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Separation Assault in the Context of Postdivorce Parenting: An Integrative Review of the Literature
Jennifer L. Hardesty Violence Against Women 2002 8: 597 DOI: 10.1177/107780120200800505 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Separation Assault in the Context of Postdivorce Parenting
An Integrative Review of the Literature

Johns Hopkins University

Although citing violence as a factor in divorce, most researchers do not analyze woman abuse in the postdivorce context. In particular, little research exists on how separation assault influences postdivorce parenting. The purpose of this article is to discuss separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting. First, the literature on separation assault in general and then on separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting is reviewed. Second, the theoretical explanations for separation assault in general and in the context of postdivorce parenting is reviewed. Finally, the theoretical explanations and literature are critiqued and research and practice implications are discussed.

Over the past two decades, researchers have become increasingly aware of the seriousness of violence against women (M. P. Johnson & Ferraro, 2000; Klein & Orloff, 1993; Kurz, 1998). Despite this progress, many aspects of woman abuse remain invisible and unrecognized. Failure to recognize the pervasiveness of woman abuse results in part from compartmentalized research efforts. Researchers often do not examine the role woman abuse plays in their particular area of study. For example, researchers investigate the family or violence, women’s health or violence, or divorce or violence, rather than weave experiences with violence throughout the study of women’s lives (Kurz, 1998). This lack of integration contributes to the invisibility of violence against women and prevents a comprehensive understanding of woman abuse.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The author wishes to thank Lawrence Ganong, Marilyn Coleman, Mark Fine, Teresa Cooney, and Linda Bullock for their helpful feedback provided on earlier versions of this article. Appreciation is also expressed to Jacquelyn Campbell for guidance on final preparation of this article.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, Vol. 8 No. 5, May 2002 © 2002 Sage Publications 597-625




One area of research that typically fails to consider the integral role of woman abuse is divorce. Violence is a significant factor for many women when ending their marriages and in parenting postdivorce (Kurz, 1996). Although citing violence as a factor in why marriages end, most researchers do not analyze woman abuse in the postdivorce context. In particular, little research exists on how separation assault, or abuse that continues during and after separation, influences postdivorce parenting. Given recent legal and social trends toward coparenting after separation and divorce (Maccoby, 1999), researchers must integrate the experiences of abused women into the postdivorce parenting literature, thereby unveiling this invisible aspect of violence against women. Toward this end, the purpose of this article is to discuss separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting. To achieve this purpose, I will first review the literature on separation assault in general. Second, I will review the literature on separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting. Then I will review the theoretical explanations for separation assault, both in general and in the context of postdivorce parenting. Finally, I will critique the theoretical explanations and literature and discuss implications for future research and practice. Throughout this discussion, I will focus solely on abuse against women because they are more than 10 times more likely than men to be the victim of intimate abuse (Zawitz, 1994), especially when abuse occurs during or after separation (Ellis & Stuckless, 1996). CLARIFICATION OF TERMINOLOGY According to feminist theorists, naming women’s experiences is a crucial step toward social and legal change. With this in mind, Mahoney (1991) coined the term separation assault to describe the particular type of attack “on a woman’s body and volition that seeks to block her from leaving, retaliate for her departure, or forcibly end the separation” (p. 6). Separation assault includes physical violence as well as other abusive acts (e.g., threats of physical violence, controlling behaviors, psychological abuse) used to make a woman reconcile or punish her for leaving. Prior to its naming, separation assault was often lumped with other types of



abuse under the rubric of family violence or intimate violence, disguising its unique characteristics and motives. Some researchers used the term postseparation abuse (Ellis, 1990; Ellis & Stuckless, 1996), which ignores abusive acts during separation. For these reasons and for consistency, separation assault is used throughout this discussion. SEPARATION ASSAULT The question “Why doesn’t she leave?” persists in academic and social discourse on woman abuse. Embedded in this question are two assumptions: Women do not leave abusive partners, and separation ends abuse. In reality, most abused women eventually leave their abusive partners (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1997; Holtzworth-Munroe, Smutzler, Bates, & Sandin, 1997). Although separated and divorced women constitute only 10% of women in the United States, they account for 75% of all abused women (Harlow, 1991). Separation, however, does not always end violence (Hotton, 2001; Kurz, 1996). Recognizing this, some scholars have moved beyond asking, “Why doesn’t she leave?” to “What happens when she leaves?” Empirical research indicates that for some women, leaving is potentially more dangerous than staying (Wuest & Merritt-Gray, 1999).

Studies consistently find that abuse continues during and after separation for some women. For example, in the nationally representative Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS) in Canada, 29% of the 12,300 women interviewed reported abuse by an intimate partner. Of that 29%, 19% reported continued abuse after separation (Statistics Canada, 1993). Following similar methods of the VAWS, Statistics Canada’s 1999 General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization found that 39% of the 437,000 women with previous violent relationships reported violence after separation (Hotton, 2001). Other smaller scale, nonrepresentative samples of abused women in mediation and domestic violence shelters report similar findings; separation does not end abuse (Berk, Newton, & Berk, 1986; Ellis & Stuckless, 1992; Fleury, Sullivan, & Bybee, 2000;



