On Tuesday my daughters will be leaving for 7 days with their father and travelling north of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. Weeks like this are always very difficult for me; it’s been three years since my marriage ended and it still hurts like hell whenever my girls have to be away.
The first time I had to say goodbye to my daughters for a full week was in August of 2016. I wrote something that day that I’d like to share here. The feelings may be slightly less raw now, but the heartache is just as present.
August 5, 2016
My ex just left to take our daughters away for the week. They’re travelling 664 kilometres away to Havilland Bay, 40 minutes north of Sault Ste Marie. That’s a 7 hour drive, give or take, and it’s 7 hours too far.
The reality of having to share our daughters…my daughters…hits home today more than any other. Because this moment will be one that I have to relive again and again and again as we now become “co-parents” instead of husband and wife, Mommy and Daddy.
And yes, I made the choice to leave my unhappy marriage. I chose to walk away and accept this new, awful reality, because I have faith that ultimately, we will all be happier and healthier. If I had stayed a wife, I would have continued to suffer in what felt like a jail sentence instead of a marriage. And so my daughters would have suffered too.
But this feeling…this new reality where I have to share my daughters with someone who betrayed me, used me, lied to me, cheated on me, ignored me, forgot about me, disrespected me…I can hardly bear it.
To watch him show up in his new car, with his now stylish clothes, a new haircut and cool sneakers… To listen to him tell me about how important it is that I make sure he and his family have more time with the girls… To wave goodbye while he drives away with those two precious beings… To smile for my girls, despite the pain inside… What do I do with these feelings??
Two years is what my lawyer told me.
Two years is what my counsellor told me.
Two years until it stops feeling this way.
Two years until this is “normal”.
Two years until I’m okay.
In this moment, it’s hard to believe that life will ever be okay, because although I left my unhappy marriage, I will never leave my children’s father. And they deserve to know him and love him, but damn I want so much for them to understand why I made the choices that I did; understand the hurt and shame and pain that he caused me. That he caused our family.
664 kilometres is much too far between me and who I love most, and yet 664 kilometres will never be far enough away from the man who hurt me most.
Well, I’m calling bullshit on the whole “Two years and you’ll be better” thing. Two years is nothing! It’s been THREE years since my official date of separation and I’m still hurt and angry! I still don’t trust my daughter’s other parent. I’m still in therapy and on psychiatric medication and trying to stop struggling so much! Things are getting better in some ways, but I don’t know how long it will take for me to be able to enjoy the time I have apart from my girls and not have it be so tainted with resentment and fear.
I didn’t want to be a part-time parent, but that’s how it’s ended up. I will always, always stand by the statement that choosing to have THIS life is better than the one I left behind, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult every day.
664 kilometres is still too far between me and who I love the most, but I have no choice but to accept it and try my best to get through the days until my heart comes back to me.
*Disclaimer: I am not a legal, medical, or mental health professional; I’m simply a person with experience and ideas, trying to share them. Please take the following suggestions carefully and if you are in an abusive situation and need help, reach out to someone you trust. xxJ
You just slip out the back, Jack Make a new plan, Stan You don’t need to be coy, Roy Just get yourself free Hop on the bus, Gus You don’t need to discuss much Just drop off the key, Lee And get yourself free
If only leaving your lover was as easy as Mr. Simon’s catchy tune makes it seem! And leaving an abusive partner? That’s even harder to do.
I don’t actually have a list of 50 ways to leave your abusive lover. I did start start trying to make one… I had things like, “Sneak out at night and leave a glitter bomb for your now ex-lover to open and find in the morning. All it needs to say is: Fuck you; I’m outta here!” I also included ideas like giving your partner the finger, doing a dramatic hair flip, and then walking off like a bad-ass movie star who never looks at explosions behind them. Or simply look at them, and call upon the Queen of queens, RuPaul, saying “Now sashay away…byeeeeeeeee!!!!” before sauntering out the door.
But those ideas seemed really inappropriate when paired with the actual circumstances of leaving an abusive partner, because I think, unlike Mr. Simon says in his song, that leaving an abusive partner is a process—one that doesn’t end when you physically remove yourself from your partner’s presence. It’s more like a series of physical, emotional, and financial steps away from your disentanglement to that person and towards your re-engagement with yourself.
