By Colleen Honquest
My Ex is constantly harassing me with texts, phone calls, and emails. I can’t even concentrate at work. What can I do to stop it?
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.
If I don’t respond, then am I saying that what he’s doing is ok? Don’t I need to defend myself so that the Judge will know the truth?
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 a part of the “he said, she said”. 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.
So, how do I set up strict boundaries? Can my lawyer write a motion or include wording in our Joint Parenting Agreement that says that we both have to follow certain guidelines?
It is not difficult to set up boundaries but I often find that lawyers don’t communicate exactly how their clients can do it. I recommend setting up guidelines for communication early on. If there has been abuse, be clear that all communication should be via email or a communication app 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. You can utilize an app that will enable you to capture all of your documentation in one place such as Our Family Wizard or Fayr.com. 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 when communication outside of the app is warranted. 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.
Why do I need to use an app? Can’t I just use email and save my texts?
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 there is no record of what was discussed on a phone call and 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 have copies of emails and supporting documents all in one place. 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 employ the same techniques to create distractions so that all of the real issues are swallowed up and pushed aside. In some instances, the abuser recruits their lawyer to be their negative advocate and these distracting issues are dragged into court. Court time is spent focused on unimportant issues and issues like children and financial needs are lost in the mayhem and your legal fees increase exponentially.
Is it worth paying $9/ month?
Finding emails and saving and filing texts is a time drain. I have seen clients who lose hours and hours trying to save and file communications 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 one form of communication 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. These apps have settings to push out instantaneous notifications. Exactly like texts are received. Unless there is blood spurting or someone is in an ambulance, there is no need to be at the beck and call of your ex-spouse.
When do I need to respond to a message from my ex?
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 immediately. 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.
In addition to keeping my emails and texts all in one place, what else do I need to document?
Document. But within reason. Simply keep track of incidents or negative interactions with your ex on a calendar or journal with the date and a short description. Also note if there is an email or text that verifies your description of the incident. Some lawyers may tell you that none of this 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 and bond with one another by using our emotions. Even mental health professionals and lawyers get sucked in by some abusers’ tactics and dramatic displays of emotions. Good to have your side of the story backed up with the facts.
“I’m just going to block his texts and communicate via email.”
I have clients who regularly receive «unabomber manifesto» emails from their ex-spouses. Even if you file them away and don’t respond, 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. You also want to appear reasonable to the Court. The best tools 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 Fayr.com. 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 $9.00 per month and Fayr is approximately $8.50. Talking Parents claims to be free but if you need to print anything from the site there is a fee of $4 for the report. However, for those difficult spouses who refuse to pay for an app, Talking Parents is “free” on a monthly basis. These apps allow users to communicate and print out reports for their lawyers or for use in Court. Notifications are immediate via cell phone for Our Family Wizard and Fayr.com. I really believe that the notifications are critical in order for the app to be useful. Abusers can’t say that their messages are not immediately seen and these individuals tend to get much less aggressive when someone may be watching. You can talk to your lawyer as to how to file or include in a motion or Joint Parenting Agreement the request that one of these communication apps be used by you and your ex. The Our Family Wizard website even has a sample of how a lawyer can write a Motion to request that the OFW app be used by both parties.
My lawyer told me not to worry about keeping track of emails and texts. He said that he will discuss our communication issues with the Judge at the next court date or at the pre-trial.
If your lawyer says, “None of this documentation of communication 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 saying 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, Divorce Mediator and Certified Divorce Coach
Founder, DivorceMD, LLC.