Post-Separation Abuse: The Truth

If only abuse stopped after divorce... but abusers still seek power and control over victims. Learn the truth about post-separation abuse.

We’d all like to believe that divorce stops abuse, but the truth is that post-separation abuse is an unfortunate reality for most victims.

Abusers don’t stop wanting power over their victims, even after divorce. They just change up their methods.

Michelle Donnelly from the Christian Single Moms podcast joins Anne on the free BTR podcast to describe the realities of post-separation abuse. Learn more by listening to the BTR podcast and reading the full transcript below.

With Post-Separation Abuse, Boundaries Are Key

Boundaries help victims separate themselves from abusive behavior. Boundaries are not:

  • Ultimatums
  • Consequences for bad behavior
  • Mechanisms to control another person’s behavior

Instead, boundaries are courageous actions that victims take to ensure that they are as protected as possible from harm.

Setting and maintaining boundaries in a divorce is key to navigating post-separation abuse.

What Are Some Boundaries That Can Help Me Navigate Post-Separation Abuse?

Remember that post-separation abuse boundaries aren’t going to stop your abuser from being abusive, but they are intended to limit your exposure to your ex-husband’s abusiveness.

Some ideas of boundaries you can set and maintain include:

  • Using a parenting communication app, like Talking Parents, as your sole mode of communication (consult with your attorney)
  • Determining certain times of day, or days of the week, that you will check and respond to messages from your ex
  • Bringing a family member or friend with you to drop off/pick up the children
YouTube video

A Strong Support System Is Essential When Navigating Post-Separation Abuse

“I’ve got safe people that I can work through those things with so that this can get ironed out in the sense that there’s a rhythm here, and I know where I can get the support that I need.”

Michelle Donnelly, Christian Single Moms Podcast

Post-separation abuse can feel overwhelming at times. It’s imperative that victims develop a strong support network.

Victims can find support from:

Support networks usually start out very small but grow into empowered, close-knit groups of SHE-roes over time.

BTR Is Here For You

At BTR, we understand the tremendous stress that can come from post-separation abuse. Our BTR coaches are trained to help you navigate abuse post-divorce. The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is a resource for you as you build your support network. Join today and begin your journey to healing.

Full Transcript:

Anne:  Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Our Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, called BTRG for short, is a daily online support group.

Our daily online support group has more sessions than any other support group out there. We have over 21 sessions per week for you to choose from. You don’t have to wait for an appointment, you don’t have to leave your home, you can join from your closet or your parked car in your garage. We are here for you. We’d love to see you in a session today.

Michelle Donnelly on the BTR Podcast

I’m excited to have Michelle Donnelly on today’s episode, I was recently on her podcast which is called the Christian Single Moms podcast. We had such a great time talking, I had to have her on Betrayal Trauma Recovery. She is a single mother of three and firmly believes that women can discover a life of peace, power, and purpose if they journey with God through brokenness and heartbreak. Her passion for single mothers led her to develop an online resource community for single moms called Agape Moms. Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so glad to talk to you again.

Anne: It’s fun to find kindred spirits in this work. So, your story is similar to so many of our stories where you didn’t know that you were being abused and you figured it out eventually. We’re actually going to be talking about co-parenting today and parenting, but before we get to that part, can you tell us your story?

Michelle’s Story

Michelle: Yeah, sure. So, for me, the story is a kind of a slow unfolding one. I met my ex-husband when I was in high school, and I think anybody who knew us could say that our relationship had been rocky from the start. And for me being 17 years old, and not knowing very much about myself, or relationship dynamics or these kinds of things, I sort of just thought, well, all relationships are hard and I’m not perfect either. You know those kinds of things. Gradually over the years and decades as things unfolded, it became very clear that there was a separation that was occurring spiritually in our relationship as he continued to make various choices, it got rockier, and certainly, I think the thing that’s confusing in these situations is I’m not, I think what he’d say is like a shrinking violet. And so, when someone is consistently attacking you, sometimes you will stand up for yourself, you’ll fight back. And so, I think that’s what kept things very confusing for me for a long time and going around and around and around was this thought that I’m participating in the way this relationship is shaping up too. 

