“I’ll make you pay for this!”
I used to hear these dramatic words uttered by jilted lovers in movies, and think it was something said in the heat of the moment, with no real consequences.
I’ve discovered that’s not the case when it comes to high-conflict spouses. Believe it: Your rejection of them ― and your desire to escape ― injures their fragile ego, and can set them on a path of total annihilation.
Then, remarkably, our family court system gives these narcissistic types the battleground to wage that war.
I learned about this the hard way, after spending thousands of dollars in court battles and losing months of work time defending myself during my own divorce. And I’m one of the “lucky ones,” the ones who didn’t go bankrupt and end up sleeping on someone’s couch. I know thousands of people worse off ― and that’s why I became a divorce coach to help them.
I wish I could say I’m not affected by their often horrifying stories ― or that I don’t grab my own tissues ― when I sign off from my coaching sessions. But I’d be lying. Ninety-five percent of my clients had a coercive-controlling partner and are either trying to escape or trying to put the pieces of their life back together. I often wonder if people realise that marrying the wrong mate can destroy their life. The fact that most don’t keeps me up at night.
“My husband said if I divorce him, he will ruin me, take all my money ― I’ll have nothing and will live on the street,” “Margo,” a high-powered executive in Massachusetts who is afraid to use her real name, told me. “He also said, ‘You won’t get the children ― in fact, your children will hate you. I will destroy your career and destroy anyone who tries to date you. The flip side is if you stay with me, none of this will happen.’”
Margo thought they were empty threats.
“I soon learned he was telling the truth,” she told me, now three years into her divorce and $200,000 poorer. She said her ex continues to try anything he can to stop the divorce, including refusing to hand over her personal belongings, filing motions in court, rejecting any negotiations she attempts and even having her arrested on bogus claims that she abused him. This respected businesswoman spent six hours in a jail cell. When the police carted her away, her husband stood in the front window smiling and waving like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.”
Sounds crazy, right? That’s because it is.
It’s heartbreaking for me to see women destroyed emotionally, physically and financially. So I support them every way I can: strategising about what they need to do before telling their husband they want out, encouraging them to stockpile money for an escape, outlining the process, helping them choose an attorney who really understands high-conflict spouses, explaining manipulators’ typical divorce behaviour and giving them tips to safeguard their children.
Divorces from a high-conflict person can take three times longer than a typical divorce, and are usually three to four times as expensive. Often, I am the only person in their lives who truly understands the beast they’re up against. These victims need to know they’re not alone, so I started Strong Savvy Women, a support group of women who understand this underworld. We have a Facebook group and monthly meetings.
But I cannot change our legal system. Often, judges and attorneys label a couple “high-conflict” even when there’s only one spouse creating the chaos, while the other desperately wants out.
That’s why I’m on a mission to warn people before they end up in this nightmare. If you’re dating someone and you see any trademark narcissistic behaviour, or you just have a gut feeling something isn’t right, do not legally bind yourself to this person. It could be the biggest mistake of your life. And always have access to your own money, because without that, you can become a captive.
Courtney, a New Jersey mom who survived a nine-year marriage to a coercive controller, will never forget the day she was at the shore, watching her kids surf, when a court clerk called and ordered her to get on Zoom.
“My ex asked the judge to have me committed, and told her I was mentally unfit and had threatened his life ― after I had just filed a restraining order against him,” she told me. She said a judge ordered a custody evaluation, and her daughter begged not to go to her dad’s house but was sent for visits anyway.
“How do you describe that you are entwined in conflict with someone who you haven’t talked to in seven years?” Courtney, now nearing her eighth year of post-separation abuse, said. “The truth is stranger than fiction.”
This single mom of two with two jobs has already spent close to $90,000 in legal fees. After their split, she said her ex used the courts to bully and harass her, despite prior restraining orders against him. She claims he even tried to run her over with the kids in the car.
Jennifer, who said she has 50-50 custody but hasn’t seen her children in years because she can’t get anyone to enforce the ruling, has spent at least $400,000 on legal and court-ordered fees. She went from living in a large home to living in a tiny apartment to becoming homeless, carless and broke.
