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Power and Control in the Legal System: From Marriage/Relationship to Divorce and Custody
Laurel B. Watson and Julie R. Ancis Violence Against Women 2013 19: 166 originally published online 26 February 2013 DOI: 10.1177/1077801213478027 The online version of this article can be found at: http://vaw.sagepub.com/content/19/2/166
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Power and Control in the Legal System: From Marriage/ Relationship to Divorce and Custody
Laurel B. Watson1 and Julie R. Ancis1
Violence Against Women 19(2) 166–186 © The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1077801213478027 vaw.sagepub.com
Abstract The purpose of this study was to examine the ways in which abuse that occurred during marriage/relationship continued within divorce and custody-related legal proceedings. Twenty-seven women participated in semistructured interviews. Interviews were analyzed utilizing a grounded theory approach in order to inductively arrive at a theory explaining how abuse dynamics may continue during legal proceedings. Participants identified child support litigation, custody and visitation battles, intimidation/harassment, deliberately prolonging the case, manipulating finances, and distortions of information as methods by which their exes sought to maintain power and control. Counseling implications are described. Keywords custody, divorce, interpersonal violence Although the legal definition of abuse may differ according to jurisdiction, intimate partner violence (IPV) is generally defined as behavioral patterns to assert or gain power and control over another (Shipway, 2004). Broadly defined, IPV is not limited to physical assault but may also encompass sexual, emotional, and economic abuse. Research suggests that domestic violence is so prevalent that approximately one in four women will experience some form of intimate partner violence during their lifetime (Rennison, 2003; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000; White, Koss, & Kazdin, 2010). Many of these estimates do not include emotional or economic abuse, which suggests that the incidence of IPV may be higher. Research indicates that intimate partner abuse may continue to increase in severity and frequency over the course of an intimate relationship (Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Gondolf,
Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, USA
Corresponding Author: Laurel B. Watson, 615 E. 52nd St., Room 215, Kansas City, MO 64110. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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2000; Pagelow, 1981a, 1981b). Despite domestic violence interventions, recidivism rates among domestic violence perpetrators remain high (Gondolf, 2000; Rempel, Labriola, & Davis, 2008; Robinson & Tregidga, 2007). Moreover, women are at greater risk of experiencing intimate partner abuse when they attempt to leave the abusive relationship (Bryan, 2005; Johnston & Campbell, 1993; Pagelow, 1993), and battered women have been killed after they have separated from their perpetrator (Kaser-Boyd, 2004, 2008, 2009). As women seek to loosen the grip of their abusers’ controlling tactics, abusers may further retaliate in an attempt to regain some semblance of control. When leaving the abusive relationship, women often seek justice and protection from their abusers via the legal system. Specifically, women who are married to perpetrators of interpersonal violence may seek divorce and, if mothers, custody of their children. According to Ellis (2008), approximately 50% of separating couples have experienced some form of interpersonal violence in their relationships. The tactics of power and control experienced in the abusive relationship often continue to manifest during the dissolution of the relationship and pervade legal proceedings (American Psychological Association [APA], 1998; Neilson, 2004; Pagelow, 1993; Stahly, 1999). In other words, because a woman has left an abusive relationship does not mean that the abuse has subsided. Moreover, the legal system may quickly become another avenue and arena through which her abuser may perpetrate abuse (Taylor, Stoilkov, & Greco, 2008). Abusers often attempt to regain control and prevent women from leaving the relationship by pursuing full custody. Indeed, divorce cases involving violence toward women are likely to involve adversarial custody disputes (Haselschwerdt, Hardesty, & Hans, 2011; Jaffe, Johnston, Crooks, & Bala, 2008; Stark, 2009; Suhanek & Stahly, 1991). Additionally, custodial challenges pursued by abusive partners may be motivated by financial gain so that the economically disadvantaged and abused wife will be required to pay child support (Bryan, 2005; Stahly, 1999). Essentially, the pursuit of custody may be a control tactic. “The woman may find herself still in a relationship with the battering man where issues regarding the children have become the basis of terrorism rather than physical violence per se” (Stahly, 1999, p. 243). Many abused women internalize their abusers’ exceedingly rigid rules and expectations and/or comply with their demands in an effort to avoid experiencing abuse (Bryan, 2005). Such abusive experiences result in a number of psychological sequelae among women (Renner, 2009; Turchetta & Duncan, 2008), particularly traumatic symptoms. When traumatized women enter the legal system, trauma-like symptoms may hinder their ability to effectively negotiate the system (Pagelow, 1993). Biases and inefficiencies within the legal system may contribute to an abuser’s success in continuing to terrorize his partner through the pursuit of custody (Bryan, 2005). For example, although there is a common perception that a judicial bias exists in favor of women gaining custody of children, research has suggested that fathers obtain primary or joint physical custody a majority of the time when they actively seek it (Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2003; Heim, Grieco, Di Paola, & Allen, 2002). Moreover, research suggests that violent fathers are just as likely as nonviolent fathers and mothers to be granted sole custody, indicating that spousal violence is not always considered when