You’ve probably considered leaving before—maybe even many times before!—but until now, you’ve always found ways to rationalize staying. You’ve told yourself that your partner will change. Or you’ve blamed yourself and decided to just work harder (just!) to make changes in the relationship. You may feel too scared to face the uncertainty of leaving what’s familiar (even if it’s dysfunctional). You might assume that you’re not worth more than how your partner treats you (they’ve groomed you for those kinds of feelings, remember?), feel like you have nowhere else to go, or there may be children involved and that complicates things.
There are so, so many ways to convince yourself to stay.
When you do, finally, make the heart-shattering, gut-wrenching, completely terrifying yet entirely empowering decision to leave, you begin the step-by-step process of leaving your abusive lover. I have some ideas about how this process might look, but remember that the entire process could take years, or it could happen in the course of a few moments. My experience was that it took years before I felt empowered enough to leave my partner. Others may make it happen right away. You do you, but here’s what I think the process may be like:
You begin to consider leaving as a legitimate possibility. You mull it over, maybe take some small steps to start preparing for it, and you work yourself up towards making the final decision.
You reach out to someone you trust for support as you prepare to leave your abusive relationship. This may be a trusted family member or friend. It may be a counsellor or your doctor; it could be someone at a shelter or on a partner abuse hotline. You seek out the reassurance that someone will in fact be there when you find yourself alone.
If you are an intensely anxious over-planner like me, you will set a time and date for when to inform your lover. You may also draft up a quick and informal separation agreement and have your trusted friend or family member come with you on D-Day to deliver your news and your agreement to your partner, ensuring that everyone present signs and dates the agreement (this is an immensely helpful document if you find yourself in a legal battle post-separation).
Or you don’t plan ahead and one day, you just tell your partner that you’re leaving. Or you kick them out of the house. Or you sneak out in the middle of the night because that’s the safest way for you to leave. You get the fuck out of there, however works best for you! Because that’s the whole goddamn point.
This is where the-post-leaving work begins. You begin to disentangle emotionally from your abusive partner. This might take days. More likely weeks, months, or even years. Having a counsellor, if you’re able, makes this a much steadier process.
You hire legal help, if necessary, to protect yourself when your emotionally abusive ex tries to exert control over you again. There are Legal Aid services in Canada and the United States. There are likely others in different places as well.
You enlist a kickass accountant, if you are able, to make sure your finances are dealt with responsibly. Do NOT allow your partner to dictate this unless you fully understand the scope of the decisions being made. And please do NOT underestimate the importance of taking care of yourself financially. This was a much bigger part of leaving my spouse than I expected and was very hard to deal with during the sweep of intense emotions that came along when I left.
You “get yourself free”, as Paul Simon says, and you manage the best that you can. That’s really what it comes down to.
Voila! You’ve left your lover. And it only took 8 steps! Easy, right?
No. It’s not easy. It’s 100% difficult. Especially in instances of emotional abuse, because people (including law makers and the like) often consider “emotional abuse” to be subjective. And depending on how skilled your ex-lover is at being charming or manipulating others, it may become even more difficult to get support as an abuse survivor. I know this firsthand, because when I left my marriage, I had to fight fiercely for my claims of abuse.
And isn’t that just the worst thing you can do to someone who has just escaped an abusive relationship? Make them fight for the legitimacy of their experience? Fuck that. The lip-service given to emotional abuse is not enough to protect survivors of it, should they choose to, or more likely need to, engage in a legal battle post-separation. If you don’t have children with your abusive lover, things may be different. I’m not going to say that they will be easier—that wouldn’t be fair to those whose legitimate struggles with abusive partners happen without them being parents as well—but I know that when I left an earlier partner who was also abusive, whom I didn’t have children with, it was still incredibly difficult. So difficult, that I’m still dealing with the feelings and fear that developed as a result of that relationship.
So, no. Not having kids doesn’t guarantee that it’s easier to walk out on your abusive partner. There’s still intense fear and risk involved. You still need somewhere safe to go and someone trusted to talk to. You may have to hire a lawyer and advocate the shit out of your experience in order to protect yourself. There will still be so many feelings and experiences to figure out afterwards. You will still be putting yourself in an incredibly vulnerable position by changing the status quo of your life and of your ex’s life.
Emotional abuse is just as scary and just as serious as physical abuse. So, despite what Paul Simon says, leaving your lover isn’t usually as easy as just walking out the door. Anyone in an abusive relationship should be able to leave that situation. Maybe that’s the one part Mr. Simon gets right in his song when he says, “Just get yourself free.”
I had the fight of my life trying to disentangle from my abusive partners. In fact, it still feels like a fight everyday.
