Why a divorce lawyer needs to know if client is in abusive relationship

There’s no doubt that going through a divorce can be a crazy time. People often can be at their worst when their marriages are breaking up and they must negotiate serious life issues like joint parenting and fair division of property.

But there is a difference between ordinary divorce angst and the type of behavior that veers toward abuse and has undermined the marriage for a long time.

As a divorce attorney, I need to know if my client is in an abusive relationship. Sometimes, it can explain a lot.

For instance, I’ve had clients who were too timid to open their own financial accounts for fear of their husbands. They don’t ask for what is rightfully theirs during the divorce proceedings because they are too afraid or for years have been told they don’t deserve anything, or that everything that goes wrong is their fault.

Counseling can help in these types of situations. So can some legal strategies. For instance, if I know my client is very fearful of her husband, I’m not going to expect that she’ll be able to negotiate with her estranged husband in divorce mediation.

Spouses are in separate rooms during the mediation process but sometimes that isn’t enough. A frightened wife may just prefer to give into every demand of her husband just to get it over with and will refuse to ask for anything.

Mediation is required to resolve disputes before a judge steps in to decide an outcome if the couple can’t agree. However, we can ask the judge to waive the requirement for mediation when it’s obvious an abused spouse can’t go through with it because of fear. That could be fear of retaliation, or a general feeling that she can’t stand up to the person who will be her ex-spouse when all of this is over.

Judges are pretty good about accommodating abused spouses if it is brought to their attention. But first, the attorney needs to know about the situation in order to inform the judge.

Sometimes, people being abused in a relationship don’t realize what is happening, especially if they have been brainwashed to believe “it’s all their fault.”

We all know the obvious signs of abuse, or at least I hope this is true. The obvious signs are of physical abuse when a spouse is beaten. This is a very dangerous situation but there are other forms of abuse that also can be damaging. They destroy the sense of self and make it difficult to feel safe and whole.

The abuser’s main motive is control and what better way to control another person than to make her feel humiliated, fearful or inadequate. (And I realize that men can be abused, too, but for illustrative purposes, I’m going to stick with using female pronouns for this discussion.)

To really steal a person’s soul, verbal abuse and emotional abuse will work. Name-calling, blaming, the silent treatment, humiliation and threats fall under the heading of this type of psychological abuse. Frequently, the abuser will attempt to isolate the victim from family and friends. He may be financially restrictive so the victim doesn’t have her own money and must therefore remain dependent.

All of these types of abuse in a relationship can make the victim doubt herself. And during the divorce process, the person who doubts herself may not believe that she has any rights.

And then, of course, I have seen it: Abused spouses sometimes believe – and really desire – that their overbearing partners will come back to them if they are “nice” and give in.

I’d recommend being completely honest about any abuse with your attorney. He or she needs to be aware of what is going on in order to best represent you.

If something is too hard to talk about, saying it out loud isn’t the only answer. You can also write it down, if you need to. Just let your attorney know about your situation.

As I’ve said many times, my goal is to help my clients get through the divorce process in a way where they will emerge as whole persons looking forward to their futures.

So remember, please, that divorce is a process instead of a battle. And to move through the process in a healthy fashion, you need to feel safe. Having an experienced attorney by your side, one who can understand the effects and implications of abuse, can be highly advantageous.

At Jeanne Coleman law firm, we’ve been successfully representing divorce clients for more than 25 years. If you’re considering divorce and want to know some of your options under Florida law, we offer free 15-minute consultations. Call us to schedule an appointment or with questions at 813-253-2820.

404 South Howard Ave. Tampa, FL 33606

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