Giles-Sims, 1983). Moreover, in a study of 75 divorced men, 40% reported threatening or using physical violence against their former spouses after separation (Arendell, 1995). Research suggests that the potential for separation assault is related to the severity and frequency of abuse prior to separation. In the VAWS, women who were severely abused (e.g., beaten up, choked, threatened with a weapon) during marriage were 3 times as likely to report separation assault as women abused in less severe ways (e.g., pushed, slapped) (H. Johnson, 1995; Statistics Canada, 1993). Nonetheless, for some women, violence begins after the relationship ends. Close to 15% of the women who reported abuse in the 1999 GSS indicated that they were first assaulted after separation, with more than half reporting that the abuse was severe (Hotton, 2001). Ongoing and repeated abuse in marriage, however, may be more likely to continue during and after separation than abuse erupting as the relationship dissolves (Johnston & Campbell, 1993). Hence, the abuser’s quest for power and control, typical of ongoing abuse, is not likely to subside at separation (Garrity & Baris, 1995; Reihing, 1999). Although related to preseparation abuse, separation assault can be comparatively more frequent and more severe (Wilson & Daly, 1993b). Despite less access, some women report an increase in the frequency of violence after leaving their abusers (GilesSims, 1983). Furthermore, 35% of abused women in the VAWS (H. Johnson & Sacco, 1995) and 22% of women in the 1999 GSS (Hotton, 2001) reported more severe violence after separation. Violence escalated for women reporting both severe and less severe abuse during marriage but was more likely to increase for the former (H. Johnson, 1995; Statistics Canada, 1993). In one study, nearly 75% of the 49 women assaulted by a former partner were the victims of severe or potentially lethal violence. Such attacks were not isolated events; 1 in 4 women were assaulted more than once a month (Fleury et al., 2000). Other studies report similar increases in the severity of abuse after separation (Ellis, 1987; Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1989), with the risk of abuse peaking in the first 2 months after separation and again when women take steps toward permanent separation (e.g., begin the process of legal separation, buy a house, secure employment) (Ellis, 1992).




Some men, unable to control their wives with sublethal abuse, escalate violence to lethal levels. According to homicide data in Canada and the United States, separation is a significant risk factor of intimate partner femicide (i.e., the killing of women by their current or former partner) (Campbell, Sharps, & Glass, 2001; DeKeseredy & MacLeod, 1997; Hotton, 2001). In fact, a woman’s risk of intimate femicide increases sixfold when she leaves an abusive partner (Wilson & Daly, 1994). Data from Canada, New South Wales, and Chicago confirm that intimate femicide is systematically related to residency status, with separated women incurring greater risk than their coresiding counterparts (Barnard, Vera, Vera, & Newman, 1982; Wilson & Daly, 1992b). African American women are at particular risk for being killed during or after separation, followed by White women, then Latina women (Block & Christakos, 1995). Homicide is the leading cause of death for African American women aged 15 to 34. Amajority of these homicides are committed by husbands, lovers, or estranged intimate partners (Campbell, 1995). Analyses of case records further substantiate the relationship between separation and intimate femicide. For instance, intimate femicides are often precipitated by female-initiated separations (Wilson & Daly, 1995) and typically occur when victims are living apart from their assailants (Barnard et al., 1982; Crawford & Gartner, 1992). With few exceptions, the victims initiated separation to escape violence (Wilson & Daly, 1993b, 1995), and police records confirm that many assailants have a documented history of abusing their victims prior to killing them (Campbell, 1992; Crawford & Gartner, 1995; Hotton, 2001). Many stalking cases involve men who are unable to accept perceived rejection by their victims and unwilling to stop pursuing them. Although some women secure protective orders after leaving, abusers often ignore the orders. Many women are beaten and killed while protective orders are in place (Hotton, 2001; Pagelow, 1993). Murder-suicides, stalking-murders, and murders of women and their children are frequently perpetrated by men retaliating against women who left them (Pagelow, 1993). During 1994, 33 out of 47 cases of male-perpetrated multiple domestic killings in



Florida included a female victim who was estranged or in the process of separating from the perpetrator (Websdale, 1999). Perpetrators of intimate femicide are more likely to commit suicide when their victim is an estranged rather than a current partner. This reflects their inability to conceive of themselves as separate from their victim (Easteal, 1993). Friends and family members are also at risk when women leave abusive partners. Indeed, intimate femicide with victims in addition to the estranged partner often includes the victim’s new partner (Hotton, 2001) or those who help her leave (Block & Christakos, 1995). Homicide studies using limited data on separation duration further indicate that the risk of intimate femicide changes over time. For example, in New South Wales, 47% of 32 intimate femicide victims were killed within 2 months, and 91% were killed within a year of separation. Similarly, in Chicago, 50% of 20 victims were killed within 2 months and 85% within a year of separation (Wilson & Daly, 1993b, 1995). An analysis of 73 femicide cases in Canada from 1991 to 1999 revealed that 49% were killed in the first 2 months after separation, another 32% from 2 to 12 months, and the remaining 19% more than a year after separation (Hotton, 2001). Thus, the 2-month period immediately following separation is particularly dangerous for abused women (Wilson & Daly, 1994), especially when physical separation and initiation of legal separation procedures occur simultaneously (Wilson & Daly, 1993b; Wilson, Johnson, & Daly, 1995). Risk appears to decrease over time (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1997); however, the risk of intimate femicide continues for some, as abusers have killed their former spouses years after separation (Wilson & Daly, 1993b, 1995). Although men are also murdered by their partners, data in most countries indicate that women are more often the victims of intimate homicide than are men. The United States is an exception, with almost equal numbers of men and women who kill their intimate partners (Wilson & Daly, 1992b). Evidence indicates, however, that men and women kill under qualitatively different circumstances. In short, “men frequently pursue, threaten, assault, and kill [intimate partners] who leave them” (Wilson & Daly, 1992b, p. 199), whereas women rarely do the same. Women are more likely to kill in self-defense (Campbell, 1992; Crawford & Gartner, 1992; Wilson & Daly, 1992b, 1995) and report a history of abuse (Barnard et al., 1982; Browne, 1987; Campbell, Harris, &