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making custody determinations (Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2003; Bemiller, 2008; Harrison, 2008; Kernic, Monary-Ernsdorff, Koepsell, & Holt, 2005). Fathers’ rights organizations may also contribute to such bias against women within the legal system as related rhetoric and literature frequently minimize or discredit women’s abuse allegations, claim victim status, promote presumptive joint custody and decreased child support, and portray women as the primary perpetrators of intimate partner abuse or as equally responsible (Flood, 2010; Rosen, Dragiewicz, & Gibbs, 2009). Court personnel, such as attorneys, judges, and mediators, may disbelieve or minimize the importance of abuse to the case (Bemiller, 2008; Bryan, 2005; Gillis et al., 2006; Harrison, 2008; Johnson, Saccuzzo, & Koen, 2005), which may facilitate continued partner abuse via the legal system. In fact, fathers’ rights groups have often influenced shifts in family law that prioritize fathers’ contact with children over women’s and children’s safety (Dragiewicz, 2011; Flood, 2010). Additionally, abusive men typically exercise financial control over women. This mechanism of financial control has numerous implications within the legal system. Lack of financial access may leave women without knowledge to competently assess their financial needs and demands (Ancis, Watson, & Jackson, 2009; Winner, 1996) or afford legal representation. Even if they are financially capable of hiring an attorney, they may not have the funds required to retain counsel, especially if the case is prolonged, another control tactic used to financially deplete the other party (Ancis et al., 2009; Winner, 1996). Other strategies include falsifying financial records, opening hidden accounts, or manipulating finances in order to avoid dividing marital assets (Ancis et al., 2009; Winner, 1996). The present study is part of a larger, ongoing study of women litigants’ experiences with divorce and custody disputes. The current study aims to outline and explore the ways in which abuse during the marriage may be perpetuated in the legal arena during divorce and custody disputes. Although previous articles have explored disadvantages that abuse survivors face when using the legal system and strategies used to disadvantage one party (Bryan, 2005; Goodman & Epstein, 2011; Winner, 1996), empirical research on power and control tactics in the context of divorce and custody proceedings by abusive ex-partners is lacking. Using a grounded theory approach, the voices of women engaged in divorce and custody disputes were sought in an effort to privilege voices that are often missing or ignored in research, yet are most directly affected. Thus, the purpose of this study is to gain an indepth, rich, and empirically based understanding of how abusive tactics often continue after the dissolution of the relationship and pervade the legal system.
Participants for the present analysis were 27 women between 28 and 59 years of age (M = 44.59, SD = 8.23) who had engaged in divorce and custody proceedings. Twenty of the 27 proceedings occurred in the Southeast, 3 in the Midwest, 2 in the Northeast,
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and 2 on the West Coast of the United States. Eighteen interview participants identified as White or European American, 6 as Black/African American, 1 as Asian/Pacific Islander, 1 as Hispanic/Latina, and 1 as multiracial. The participants held a variety of religious/spiritual affiliations (6, Christian/Catholic; 6, Christian/Protestant; 6, Christian/ other; 3, Jewish; 5, spiritual but not religious; and 1, Mormon). Participants represented a range of educational levels (1, high school diploma; 2, associate’s degree; 7, some college; 7, college degree; 7, master’s degree; 3, doctoral degree) and occupied a variety of careers such as administrative services, teaching, medical services, distribution, and homemaking. Twenty-three of the 27 participants had been litigants in custody disputes. For 10 of the participants, one child was involved in the custody dispute, while 13 participants had two children involved in the custody dispute. For 12 participants, a guardian ad litem was appointed to their custody case. Twenty-six of the 27 participants were married to their former partners (Range = 10 months-26 years, M = 8.95 years, SD = 6.57 years). A variety of different problems were cited as the reason(s) for divorce with some women citing multiple reasons (11, conflict with extended family; 8, financial; 10, infidelity; 7, parenting issues; 14, abuse; 7, substance use; 1, gambling; 2, mental health issues of former spouse/partner; 1, anger issues of former spouse/partner; and 1 participant stated she “married too young”). The length of the divorce process ranged from 6 months to 6 years (M = 2.31 years, SD = 1.39 years). Nine divorces were finalized through bench trial, 9 through mediation, and 8 through settlements. Fifteen participants stated that their custody dispute(s) were finalized through bench, 4 through mediation, and 3 through settlement, but 6 stated that their custody disputes were ongoing despite having an initial ruling on the dispute. In terms of custody outcomes, 12 were granted primary physical custody, 5 shared joint physical custody, and in 6 cases primary physical custody was awarded to the father. Criteria for participating in the study included: (a) women at least 18 years of age, (b) experience with either divorce and/or custody proceedings within the past 8 years, and (c) if previously married, completion of the divorce. A 6-member research team used three sampling methods: convenience, purposive, and snowball. Convenience sampling is frequently used during pilot studies at the convenience of the researcher, particularly for populations who are difficult to recruit (Gay & Airasian, 2003). An internet advertisement for potential participants, fliers hung in local establishments, and personal contacts were all used to help recruit participants via this sampling method. Purposive sampling is utilized when a researcher targets a particular population that fits both the inclusion criteria and aim of the study (Gay & Airasian, 2003). In order to recruit participants via purposive sampling, a divorce-related listserv was used, and the names and addresses of women involved in divorce and/or custody proceedings were obtained via legal websites of public record. Mailings requesting participation were sent to women residing in three different counties surrounding and within a large, metropolitan Southeastern city. Snowball sampling is frequently used with populations who are difficult to recruit and relies on research participants to identify others who might fit the inclusion criteria of the study (Gay & Airasian, 2003).
