Take action against emotional bullying

Family Law|November 14th 2014

Are you a victim of your spouse’s emotional bullying? It’s far more common than you might think. I’ve lost count of the number of new clients I’ve met over the years who recognise the signs of emotional bullying and want to get out.

However, they will often literally give me two sets of instructions at once, both of which are completely polarised, and they do it without realising that they’re asking almost the impossible.

The first instruction is that their spouse is incredibly aggressive, abusive and emotionally controlling. I am often told that I will have never come across someone like him or her before. The truth is quite the opposite. Chances are the previous client may well have said something along the same lines. Or been just that person complained about! Suffice to say, after over thirty years in family law it is highly unlikely I haven’t come across all shades of behaviour, some of them very serious indeed.

But there is the client, sitting ashen, assuming I’ve never heard anything like it before. All the issues which have been bottled up perhaps over many years set to come tumbling out. More often than not, it goes along these lines: intolerable behaviour, a lack of respect, and the ways they have been emotionally ground down, all because their spouse only knows how to win, and what they want, they get.

So the new client tells me, as if I’d never come across the situation before, they need the maximum help possible to deal with him or her. That they must have someone on their side that is strong enough to stand up to their spouse and get the case sorted out, because it’s going to be tough.

Yet, at the same time (and I’m waiting for it), they will issue a second set of instructions. They want you to settle the case as fast as possible and, at all costs, don’t upset the spouse in question.

They feel guilt at bringing this disastrous marriage to an end. Even worse, they feel like it’s their fault.  Any comfort I may try and offer that there is no need for such guilt, any suggestion that I may make as to how to proceed, how to deal with an emotional bully and make him or her take notice, is perceived as much too aggressive and not what they want at all. The thought of anyone stepping into their shoes on their behalf to take on the bully, in a court of law in a legal process, is frankly, too much to bear. It’s too much, too soon. The realisation that together we can be strong and the client can grow, that it’s up to them to participate, it’s their case and their future, is often too much to handle.

So I’m left, writing down the conflicting instructions on my note pad, wondering what to do. Not with the case, but with the client sitting before me. Do I persevere? I think I must and I try my best to establish a rapport with my client. Sometimes I can, sometimes though, try as I might, it’s not possible.

The years of abuse will have obviously taken their toll on the client. The client is left with not a shred of self-confidence, not a shred of commercial reality, no perception at all of the need to stand up to a bully in terms of the legal process and to re-establish her self-confidence and self-esteem. After years of being worn down, they think the best thing is to give in and do anything for a quiet life. To take what’s on offer and don’t do anything to upset the bully, because it only makes things worse. And yet… they’re instructing you at the same time to do something different, stand up to the spouse, do your very best for the client. It’s definitely something they want you to do, but…

Once I recognise the vastly different signals coming from the client, I will suggest counselling from a local expert. It’s vitally important that the client regains their self-confidence and self-respect in order to go through a divorce. The client needs to be able to banish the negative feelings about this decision and start to look forward with confidence to a brighter future.

I don’t underestimate the trauma of a divorce in relation to the emotional aspect but I think people do over estimate the legal process itself. With a competent lawyer, it need not be as traumatic as feared.

What is required is patience, pragmatism and an awareness that what is happening happens to hundreds of thousands of people each year and that it is not as terrifying or problematic as you may think. It could, and should, be faced calmly only on a day to day basis, and you should never try to run before you can walk.

There should be an understanding that the legal process takes time. In Central London it can take several years, in the provinces it can easily take up to a year. So there is time to take a breather, time to come to terms with what is happening. In the meantime, certain issues need to be firmly dealt with and there may not be time to wait. It needs the client to take a deep breath, close their eyes and go for it. The position must be stabilised, the playing field levelled. With the best will in the world there is no alternative.

Some clients tell me the worst aspect is that the abuse continues from their spouse directly or via their lawyers. My answer is straightforward: lawyers are there to take the strain. The case is handled by them and they are getting paid to take that strain. They aren’t emotionally involved so load them up and let them take the load from the other side because it doesn’t have the same effect on experienced lawyers as it might on the client. Insist on draft replies being sent to you along with any correspondence from the spouse’s lawyer, or ask for letters to be read out in a telephone conversation or face to face meeting to reduce their impact on you until you feel strong enough to handle them yourself.

