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:

"...hubby 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.