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Respondents completed demographic forms and participated in in-depth, semistructured, and open-ended interviews (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) lasting from one-and-a-half to threeand-a-half hours. Interviews focused on women litigants’ multiple experiences with the legal system, including relationships with attorneys, judges, guardians ad litem, and mental health professionals; perceptions of how abuse experiences affected their divorce process; and process and outcome of the proceedings. Interviews also explored women’s methods of coping, expectations and reflections, relationship and lifestyle changes, and their perceptions of opportunities for using their voice during the legal process. The present study focused on the ways in which abusive dynamics during the course of the marriage/relationship manifested during divorce and custody disputes.
Interviews were either conducted alone (by the second author) or with one or two female doctoral students. Interviews were audio-taped, transcribed, and then uploaded to ATLAS-TI 5.0 coding software, which allowed for greater management of the qualitative data and analysis of results. This study utilized a grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) approach in order to elicit data regarding the ways in which abuse tactics that occurred during the marriages/relationships carried over into the legal arena. Grounded theory methodology and data analysis were utilized in order to arrive at an inductive theory of women’s experiences with abusive tactics surrounding divorce and custody disputes (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). A sample size of 20 to 30 is generally recommended when using a grounded theory methodology (Creswell, 1998); therefore, this study meets recommended sampling size criteria. Furthermore, saturation, meaning no new data emerged, was reached after 27 interviews. Constant comparative methodology was applied to the inductive analysis and comparison of data, involving three phases of coding (i.e., open, axial, and selective; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Written memos, or thoughts and reflections about the theoretical relationships among codes and subcodes, were maintained throughout the analysis of the data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The research team was composed of several members, including two interviewers (i.e., second author and assistance from the first author), four coders, and an external auditor. The coders consisted of three women (two European American and one South Asian) and one man whose ethnic identification is Middle Eastern. One woman was a research professor of counseling psychology, and the other two are advanced doctoral students enrolled in a counseling psychology program at the time of the research; the male coder was also an advanced counseling psychology doctoral student at the time of the research. The external auditor was a Black, feminist-identified male enrolled in a master’s level professional counseling program. Open coding involves the close examination of data whereby categories are “identified and developed in terms of their properties and dimensions” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 74). Four research team members analyzed the first four interviews in order to develop a coding manual. During this process, the researchers independently reviewed the
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transcripts, examined the data, and segmented the text according to various concepts. The researchers then met multiple times to compare their findings and compose a list of preliminary codes to document the names and levels of the codes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Next, the researchers employed axial coding whereby subcategories are related to their categories in order to develop a paradigmatic model of the data (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). During this phase of coding, two researchers independently analyzed transcripts, compared their analyses and understanding of the data, and then met with the rest of the research group in order to reconcile discrepancies in coding. The coding manual was modified after each round of coding, as needed. Finally, selective coding involved discussions of how the major categories/themes fit together, contributing to a model of how abuse during marriage continued during the divorce and custody proceedings. A number of different methods were utilized in order to establish trustworthiness of the data and increase rigor, including peer debriefings, member checks, and an external auditor (Creswell, 1998; Padgett, 1998). Peer debriefings took place after coding each transcript and provided an opportunity for researchers to discuss their thoughts and reactions to the data. An external auditor reviewed the data and verified that the data fit the appropriate categories and subcategories. Subsequently, participants were provided with a listing of the themes, subthemes, and accompanying brief descriptions and they were given the opportunity to provide feedback and commentary. Feedback from the participants indicated that the themes and subthemes were accurate and comprehensive. Results were grouped into two major categories (i.e., Abuse During the Marriage/ Partnership and Power and Control Tactics within the Legal System). Subthemes were found within each of these major themes, which further elucidated the nature of the themes.
