Your spouse has two kinds of power over you... only one is real.

Your abusive spouse has two kinds of power over you, but only one of them is real. Take them both away by learning to tell the difference.

When I left my abusive marriage, naturally I thought I was leaving the abuse behind. That is the whole point of leaving, after all. But to my unwelcomed surprise, my ex-spouse has proven to be (almost admirably) tenacious in trying to maintain control over me. And who can blame him? Anybody who can control me should feel pretty feel good about his abusin’ skillz.

I was out of his house less than two weeks before he figured out that even though we no longer shared a house, he still had one incredibly powerful way to intimidate me: involve our young son. And he went all out that first time, showing me exactly what kind of co-parent he was going to be.

It was his afternoon to spend time – three hours of time according to our agreement - with our 21-month old son. I drove my son south from our apartment to his dad’s house and knocked on the door. No sooner was my son transferred to his dad’s arms, than my ex handed me a piece of paper and told me that the parenting plan we agreed on no longer worked for him, that here was the new plan, and that my son would be staying overnight with him.

I protested – that’s not what we agreed to! I only moved out because we reached an agreement that worked for both of us! He laughed in my face and told me that the agreement wasn’t legally binding because it hadn’t yet been signed by the judge. Please, I pleaded, to no avail.

What could I do but leave his house? I was devastated, just as my ex-husband intended me to be. I drove to a near-by parking lot and called my attorney.  He confirmed what my ex told me: the agreement wasn’t legally enforceable… yet. But my attorney could – and would – go to court the very next day on my behalf and get an emergency order upholding it.

My attorney successfully argued my case, and the next day my ex was served with the signed order, upholding our agreement until trial. That means that if my ex ever pulls that stunt again, I can simply call the Sheriff’s department and they’ll help me get my son back.

This example was the first time I learned that my ex had a lot of power over me that wasn’t real – it was power I perceived him as having because during the five years we were married, his taught me through abuse that he had all the power and I had none. This incident, specifically how my attorney dealt with it, showed me for the first time that I have legal rights, and they negate a lot of my ex’s power.

For a while, the separation was going relatively smoothly, which meant that my ex was sticking to his side of town and I was sticking to mine. Then I got a phone call from my attorney: my ex and his lawyer requested all of my medical records including a complete three year history of all hospitalizations, medications, and mental health provider notes as part of discovery. How is that relevant? I wondered. They’re going to try to show you’re an unfit parent, my attorney explained.

My ex had upped his game. What’s more terrifying than keeping your son from his mother one night? Trying to limit her contact for all time and have her proved crazy in court. I should have talked to my attorney right away, but I didn’t. Instead I agonized for two sleepless weeks before I finally made a list of everything that had ever been “wrong” with me, and brought it into my attorney to rank on the “proof of crazy” scale.

Nothing made him anxious on my behalf, not even that one time I tried cocaine – which isn’t documented in my medical records, anyway. My ex and his attorney and my attorney and the judge will get all get copies of my entire pelvic floor rehabilitation history, which is humiliating, and they’ll also get my therapist’s notes, which is an invasion of my privacy. But I’ll get over those things. And as for anything actually harmful to me? There’s nothing there.

This medical records request was only terrifying because I believed that my ex-husband had the power to wave his abusive wand and get me declared “crazy.” Once I stopped and took the time to talk it through with my attorney, I learned that just like withholding my son, it had no real, legal power over me.

By the way, my ex-husband is also inadvertently giving me some real power. Withholding my son, dredging up my medical records, stealing his stuff - they’ll make him look vindictive and uncooperative to the judge. And she’s already going to hate him because of the (unapproved) chop job he did on my son’s long, beautiful curly blond hair.

So what’s the solution? Get your brain involved. You’ll still have a visceral reaction to your ex’s tactics but then seek out a trusted advisor. An attorney is best because real power translates to legal power in the case of a divorce, but in some situations your local police precinct can help.

Your ex isn’t going to go away without a fight, and if you share children there isn’t such a thing as going away at all. But with a critical eye - and a few second opinions - you’ll start to see them for the nuisance they are, and not for the powerful abusive spouse they once were.