Q&A: Staying with someone who threatens you

Someone who I'm keeping anonymous wrote in, and I've also changed some details here for privacy:

and I are discussing separating. Kind of. He refuses to go to
counseling. Absolutely refuses. If we separate/divorce, he claims he
will go after full custody of our kids — this despite that I am the
primary caregiver at this time (I worked full time until one year ago). I
don't know what to do. Later today, he apologized for "the
conversation" when he said if we separated, he would basically be an
asshole and go after the kids and refuse me custody. I love him and want
to stay with him but not if he continues to be such a jerk. I would
probably agree to a separation if we could have the kids 50-50.

I haven't consulted an attorney yet so I don't know what is possible.

My question is to those moms who have endured separation and divorce:
HOW did you know it was truly the time to end it vs just
enduring/forgiving/going on????"

Oh, so many things. Before I get started, here's a message to every parent who is full of anger and is lashing out, i.e. the questioner's husband: Stop using your children as pawns.


To anyone threatening your partner with taking their children away:

1. Your job as a parent is to act in your children's best interests. Always. At every time. And the best interest of every child is to spend as much time as possible with each parent (assuming the parent is safe for them to be around). If you cannot put aside your own feelings about your children's other parent to allow your children a full relationship with that parent, you are not doing your job.

2. The second you threaten someone to take away their children, you need to see a therapist. Right now. This week. You are not managing your emotions well, and you need help figuring out what to do next that will be best for the children, and for you.

3. If you genuinely feel that your children's other parent is a threat to their physical or emotional safety, call a lawyer. Your lawyer will advise you about the steps to take to protect your children.

4. If you are threatening to take away someone's children to force that person to stay with you, you have gone off the rails. This is the kind of stuff that people do on soap operas*. Not real life. You can't force someone to want to be with you, and blackmailing them into a relationship is definitely not going to do it. Take a few deep breaths and find a therapist to help you through this.

To anyone who is being threatened:

1. Love isn't fear. If you're afraid of your partner, you shouldn't be with that person.

2. If your partner is making you afraid, that is abuse. Even if you're not afraid physically, someone who makes you afraid in the relationship is engaging in abusive behavior.

3. Your children see everything, even if you think they don't. Kids who grow up inside abusive relationships grow up thinking it's normal, and look for that dynamic as adults.

4. Tell someone. You can get out, safely, and people will help you.

About the threat to "go after full custody":

I'm not sure exactly what he thinks is going to happen. He'll explain to the judge that he's mad at you for wanting to work on your marriage and then wanting to leave when he wouldn't work on things, so he should have full custody of the kids? Judges aren't stupid, and their priority is doing what's best for the children. They won't just "give" custody to the person who's angriest, or who feels wronged, or who spends the most money**.

It is a long, difficult process to terminate parental rights or even to limit contact (I know there are some readers who have had to do this, and it's grueling). It happens when it is not safe for children to be with a parent, because the parent has addiction problems or other issues.

In general, judges do not take into account "who did what" when determining how much parental time each parent gets with the kids. Things leading to the split are between the two adults, and have nothing to do with the children. Your partner could do all sorts of mean things to you and as long as they have nothing to do with the kids, your partner still has the right to be a full parent.

Your children have the right to spend as much time as possible with each parent.

Many many states are defaulting to 50/50 custody, so to deviate from that you have to really show why it would be better for the children–not the parents–to have a different arrangement. That takes a long time, and involves professional assessments. It's serious and not something you should just decide to do as revenge.

To everyone going through a split and keeping the focus on the best interests of the kids:

Thank you. You are doing the best that you can, and that's all anyone can ask. Also: It Gets Better.

My recommendations to the poster are:

1. See a lawyer. You don't know what's going to happen but you need to know what the laws are in your state and what's likely to happen if this goes to court. Ask people for a recommendation of a divorce lawyer they loved, then go in for a consultation. You'll have to pay for the consultation but it'll be the best money you'll spend, even if you end up staying together.

2. Your husband needs to see a therapist. Whether or not he'll go with you, he needs to get himself straight. Threatening you with going after full custody is a sign that he's not thinking clearly. I don't know if he's a physical threat, but he's engaging in abusive behavior, at the least, and needs to talk to a professional about it.

3. I hope that you find a path that keeps your children as safe as possible to grow and thrive. The best-case scenarios are that your husband gets help and you two can work it out, or that he gets some help and you can mediate a divorce and stay out of the court system and save thousands of dollars. I hope for one of these for you and your children.


My recommendation for everyone involved in any kind of divorce or co-parenting situation: Read the book Co-parenting 101: Helping your Kids Thrive In Two Households After Divorce by Deesha Philyaw and Michael D.Thomas. It lays it all out about what's possible depending on who you are and who your child's other parent is, and how to do the best for your kids no matter what your co-parenting circumstances are. Super-practical and realistic, not judgy, and not overly sentimental.


* Seriously. On Friday's episode of Days Of Our Lives, Chloe told Daniel that if he didn't break up with Jennifer to be with her, she would take their son away and Daniel would never see him again. Chloe is not emotionally healthy, and this is a soap opera, and even she backed off by the end of the episode.

** Another soap opera fallacy is that if you spend enough money and hire the fanciest lawyer you can get custody and force the other parent out of the children's lives. It doesn't work that way at all in real life (in the United States, at least, although apparently it does in Salem and Pine Valley), although if one parent doesn't understand how things work and gets scared (or has a lawyer who doesn't fight for their rights and advises them to settle for less) sometimes you can bluff and get a custody arrangement that sucks for everyone, including the kids. I hate that.