What most people don’t realise, if they haven’t experienced it themselves, is that you pay not just for attorneys’ bills, but for fees to “experts” like parent coordinators and guardians ad litem, who are assigned to represent the children’s interests. If the abuser has more money, he or she can outlast the victim ― and even win custody.
“How can a person like me become homeless and not see their kids?” Jennifer said. “It happens if you are a protective mother up against a narcissistic type without the financial resources to fight on.” Sadly, in these cases, children are often used as pawns.
“In abuse cases, our family court system operates on the premise that you will sell your last shoe if it can save your child,” Danielle Pollack, policy manager at the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, told me. “It is the terror of protective parenting because you know the risk of your child going to an abuser, and you’re willing to do anything ― including giving up your house ― to save them.”
Narcissistic coercive controllers leverage this fear expertly, and many court professionals are happy to help them. However, more states are enacting laws that improve custody rules and expand definitions of domestic abuse to include coercive control, a form of psychological abuse that is not always physical. Litigation abuse and stalking are part of the offences listed, along with sexual coercion, financial abuse, controlling behaviour, and isolating someone or depriving them of basic necessities.
Pollack led the campaign for Kayden’s Law ― named for 7-year-old Kayden Mancuso, who was beaten to death by her father during his court-ordered custody time ― which President Joe Biden signed as part of the Violence Against Women Act. This legislation, Pollack said, limits the power of abusers to weaponise our court system against a safe parent and thereby receive custody of children.
“Alienation is a pseudoscientific theory that has been widely discredited, but is frequently used in family court as a tactic by those accused of abuse. The fact is the family court system is, in essence, enabling unethical professionals to profit off abused women and children,” Pollack said. “We need reforms so judges don’t have discretion without guardrails and children are not ordered to abusers and expensive ‘reunification camps’ that cut them off from caregivers and deny their trauma. It’s the Wild West.”
Margo agrees those are the perfect words to describe what she went through: a crazy hell that women should try to avoid by any means necessary. She thinks we need to change the marriage contract itself to protect both parties from vengeful narcissistic partners.
“When you sign a marriage certificate, there should be conditions if you file for divorce and a certain time goes by and you can’t reach an agreement. Then it should be decided for you. Imagine how people would act then?” she said. “It would take the power away from them.”
That change might put me out of a job as a divorce coach, but that’s OK ― I’m all for it, if it means people are spared the nightmares I see them confronting.
Until then, here’s what I tell anyone getting married to watch out for before they say “I do”:
- Someone who love bombs you and wants to get married quickly. Date for a long time, so you can observe your partner in all sorts of situations, especially stressful ones.
- Secrets and lies. If someone is dishonest ― even about a little thing ― this can mean they will lie about big things.
- They refer to their exes as “crazy.” Narcissistic people often demonise their past partners and are adept at playing the victim. They are not always loud and attention-seeking.
- How do they treat other people? Are they rude to the waiter and others who they consider inferior to them? This can be a signal of how they might end up treating you.
- Are they capable of feeling empathy ― for people in pain, animals, and you? Some narcissists are great at faking this during the courtship, so watch their behaviour closely.
- “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” While past behaviour may not always predict future behaviour, many of my clients’ husbands felt entitled to have extramarital relationships with past partners, sex workers or other people.
- Have your own money ― and make sure your name is on all joint assets.
- If you give up your career to raise the kids, sign a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement that protects you financially and gives you a “salary” so you have your own money.
- Count on your intuition. Clients divorcing high-conflict types tell me they felt something was “off,” but they thought ― and were reassured ― they were overreacting. Always trust your gut.
- Controlling behaviour. If someone tries to manage what you wear, who you have as friends, your whereabouts or your social media, that’s a red flag.
Names and some identifying details were changed in this essay to protect the privacy and safety of the individuals involved.
Amy Polacko is a divorce coach, journalist and single mom who lives in Connecticut. She worked in print and television journalism for over 10 years, running an investigative unit that earned her the nickname “Pitbull Polacko” in her newsroom. She was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at Newsday that covered the TWA Flight 800 crash. Amy’s work has been published in The Washington Post, Ms., The Independent, Newsweek and Observer. In her free time, you might catch her at Fenway Park or visiting a new baseball stadium with her son, Max. You can find her on Instagram @freedomwarriortribe.
Help and support:
If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
- The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
- In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
- In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
- In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
- Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321