Leaving my verbally abusive husband took years of building up strength. When I finally made up my mind, it took me six months to put my plan in place. With my lawyer hired, I took my ex to a public park near our house and told him I was leaving him. I asked him not to come home that night — to go to a hotel, or to find a friend to stay with. He refused, snatched the car keys from my hand, and insisted on driving home with me.
Of all the things I’d considered in my plan, I hadn’t planned on him refusing to move out.
“Can’t I just change the locks on the door?” I desperately asked my lawyer, and was told that was illegal in the state of Minnesota.
I left him on August 2, 2014. We sent a potential draft of a custody agreement in September. He was still living in the house, and without a custody agreement, the courts would "frown" upon attempts to get him to leave.
But there was no way to force him to set a date for the custody hearing. If I moved out, I couldn’t take my son or I’d be charged with kidnapping. I’d also risk losing the house in the divorce. I would have taken that risk, but I wasn’t willing to risk losing custody. Meanwhile, the months dragged on and the verbal abuse escalated.
He’d follow me around the house, ripping me to shreds for my multiple failures as a human being, a wife, and a mother. He still acted as if he was entitled to my body, pinching my ass when he walked behind me up the stairs to put our son to bed, walking into the bathroom when I was in the shower and pulling back the curtain to watch me, and sticking his face in front of mine in public for a kiss — putting me in the awkward position of either making a scene in front of our son or allowing it. His behavior grew more and more worrisome.
At one point, in October, he came home from the drugstore and tossed a plastic bag with pregnancy tests on the dining room table. “Just in case,” he told me.
I stared at the pink rectangular boxes in shock. “In case what?”
“I don’t want you to try to get pregnant to get more child support,” he sneered.
That night, I waited until he’d left his phone sitting out, unlocked, on the kitchen counter, and frantically scrolled through his emails. He’d told his lawyer to stall on the divorce, and that we were going to reconcile. I copied the contents of his email into one to my lawyer, begging her to get some movement. “I’m scared,” I told her. “He’s losing touch with reality.”
I went off birth control, making sure that he saw me toss the ring in the trash and not refill my prescription, in a desperate attempt to get him to leave me alone.
Finally, we got his lawyer to agree to set a date for the custody mediation: December 16th, 2014. Over three months after I’d left him. After the mediation, my lawyer sent a draft of the agreement — which contained everything decided upon during the hearing — on January 16th. And then we waited. Every morning I woke up, unsure of how he’d treat me that day. Would he stomp around, giving me the (blessed) silent treatment? Or would he corner me in the garage after I’d put our son in the car seat, calling me a "bitch" and wondering aloud why I was so worried about being on time to my dead-end job?
My lawyer called, emailed, sent letters, and did everything in her power to get his lawyer to do something, anything, on the custody agreement. I paid an extra $800 in legal fees for a phone call with her as we tried to figure out next steps if he welched on the agreements we’d reached. And then, finally, we heard from his lawyer — in March.
After all that time, I was braced for a red-lined version of the custody agreement, with heavy changes. Nope. He had a whopping less than five tweaks he wanted, none of which were at all major. My lawyer was flabbergasted, and frankly said she’d never seen this kind of behavior from opposing counsel before. Once we’d responded to the agreement, it was signed and filed and my ex moved out on Easter weekend of 2015. Nine months after I’d originally left him.
As I see it, there were several issues with how Minnesota has structured their divorce laws. First, nowhere in the divorce process was there any accountability for the lawyers involved. When the judge scheduled a phone call with the lawyers to get an update on progress — equally frustrated at the delay — my ex’s lawyer blew off the call. And there were no consequences. No reprimands, no fines, no fees, nothing. When he went months without responding to a single email or phone call there was nothing we could do.
I lost track of the number of times I heard, “Well, it’s frowned upon,” or “It’s just assumed...”
Secondly, the entire process assumes that both parties will behave reasonably. I lost track of the number of times I heard, “Well, it’s frowned upon,” or “It’s just assumed...” As my lawyer put it, “Most men move out right away. It’s just assumed that they’ll be reasonable. I don’t know why a man would want to stay!” At no point in the process did anyone appear to have considered that abusive men do not behave reasonably and controlling men do not want to let go. I’m willing to bet that, when structuring these laws, the legal system didn’t consult experts in domestic violence or abuse.
Thirdly, the way the system functions is ripe for financial abuse. The process forces mediation for both custody and financial matters because, as my lawyer also told me, the judges were tired of listening to couples argue in court. They purposefully set it up so that costs would mount as the process dragged on, the idea being that it would force couples to come to an agreement. But my ex made $30,000 more a year than I did. Plus, when I read his emails in October, I discovered that his parents had paid his $5,000 retainer for him. So, when one spouse is both the abusive, controlling spouse, AND the spouse who makes significantly more money than the other, AND the spouse with more financial resources from their family, can we say clusterfuck? And a system that enables and facilitates continued abuse.
All told, my simple divorce cost over $12,000 in legal fees and took a year and 220 days to complete. And people wonder why women go back to men who abuse them? Look no further than a system that makes it this hard to leave.
Top photo: Flickr/TaxCredits.com
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Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared on xojane.com and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children's Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram or Facebook.