Post-Separation Abuse and the Devastation It Causes
When coercive controllers continue to abuse long after the victim-survivor has separated from them
Welcome to my latest blog, which focuses on the important topic of perpetrators’ post-separation abuse.
Why we get post-separation abuse so wrong
Mainstream society is deeply flawed in its current understandings of how people break free from domestic abuse. The flawed way of thinking typically goes like this:
‘This is an abusive relationship.’
‘The victim should leave.’
‘The victim has left so the abuse is now over and the victim can get on with their life.’
This is a dangerous way for us to think.
Instead, we should operate with a full understanding of the entrapment, of the perpetrator, and of how societies should react.
Bringing these insights to light helps to raise awareness and understanding of the harms that these abusers cause. Please read more on coercive control on this site, and also follow me on my social media channels.
Understanding the entrapment
An ordinary person has been targeted and entrapped by a dangerous abuser.
The entrapment has taken place through a number of tactics: love bombing; manipulation, entangling finances together; isolating the target from family and friends; and the abuser pushing the target to move in together, get married and/or have a child very quickly.
To the outside world, this looks like a romantic partnership, but it is not: The abuser wants to harm the other party, not partner with them. The point of partnering with someone is to live an enriched, fulfilling life in each other’s company, not to spend a lot of the time attacking, undermining and exploiting the other party! (Thank you to the Twitter account of @AndrewCicchett1 for regularly reinforcing the point that coercive controllers are not partners.)
Understanding the perpetrator
The abuser is highly motivated to harm the person they have entrapped: they are regularly carrying out harmful behaviours (and often crimes) towards that person.
If the entrapped person tries to escape the abuser by ending the ‘relationship’, it is very likely that the abuser will continue abusing them — this is because the abuser has a continued motivation to harm the person who they have targeted.
They may find many ways to continue to harm the entrapped person.
The entrapped person may not therefore be able to achieve adequate levels of safety or freedom even when they leave the ‘relationship’.
Understanding how societies should react
Societies and communities need to find ways to effectively intervene to stop the abuser’s desire or ability to carry on harming the person who they have targeted (and to stop them from targeting a new person too).
The amazing Jess Hill, author of the book See What You Made Me Do, explains why the abuser and the systems in our societies must be the subject of this focus:
‘[A survivor can] choose to leave an abusive relationship. But the choice to end the abuse is not in their hands.’
‘If the perpetrator is hellbent on maintaining control, they don’t need the victim in physical proximity: they can control them through the system.’
‘The courts, child support, social security, a rental tribunal — these can all become another weapon in their armoury’ (Hill, 2020, p. 244).
If more people thought of it this way, then survivors would be spared much of the horror of post-separation abuse.
… Only with this level of social understanding – accompanied by action on the part of systems – will the entrapped person be able to achieve the levels of safety and freedom that they are entitled to as a citizen, and/or as a person with human rights.
… Only then will other members of the public be protected from this abuser too.
Picturing ‘the island of real safety’
I often picture ‘the island of real safety’:
The adult and child victims-survivors of coercive control have left the abuser and are on an island called ‘still being harmed’. They need to get to an island called ‘real safety’.
However, all the means of getting there are very risky. There is a bridge, but it is so unstable and has so many holes in it that crossing it is really dangerous. They’ve been told that a new, safe bridge is available, but when they get to the place it is supposed to be, they find that it hasn’t been built yet.
They could try to swim, but they might die of exhaustion, be swept away by strong tides, or be bitten by sharks before they reach ‘real safety’. What are the adult and child survivors supposed to do?
In order to shift responses to post-separation abuse – to construct that bridge to ‘real safety’ – we need to increase public and political awareness of the harms caused by perpetrators when they carry it out.
What does post-separation abuse involve?: A look at the latest research
Kathryn J. Spearman and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University/University of Illinois recently released a very helpful research article on post-separation abuse.
They define post-separation abuse as ‘the ongoing, willful pattern of intimidation of a former intimate partner including legal abuse, economic abuse, threats and endangerment to children, isolation and discrediting, and harassment and stalking’ (Spearman et al, 2022, p. 1).
Frequently in current practice, cases of post-separation fulled by an abuser’s obsession with harming their ex-partner are mis-labelled as ‘high conflict cases’. However, this is wrong. The term ‘high conflict’ is misleading and damaging in these cases, because it makes it seem as though both parties are to blame for the ‘conflict’.
In reality that is not what is happening.
Instead, one party is waging a campaign of abuse, while the other is rightly trying to protect their freedom and safety, and also the freedom and safety of their children.
Introduction: 5 kinds of post-separation abuse
Before reviewing Spearman and colleagues’ findings (and providing a tool for understanding post-separation legal abuse), let’s explore in more depth the five categories of post-separation abuse identified by Spearman and colleagues — starting with legal abuse.
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