Lee, 1995) as well as violence used against them immediately preceding the murder (Campbell, 1992). The heightened risk of abuse during and after separation has serious implications for women, particularly those who share children with their abusers (Liss & Stahly, 1993). Separation is a critical time when many divorcing parents negotiate postdivorce parenting plans. At the most dangerous juncture in their relationship, abused women enter the legal system to make decisions about their children (Pagelow, 1993). Current custody laws, emphasizing gender equity, private dispute resolution, and the “best interests of the child” standard, not only fail to protect women but also may provide men with a forum for separation assault. SEPARATION ASSAULT IN THE CONTEXT OF POSTDIVORCE PARENTING In the past few decades, changing gender roles, pressure from fathers’ rights activists, and research on children of divorce have transformed custody laws (Dalton, 1999; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). At present, courts in nearly every state can no longer use presumptions based on gender (e.g., maternal preference for young children) in custody determinations. Instead, to reflect changing gender roles, mothers and fathers are granted equal rights to maintain their parental relationships with their children. In addition, the trend toward private dispute resolution affords parents the opportunity to negotiate their own postdivorce parenting plans. A parenting plan
goes beyond the customary order which gives “custody” to one parent and “reasonable visitation” to the other; it specifies the child’s residential arrangements in some detail, including the days of each parent’s responsibility or a method for choosing those days, as well as provisions for day care, the child’s education, health care, and other matters significant to the parents and to the child. (Bartlett, 2000, p. 90)

Laws require courts to review parenting plans proposed by divorcing parents before ratifying them to determine if agreements are in the children’s best interests (Maccoby & Mnookin,



1992). Courts settle disputes only when divorcing parents are unable to reach agreement (Maccoby, 1999; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Custody laws based on gender equity and private dispute resolution are further shaped by the standard of the “best interests of the child.” According to empirical findings, children fare better when both parents are actively involved in raising their children after divorce (Lamb, 1999; Simons, Whitbeck, Beaman, & Conger, 1994). This is not the case, however, when parents are unable to cooperate and thus continue exposing their children to high conflict (Ayoub, Deutsch, & Maraganore, 1999; Lamb, 1999). In light of these findings, custody decisions are made on a case-by-case determination in the best interests of the child (Maccoby, 1999), with a preference toward coparenting and generous visitation for the noncustodial parent (Dalton, 1999). To ensure cooperation and father involvement, joint custody and divorce mediation are encouraged (Family Violence Project, 1995). In theory, mediation encourages cooperation by emphasizing the parents’ shared interest in their children (Family Violence Project, 1995). Parents have the option of joint legal custody, in which they have equal rights to make decisions about their children, and joint physical custody, which allows both parents to reside at times with their children and assumes that both parents have responsibility for their care and support. Rather than gender neutral, joint custody favors the rights of both parents (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Laws in nearly every state permit joint custody, and approximately 13 states have some form of statutory presumption in favor of joint custody (Bartlett, 2000). Some even mandate joint custody, excluding only cases with child abuse (Pagelow, 1993). About 9 states require parenting plans, and most do so as a condition of a joint custody order. Additionally, about 15 states may require classes to educate parents about the effects of divorce on children, which may include instruction about the benefits of alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms (e.g., mediation) (Bartlett, 2000). When divorcing parents cannot reach a custody agreement, some courts have imposed an order of joint custody, with preference for physical custody given to the “friendly parent” (i.e., the parent more willing to accept and facilitate ongoing parental



involvement with the other parent). Indeed, courts have assumed that by ordering joint custody, which presumes cooperation, parents will be forced to cooperate in the best interests of their children (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; Walker & Edwall, 1987). Some fathers’ rights activists, who have been active and vocal in the trend toward joint legal custody, advocate for joint legal custody in every case without exception (Arendell, 1995). Vital issues are at stake for abused women who negotiate postdivorce parenting plans within the current legal framework. In recent years, many states have enacted presumption statutes to protect women from continuing and escalating violence in the context of postdivorce parenting (Family Violence Project, 1995). Most states and the District of Columbia have statutes with provisions for considering woman abuse in custody disputes (Cahn, 1991). About 70% of the states mandate the consideration of woman abuse when determining the best interests of the child (Family Violence Project, 1995). Furthermore, at least 16 states have enacted presumption statutes against granting sole custody, joint custody, or both to spousal abusers, and many states make exceptions to other rules (e.g., mandatory mediation) when abuse has occurred (Bartlett, 2000). Despite legal reform, many courts remain uninformed and unresponsive to woman abuse (Family Violence Project, 1995). Indeed, legal professionals rarely recognize that woman abuse continues after separation (Reihing, 1999) and are not cognizant of the complexities and subtleties of separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting. Furthermore, the current legal framework assumes that women (and men) are able to make autonomous decisions about postdivorce parenting. Evidence indicates, however, that many abused women experience continued assaults on their independence, during and after custody proceedings, that interfere with their ability to make autonomous decisions. Thus, the current legal framework may provide a forum for separation assault by necessitating ongoing contact between women and their abusers (Dalton, 1999; Jaffe, Wolfe, & Wilson, 1990). For example, many women are forced to have person-toperson contact with their abusers for the purpose of private resolution of their postdivorce parenting plans. Contact often continues when abused women are expected to facilitate coparenting



after divorce (Pagelow, 1993; Stalans & Lurigio, 1995). Consequently, custody proceedings and parenting during and after divorce are common areas in which men continue to abuse their victims (Reihing, 1999; Walker & Edwall, 1987).

