I Survived: Why I Ended My Abusive Marriage and Joined the Fight for Family Court Justice
When I decided to get married, I had every illusion of living a happy life. I was a young attorney at the peak of my career and thriving in my personal and professional life. I had a bright future ahead of me with the person I believed shared my core values, a fellow attorney. However, the illusion of happiness was quickly shattered. For the next 10 years, I endured escalating domestic violence in the form of emotional, verbal, physical, and financial abuse, as well as other coercive forms of control, at the hands of my spouse.
Unfortunately, like many other professional women, I did not think it could happen to me. After all, I am an educated, bright and talented woman. I have high self-esteem and I am successful in my career as a lawyer, fighting for social justice on behalf of my clients. Thus, I did not feel I fit the stereotype of an abused woman. However, behind closed doors, I was hiding a dark secret. I was constantly berated, belittled, humiliated and devalued by my abuser, afraid of his tirades and violent explosions. By the time I realized the seriousness of my situation, I was paralyzed with fear. My self-esteem had also been greatly eroded. I felt worthless, scared and alone.
I knew that leaving my abuser would have devastating financial implications on my ability to support myself. This is an extremely common dynamic in domestic violence cases which negatively impacts victims. But the worst was yet to come in family court. Because I was forced to defend myself against meritless and unnecessary litigation driven by my abuser for years, including repeated ex-parte hearings, a custody evaluation, psychological testing, depositions, mediation, etc., I unnecessarily incurred tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and almost lost everything. This hijacking of the legal system, which stems from an abuser’s need to gain power and control over his victim, nearly bankrupted me both on a financial and emotional level. Unfortunately, many other victims face a similar pattern of behavior by their abusers.
But all was not lost. I read the groundbreaking book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, and met its author, Lundy Bancroft. I credit this book with saving my life. I took the initial step of contacting a 24-hour domestic violence hotline and was connected with help. I obtained support, knowledge and tools I needed to develop a safety plan and secure a domestic violence restraining order. I also got sole legal and physical custody of my child and court-ordered supervision.
Thereafter, I made my personal healing and recovery a priority by regularly attending free support groups and therapy for abused women at the Family Justice Center. I attended yoga and retreats for women who have ended abusive relationships. I met survivors from all over the United States who helped me through the traumatic aftermath of my marriage. These courageous men and women continue to believe, support and trust in me.
I am currently making a strong comeback from the abuse, but it has not been an easy road. Along the way I have learned a few things that I hope will help others understand why women stay in abusive relationships.
- First, survivors face a real threat of retaliation from abusers if they leave. Indeed, the most dangerous time for a woman is when she ends the relationship, sometimes tragically resulting in serious injuries or death.
- Second, all abusers feign innocence, deny and minimize the violence to some extent, and ascribe equal blame to the victim. These distortions are an insidious and destructive form of abuse, serving to isolate and smear the victim. For example, though my abuser attended a batterer intervention program, he denies being abusive and claims it was mutual. This is an oxymoron, since abuse is all about power and control, not “bad” relationship dynamics.
- Third, victims risk losing custody of the children to the abusive father in a shocking number of domestic violence cases due to a legal system biased in favor of men, wealth and privilege. Legal abuse poses a barrier to women and children’s safety. This is why we need family court justice.
- Fourth, it is difficult or impossible for survivors to access legal help, as there is a dearth of free resources available. This necessitates that more lawyers choose careers in victims’ rights legal advocacy or perform pro bono work. There are many ways to get involved.
Despite the crippling impact domestic violence had on my life, I consider myself lucky because I got the opportunity to relocate to a new city, maintain custody of my child and start a new career. Further, I founded an organization, “Survivors of Abuse Rising for Justice” (SOAR for Justice), to give survivors a stronger voice for change. In its first few months of existence, SOAR for Justice has awarded 13 scholarships to law students- all of whom are survivors of domestic violence and/or committed to victims’ rights legal advocacy as a career. However, my story of redemption is not the norm and more must be done to expose the failings of the legal system. For that reason, I am committed to fighting for family court justice.
In a nutshell, atrocities against women and children are taking place in family court every day, but most Americans are unaware of this. For example, an abusive father who contests custody from a protective mother will win 70 percent of the time. Such cases are often classified as “high conflict,” yet they are really domestic violence cases. Moreover, the abuser is typically the one with the resources to fuel conflict while the victim is put on the defensive, facing re-traumatization and financial ruin as a result of constant litigation. This problem is well documented, but we must continue to educate judges, lawyers, legislators, law enforcement and the general public to change the gender-biased system. I encourage you to learn more and join this cause. Information is available at www.soarforjustice.org.
On a final note, I would like to thank the following organizations that aided in my recovery from domestic violence:
San Diego Family Justice Center
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Center for Hope and Change
ARTS (A Reason to Survive)
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Kathy’s Legacy Foundation
Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence
San Diego Domestic Violence Council
Lundy Bancroft & The Life That Awaits You Retreats for Women
National City Police Department
Dovie Yoana King is a public interest attorney licensed in California, Massachusetts and formerly New York (retired) with two decades of legal experience assisting low-income workers, immigrants, women and children. She currently works at Harvard Law School and is the Founder and Director of SOAR for Justice (www.soarforjustice.org), an organization helping survivors of abuse rise for justice.