Voices against violence: mired in the courts

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Editor's note: Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, this column by a local resident is being run anonymously.

Like most people who have experienced intimate partner violence, I was not excited to tell my story when asked. But until those of us who been abused find the courage to speak, nothing will ever change. Like other forms of intimacy, intimate partner violence takes place in the shadows, behind closed doors, and, it happens everywhere.

My experience took place a long time ago. My ex-husband and I met in 1984, and were married less than three months later. Though we hardly knew each other, we did know that we both longed for a family – and we made a really nice one.

I loved being a mother more than anything I’d ever done, and my ex-husband loved being a father to our four young children. We put all the relational energy we had into being parents, and not much energy of any kind was left over for our marriage. When he filed for divorce in 1995, I didn’t contest it. It was all a blur. We both remarried within three years, and were happier. With the help of our extended families, we managed the shared custody of our kids (ages 5-12 at the time of the divorce) reasonably well. Shared custody was the parenting arrangement preferred by Minnesota courts in the 1990s.

It was four years later that everything began to fall apart, as our three oldest children turned 16 one after the other. In succession, each of them asked to live full-time with me and their step-dad. Each child’s request was met with wrath on the part of their dad, as the divorce decree stipulated equal time spent in both households.

My ex-husband wouldn’t agree to go to mediation as a family, or to talk with the kids about their changing needs as they grew into older adolescence. Eventually, each grew tired of being a “backpack kid.” The courts at the time believed children would benefit from having two homes, but in truth, I think ours ended up feeling that they had two half homes.

There was considerable friction in my ex-husband’s home as the kids grew older, as teenagers need to be heard. Their dad responded to their growing independence with intimidation and with lawsuits. In all, he hired seven different lawyers and subpoenaed me on eight different occasions to appear in court for breach of custody. His intent was to have me put in jail because our children no longer wanted to live with him.

In all, I spent $15,000 on legal fees before giving up on attorneys. Though I had been a painfully shy person all my life, I had no choice but to represent myself in court. I knew my family’s story better than any attorney I could hire, and I was broke. Over the course of those years, I learned to use my voice with confidence. I learned that a quiet person could be unshakably firm. Those unwanted opportunities to speak my truth proved invaluable; I eventually won that sad, legal battle, and my ex-husband’s lawsuit was dismissed.

While I won’t deny that it felt good to win against steep odds, this much I know after nearly two decades have passed: in family court, there really are no winners.

In my experience, the years of family court proceedings were torturous. These protracted legal face-offs divided my ex-husband and me even further, rather than helping us to find even a particle of common ground.

Call me a fool, but what if just one of the many professionals in the court room had reminded us of the values we had shared as young parents? What if we had been coached to cultivate empathy for each other? What if we had been told to take several deep breaths, and start visioning the most peaceful solution for our children together? Families under the kind of pressure that brings them to court are in crisis, and emotional crisis intervention is, I believe, appropriate.

After the case was dismissed, the older kids fell out of contact with their dad. The exchange of the younger children between our homes became even more difficult. For years, my ex-husband never left his vehicle when he dropped the children or their possessions off at our house. He just opened his car window a crack to speak to me, even on hot summer days. The effect, I assume, was to make me feel as if I had a despicable, contagious disease. Or worse yet, that I was a despicable, contagious disease he didn’t want to catch.

I walked toward my ex-husband one morning holding two cups of coffee, and invited him to step out of his vehicle. His response was to open the car door forcefully, smashing it into my face. The cups I was holding fell to the ground and broke; and he drove off without a word.

Behaviors like these persisted until my ex-husband and his wife moved to another city. We then had our daughters full-time, without the pretense of shared parenting time. Both of our sons were living independently while attending college.

I never told the children what had happened during those years – maybe that was a mistake? To this day, I don’t know if they are aware of how our family was mired in the courts. Or of how things went from bad to worse after the balance of power was turned upside down. These are stories most abused women are scared to tell, because their kids have already been through so much. Truthfully, I don’t know if anyone wants to hear them.

My ex-husband and I are superficially civil toward one another on the rare occasion that we meet now. An onlooker might even say friendly, but the wrongs of the past have never been redressed – or even spoken of. I see what we went through in the family court system as heartbreakingly unnecessary, and wish that someone had intervened a lot sooner: called a frivolous law suit for what it was, and tossed us out into the hall after our first appearance. Ideally, someone would then have helped us to get the help we so badly needed.

But where would we have gone, given what the world offers people with their horns locked in disagreement? In my dreams, I imagine we would have found an office somewhere with a skilled practitioner: a combination of ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution), mediation, and counseling. I see my first family sitting in a circle. The children are little again, and each of us has time to speak without interruption. All opinions and feelings are valued; hurt is addressed and held with tenderness. My ex-husband and I are listening to each other. We all have each other’s best interests at heart, like a family – even though the parents are divorced.

Has anyone found this place?

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