Many abused women negotiate for their rights and for their children in a “climate of fear” (Kurz, 1996, p. 7) characterized by verbal threats and physical and psychological abuse. In their quest for control, abusers threaten to injure or kill their victims if they proceed with divorce or fight for custody and child support (Arendell, 1995; Shalansky, Ericksen, & Henderson, 1999). Many abusers also threaten to financially drain their victims, fight for custody, or abduct their children (Hegar & Greif, 1991; Liss & Stahly, 1993). Abusers make such threats to force women to reconcile or forfeit rights to custody and support (Zorza, 1995). Studies show that women’s fears during custody proceedings are grounded in their past experiences (Kurz, 1996). A study of 129 divorced mothers found a statistically significant relationship between women’s fears during negotiations and their actual experience with violence during marriage and after separation. The more frequent and severe the violence during marriage, the more fearful they were during negotiations (Kurz, 1995). In many cases, abusers have threatened to seriously injure or kill women numerous times during marriage if they ever tried to leave (Browne, 1987). Grounded in experience, these threats are credible and thus effective in coercing women’s decisions (Kurz, 1995). Research indicates that a climate of fear during custody proceedings leads a substantial number of women to compromise their rights (Kurz, 1996). In fact, a significant inverse relationship exists between fear during child support negotiations and awards of child support. Through in-depth interviews, divorced women reported lowering or waiving their requests for child support because they feared further physical violence. In doing so, they exchanged their children’s long-term needs (e.g., financial security) in favor of temporary safety (Pagelow, 1993; Walker & Edwall, 1987). Other women reported exchanging child support for custody. Indeed, fear of losing custody was significantly inversely associated with awards of child support (Kurz, 1996).



Many women report leaving their abusers for the safety and well-being of their children (Henderson, 1990; Kurz, 1998); in court, they are willing to fight to maintain their children’s safety at any cost. Abusers can play out their need for control in long and painful custody disputes (Jaffe et al., 1990). Abusive men are highly litigious and significantly more likely to contest custody than are nonabusive men, as they continue to exert dominance over their victims (Cahn, 1991; Liss & Stahly, 1993). According to Mahoney (1991),
Separation assault provides a link between past violence and current legal disputes by illuminating the custody action as part of an ongoing attempt, through physical violence and legal manipulation, to force the woman to make concessions or return to the violent partner. (p. 78)

In Arendell’s (1995) study, more than three fourths of the 75 divorced men acknowledged threatening to fight for custody because they were unable to accept the loss of control over their wives. Fighting for custody was an attempt to “balance” the power. Fear and continued abuse during negotiations intersect with class and race to present particular challenges for low-income, racial and/or ethnic minority women (Kurz, 1999). Poor women report more frequent and serious violence after separation than working- or middle-class women (Kurz, 1995). Receiving child support assistance may be crucial for them (as well as for women of all socioeconomic levels) to make the transition out of a violent relationship (Roberts, 1999). Continued abuse and fear may result in abused women not securing adequate child support and thus entering or remaining on public assistance to support their children. It is not surprising that women who leave abusive relationships face the risk of becoming homeless (Davis, 1999). Moreover, abusers may harass women at work, not follow through with their child care commitments, or otherwise sabotage women’s efforts to maintain employment as a way to force reconciliation out of financial need (Raphael, 1996, 1999, 2000). A woman who wishes to escape from her abuser may risk losing public assistance if she fails to provide information about the father to child support enforcement (Brandwein, 1999). African American and Hispanic women, who have higher rates of public



assistance than White women, face additional barriers in the form of educational and employment discrimination that may prevent them from moving out of poverty (Kurz, 1999; Raphael, 2000). Evidence suggests that some men use custody blackmail, or threaten to fight for custody even though they do not want it, to force their victims to waive rights to child support. Custody blackmail may be more common now, with both parents sharing equal rights to custody (Kurz, 1995). Research on the frequency with which men use custody blackmail is mixed, with some studies showing no evidence of men bargaining with custody blackmail (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). However, according to Kurz (1995), whether custody blackmail occurs is less important than the climate of fear within which women negotiate and that may compromise their ability to make autonomous decisions (Pagelow, 1993). For many abused women, autonomous decision making is further hampered by the negative effects of abuse on their physical and psychological health. For example, between one and two thirds of abused women are formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Hattendorf & Tollerud, 1997; Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 1997). Symptoms of PTSD include avoidance responses, numbing of general responsiveness, inability to anticipate the future, and fear of further abuse. The severity and recentness of abuse as well as additional stressors (e.g., fear of losing custody) are positively related to experiencing PTSD symptoms (Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 1997; Saunders, 1994). These symptoms interfere with abused women’s ability to problemsolve and make decisions on their own and their children’s behalf. Sufferers of PTSD may also appear unfit to legal professionals who are uninformed about woman abuse, giving their abusers an unfair advantage in custody bargaining (Jaffe & Geffner, 1998; Liss & Stahly, 1993). Thus, the current legal framework may provide a forum for separation assault by allowing abusers to fight for custody and visitation and requiring women to negotiate postdivorce parenting plans with their abusers. As with separation assault in general, abusers rely on threats and psychological abuse to maintain dominance during custody proceedings. Separation assault in this context is unique, however, in that abusers use their children as pawns to retaliate against their victims.