Results Abuse During the Marriage/Relationship
All participants reported having experienced some form of abuse during their marriage or partnership. Fourteen participants stated that abuse was the cause of the divorce/separation. Physical, emotional, economic, and sexual abuse subthemes emerged (see Figure 1). Physical abuse during the marriage/relationship. A number of participants described experiences with physical abuse during their marriages/relationships (n = 12). Abusive acts included punching, slapping, choking, and pushing. One participant stated: The abuse started when I was pregnant, so I mean it was like I was tolerating it hoping it would get better because I had a previous legal issue with my older son’s father where I had to go to court for three years just to retain full custody when I was never even married, so I knew it was a nightmare going to court and certainly didn’t want to go to court again. Participants also described experiencing physical abuse when their perpetrators felt that they were losing control. One participant reported:
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Physical Abuse Emotional Abuse Abuse During Marriage
Custody & Visitation Power and Control Tactics in Divorce &/or Custody Disputes Child Support Prolonging the Case Manipulating Finances Distorting Facts/Information Intimidation & Harassment Figure 1. Power and Control Coding Schema.
It wasn’t hard for him to hit me if, if I wasn’t agreeing with what he said. And even to quote him one time, “that was the easiest way to make me agree with him.” . . . And so you smile a lot. . . . I was supposed to smile all the time when I saw him and had to act excited when he came home. If I saw somebody that I knew and said “hello” or waved to them, I’d get in trouble because I wouldn’t respond to him the same way when I would see him. So, it was basically, I had to walk around with my eyes down so I didn’t make eye contact with people in case I saw somebody I knew while I was with him, is what I felt like. Emotional and verbal abuse during the marriage/relationship. Participants noted many instances of emotional and verbal abuse that were viewed as control tactics during their
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marriages/relationships (n = 27). Participants described situations in which their partners would isolate them from family, friends, and loved ones, as well as prevent them from pursuing their own goals and initiatives. One participant stated: My thing was that I was kinda, he isolated me. So I was in a place where I didn’t have a car, I had no winter coat, I had no transportation . . . where he is sort of like, you know, keeping me from being able to communicate with anybody else. When one participant attempted to pursue her educational goals by returning to school, she indicated that “I couldn’t do homework, I couldn’t study because it was all taking time from him.” Participants described feeling as if they were unable to have their own viewpoints and opinions without incurring emotional abuse, often in the form of vitriolic and disparaging comments, such as “stupid fucking whore” or “bitch.” One participant stated, “as long as I went along, somehow it [the marriage] was good. But if I had a total contrary opinion, then the reaction would be, ‘Well, what do you know?’” Participants described feeling brainwashed into believing that they were somehow inferior, or that they needed guidance to function. One participant described the ways in which these controlling dynamics affected her feelings of self-worth: You know, you hear so long that you are worthless. That’s what you hear everyday—he would tell me that. I would mention that I would want a divorce. “No one will trust you with a kid. You’re irresponsible or worthless.” And you start doubting yourself because you’re in the situation. You allowed it to happen. There has to be something wrong with you anyway. Participants also experienced verbally derisive comments based on their appearance. One participant stated: “He criticized everything about me. You know, he told me when I got out of the shower that he could see where my two pounds went. . . . He made fun of my c-section. He told me that my teeth weren’t white enough.” One participant described how her ex-husband would make fun of her physical appearance and her ethnic background. She stated that “he just told me that I’m going bald. He’s looking at the top of my head and telling me that I’m going bald and that I’m a dumb Jew with a hook nose.” Overall, participants described verbal and emotional abuse, whereby they were isolated, demeaned, and made to feel inferior in various ways. Economic abuse during the marriage/relationship. Several participants (n = 11) reported economic abuse during their marriages/relationships. Participants reported that their abusers were economically abusive to them in the following ways: (a) giving them meager allowances, (b) restricting access to funds, (c) sabotaging their financial livelihood, (d) incurring and leaving large amounts of debt behind for the participant to pay, and (e) attempting to make participants feel guilty for not being able to contribute as much financially. One participant stated that her ex-husband took extensive measures to “never commingle the money, except when he needed my money,” which she viewed as an abusive
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tactic. Another participant stated that her former spouse controlled the amount of money she was allowed to have in a given week. She stated: I was allowed to spend $25 a week on everything we needed for the house. That included food, that included diapers, that included everything. And that was all the money that I got for everything that we needed. So, it was a major stress just figuring out just how to do that. Other participants reported instances in which their exes spent large sums of money and then left the participant with significant debt. Another participant reported that her exhusband “became a tally person. He would tell me how much money he has invested in me, or how much money I owe him.” Sexual abuse during the marriage/relationship. Several participants (n = 6) noted that they experienced various forms of sexual abuse during their relationships. Participants described a range of sexual abuse experiences, such as sexual coercion, threats, and sexual assault. One participant reported that her former husband sought to punish and hurt her by withholding sex and engaging in affairs with other women, whereas others were repeatedly accused of being unfaithful, particularly if they did not want to have sex with their husbands. Another participant stated that “sexually, I guess, he would just try to force himself on me.” She continued to describe his sexually coercive behavior by stating that “he would just force himself and keep going and eventually I would give in . . . he would pretty much say in a joking way that ‘yes means yes, and no means maybe.’” Another participant described her ex-husband’s tactics to try to impregnate her: He was constantly pushing me to have [another] child and doing very abusive things, like trying to impregnate me without my consent. . . . He’d tell me that he did it [raped her] while I was asleep or something like that. One participant reported that her ex-spouse would become physically aroused while beating her and then force her to have sex with him. She stated that “towards the end it was like a turn-on thing for him. The meaner he was, it was like he would get aroused.” The participant continued: I would have to make him feel wanted and loved then because it was my fault that I had pushed things that far. Because I hadn’t spent enough time with him, I didn’t make him feel wanted—I didn’t make him feel loved. And then I would have to try to prove that to him, you know, which isn’t something you could do because the last thing you want is for him to touch you.
