By Attorney Ed Sherman, Founder of Nolo Press and the Self-Help Law Movement
Is your spouse violent, abusive, harassing?
In cases of harassment or violence there are legal remedies and there are practical things you can and must do for yourself. This is not about reaching agreement–these are strategies for self-defense. Mental and physical abuse must never be tolerated.
The legal remedy for domestic harassment and violence is a restraining order–an order from the court, served personally on your spouse, forbidding certain conduct. Restraining orders are available as part of a divorce action.
If you, your children or anyone in your household has been physically abused or threatened with harm, you can have the abuser ordered to move out and stay away from the family residence. Child visitation can be ordered for specific times and places, away from your home and, if necessary, under supervision. It takes very clear proof of danger or harm to the child to forbid visitation altogether.
In extreme cases, most states permit emergency orders to be issued ex parte–without notice to or participation of your spouse. These orders are binding until a hearing can be held and more orders issued after both sides have had a chance to tell their side.
Here’s the good news: more than 85 percent of all restraining orders are adhered to. Being served with orders from a court seems to have a good effect on most abusers, and, more to the point, they now know that you are serious about not being a victim. Think about it this way:
* Is your spouse the kind of person who will respect a court order?
* Will he or she care about the police coming out or being dragged into court and lectured by a judge?
* Does your spouse have a reputation, money or property to protect?
* Or will your spouse, in the heat of rage, ignore the threat or reality of official sanctions?
When you go for restraining orders as part of your divorce action, you can also request temporary orders for support, custody, and visitation that will set the terms of your separation until a full-scale trial is held or a settlement reached. Temporary orders can be very useful if you need them to stabilize your case or get support coming in.
If you get a restraining order, be sure to file it with your local police. This can put them under extra pressure to protect you. But even if you do not have court orders, call the police if you are the victim of domestic harassment or violence, and keep calling them. At the very least, you will be building a case and developing evidence.
Police may be an unreliable source of help in domestic situations, although this will vary from place to place. They have been accused of prejudice and sexism, but whether or not that is true, their conduct is also based on years of frustrating and dangerous experience. Police are much more likely to get hurt and less likely to do any real good in domestic disputes than in any other kind of case.
This difficult issue has received a great deal of public attention, so police agencies now tend to have standards for dealing with domestic violence. Some departments have officers specially trained in family crisis intervention.
Ask responding officers if they can refer you to available spouse abuse shelters, support groups or relevant community services agencies. Call your local police, talk to them about your problem and see what their attitude is and in what way they are willing to help. Start a record in their files.
The best help is the kind you give yourself. The only thing you can control in life is your own attitude, actions and reactions, so start there. What part do you play in the cycle that leads to abuse? Try to avoid the things that set your spouse off. This does not mean to give up and roll over, but it does mean learning to express yourself cleanly and not to provoke. In most disturbed relationships, there is some pattern of action and reaction that builds to an eruption. Try to understand your part and stop the cycle.
Don’t be a victim.
Spouse abuse is a very common problem, so you are not unique or alone. Nearly every community has professionals, agencies, and support groups that have a great deal of experience and special knowledge about domestic conflict. This is your most important source of help and support. Get in touch with them. To find a local support group, ask a minister, call the police department or a social services agency. If one group or counselor isn’t what you want, try another.
There are many practical steps you can take. Maybe you can get help from friends and family, possibly have someone move in with you for a while, or get a roommate. In general, abuse is drastically reduced when other people are around. One obvious practical solution is to move away, either for good or at least until things cool down. Or change all the locks, bar the windows and get an unlisted phone number. Or get a big dog. Or take self-defense classes. If necessary, hide–it may be better than being someone’s easy target. The main thing is this: do whatever you must to create your own peace and safety; do not depend solely on police or court orders to solve your problem.
Copyright © 2012 Ed Sherman
Ed Sherman is a family law attorney, divorce expert, and founder of Nolo Press. He started the self-help law movement in 1971 when he published the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce, and founded the paralegal industry in 1973. With more than a million books sold, Ed has saved the public billions of dollars in legal fees while making divorce go more smoothly and easily for millions of readers. You can order his books from www.nolotech.com or by calling (800) 464-5502.