Abused women with children are particularly vulnerable to separation assault after divorce because “their children make it difficult to sever all contacts” (Stalans & Lurigio, 1995, p. 388). Oftentimes, children remain the last link abusers have to their victims through arrangements that guarantee continued access via postdivorce parenting obligations. Indeed, the greatest risks women face may be associated with custody arrangements (e.g., joint custody, generous visitation) (Dalton, 1999), as many women are expected to facilitate these arrangements. Ongoing exposure to abusive former partners through visitation and postdivorce parenting obligations creates barriers that prevent women from healing and moving on. One such barrier is continued abuse and harassment (Ford-Gilboe, Wuest, Merritt-Gray, & Berman, 2001; Henderson, 1990). The more contact abusers have with their children, the more vulnerable abused women are to continued abuse (Cahn, 1991; Pagelow, 1992; Reihing, 1999). Evidence indicates that many women who experience separation assault during custody proceedings report continued harassment and abuse during visitation (Kurz, 1995; Reihing, 1999). Some men use visitation and the exchange of children as opportunities to threaten and abuse their former partners (Arendell, 1995; Shalansky et al., 1999). According to the files of more than 100,000 women who have stayed in domestic violence shelters, 25% of them reported verbal harassment, and 10% reported physical abuse from their abusers during visitation (see Liss & Stahly, 1993). In many cases, courts grant unsupervised visitation to abusers because of limited facilities available for secure visitation (Family Violence Project, 1995). Related to continued abuse and harassment, a second barrier women face is fear for their physical safety. For the women in one study (Shalansky et al., 1999), “concern for safety was so fundamental that it established the context in which they carried out their daily lives” (p. 424). Fear was not a fragmented experience for these women; rather it permeated their entire experience with custody and postdivorce parenting. Women feared for their own physical safety as well as their children’s. Because of ongoing abuse and harassment, their children continued to be exposed to violence after separation (Shalansky et al., 1999). According to the



1999 GSS, children were more likely to witness violence against a parent if the violence occurred after separation compared to situations in which violence ended after separation (Hotton, 2001). The heightened potential for witnessing violence after separation may be because violence occurs when abusers have the most access to their victims—during visitation. Fear continues for many women when they must make decisions about future negotiations with their abusers. In one study, women reported needing to increase child support to meet their children’s changing needs. However, they would not return to court to request more money for fear of instigating violence (Kurz, 1995). On the other hand, some abusers persisted in a fight for increased visitation. According to their victims, these men continued taking them to court to harass them and deplete their finances (Kurz, 1995). Divorced fathers in one study complained about lack of visitation with their children; however, most of their complaints centered around control issues rather than their relationships with their children (Arendell, 1995). Finally, intrusion in the everyday lives of women after divorce presents additional barriers. According to Ford-Gilboe and colleagues (2001), intrusion is created by continued abuse and harassment, effects of stress and abuse on women’s health and well-being, and the costs of negotiating formal (e.g., the legal system) and informal systems for help. Such intrusion demands women’s attention, diverts energy away from children and other family priorities, and limits their choices for moving on after leaving abusive partners. For example, instead of focusing on longterm goals and planning, women are forced to focus their attention on their own and their children’s immediate safety and well-being. The decisions they make to meet their own and their children’s needs are based on coping with the ongoing presence of abuse in their lives. THEORETICAL EXPLANATIONS FOR SEPARATION ASSAULT A variety of researchers conclude that the primary motive behind separation assault is control (Barnard et al., 1982; Campbell, 1992; Fleury et al., 2000; Kurz, 1996, 1998; Mahoney, 1991).



Empirical research and theory on abuse in general draw similar conclusions. However, researchers have devoted little attention to theorizing about the continuation of abuse at the end of relationships (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1997; Sev’er, 1997), and existing theories focus little on separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting. To my knowledge, no theories focus solely on the latter. Thus far, the four most common theoretical perspectives/models used to explain separation assault include feminist perspectives, a power and control model, an evolutionary theory of masculine psychology, and perspectives on interventions. It should be noted that these theoretical perspectives/models should not be considered in contrast or opposed to one another. In fact, the power and control model and perspectives on interventions are versions of feminist perspectives, and the evolutionary theory of masculine psychology incorporates feminist views (Dobash & Dobash, 1998a).

Although feminist perspectives vary, most point to patriarchy as the main source of male violence against women. Patriarchy is the social structure that encourages and legitimizes male domination and female submission and oppression (Smith, 1990). Patriarchy includes the expectations of wife obedience, loyalty, and dependence. When women violate these expectations, they challenge male control. Without doubt, female-initiated separations demonstrate the ultimate assertion of female independence and autonomy (Sev’er, 1997). In the presence of preseparation abuse, leaving may instigate an escalation of violence. Many abusers struggle to maintain dominance by coercing reconciliation or retaliating against perceived rejection. Through in-depth interviews, men accused of killing their intimate partners told of “their inability to accept what they perceived to be a rejection of them or their role of dominance over their former wives” (Barnard et al., 1982, p. 278). Evidence indicates that anger and rage associated with perceived rejection are the most common motives given by men convicted of intimate femicide (Block & Christakos, 1995; Crawford & Gartner, 1995). Many abusers believe that retaliation is justified because