Power and Control Tactics in the Legal System
Participants (n = 24) described various tactics that their exes utilized during the divorce and custody proceedings, which were perceived by the participants as additional mechanisms
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to gain power and control over them. Several subthemes emerged and included custody and visitation, child support, prolonging the case, distorting facts and information, manipulating finances or financially bankrupting the participant, and intimidation. Custody and visitation. A number of participants (n = 21) reported that their former husbands/exes sought custody or attempted to limit visitation as a means to exercise power and control over them. Participants frequently felt bullied by their exes during custody disputes. They felt that many of the disputes were driven by revenge or vindictiveness, as opposed to truly wanting to spend time with the child(ren). One participant stated that her abusive ex-husband was uninvolved in his children’s lives; however, when she left he pursued full custody. This participant was especially fearful of her ex gaining custody as she described the ways in which he would attempt to torment her. She provided the following example: He doesn’t really care about the kids. I mean, there was one time that we were separated before, and I took [my son] to see him, you know, and when I went to pick him up he had him locked in the van and wouldn’t open the van and let me get him. And he drove off with him when I was supposed to pick him back up. . . . He wouldn’t even let me touch him . . . and I’ve never gotten that out of my mind. . . . I don’t think anybody appreciated or understood exactly how deep my fears were with this. Another participant stated: He just really wants to punish me and keep me out of her [daughter’s] life. And he was able to use the court to continue abusing me and to get power over me again. . . . This is about revenge; he wants to punish me to get back at me, and the best way for him to do that is to take what was most important to me away. And not only that, even though he’s done it, he’s still not happy. He still wants control over me. It’s like he hasn’t let go of me. Not that he loves me and wants to be married to me, but he’s very invested in being able to abuse me. Participants overwhelmingly felt that vindictiveness was a motivating factor in their exes’ pursuit of custody, and one way to really hurt them was to threaten, and in several cases, actually gain full custody. Participants also reported that their exes utilized tactics regarding visitation that were perceived as attempts to exert power and control over them. Participants who lost custody reported that their exes took measures to reduce the amount of time the participants would be able to spend with their child(ren) during visitation. Some participants indicated that their exes demonstrated excessive rigidity during visitation (e.g., not allowing participants to visit with children if they were 5 minutes late) and exploited vague terms within visitation agreements. One participant indicated: The part that I [initially liked about the visitation agreement] was that it was general and undefined, so I thought, “Oh, good. That way it’s not all the time and if I have
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something to do it won’t be a problem . . . liberal and generous—very vague.” . . . And that’s what it turned out to be. It was whatever he wanted, and if I ever wanted to say “no,” that was when they would charge me with contempt—if I didn’t agree to absolutely every demand that he had. Another participant who lost custody indicated how her former husband was able to reduce summer visitation via confusing language in the court order indicating that all the days of her visitation weekends must be in the same month. Therefore, she was unable to have visitation on weekends that extended into the following month. Child support. Participants (n = 16) observed that their exes also sought to exert power and control through child support disputes. Tactics around child support disputes included: seeking an increase or decrease in child support (depending upon who was the recipient) in order to financially deplete participants, despite the fact that many of these former spouses were reportedly financially solvent; failing to pay child support; seeking full custody to avoid paying child support; and engaging in excessive court cases around child support to keep participants embroiled in the abusive relationship. One participant stated that “[my ex-husband has] $50 million. He’s got Maserati’s, jets, and everything. He’s suing me for child support to add to the pressure of all of these other lawsuits.” Participants also noted that their former husbands were noncompliant with paying child support, and they perceived this as a revenge tactic. Some felt that the arguments around child support payment were essentially a way that perpetrators could continue to be in relation with them and maintain power and control. When discussing child support, one participant stated: I see his whole thing was to make me miserable and to make sure that I never had anything. You know, so if there was an issue of “Oh, we haven’t been back to court in a year or so,” . . . you know, so he would drag me back into court. Prolonging the case. A number of participants (n = 12) stated that their exes adopted several approaches to prolong the case, which were perceived as attempts to maintain power and control both psychologically and financially. Such measures included requests for emergency hearings, multiple charges of contempt, failing to supply appropriate documents, and accusations against the participants. One participant stated that “it [prolonging the case] was basically a form of control, since I initiated and filed for divorce. . . . He really did also ride the wave of just using the legal system.” Another participant added that in order to prolong the case, her ex “filed contempt against me. He brought up seven charges of contempt in court which were completely thrown out.” These emergency hearings and charges of contempt were ultimately without merit, as the charges were repeatedly dismissed. Inevitably, however, these charges prolonged the case and resulted in years of court hearings. Another participant stated that the repeated insults upon her character and parenting abilities ultimately prolonged the case, as these accusations resulted in investigations. She explained, “I was in court three times a week sometimes, and he would skip it. . . . I was
