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A victim of emotional abuse says, ‘I’m staying in the marriage for the kids’ sake.’ How do you respond?

In 2020, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 96% of contacts stated they were experiencing emotional abuse. Emotional abuse comes in many forms: Constant criticizing, humiliation, put-downs, being dismissive, threatening, insulting, controlling, gaslighting—the list goes on. Often, there is no physical abuse, but the emotional abuse has been going on for years. When this is the case, and your client says she or he is staying in the marriage “for the kids’ sake,” what do you tell them? Here are the responses of some very experienced family law attorneys and mental health professionals.

Bari Weinberger, Esq., New Jersey. Domestic abuse relies on entrenched patterns of manipulation and control. In too many cases, emotional abuse has been going on for years or even decades and the survivor simply has no way of understanding how to escape these patterns. It’s not their fault. When I work with a client in this situation, it’s my duty to educate the client about real and practical ways to create a secure new life. Legal measures such as temporary alimony and temporary child support can provide economic stability for starting over. Because financial abuse often goes hand in hand with emotional abuse, a survivor understanding their rights to support can be a game changer. If the client makes the decision to divorce, we can also use their asset settlement as a tool for rebuilding. At the same time, we’ll look at custody options that prioritize children’s emotional health. Depending on the situation, pursuing a restraining order may also be applicable. Once survivors can say, “I can do this, I can get out and get my children out, and the abuse can end,” making the decision to take that first step suddenly becomes much easier.

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