their entitlement to an ongoing relationship was denied (Hart, 1993). In the context of postdivorce parenting, separation assault and male control is facilitated by men’s perceived rights as fathers and expectations of mothering. Evidence indicates that men interpret their postdivorce experiences within the context of gender. Many of the divorced fathers Arendell (1995) interviewed shared a “masculinist discourse on divorce” (p. 45), which included “rights rhetoric” (p. 46). For these men, divorce violated their rights as fathers and challenged their identity as men. As one father stated, “I understand how homicide and attempted homicide occurs when your home, your money, and your children are taken from you. I can understand that kind of rage. It’s what divorce does to men” (p. 119). From this perspective, violence was understandable because divorce stripped men of what they perceived to be their rights. Arendell’s (1995) findings clearly indicate that men used violence against their former wives for the instrumental purpose of reclaiming their rights. Men often blamed their former wives for provoking violence, but at the same time, they claimed that the violence was “effective.” In other words, through violence, the men regained their position of authority over their wives. This is consistent with Dobash and Dobash’s (1998b) perspective that men’s violence against women is outcome driven, as opposed to the more process-oriented violence between males. One desired outcome is reaffirming masculine identity through the maintenance of authority. Moreover, the men in Arendell’s study reported that losing custody of their children challenged their identities. As one man stated, “If I lose custody, I’ll lose my identity, my self-respect, my future. . . . What kind of man lets them [his former wife and the legal system] do all of this to him?” (p. 133). Thus, for these men, separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting is about more than fathers’ rights; it is about men’s rights and the management of their masculine identities (Arendell, 1995). According to Mahoney (1991), custody threats are powerful because of women’s tendency to make decisions based on “collective, multiple self-interests” (p. 19). Mothers are socialized to feel connected to the needs of others, especially the social and emotional needs of their children (Weitzman, 1985), and research



indicates that abused women go to great lengths to meet their children’s needs (Ericksen & Henderson, 1998; Henderson, 1990; Humphreys, 1995a, 1995b). When threatened with loss of custody, abused women often compromise their rights in the best interests of their children. Indeed, many report feeling responsible for maintaining the father-child relationship to ensure positive development of their children (Henderson, 1990; Shalansky et al., 1999). This burden leaves women vulnerable to separation assault in custody proceedings, especially when the legal system remains uninformed about women’s experiences and expectations of mothering (Mahoney, 1991).

Sev’er (1997) posited that the abuser’s need for power and control drives separation assault. She proposed a modified model of the power and control wheel (Pence & Paymar, 1993) that applies specifically to separation assault. The model includes four domains of separation-related abuse: escalated intimidation; using children and other loved ones; economic and legal abuse; and coercion, threats, and explosive violence. In short, Sev’er hypothesized that abusers use tactics within each domain to assert control over their partners. At separation, the tactics escalate and snowball within a short period of time. When children are involved, control tactics may center on using them and using legal abuse to maintain control over women. Eventually, the abuser may move beyond his estranged partner to abuse her friends and members of her family.

The male proprietariness perspective postulates that male violence against intimate partners reflects an evolved, sexually proprietary, masculine psychology (Wilson & Daly, 1993a, 1993b, 1995). According to this theory, men view women’s sexuality and reproductive capacities as their property. Men lay claim to their female partners and develop a sense of entitlement to their sexuality. Perceived threats to this entitlement evoke male violence against women. Rather than jealousy, the term proprietariness is used to capture the more encompassing mindset of entitlement to



or ownership of female partners (Wilson & Daly, 1998). Previous legal standards supported male propriety by labeling female adultery a property violation and entitling victims (i.e., husbands) to violent revenge (Wilson & Daly, 1993a, p. 277). In the context of male proprietariness, separation is an extreme public and permanent challenge to men who believe they own their wives and are entitled to control them. Separation symbolizes women’s autonomy over their reproductive capacities (Wilson & Daly, 1995) and reduces men’s ground in reproductive competitiveness (Wilson & Daly, 1993a). As a result, men respond with violence to regain control and force reconciliation (Wilson & Daly, 1992a). When threats and abuse prove ineffective, violence escalates and in some cases results in murder. Intimate femicides, although seemingly counter to proprietary goals, are “the dysfunctionally extreme manifestations of violent inclinations whose lesser expressions are effective in coercion” (Wilson & Daly, 1993a, p. 281). Thus, killing is one way for men to maintain claim on their female partners.

Ellis and DeKeseredy (1997) have proposed an expanded model of the male proprietary thesis that accounts for variations in the relationship between separation and violence. In their model, men’s level of proprietariness varies according to personal (e.g., sociopathic or antisocial personality) and situational (e.g., male-dominated society) factors. Women’s resistance to change in the relationship also varies along a continuum, with “invoking change in the relationship” on one end of the continuum and “invoking change by leaving” on the other. Taken together, these variations influence the abused woman’s choice of intervention in the relationship (e.g., marital counseling, arrest, divorce), which in turn affects the likelihood of separation assault. Relevant to this discussion are the women who invoke change by leaving their abusive partners. Ellis (1990) cited evidence that separation assault is associated with the transition from one marital status to another (i.e., married to divorced), and a key factor in the transition is the type of dissolution process. When abused women leave and initiate legal separation, they invoke interventions within the legal system. They must then choose how to