“I Started Getting Language For What I Was Going Through”

But as time went on, I started to say, you know, I don’t want to respond this way anymore. I don’t want to live my life like this anymore and started seeking some counseling on my own and really started to take control of the way that I was showing up. And in the midst of that happening, the relationship actually got worse. So, in the midst of me choosing to disengage and choosing better ways of handling my own emotions in the situation, it made it very clear that we were on two separate paths. And just as life continued to go on, there were some choices that he made that eventually were deal breakers and broke everything apart. 

But in the midst of that was where I started getting language for what I was going through and getting clarity and really starting to heal, started that healing process before the divorce ever actually took place. And so, that’s how now it’s been three years since the marriage ended, but it’s been a much longer healing process for me, but that’s how now I’m able to extend a lot of what I have been given through Agape Moms and through the community to just connect with other women who are going through very many of the same things.

Anne: What brought you to understand that what you were experiencing was abuse? I know that overall, you started being really healthy and then you’re realizing wait a minute, these behaviors I’m seeing in him are very unhealthy, but what actually helped you to say the word abuse or to even consider it was abuse?

A Barrier To Understanding Abuse

Michelle: Yeah, it was a counselor. You know, a lot of times in these situations, we’re not sharing what’s going on. And for me, certainly, it was this thought that you know, someday we’re going to get better and, you know, I don’t want everybody to know all this garbage that we’re going through, it’s going to be fine. You know, so I don’t want to really involve too many people in this, but as the water started to get murkier and I needed some help. I went to a counselor about a totally separate issue, and it just started to unravel as I was explaining to her well, this happened and then he said this and yadda yadda yadda. She said to me, you know, this is abuse right? And I thought to myself, really? And at that moment, I don’t know that I fully grabbed on to what she was saying, but I started reading some books.

She gave me some authors to reference and in reading the literature, I started seeing my story in what these experts were writing about. And I thought, oh my goodness, how did I ever miss this? And I think that’s one of the barriers for us is feeling like oh, my goodness, I feel so foolish that I never saw this. But I think we think that we’re going to see this thing coming from a mile away and it’s going to be so super obvious that we’re going to know. And so often with the emotional component, it is just this slow erosion that you know something feels off, but you probably would not often put that word abuse to it. You probably say this person has anger issues, and this person had trauma in their backstory or –

Anne: They have an addiction. They have a porn addiction.

“The Power Dynamics Are Intentional”

Michelle: Yep. And so, it’s something that we sort of end up couching underneath this banner of imperfection, you know, that we all have, not realizing that the power dynamics are intentional. That there’s more than just some bad habits going on here. That there’s something bigger at play. And I think that was one of the things that really helped me with disengaging, emotionally, and starting to heal was saying well, I don’t want to be a part of that kind of thing anymore. And whatever I can do to make this healthy, that’s what I want to do. And so that was how the road started for me to get to being healthy, and where it just became so clear that we had different intentions about the way that that was all going to happen.

Anne: Different ways of viewing the relationship, right? You were viewing it as a partnership and he’s viewing it as I have power over, essentially.

Michelle: I think that’s what often happens in these types of arrangements. I hesitate to say relationship because one person certainly thinks they’re in a two-way relationship, but yet, the only way that this sort of arrangement continues on is when there’s a disparity in that and one of the parties is seeing this as a means to an end.

Power With Vs. Power Over

Anne: Or has some goal to it or is controlling the information, for example. There’s a power differential because they have more information than someone else. 

Before you ever defined it as abuse did you define it as a pornography addiction? Or did you go down the pornography addiction recovery route for a bit?

Michelle: You know, not so much. This was something that was completely under the radar for me. And so, I was not even so totally aware of all the things that were going on. And I just knew as it came to the dynamic between us that it was just getting so, so unhealthy. And some of the other behaviors and things that were unbeknownst to me started to come out in the midst of that process, but there was nothing before that that was kind of like a precursor.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne: I am going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which also has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So, it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it, it’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.

