People can behave despicably after a breakup. It isn’t about gender, as both men and women can be guilty of this. There are deep feelings of hurt and loss to one or both which can be difficult to deal with. While this is certainly understandable it does not justify behaviour such as harassment, stalking and coercive control.
The sad part is that this horrendous behaviour is not limited to breakups. Even within a marriage, people can use violence and intimidation against their spouse.
As a family lawyer I encounter both scenarios more often than anyone would be comfortable with. Here are two examples of unacceptable behaviour during and after a marriage, in criminal and family proceedings:
During the marriage I’ve been scared of my wife. She threatens to hit me but never has yet. She leaves me fearful of what she will do next. She put a window through with a brick, she has kicked out at our dog and once smashed a set of glasses while in temper. I want to leave her but I just don’t know if I’ve got the strength to do it. If I don’t do as she says she loses her temper. Then I don’t know what will happen next. It’s making me ill.
My ex-husband still threatens me. He turns up at my home at all hours, often late at night and demands money from me. Sometimes he is waiting for me outside work so I’m scared to leave. Sometimes I think he is following me when I’m out shopping. I can’t prove it but I think he slashed one my of car tyres. He keeps saying it’s not fair what he’s had to pay and he’s been left with nothing. It’s all my fault. I’m very worried. I’m losing sleep and feel unsafe
Both are clearly awful situations, but what is the best way to respond to such behaviour? Here are a few things you should know.
1) You should never accept the plainly unacceptable or make excuses for it. Nor is it not your fault. The person you live (or lived) with is bullying you and it simply has to stop. Go for counselling if you need it to restore your own self confidence and to help you to face down a bully.
2) Coercive and Controlling behaviour, which is classically described in the first question and which amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, is a criminal offence under Section 76 Serious Crime Act 2015. This came into force on 29 December 2015.
3) The crime carries a maximum punishment of five years imprisonment, a fine, or both. In order to help your case, you need to keep a log of everything that has happened and take it to the police.
4) You can also apply for protective orders in divorce proceedings such as a non-molestation order and an occupation order of the family home if the criminal proceedings are taking time or the court does not order your partner to leave the house. Legal Aid is available, assuming you need it, and a power of arrest is attached which means that any breach automatically ends up in a criminal court with a possible prison sentence as a result.
5) You can issue divorce proceedings for unreasonable behaviour. In those proceedings you can ask for a financial resolution and any issues that cannot be sorted out between you and your partner in relation to children. You might consider seeking an order for the children to live with you and then consider buying out your spouse’s share or deferring paying their share until the children are older, if the circumstances are appropriate. That is called a Mesher order.
6) Harassment and the more serious offence of stalking and putting people in fear of violence or extreme distress are all criminal offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which has been amended and beefed up by later law. It is set out in greater detail here.
7) A restraining order is available to keep the offender away from the victim as is a sentence of imprisonment and a fine for committing these offences.
8) In the circumstances described in the second question, I would put it all down in writing with dates, and go to the police.
9) It is possible to obtain a civil injunction yourself, but in the circumstances described in the second example, and given his feelings which appear irrational and harmful, you might even consider having your lawyer help you to get this resolved with the full force of the criminal law.