process their divorce, which in most jurisdictions includes either lawyer negotiations or divorce mediation (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1997). Ellis (1987) asserted that for lawyers or mediators to intervene in a way that reduces the likelihood of separation assault, they must work on dependency, availability, and deterrence (the DAD model). According to the DAD model (Ellis, 1987), separated and divorced women experience more abuse than married women do because their marital status group is characterized by high dependency, high-risk availability, and low deterrence (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1989). Compared to less dependent men, highly dependent men are more likely to be involved in unstable marriages. Because male dependency is inconsistent with societal expectations, highly dependent men resort to violence during marriage to enhance their masculine status. After separation, violence escalates as highly dependent men attempt to force reconciliation (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1989). Thus, separated and divorced women are likely to experience more abuse than married women because their former partners are often highly dependent. Separated and divorced women also experience escalated violence because they are available to their abusers at high-risk times (e.g., court hearings, exchanging children, rejecting pleas for reconciliation). Furthermore, their abusers have demonstrated a low stake in conformity with their violent behavior during marriage. Separation does not stop the violence because many abusers remain undeterred by legal interventions and believe (often accurately) that they are no more likely than married men are to suffer any consequences for abusive behavior (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1989). In short, Ellis and DeKeseredy’s (1997) and Ellis’s (1987) perspectives on intervention suggest among other things that the link between separation and violence is mediated by variations in men’s level of proprietariness and variations in the extent to which legal intervention addresses issues of male dependency, high-risk availability, and low deterrence. CRITIQUE OF THEORETICAL EXPLANATIONS AND THE LITERATURE Academic and legal scholars vary in their perspectives on the relationship between separation and abuse and the need for



parents to cooperate in postdivorce parenting. These paradigms collide in the legal system, as abused women attempt to break free from their abusers and make decisions in the best interests of their children. Without integrating these perspectives on the levels of theory and research, “formal change can be a largely empty promise” (Dalton, 1999, p. 275).

That separation poses a particular risk to women, and not men, and that separated women are more often the victims of both sublethal and lethal separation assault clearly suggests that separation assault is a gendered issue. Feminist perspectives place separation assault in its sociohistorical context and underscore society’s perpetuation of male dominance. By focusing on gendered motivations (e.g., forcing reconciliation, exerting power and control, attacking women’s autonomy), feminist perspectives provide unrivaled insight into the complex layers of separation assault (e.g., patriarchy, the legal system, expectations of mothering, fathers’ rights, children’s best interests) (Mahoney, 1991). Moreover, feminist perspectives offer promise for empowering women through social change by doing research for women rather than about women (Yllö, 1994). Feminist perspectives can be limited, however, in that they often include macro-level prescriptions for change that may be difficult to apply practically. Also, although feminist perspectives offer a lens through which to view separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting, they do not offer specific hypotheses to test empirically. A strength of Sev’er’s (1997) power and control model is that it highlights the domains within which men concentrate their control tactics during and after divorce. These domains include areas specifically relevant to negotiating postdivorce parenting plans and parenting after divorce (i.e., using legal abuse and using the children). Absent from the model is attention to time. Sev’er defined separation as “imminent or recent termination,” citing Crawford and Gartner’s (1992) contention that “recent separation rather than divorce” is the crucial risk factor for women (see Sev’er, 1997, p. 567). In the context of postdivorce parenting, separation must be more broadly defined, as women continue to be abused when exposed to former partners via visitation and



postdivorce obligations. Furthermore, Sev’er draws from interview examples and Canadian popular media to illustrate types of abuse within the dimensions. Although they provide conceptual clarity, the examples do not offer empirical support for the model. The evolutionary theory of masculine psychology does not specifically address separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting but lends insight into its motives. Based on its assumptions, one can infer that after separation, proprietary males shift their control tactics to parenting issues as a part of an escalating pattern of abuse. Previous threats were ineffective in keeping the woman in the relationship. A shift or escalation of threats and control tactics involving the children and parenting issues may be more effective, as women are in a position to weigh the best interests of their children against their decision to leave the relationship. Separation when children are involved also poses a costly challenge to proprietary males, who may fear that a significant amount of their money and possessions will be awarded to the mother (Ellis & DeKeseredy, 1997). The theory is limited, however, because it does not account for variations in the relationship between separation and violence. For example, the theory does not explain why the majority of women who leave abusive partners are not abused after separation or why separation ends abuse for some women but not others. Finally, similar to Sev’er’s (1997) model, the male proprietariness perspective makes sense intuitively but does not offer directions for preventing separation assault or protecting abused women. Ellis and DeKeseredy’s (1997) and Ellis’s (1987) perspectives on interventions offer a useful expansion of the evolutionary theory of male proprietariness by highlighting the factors that mediate the separation-violence relationship. Ellis offered practical information for those who intervene on behalf of battered women by identifying the influence of dependency, availability, and deterrence on separation assault. Problems with high-risk availability are particularly important for women who continue to be exposed to their abusive former partner via the children. A limitation of their approach is that they do not specifically operationalize variations in male proprietariness (e.g., how might these variations be measured?). Together, the evolutionary theory of masculine psychology and perspectives on interventions could be improved by addressing possible changes in male proprietariness over time.



Both focus primarily on the point at which women leave abusive relationships and the high-risk time that immediately follows. Understanding how proprietariness and violence vary over time is particularly relevant for understanding postdivorce parenting relationships. Clearly, theory focused specifically on separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting is needed. Consistent with feminist perspectives, theory building and research should seek to raise consciousness of women’s experiences and promote social change. In this connection, efforts to build theory should be grounded in women’s lived experiences. To understand the dynamics of separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting, we must give women voice (Mahoney, 1991). Indeed, when asked what happens when they leave, abused women tell their stories of relentless attacks on their autonomy and independence that started at or after the moment they left, which for many women continues throughout their postdivorce parenting experiences. Presenting lived experiences through women’s stories “may be the only way to describe a complex reality for which we have few names” (Mahoney, 1991, p. 41). At present, Ford-Gilboe and colleagues’ (2001) and Shalansky and colleagues’ (1999) qualitative research holds promise for developing theory on women’s experiences with abuse in the context of postdivorce parenting. Based on their work and existing literature on separation assault, any theoretical perspective should include the following variables: degree of marital abuse and controlling behaviors, level of ongoing abuse and harassment during and after divorce, degree of ongoing exposure to abusive former partners, level of fear, extent of formal system support, and amount of stressors or intrusion in everyday life. In addition, theory development efforts should assume a “context-specific approach” (Dobash & Dobash, 1998a, p. 10). Women’s lived experiences with violence exist within the context of the larger society and culture. According to Dobash and Dobash (1998a), to respond to violence against women we must first understand “the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and ideological” (p. 10) contexts within which it exists. Finally, theory derived from the experiences of women in the United States is needed. Most of the theoretical perspectives/models discussed in



this article are proposed by Canadian scholars and may not apply to women in other countries.

