When a man reaches the point of deciding to divorce an abusive wife, he has typically been thinking, and possibly ruminating over, the possibility for many years. As Dr. T has discussed previously, there are many factors that work against a man’s successful break from a wife who displays a litany of narcissistic or borderline personality traits.
Instinctively, he knows that the divorce process will be hell. He might fear losing relationships with his children. Using children as vindictive tools of manipulation is a favorite tactic abusive women employ to keep the husband from leaving her. Alienation campaigns are nearly always used against the man when the couple has children together.
He may fear losing his retirement or his career. He may have bought into the repeated messages he receives from his wife that he’s no good and no one else will put up with him or that he’ll never make it without her. Simply put, a man may spend years wanting to leave and knowing that he should leave, but his fear of unthinkable consequences keeps him stuck. Many men have been in such a state of tortured indecision for 15 or 20 years.
As with any big endeavor, the free floating fear of unknowns can be reduced to a more manageable level with some good information and planning. That holds true for men who are deciding whether to leave an abusive wife or have made the decision, but do not know exactly how to put their decision to action. I have found that my clients fare much better when they have made a few key preparations in advance.
The steps I outline below are helpful for men in this situation for a couple of reasons. First, it gives them something to do, and taking actions (however small) feels like accomplishment; it helps build confidence and it helps men begin to trust their own judgment and decision-making abilities. All of these things are crucial for men who are gaining their independence after being manipulated and oppressed and undermined for years. Taking these steps can also save a great deal of time and money down the road—resources we all need a little more of, and especially significant for men in this situation.
When asked “how” to divorce an abusive wife, Dr. T has previously advised against advance disclosure of your plans to leave. Generally speaking, this is also how I would counsel men to make their exit from an abusive marriage, and here’s why: Your NPD/BPD wife is much better at the manipulation game than you are. For every one of your maneuvers, she’s got three alternative plans to keep you from succeeding, and she doesn’t even have to think about it—it comes naturally to her and requires no effort on her part.
You will not out think her and you will not anticipate the many ways she could screw up your departure. If she senses that you are on your way out, she’ll go into battle mode and manufacture a family emergency or spend all of your money or enlist the kids to lay a gigantic guilt trip on you or any one of countless other tactics. Your best chance for a successful departure is to do your planning without tipping your hand and make your exit before she has an opportunity to manipulate you into staying.
With that advice in mind, here is a checklist of items for men who are preparing to leave an abusive marriage:
1. Gather and copy important papers, and move the copies out of the house and into a secure location. Once your wife suspects that you may leave her, it will become exceedingly difficult to access information that you will need to begin establishing an independent life. Collect records of vital statistics, military records related to benefits and so forth, bank statements, social security statements, information about retirement accounts, vehicle titles, mortgage and loan documents, kids’ school records and contact lists, credit card statements, checkbook, stock certificates, etc.—any papers that are kept in your home that you may conceivably want access to during a divorce process, you should copy and move to a safe deposit box or to your office or some other location away from home where you will be able to access the papers.
2. Open a separate bank account in your name. Stop making deposits into your joint account and keep an eye on your balances in your joint checking and savings accounts. If your wife is planning on leaving or suspects that you are on your way out, more than likely you will see transfers out of your joint accounts. If that happens, it is important that you preserve enough cash for you to be able to make the move and meet expenses for a short time –please speak to a lawyer in your jurisdiction about your rights to money in marital accounts.
In my jurisdiction, I typically advise clients in this situation to withdraw half of the funds in joint accounts if the money is community property and deposit the money in a separate account. Laws differ from state to state, so it’s important that you clear this with an attorney.
3. Arrange for your paycheck to be direct deposited in your separate account. When your paycheck is no longer being deposited into your joint account, your wife will get wise to your plan to leave. Timing is important. Check with your HR department well in advance to find out how long it takes to stop automatic deposits and reroute them to a different account.
4. Start moving small family keepsakes and heirlooms and items of particular personal value to a location away from the marital residence. Consult an attorney in your jurisdiction about this, but in most states property that is inherited or gifted is separate property. If your father left you his antique watch, it’s probably your separate property. The reason to move items of personal or sentimental value is that those are the items that are most likely to be destroyed or “lost” by your NPD/BPD wife in the course of a temper tantrum. She will try to destroy whatever means the most to you—remove such items from her reach to the extent possible.
5. If you keep firearms in the house, remove ammunition from the house and remove or hide the guns. This is going to be the most volatile time of your relationship with a woman who has a history of irrational behavior. This is the most dangerous time for you and you cannot predict what an irrational person will do under such circumstances. Your personal safety must be a primary concern and never taken for granted.
