Domestic Violence and Mediating Divorce or Parenting Disputes

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month – a good time to review exactly what domestic violence (DV) is, how to recognize warning signs, and when couples with a history of DV may want to consider divorce mediation. Violence between romantic partners is also sometimes called intimate partner violence (IPV). This term can be more specific than domestic violence, which technically refers to violence between any household members. The term “violence” is also sometimes used as a catch-all to refer not only to physical violence, but also to psychological manipulation and abuse. The latter can be much more difficult to recognize than physical violence.

What is Domestic or Intimate Partner Violence?

DV and IPV are essentially about power and control. Several types of abusive or controlling behavior often precede or exist alongside physical abuse. These can include the following:

  • Displays of irrational jealousy or possessiveness.
  • Attempts to isolate a partner socially by blocking contact with friends and family, or by monitoring or restricting telephone or computer use.
  • Attempts to physically isolate a partner by blocking use of transportation or interfering with the partner’s ability to work or engage in outside activities.
  • Stalking or harassing a partner who leaves.
  • Using children as pawns or messengers.
  • Threatening to keep children away from the partner.
  • Blocking a partner’s access to funds or asking a partner to turn over paychecks or stick to a restricted allowance.
  • Name calling, blaming, criticizing, making accusations, swearing, and threats of physical harm.

Common Dynamics in Domestic or Intimate Partner Violence

Victims of physical or psychological abuse often feel highly conflicted. Controlling behavior can be subtle, especially early in a relationship. Many abusers have a “good side,” which is why the victim fell in love with them in the first place. Love is not something that a person just can turn on and off at will. This means that many victims continue to love an abuser and want to hold onto the relationship despite the abuse. Victims who have positive feelings toward an abuser may minimize abuse, make excuses for the abuser, and hold onto hope that the abuse will spontaneously end.

Even after someone makes a firm commitment to leave an abusive relationship, financial dependence on the abuser can make this difficult. So can strong religious or cultural beliefs. A victim may also believe there is no safe place to go, or that they will be unable to support themselves or their children on their own. Fear of retribution from the abuser can be powerful. Leaving with children can be more difficult than leaving alone, but most parents are afraid to leave children behind. Even fears for a beloved pet can keep someone stuck. Distrust of law enforcement can be another issue, especially if there has been a previous negative experience.

Feelings of anxiety, helplessness, isolation, depression, and even suicidal thoughts are common in victims of abuse. Victims may also feel embarrassed about their situation. They might fear judgment if they reach out, or they might be unaware of what services are available. All of this can lead to emotional withdrawal and further distancing from potential sources of support.

Help is Available Now

If you recognize yourself in any of the above descriptions, the first thing to do is reach out. Do not wait until it becomes even more difficult to act. You can call a DV hotline day or night for confidential access to information and services, including crisis intervention, referral, and advocacy:

New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 572-SAFE (7233).

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 (SAFE); 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

Can Domestic Violence Victims Use Mediation in Divorce or Parenting Disputes?

Divorce mediation is not always appropriate in cases of DV or IPV, but it is often worth considering. Eliminating mediation as an option can leave vulnerable parties with little recourse. Litigation is well-known to heighten conflict and increase feelings of hostility between parties, making it potentially even less suitable in cases of DV.

In our August post, we talked about a recent study of family law cases involving high levels of IPV between parents. The study concluded that shuttle mediation and videoconference mediation with safety protocols had several advantages over litigation. Both mediation methods included stringent safety protocols. Participants were in the same building, but never in the same room together. Mediators were trained in both methods before the study began.

Any degree of controlling behavior or verbal or financial abuse can pose a significant challenge in divorce mediation. It is often still possible to proceed with mediation, however, after implementing appropriate safeguards. Mediators can tailor safeguards to individual circumstances. Ask any mediator you are considering working with about their experience and training in mediation with domestic violence victims.

A good attorney is also critical. Your attorney, like your mediator, should have ample education and experience in domestic violence cases. You need to be able to rely on your attorney to make sure the conditions of the mediation are appropriate for you. A good attorney will also be able to refer you to other resources, such as family therapists or domestic violence shelters. You may want your attorney to accompany you to mediation more often than might otherwise be the case.

Tailoring Safeguards to Each Situation

If there has been no actual violence or threats of violence, parties may feel safe meeting face-to-face. If you are the victim in the scenario, however, verify with the mediator that you and your former partner will never be left alone together, even in a waiting room. The mediator can ask you to arrive at different times and move one party into the conference room before the other. You may also want to ask if it is okay for you to bring a support person. Depending on the situation, increased security and weapons screenings may be warranted. Attending anger management classes or family therapy (separately, not together) could be preconditions to participation.

Any history of abuse or even just a heightened level of conflict may warrant additional caucusing, as well as an increased use of shuttle diplomacy by the mediator. If parties are communicating directly, whether in the same room or by videoconference, the mediator should strictly enforce ground rules. If there is a history of actual physical violence or other extreme behavior such as stalking or harassment, it will generally be a better idea to stay physically separated. The mediator can shuttle between the parties, or you can make use of video conferencing.

If at any time you feel unsafe or coerced, do not hesitate to ask your mediator for a break. When you believe things have gone as far as possible, it may be time to end the mediation. If you do reach an agreement on one or all of your issues, make sure your agreement includes provisions for returning to mediation in the event of any noncompliance.

Are you interested in talking to one of our experienced mediators about domestic violence or about your divorce or parenting dispute? Contact us today for an initial consultation.