And now back to our discussion. 

Okay, so you weren’t like, oh, we’ve got to solve this porn problem, and then later you were like, oh, he’s abusive. You were like, something is wrong, but you couldn’t put your finger on it and the abuse came first, and then later you realized, oh, and he’s also using porn. Okay. 

I just think that’s important to talk about because so many people don’t address the porn, or they don’t include it when they talk about abuse. And I always want to bring it into the story to say and there was a porn issue here, right? So people know, porn is part of this mess of unhealthiness.

“There Are So Many Ways Someone Can Gain Power Over Another Person”

Michelle: Yeah. And I think the thing we have to recognize with the mess of unhealthiness is there are so many types of abuse when you’re looking at the classification of what’s domestic violence. So often we think that’s going to be only physical means and when you pile up, there’s emotional, there’s sexual, there’s spiritual, financial, so many ways that someone can gain power over another person. And very often, it’s not even just one or two. It’s often such a selection that covers all of these different categories, and because of that though, it can actually be harder to see because you just know this person is very particular about all these different areas, or they have something to say about all of these different categories. And so, because it can be very encompassing it actually makes it hard to see.

Anne: Yeah. If it were just, he’s absolutely shutting down the bank account and won’t let you have any money, that might be a little bit more obvious, right? But the little ways that he’s financially abusive, or if he were saying, God told me I can beat you up or something, you’d be like well, that’s clear that is spiritual abuse. But it’s not so clear if it’s spiritual abuse if he’s kneeling down and praying by you and saying, you know, please help my wife to be godlier. Please help her to understand how to be a better wife, you know, that doesn’t necessarily feel like spiritual abuse sometimes. 

What Do Women Encounter When Parenting With An Abuser?

So, you decided to start an organization for single Christian moms after going through this. As you started this, what issues do single mothers commonly encounter, from your experience, when raising children with an abuser? Now when I say raising them with an abuser meaning you’re divorced from them, but they are still in your life because they’re your child’s parent.

Michelle: Right. Yeah, so I think one of the things that can be just difficult in divorce in general, and then with abuse on top of it is the separation, the emotional separation, and the physical separation. So often, I hear from women who are constantly trying to explain things to their former partner or trying to make decisions with them as though they’re able to have effective communication and honest open communication. And so often, it’s just a continued open door for manipulation and control to continue. And it is so essential to understand that yes, you will have to try to have communication with this person for a lot of things, but the manner in which you go about that can be such that you are able to maintain a separateness and have your own opinions, your own preferences about how things would go. It is difficult, but it is possible to continue this walk without continually having to hand your life back over to this person, and I think that’s the thing that can be difficult is feeling like well, I’m divorced, but I’m still being abused and learning a new way of working through this.

Navigating Post-Separation Abuse

Anne: And I think even if you’re expertly skilled at dealing with your ex, right, and you’ve got great boundaries and you’re detached and you have all the skills going for you, you still can be technically abused by your ex because you’re being lied to, you’re being manipulated. And so, how do you separate yourself from the harm as much as possible, and then how do you navigate the abuse in order to reduce the harm to you as much as possible? And I think that’s really important to tell people is that you know, it’s still not your fault if you don’t communicate “perfectly” with your abuser, that he’s abusing you. You can do the best you can to be as highly skilled as possible in communication with an abuser, but it still has nothing to do with you and it’s not your fault if they still don’t react well to whatever you try.

Michelle: Yeah, yep. And I think this is where having specific tactics is great, but also having a certain mindset about the whole thing. 