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served every single new accusation—‘this mother this, this mother that.’ And it was devastating—devastating.” Other participants felt that their exes deliberately prolonged the case in order to financially exhaust them. One respondent stated that “he kept us in court for so long and kept chewing up my money. The little bit of money that I had spent on lawyers got chewed up.” Distorting facts and character defamation. A total of 16 participants indicated that information presented to the courts was either distorted or, in many cases, was a blatant lie. Participants also shared that assaults upon their character were used to make them appear unfavorable in the eyes of the court. In one case, a former husband argued that the divorce was the result of his ex-wife’s financial noncontribution as opposed to his ongoing infidelity, despite the fact that she managed his thriving business. Participants also noted that various attacks were made against their parenting skills and their abilities as mothers. One participant who was orphaned at a young age discussed how her ex used this history to disadvantage her in the court. She explained: [He said] I couldn’t take care of the kids either—he had to take care of the psychological well-being of the children because I totally failed. Of course, later on he did ride the wave that I’m an orphan—and I am, I came from nothing. He came from a very affluent family and a very sophisticated family. In the above case, the participant was the primary caretaker of her children throughout the marriage. Participants stated that they were frequently accused of infidelity and sexual promiscuity. These accusations were perceived as attempts to diminish the participants’ credibility in the eyes of the court. One African American participant stated: When [my daughter] was born the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, and she was marked and just all kinds of stuff. The way I can see him looking at her— and her skin is dark, and he’s my complexion. His mother is dark, my father is dark, but the way he was looking at her as if she was not his. So I had to deal with that. And then later on and going through child support and everything else, he started, he told the court that the second child was not his. . . . The report came out that 99.8 % that she was his child. Unnecessary. Totally unnecessary. In addition to accusations of infidelity and sexual promiscuity, participants’ mental and emotional stability were called into question. One participant reported that her ex-husband claimed “that I was out partying and getting drunk constantly. . . . He was making all these claims that I was abusing drugs and drinking, so I went and voluntarily got a five-panel drug screening.” Participants’ ethnic and religious affiliations were also used against them. When it was called into question that one participant’s daughter may have experienced sexual abuse by a boy in their neighborhood, she and her second husband sought consultation with trusted mental health professionals within her religious community. These professionals did not report this incident to the Department of Family and Child Services due to the ambiguity
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of the situation. The participant even notified her ex-spouse about the incident. The participant stated: Unfortunately it was twisted to make it look like we were trying to protect these people in the community, and we didn’t care about our daughter, which is not true. . . . His attorney just kept repeating over and over again about how here’s this community that doesn’t protect children, and we were just trying to be a part of this community, and we didn’t care about our daughter. Eventually, this participant lost custody of her daughter due to various assaults against her character. Manipulating finances and “bleeding the other side.” Participants (n = 18) indicated that finances were often manipulated so that it would appear that their exes made less money or had fewer marital assets. For example, several participants indicated that their exes set up accounts in other persons’ names or opened multiple, hidden accounts, which made it almost impossible to attain accurate financial data. One participant, who owned a business with her former husband, discovered that he had opened a business in his girlfriend’s name (i.e., the girlfriend with whom he had been unfaithful during the marriage). Another participant reported that her former spouse, who was involved in real estate dealings, opened multiple bank accounts in order to hide money and manipulate the appearance of his financial status. She reported: [He had] different pieces of real estate with a bank account or two attached to it. He would take money from one account and put it in a big chunk and then other money from a different account and put it in another big chunk. And then started taking these out of those accounts in different amounts. . . . [It was] 10 accounts going like this all over the place. Participants also indicated that marital assets were frequently denied or hidden so that they would not be awarded these assets in the divorce and/or custody rulings. One participant stated: He really came in with lies and said, “Well, most is nonmarital because I received so many gifts. Lots of it comes from the estate from my father.” And of course, his father did so many things that could not be proven. So he was very, very dishonest and just claiming many nonmarital assets. Another participant stated that her former spouse disposed of the marital assets, which unfortunately also negatively affected the children. She stated: He pretty much disposed of all assets during the separation. He even sold, spent $40,000 of the kids’ money. And then took marital assets and paid it back. So he just made it look like there was no money. He even took another mortgage out on the house.