18 thoughts on “Q&A: Staying with someone who threatens you”

  1. Also worth checking out:youarenotcrazy.com
    Verbal abuse is a thing, you guys.
    Also: our legal system is set up so that you can’t lose custody of your kids just for being a bad spouse. That goes both ways. You can hate your soon to be ex with every fiber of your being, but legally they still have a right to be involved. And, on the flip: your spouse can threaten all they want, but they can’t take away your legal right to parent your children.

  2. I wish I had seen this six years ago. I was in a pretty similar situation. I honestly hadn’t considered it a ‘threat’ threat or abusive…but I’m looking back at that time and wishing I had done exactly what Moxie lays out above. Things would be different and probably better. I ended up going to therapy myself which helped TONS and that would be the only recommendation I’d add. Get a safe professional non-involved person to talk to, even if you can’t or won’t do anything else.

  3. Dear OP, please call a family lawyer in your state immediately and make an appointment with them.In the meantime, please try not to worry too much about your husband’s angry custody threats actually coming true someday, because it is extremely, extremely rare for an American father in 2013 to be awarded sole, primary residential custody of his children. This is because most US states are joint custody jurisdictions – custody is almost always shared, even in cases where say, a mother was found to be driving while intoxicated on three occasions each time while her children were in the backseat of the car – yes, that mom still gets residential custody of her kids (true story). In general, courts are very reluctant to terminate a mother’s rights, especially a healthy, objectively awesome mother like you.
    There are also a growing number of states (such as WA State) that are “best interests of the child” jurisdictions, and in best interests states yes, fathers are often awarded sole, primary residential custody of their children in cases where the mother is shown to be incapacitated (usually in cases where the mother is a drug and alcohol abuser and/or has a criminal record) – but even in those extreme cases, the mothers still get to have visitation. See:
    Do your children have passports? If so, I’d probably recommend anyone in your shoes go ahead and quietly hide those away so he can’t suddenly take your kids out of the country without your permission. (Ugh, I don’t mean to scare you.) Hang in there!

  4. Read Lundy Bancroft’s “Why Does He Do That?”It is extremely likely that if the OP’s husband is threatening her in one way he is threatening/abusing her in others as well. It can be really hard to recognize if you are in the middle of it and even harder from the outside. This book will help identify abusive behaviors and patterns and restore a sense of internal sanity.
    Please, if you are the OP, get yourself some therapy too, and get it for your kids. You can’t make your husband go to counseling, or mediation, but you can take care of yourself and start creating a support network for whatever happens next. I also highly recommend creating a safety/escape plan. Even if you don’t feel right now that you or your kids are at risk, this sounds like a situation that can escalate quickly. Put money, ID, and vital documents somewhere where you can access them, and he can’t, in case you find it necessary to leave. A safe deposit box with a friend holding the key is a good option. Include the childrens’ vital documents.
    If the situation calms down and everybody gets the support they need and you don’t end up needing it, you will have lost nothing by having it just in case. If you do end up needing it, you will really need it.
    Custody battles are awful, and a full time job, but if you have to do it, you will.

  5. In my very humble opinion, staying together for the kids rarely works, or is in their best interest. You say you’d be fine separating, which makes it sound like you’re pretty much done. You CAN be better. By yourself. Love.

  6. if your husband won’t go to therapy, individual or couples, you still should. get recommendations for someone who is a highly qualified couples therapist, and make an appointment for yourself. i can’t recommend it enough.

  7. My ex husband was emotionally abusive. It’s a very tricky thing because in a lot of other ways, he’s a lovely person. So being with someone like that can be confusing in a do-i-leave-or-not kind of way. But when he is scared or stressed or anxious, or feeling out of control, he was(is) a nasty person. It took me a long time to remember that I didn’t need to be afraid of “what he could do” to me re: custody because I had rights too. It wasn’t until our agreement was signed and stamped by the courts that I felt a little bit better but even now he will go through a phase and start stirring the pot and I will message Magda for a reality check. No, he can’t do that. No, he can’t do that either.Only you will know whether you are done or not, and it’s different for everybody. Don’t let his lovely side blind you to who he is in a conflict. Apparently there are men out there who know how to argue and problem solve in a way that’s productive and not damaging. You and your kids deserve that. Good luck.

  8. Yes staying together for the sake of the children you might think will help now but in the long run it will be detrimental for them. As all the arguing and threats and hostility wont do them any good and they may become biased to one parent which is never a good thing.

  9. I know from experience that it is very hard, as a child, to hear a parent threaten to take you away. For me, that parent was the one I was afraid of.I’ve never been married, so my impression isn’t an informed one. But I feel like if you are afraid of a person, ending it is the way to go. But do it thoughtfully, carefully, and with plans in place to protect yourself. Please know that protecting yourself is protecting your kids. And follow the excellent advice offered above.

  10. Taking away parental rights is a LONG process. Even when it is pretty obvious to everyone involved that it is the right thing for the children they still have to take every step possible to be 100% sure. It took us 4 months of court battles and a year of planning and lawyers to get it done and my ex was in and out of jail and seriously drug addicted for most of that time.Also, I’m not sure how it is in her state but in Iowa, the standard is mom gets primary custody, dad gets Wed nights and every other weekend. Usually they only do 50/50 if both parents agree to that and if they live close enough or are will to transport so that there won’t be a large upheval in the child’s life.
    I agree with the previous commenters, if there is nothing there worth fighting to save staying for the kids and being miserable is only going to make it worse for them not better.

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