he was so confident that he would “win”. The trauma and stress had affected all of my ability to think straight. I just wanted the nightmare to end.
Document. But within reason. Simply keep track of incidents or negative communications on a calendar or journal with date and a short description of the event.Make a note if there is an email or text that verifies your description of the incident. Some lawyers may tell you that none of that matters but it can show patterns of behavior and it can be important. In my experience, it is good to have records to dispel claims made by the abuser. Abusive and dominant personalities have a way of getting their beliefs heard and can be quite convincing as there is always a lot of emotion attached to their claims. We humans connect with one another with emotions. Good to have your side of the story backed up with facts.
I have clients who regularly receive “unabomber manifesto” emails and texts from their ex-spouses. Even if you ignore them, it drains your energy and messes with your head. You need an option that stops the abuse, limits the abuser’s access to you, and is filed and saved for you in one place. The best tool that I have seen to employ in the case of a high conflict divorce is to use one of two apps called “Our Family Wizard” or “Talking Parents”. Judges, lawyers, and therapists can be given access to your account, at no charge, to monitor the communication. Both of these apps allow spouses to sign up and communicate via email and every message and correspondence is saved in one place. Our Family Wizard has an annual fee of about $8.00 per month and Talking Parents is free unless you want to print a report or receive instantaneous notifications of email via text and then there is a fee of 3-4 dollars for each feature to be added. So, even for those difficult spouses who refuse to pay for an app, Talking Parents is free. Both apps allow users to communicate and print out reports, (OFW is free for printing) if needed, at any time. Notifications are immediate via cell phone and included in the monthly fee for Our Family Wizard. Abusers tend to get much less aggressive and bold when someone may be watching. You can talk to your lawyer as to how to file or include in a motion the request that one of these communication apps be used by you and your ex.
If your lawyer says, “None of this matters. We’ll address this in court.” Beware because court costs money and court appearances take time. Documentation shows patterns of behavior. I prefer to advise clients to be prepared but to do it in the simplest manner that does not take a lot of their time and keeps all information in one place. Finally, if what you are doing in your communications with your ex is working, then ignore what I am telling you here. These are simply suggestions and tools to use that I have learned from my personal experience and through interactions with clients. My education in family court was done the hard way. Through many years of interactions with the court. It was an expensive education. You deserve peace.
Colleen Honquest, Certified Divorce Coach
Co-Founder, Divorce Coalition