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Former spouses also engaged in efforts to make it appear that they were not financially solvent, despite evidence to the contrary. Participants described ploys to wipe them out financially and leave them with no money, also known as “bleeding the other side.” One participant stated: [He wanted] to let me die out financially to really push me, as we discussed earlier, not having access to the marital share. You know, he was just hoping that I would just throw in the towel, roll over, and settle for the worst settlement offer. So that was a control issue. Another participant stated that she “just wanted a quick and easy kind of split, and he didn’t want that. He wanted to leave me with as little as possible.” Prolonging the case, as described in the subtheme above, was also used to deplete women financially. Additional tactics described to “bleed the other side” included failure to provide financial documents during interrogatories, refusal to pay credit card bills, and purposefully getting parking tickets when the car was registered in the participant’s name, leaving her the responsibility of paying these tickets. Participants were both financially and emotionally devastated by these power and control tactics, which effectively hindered their ability to proceed with the case and attain fair outcomes. Intimidation/harassment. Participants (n = 10) also described strategies their exes used to gain power and control via the legal system that were based upon tactics of intimidation and/or harassment. Participants experienced hateful emails from their abusers, threats that they would lose their homes and possessions, and coercion. Most of these tactics were perceived as attempts to get the participant to acquiesce and agree to unfavorable terms. For example, one participant stated that her former spouse broke into her home, read her email, and printed documents she had written to her attorney in order to garner evidence to use against her in court. Unnecessary court cases and attorney involvement were described as attempts to harass participants. One participant stated: It was always something. Visitation, it was medical care—he wanted medical records. Every time we went to the doctor he would have his attorney write the doctor a letter. . . . As if he couldn’t just take a photocopy of [the record] and have it mailed to him. I mean, they got a lawyer to contact the school so they could come for conference. . . . It was like you really don’t have to have a lawyer for that. All you have to do is show up and be able to show that you’re the parent. Another participant stated: [My ex] had two attorneys. . . . He paid double . . . and at the end it was me at this big table. And he went with attorneys flanking him, and I think they really tried the intimidation factor.
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Another participant who had a restraining order against her ex described repeated violations through which she was intimidated. She feared that the courts would view his violations as evidence that she was unable to adequately protect her children from an abusive ex. Ultimately, the fear of losing her children resulted in her dropping the restraining order. She stated: That was what prompted me to drop the restraining order because he knew that if he kept violating it he could get the kids taken away from me. So I just figured, “Am I more afraid of him or am I more afraid of the government?” So I decided that, you know, “I’m afraid of the government taking my kids so maybe I better drop the restraining order.” No matter what I put into effect, he finds a way to use it against me. Participants described additional intimidation tactics to exert power and control, which included paying off witnesses to testify against the participants, hiring private investigators, and requesting additional psychological evaluations of participants when prior results did not demonstrate incriminating evidence.
Discussion and Implications
Women in this study experienced some form of interpersonal violence during their marriages/relationships. The most common form of abuse was emotional and included derogatory remarks regarding participants’ appearance, insults, and social isolation. Participants also reported physical, economic, and sexual abuse. Participants stated that they were often pushed, slapped, punched, restricted to a meager allowance, distanced from the family finances, sexually coerced, and raped. Tactics of power and control carried over into the legal proceedings in a variety of interrelated ways. Pursuit of full or joint custody, despite minimal involvement in childrearing, was frequently cited. Participants felt that these adversarial custody disputes were motivated by spite and vindictiveness or punishment for the participant leaving the relationship. Participants also described efforts of their exes to financially burden them by seeking decreased child support, refusing to pay child support, or seeking custody in order to avoid having to pay child support. Other methods of financially depleting participants included deliberately prolonging the case, falsifying financial documents, hiding marital assets, and lying about salaries. During the marriage or relationship, abusive spouses often belittled, demeaned, and verbally abused women. These invectives continued in the courtroom, where lies and distortions were used to disparage the woman’s character. Oftentimes, women were portrayed as emotionally unstable, sexually promiscuous, and ineffective parents. Moreover, tactics were adopted to intimidate or harass participants during the court proceedings. Former spouses often hired multiple, high-powered attorneys, destroyed property, and paid off witnesses. Participants experienced these abusive tactics as stressful as well as emotionally devastating, especially when they worked to their exes’ advantage.