The accumulating body of literature on separation assault also has several limitations worth noting. First, a majority of studies rely on large-scale statistical databases to report descriptive data (e.g., the extent and severity of separation assault). As with any research on sensitive issues, obtaining accurate estimates of separation assault is difficult because of social desirability responding and underreporting (Mahoney, 1991). Nonetheless, evidence clearly indicates that abuse exists during and after separation and is serious enough to warrant attention. Intimate femicide data, which is not as likely to suffer from underreporting and social desirability, further underscore the seriousness of separation assault. The cross-sectional, retrospective nature of existing data, however, precludes any conclusions about causality. Evidence clearly indicates that separation and abuse are related, but whether separation acts as a direct stimulus to abuse cannot be determined. For example, the 1999 GSS does not include information on the chronology of violent events, making it difficult to ascertain whether more violent episodes occurred before or after separation (Hotton, 2001). Many women leave their abusive partners when violence reaches very serious or lethal levels. Thus, escalating violence may represent a cause rather than a consequence of separation (Kurz, 1998). Albeit, high rates and consistent findings of an association across studies suggest that the link is more than coincidental (Wilson & Daly, 1998), but to infer causality, longitudinal research using prospective methods is necessary. More important than determining causal relationships, however, may be identifying who is at risk for separation assault. Researchers are beginning to explore predictive factors of intimate partner femicide (see Campbell, 1995) and sublethal separation assault (see Fleury et al., 2000). The research is further limited by the inability to compare statistical information across studies. Comparisons are difficult because researchers do not use consistent timeframes within which women are asked to recall abusive incidents. Some studies



inquire about abuse within the past 6 months, whereas others recall periods spanning 1 to 2 years prior to data collection. Moreover, few studies report on separation duration. That is, researchers may report separation assault over a 6-month period but not clarify when the separation occurred. Thus, drawing conclusions about variations in frequency and severity of separation assault since separation is difficult. Future research should also examine variations in the relationship between separation and violence (e.g., why does violence end at separation for some women but not others?). Variations in separation assault across time should also be considered, particularly for women who maintain contact with abusers via their children. Finally, although there is considerable evidence related to the influence of abuse on postdivorce parenting, there has been minimal effort to integrate this knowledge into theories of divorce and child custody/visitation (Dalton, 1999). Much of the existing literature on this topic includes review articles or legal discussions (e.g., Dalton, 1999; Ellis, 1992; Garrity & Baris, 1995; Liss & Stahly, 1993; Mahoney, 1991; Pagelow, 1993; Reihing, 1999; Saunders, 1994) and few empirical studies (e.g., Arendell, 1995; Kurz, 1995, 1996; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; Shalansky et al., 1999). Large-scale efforts to examine the relationship between separation and violence have not included the potential influence of divorce proceedings or custody and access issues (e.g., Hotton, 2001). A prospective research design that tracks mothers after leaving their abusive partners and has at least a qualitative component would lend the most insight into the dynamics of custody and access issues and postdivorce parenting relationships over time. IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH AND PRACTICE Researchers and legal professionals must dispel the myth that separation ends violence and begin looking at its implications for abused women and their children (Kurz, 1996). The association between separation and violence and its impact on postdivorce parenting is theoretically and socially significant enough to warrant further empirical attention. The myth that separation ends violence interferes with establishing services to ensure the protection of abused women during and after separation. To heal and



move on, women need assistance from formal support systems (e.g., legal system, health care system, social services) that understand abuse and their need for protection (Shalansky et al., 1999). Such systems can help women negotiate strategies for coping with intrusion in their everyday lives (Ford-Gilboe et al., 2001), inform them of their legal rights, and ensure their own and their children’s safety while sharing parenting with their former partner (Shalansky et al., 1999). Furthermore, abused women’s encounters with the legal system should empower them, not leave them vulnerable to continued abuse. Legal professionals must be made aware of the complexities of woman abuse in general and separation assault in particular. Unless understanding is created, the legal system will not improve and will continue to perpetuate male violence against women. The current legal framework, which encourages abusers to fight for custody and visitation, counters the effects of recent laws designed to protect women from further abuse after separation (Zorza, 1994). Research is needed to assess whether recent legal changes protect abused women and help them defend their rights when divorcing abusive partners. Finally, researchers must decompartmentalize their research efforts to develop a comprehensive understanding of separation assault in the context of postdivorce parenting. Empirical evidence resulting from such combined efforts is also needed to promote change in the legal system (Dalton, 1999; Kurz, 1996). REFERENCES
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Jennifer L. Hardesty is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University (Institutional NRSA “Interdisciplinary Violence Research Training,” T32 MH20014). She received her Ph.D. in human development and family studies from the University of Missouri–Columbia. Her research interests include woman abuse, separation and divorce, and postdivorce parenting.

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