Set Boundaries To Limit Opportunities For Your Abuser To Keep Abusing You

So, if this person in the past has lied to you, manipulated you, you can expect that that’s still happening. And so, what you do in your communication is limit the opportunities for that to occur. So, if you’re listening and you’ve never heard of grey rock before, go look it up, but the grey rock is a method of communicating that’s basically just we’re not putting any emotions into this interaction. We’re just going to do this as business. That if I was having, making a business arrangement for like a business lunch or something like that, I would be emailing or texting, coordinating specific details. I’m not going to get into the emotions or the reason or I don’t like that you did that, or you know, even necessarily fielding any of the insults. So, if an insult comes your way for the way that you’re handling things, saying, you know this is the way that I need to handle this and just leaving the boundary firm at that and not having to get too deep into the weeds. 

A Strong Support System is a Must For Every Victim

Now, after that, when you’re getting stuff hurled at you, absolutely have those safe people that you’re like, I can’t believe that this happened or you know, you’ve got a counselor, whoever it is that can help you work through the frustration and the disappointment and the hurt. That is necessary, and it makes it though, such a system that makes it easy to say okay, I’m only going to show what needs to be forward-facing to this person as far as the logistics side of this but when it comes to all my emotional stuff, I’ve got safe people that I can work through those things with so that this can get ironed out in the sense that there’s a rhythm here, and I know where I can get the support that I need. And depending on your situation, it may cause things to get a little riled up for a little while, they want to see if they can get a reaction from you. But over time, if you’re consistent and don’t offer reactions, and don’t give a lot of emotions, and we’re not trying to be friends and all these kinds of things, and it can get to a workable place in lots of instances.

Anne: So, for a long time on the podcast I touted no contact, which I did through my father, and that worked. I was like everybody should do this, but then I had a custody case that I lost, and in the process of that I needed to switch to Our Family Wizard rather than going through my dad so that I could communicate with him directly, which I do now. I still blocked him on my phone, blocked him on email. I only communicate with him through Our Family Wizard, and if there’s an emergency that needs a call or a text, he can still text or call my dad. 

So, I’m learning some new skills with Our Family Wizard, and I’m really grateful at least in my case that I had kind of a break for, you know, six years before being required to communicate with him directly via email. I never communicate with him in any other way besides email, but it’s interesting, like no matter how highly skilled I am, it’s still kind of a dance to figure out how to communicate with an abuser when you’re the victim. It’s very, very difficult and I think it’s not something to be taken lightly and it needs to be taken pretty seriously for all women who are dealing with an ex-husband who’s abusive.

“Can You Co-Parent With An Abuser?”

 A lot of people have this idea in their heads, and one of the manipulative things he told me was I just dream of a day where we’ll be able to sit on a park bench, and we’ll be able to watch our kids playing and get along. Right, he said that to me in a way to like try and manipulate me into communicating with him, and like that’s never going to happen as long as you’re acting the ways that you are. So, this idea of co-parenting is sort of this like oh, you know, maybe even you can be friends or something like that. Let’s talk about that idea. The concept of co-parenting when it comes to abuse. Can you co-parent with an abuser?

Michelle: Sure. So, when it comes to the word co-parenting that suggests that you have two people that are parenting together. And I think what we have to recognize is that in some divorce cases, for example, or there was a breakup of a significant relationship, the people are able to maintain some sort of an amicable relationship in which the children are not being used as power, weapons, and those sorts of things, that the relationship dynamic is not this push-pull. That these two people are going on with the best interests of the kids. 

I know a woman who has a wonderful co-parenting ministry, and the research into this is there are basically five levels of relational dynamics. And in some of those lower levels, though, that’s where we’re starting to see those things like abuse where there are those manipulative methods, and the kids are being caught as go-betweens, and there’s all of this discord that continues on. And in that case, the concept of parallel parenting is a better way to consider what it is that you’re trying to do. Because if this person is not going to be putting the kid’s best interests first and is not going to basically play by the rules. If you can’t establish any rules without them being manipulated, then you know that what you’re doing at that point is you are parenting on your own and this person is parenting on their own.

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Anne: I wouldn’t even call it parenting. It’s like you’re parenting on your own and this other person is actively trying to cause problems, which is not what I would call parenting. 

Michelle and I are going to continue the conversation next week, so stay tuned. 

If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.


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