6. If your wife has ever threatened you with false reports of domestic violence, alert law enforcement before you leave and inform them of any past threats of false reports. If she has ever made any kind of hint that she would report you for family violence, do not think she’s bluffing and do not assume she would not go that far. She would. The fact that she even thought to threaten you with such a thing is a big red flag—non-disordered people do not think that way. If she can think it up, she can follow through. Protect yourself.
7. Make a spare set of car keys and give them to a trusted friend or store them in your office or a location to which your wife has no access. If all goes as planned, you will not need your extra set of keys. However, if your wife finds out what you’re up to, expect her to make an all-out effort to thwart your plans, including taking your car or your keys to keep you from leaving. Have a backup plan, just in case.
8. Plan what you’ll say to the kids. If your spouse is physically violent, seek the assistance of an attorney in removing your minor children from a physically abusive parent. Custody matters with minor children require expert assistance. If you have adult children who are living away from home, you can help preserve those relationships by heading off your wife’s inevitable attempts to turn them against you.
You will need to be honest with your children about the circumstances you’ve been enduring—chances are they do not know what’s been happening or the extent of it. Plan what you will say to them–draft a script if that helps. In most situations, it’s best not to tell your adult children that you are leaving until you are out of the house. The first discussion with your adult children should take place as soon as possible after you have actually left.
It’s likely that your adult children are more loyal to their mother than they are to you because your wife has been making negative remarks about you and planting seeds of discord and doubt over the years. If your wife rules the roost, chances are your children are accustomed to doing her bidding and accepting her version of events without question. Do not be surprised if they side with your wife and if at first they don’t believe what you are telling them about the abuse.
Don’t despair and don’t give up—exposure of your wife’s behavior is what is called for. Encourage your adult children to check with you about the truth of anything negative their mother says about you and promise to be honest with them. Eventually, most adult children will begin to see and understand the dynamics and will no longer take as true the negative things that are said about you by your soon-to-be-ex-wife. Give it time, and don’t give up.
9. Hire a lawyer and file for divorce. You may think that once you’re out of the house there’s no rush in filing for divorce or getting the process over with. That kind of thinking is usually a mistake. Once you file for divorce, many jurisdictions have standing court orders that protect your assets while you go through the divorce process—those orders do not take effect until the divorce petition is filed and served on your spouse.
This will (in theory) give you some recourse if your wife behaves badly and destroys property or runs up credit card debt. Also, your wife may not think you’ll actually go through with divorcing her until she is actually served with divorce papers. Actually filing the divorce petition is a very strong boundary that you can establish right away. If you have hired a lawyer, you can avoid contact with your wife by deflecting communications to your lawyer. Remember, she is still trying to engage you so that she can maintain her control over you. If you have little to no contact with her, she cannot regain her footing or exercise any control over you.
10. Disengage. End all contact with your abusive wife. This is really hard, so be prepared to struggle with this one. You will feel compelled to speak with her. You will feel extreme anxiety if you do not pick up the phone when she calls. Even if you hate it, it is difficult to break this pattern, but it is imperative that you figure out how to stick to it.
You may have to have some ongoing contact because of minor children. It is helpful to some men to have a list of canned replies that can be given in response to attempts to engage you and draw you into conversations. For instance: “I will not discuss our property division with you, the lawyers will sort it out” or “The children will be available to be picked up at 6:00 on Friday at my mother’s house; please be on time.” You get the idea.
If you must communicate, keep it very short and limited to business and get out of the conversation after you have delivered your communication. You do not have to listen to what a sorry jerk you are. You do not have to explain yourself or make your wife understand your position—there is nothing productive that can come from such conversations.
11. Tell it like it really is. You’ve probably become an expert at making excuses for your wife’s behavior and hiding the truth from everyone outside of your marriage. Now it’s time to expose what’s really been going on. That’s not to say that it’s wise to parade around with a victim sign across your chest, but now it’s important that you face the truth yourself.
It may also be necessary to expose the truth in situations where your wife embarks on a smear campaign against you. It’s not uncommon for this type of woman to tell lies about you to your family members (her in-laws), your children, the kids’ teachers, your mutual friends, the parents of your kids’ playmates, therapists, pediatricians, social workers and whoever else will listen. You can defend yourself by exposing the truth. This is especially important in the legal context—it’s crucial that you control misinformation that could negatively affect you in court.
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Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services for professional inquiries.