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Traumatic symptoms experienced in response to abuse may be viewed by court personnel (e.g., judges, attorneys, psychologists) as evidence that women are ineffectual parents, thereby resulting in custody being awarded to abusive spouses (Stahly, 1999). In fact, research has suggested that psychological profiles of abused women tend to demonstrate elevated scores on the Depression, Psychopathic Deviate, Paranoia, and Schizophrenia subscales of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (Erickson, 2005; Kahn, Welch, & Zillmer, 1993; Rhodes, 1992; Rosewater & Walker, 1985). Once they have established safety, however, their scores on these subscales return to those associated with general norms (Kaser-Boyd, 2009). Furthermore, divorcing women’s low self-esteem and psychological trauma may make them more vulnerable to their husbands’ and attorneys’ attempts to influence them, and they are thus more likely to accept unsatisfying or grossly inequitable offers (Bryan, 2005), perhaps in an effort to avoid being revictimized. Inadequacies within the court system, including the tendency to minimize abuse, were perceived as facilitating the power and control dynamics perpetrated by abusers. Previous research has confirmed such inadequacies and the tendency for court personnel to hold biases and erroneous assumptions (e.g., women are prone to make false allegations of abuse in custody disputes; single, unmarried women are immoral; women tend to be emotionally unstable) and to be unduly persuaded by manipulative former spouses (Ancis & Watson, 2009; Gender Bias Study, 1990; Meier, 2009; Winner, 1996). Similarly, discrediting tactics tend to feed into preexisting gender biases that judges may hold (Harrison, 2008; Winner, 1996). The results of this study have a number of clinical implications. Practitioners may help clients to anticipate and become emotionally, physically, and, if possible, financially prepared to cope with power and control tactics in the legal arena, which often becomes another battleground where abuse occurs (American Psychological Association, 2005). Therapists are encouraged to understand that divorce and separation are two of the most dangerous times for domestic violence survivors (Riggs, Caulfield, & Street, 2000). Accordingly, the therapist and client may work together to establish a safety plan. One aspect of this may include a protective order; although not always effective, protective orders establish a paper trail and provide some evidence that abuse has occurred. In addition, therapists may help their clients manage stress and the potential traumatizing effects of both abuse and divorce and custody disputes. For example, clients may be encouraged to seek social support via a spiritual group or divorce support group. If participants have children, it may be necessary to prepare them for the continuation of abusive dynamics that will likely occur after the divorce, while assisting them in bolstering coping resources. Mental health professionals may also work to advocate for procedural justice for women at the legislative level. Interventions with court personnel seem warranted to help combat some of the myths and biases that serve to perpetuate inequity in the legal system. Training and education for judges, attorneys, and custody evaluators about abuse dynamics are necessary for more informed evaluations and decisions. This study has several important strengths. For one, few studies have examined how abusive tactics continue within the legal system and impact divorce and custody proceedings, specifically (see Jaffe, Crooks, & Poisson, 2003). This study sought to understand the voices
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and experiences of those profoundly affected by interpersonal violence and biases within the legal system—women. Despite the strengths of this study, there are also some limitations. First, the vast majority of study participants were White. Studies examining the experiences of Women of Color seem warranted and may provide further information regarding racially and culturally influenced experiences with abuse and power and control tactics within the legal system (Molina, 2000). For example, racial bias may influence decisions about mandated treatment or whether to imprison offenders (APA, 2005). Women of Color may also have to contend with additional stereotypes associated with their race and ethnicity that may influence decisions made by court personnel. Another limitation of this study is the fact that all participants identified as heterosexual women. The voices and experiences of women in same-sex relationships may provide further understanding of how tactics of power and control may manifest similarly and/or differently within the legal system. It is our hope that the findings of this study may serve as a springboard for continued investigation of power and control tactics within the legal system, as there is a dearth of research on this topic. Future research may also investigate abusive tactics after divorce and custody disputes have been finalized, as well as how women cope with stress associated with this postdivorce relationship and relevant parenting concerns. Due to the qualitative nature of this study, correlational assumptions regarding the extent to which abuse experienced during the marriage continues into the legal system are limited. The data merely reflect several ways in which the participants perceived the abuse to continue. Additional studies are needed to validate the relationship between abuse experienced during the marriage/relationship and in the legal system, as well as to explore whether women who do not experience abuse during the marriage/relationship experience similar tactics during divorce and custody disputes. With such knowledge, the power and control tactics within the legal system may be more readily recognized for what they are by therapists, women, court personnel and all parties who are responsible for assessment, evaluation, diagnosis, and related decision making that affects the lives of families and children.
Laurel B. Watson is now working at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Julie R. Ancis is now at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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Laurel B. Watson is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her research and clinical interests include interpersonal violence, trauma and resiliency, sexual objectification, disordered eating, and diversity-related concerns. She has presented on these topics at both regional and national conferences and has several publications on these topics. During her doctoral program, she assisted Dr. Julie Ancis on her research investigating women’s experiences with divorce and custody disputes. This article represents a portion of the findings. Julie R. Ancis, PhD, is associate vice president for Institute Diversity at Georgia Institute of Technology and fellow of Division 17 of the American Psychological Association. Her publications and scholarly presentations have focused on multiculturalism, racial and gender attitudes of clinicians in training, culturally competent interventions, and academic climate issues for women and students of color. In recent years, she has extended her research to the area of family court.
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