If you need help leaving your lover, please reach out to someone you trust, or to one of the places below.
When you have a partner who is narcissistic or emotionally abusive and you make the choice to leave them, the advice that’s always given is to go “no contact” and cut them out of your life completely.
That would work beautifully as a solution to healing from the emotional trauma of being in a relationship with a narcissistic emotional abuser. Except…
What about when you can’t go “no contact”?
What about those of us who created beautiful children with terrible people? What about the women and men who have left an abusive partner but can’t fully escape them because of the children they share?
What about the people like me?
The single, most difficult thing about my life now is managing the co-parenting relationship I have with my daughters’ father. It feels like I continue to hold the vast majority of the parenting responsibility, as I always did, but am required to engage in a relationship with my children’s’ father, regardless of my history with him.
My struggle in this relationship is so bad that I’ve idealized the lives of other parents whose former partners have completely abandoned them and their children. I recognize (and empathize so much with) how incredibly difficult it must be for these parents, financially and otherwise. But I envy the freedom they have when it comes to making decisions for, and being caregivers of, their children.
I also envy my friends who got divorced BEFORE they had kids. In my mind, that type of divorce is akin to ending a middle-school relationship; you both move on and it never has to matter in your life again EVER. Again, I’m not saying it’s easy, just that it’s easier than divorcing when you have kids.
I don’t actually think of what my ex and I do as co-parenting. In fact, there’s a different term for the type of parenting we do: it’s called “parallel parenting.” “Parallel parenting” looks more like a business relationship than a typical parenting relationship. You detach from the other parent and operate separately, aside from making major decisions together. This article explains it much better than I can, but hopefully I’ve given you the gist.
Thinking about all this stuff makes me wonder, how do other parents manage when their partner is abusive? Whether that person is narcissistic, emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or just a shitty person…how do the non-abusive parents cope with an ongoing parenting relationship? Because it’s hard. It’s really, really, fucking hard. And it takes time to figure out ways of coping.
If you also need to continue engaging in a difficult relationship, I do have a few ways you can help minimize the effect it has on your day to day life. You can do things like…
Setting a specific ring- and text-tone for your former partner. This way, when calls or messages come in you know right away who it is and you can pause to prepare yourself before answering.
Bathing your children when they return home (or having them shower if they’re old enough) and washing the clothes they came home in. I find that scent is a HUGE trigger for me. If it’s a problem for you too, you can eliminate or reduce triggering smells by literally washing them away and the kids never have to be the wiser. All you need to say is “it’s bath night!” and that’s enough.
Doing all pick-ups and drop-offs outside your house or in a neutral location. Two choices here: either arrange to meet your ex and the kids somewhere close to home, but not AT your home, or move the pick-ups/drop-offs to your driveway. Again, this is about putting boundaries in your life (and your children’s lives) to keep you feeling safe and secure. Your home should be your sanctuary and if you feel threatened by your ex, inviting them in—or even just having them stand in your doorway—may be too much to ask of yourself. On top of that, and I may have some personal experience with this, opening the door to your ex may enable them to invade your space without permission. So do the drop-offs elsewhere and keep your space sacred (or at least douche-bag free).
A similar solution, if it’s possible with your kids, would be to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs around the school schedule so you don’t even need to face your ex at all. Yay!
Calling in the recruits! When you have to face your ex, having back-up in the form of another trusted person (a parent, new partner, or friend, for example) can help immensely. Not only is there strength in numbers (or at least that’s how it will look if there are two or more of you), having another person there holds both you and, more importantly, your ex accountable for what is said and done. (Soooo what I’m saying, really, is to make sure there are witnesses, because if your life starts to look more like a crime drama than an actual life, you may need them.)
Hiring a professional. If you have the funds, hire a parenting coach or counsellor and attend sessions separately (parallel parenting, remember?). Let the coach do the work of managing your ex’s outbursts, irrational behaviour, out-of-whack expectations, and all other forms of bullshit. If you do end up meeting as a group, you’ll have the counsellor or coach there to keep things on track and keep everyone feeling safe.
Telling abuse survivors who are parents to go no contact with our abusers is actually shitty advice We don’t get to go no contact—it turns out that when you have children with your abuser, “til death do us part” is a life sentence whether you stay married or not. Instead, we should be given tools and language that enable us to set up and, here’s the key part, maintainstrong, healthy boundaries that protect us when we feel (or are literally) threatened. Life’s not as simple as just turning away from our problems and when you have kids, you always have to stare those issues straight in the face.