If you instruct a lawyer, there are additional benefits you should be aware of:

  1. Abusive behaviour by the spouse can and will be dealt with and, if necessary, be controlled by the courts and even by the police.
  2. Financial arrangements can be put in place via the usual process until the case is finally resolved.
  3. Assets can be protected.
  4. Child related arrangements too can be agreed or ordered by the court pending a final outcome if it cannot be agreed.

In short, stabilise the process early, but go with the flow rather than against it. Remember that you aren’t the lawyer. The person who is has trained for years to be one and has worked for years in that field. This enables the anxious client to take a breather and, with experienced help, counselling therapy and even medication if it’s that serious (and many cases are that serious), come to terms with what is happening.

Slowly, as the process goes forward, the client comes to see that the black darkness of the box he or she is in is evaporating. The sides of the box start to slip away and light from the real world starts to appear. Slowly a wretchedly overwrought client can begin to smile.

It takes time. Repeat this and keep repeating it: it requires patience, step by step, day by day.

Author: Marilyn Stowe

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

Comments(2)

  1. Stitchedup says:

    You were doing well up to this point:

    “The years of abuse will have obviously taken their toll on the client. The client is left with not a shred of self-confidence, not a shred of commercial reality, no perception at all of the need to stand up to a bully in terms of the legal process and to re-establish HER self-confidence and self-esteem”

    What exactly is emotional bullying???? is separation/divorce the ultimate form of emotional bullying??? My ex constantly threatened to split the family up if she couldn’t have her way and would take even the most minor of domestic disagreements to the absolute limit. If I spent time following my hobbies or socialising with friends I would be accused of living the single life and she would criticise me in front of the children, making out I was a bad father and would prefer to be down the pub or on the boat than be with her and the children. I travelled frequently with work, sometimes cramming a round the world trip in 2 to 3 weeks, 1 day here, 2 days there…. crossing date lines etc etc. Exhausting ,hard work….. yet she would treat it as if I had been on holiday and another opportunity to work on the kids to convince them I was an unloving partner and Father. I was accused of damaging the children’s hearing by having the television volume too loud….. I am hard of hearing. We even arranged for the children to have hearing tests only to find they were absolutely fine. I could go on and on but what would be the point??? The truth is the courts believe it is only men that are aggressive, emotional bullies. However, what concerns me is that a person can be accused of bullying just for fighting their own corner… make a robust moral argument and you can find yourself accused of being a bully.

    The fact is, when relationships breakdown emotions run high…..I see no need to involve the courts and/or the police in the emotional turmoil of divorce and separation. Emotional issues are best left to the individuals involved, more often than not all that is needed is time for the inevitable emotional wounds to heal.

    • Elena says:

      Yes, you have a point, there are some women who are abusive to their husband as I have also heard a recent case where the wife has been the abuser: she has destituted him completelyand removed the children from him. But the bottom line it remains a fact that generally more women are in an abusive relationship and when they want to divorce, the abuse intensifies and it becomes also financial, psychological and sometimes physical but above all they use the children to control the mother. I am well placed to tell you that because I am experiencing this at the moment. My husband always portrays himself as wonderful in public and but when he is not seen, he is extremely abusive in various forms: passive-agressive, he gaslights, he is employing manipulative tactics and coercive behaviours. In other words, he is psychologically abusive and obsessively controlling and even project his own behaviour onto me or the kids. This type of abuse and children who witness this is as harmful as any type of abuse and it is not healed by itself: they need a therapist who is completely impartial to parents (as my husband is trying to manipulate the therapist) to help them to cope. I can see the damages on the kids. However, children are extremely resillient and learn how to cope and if the other parent is honest, truthful and genuine, in the end, the truth will speak for itself. I have seen many cases where the abuser have turned the children against the non-abusive parent but children are smart, one day they will realise who is the genuine and the honest parent and usually, they do come back.

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