How psychological abusers use the courts to control their victims
- Survivors of abuse sometimes decide to take their abuser to court.
- But this can be traumatic for many reasons.
- For starters, it means seeing their abuser again.
- It also means abusers have the opportunity to manipulate the court system, and retraumatise their victim, gaining control over them again.
- To make sure they remain in control, survivors have to make sure they are prepared.
Imagine someone who you thought loved you turned your world upside down and sent you through emotional turmoil for months, or even years. Imagine you finally break free from their abuse and gaslighting, but they keep coming after you. Imagine that to be rid of them for good, you have to take them to court for their abuse. Then imagine they win.
Every year, victims of domestic abuse, both physical and psychological, have to face their abusers in court. Sometimes it’s to protect themselves and any children from further harm in family court, or to secure a conviction against their physical abuse in the criminal court.
It’s a basic human right to be treated fairly by the justice system, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. In May this year, A report by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London found that 24% of survivors of domestic abuse were cross-examined in family court by their abusers. This was over a year after the government in the UK promised it would stop this “humiliating and appalling” ordeal from happening.
“I felt so ill having to sit there and go through it,” Catherine, a survivor whose name had been changed, told the Guardian.
“He was following his own agenda and asking me about previous boyfriends and my sex life – things that were completely irrelevant to what we were discussing. Half of what he was asking me he should never have been able to inquire about but the judge was telling me to answer.”
The Women’s Aid report also found that 61% of survivors said there were no special measures in place for them, such as separate waiting rooms to the abuser, different entry and exit times, or the possibility of screen or video links to avoid face-to-face contact.
“These lack of measures to protect survivors from abuse during the court process harms their ability to give evidence and prevents them from effectively advocating for their children in court,” the report reads.
The court is an abuser’s stage
Abusers take advantage of the court’s shortcomings, and will use it as an opportunity to keep controlling their victims. They’ll use every trick up their sleeve to make their victim look hysterical, according to psychologist Perpetua Neo, and those who particularly enjoy the experience are often abusive narcissists.
“It’s not trauma behind closed doors anymore,” she said. “It’s like, here’s the stage, I’m going to discredit you and make you look like an idiot.”
They will try and shake the victim, and will often succeed. They know exactly what tales to spin to charm the jury, and what lies to provoke the victim with, so they end up looking like the unstable one. Essentially, abusers don’t care all that much if they lose the right to contact their ex or child – it’s all about knowing they still have control.
“Even pre-love bombing they’re probably doing their research on you, stalking you, and trying to find out who you are – what makes you tick, and what makes you weak,” said Neo. “And because you feel this false sense of intimacy, you’re going to tell them a lot of things.”
All of the stories you told them will come out in their cross-examination. What exactly is relevant in a family court case is a bit of a grey area, and if there are judges who are ill-equipped to deal with the nuances of an abusive relationship, victims have no control over how many intimate details of their private life are smeared across the courtroom.
“It was horrible, it was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” one anonymous survivor said in the report. “The cross-examination was just disgusting. The questions were about my sex life, previous boyfriends and who was going in my house. It was ridiculous.”
“Never underestimate the ammo that your ex abuser has on you,” Neo said. “And know that they are going to use that against you.”
The court, the judge, the jury tend to see a person who is destabilised as lying or mentally unsound, Neo said, so the worst thing you can do is let the abuser’s mind games work.
“Of course you’re going to feel traumatised,” she said. “Being destabilised, shouting, crying, and all that stuff, is actually just a way this trauma expresses itself. But they don’t know. It’s your duty to actually learn how to present yourself in the right situation.”
You have to stay calm, another anonymous suvivor said. “You can’t show emotion, you can’t get upset, if you get upset, well you’re unstable, and you’re not healthy for the child.”
They know what buttons to push
No matter how much faith you have in justice, if you’re up against an abuser who knows what they’re doing, there’s a chance they might win. In her book “Exposing Financial Abuse: When Money is a Weapon,” Shannon Thomas wrote about how people controlled their partners with money – by withholding it, getting their partner into debt, or stealing from them.
In one story, a woman went to court over child support following a her divorce with her husband. He managed to convince the court he could only pay her $500 a month, despite purchasing a yacht, a new car, and a waterfront condo for himself. In another story, a woman was ordered by the courts to pay her ex tens of thousands of dollars in damages, despite him being the one who was abusive to her.
“It’s stunning and not a good way at all what happens in the court system,” Thomas told Business Insider. “I’ve seen a lot of folks who will commit fraud. They will fraudulently put in papers that show their income is different. They will intentionally be self-employed, or will work for companies that are shady, and willing to give them false documents.”
Abusers know there may be one day where they have to go up against someone who has become wise to their manipulation. But because they’ve done it their whole lives, they know their best chances are winning over the judge and jury and making the victim look like the perpetrator.
To even have a chance against them, Neo said you must first work through your trauma. This might mean going to a therapist, or giving yourself enough time to process what happened to you. But if you go into the courtroom unprepared, without knowing how to manage your emotions, the abuser will probably end up in complete control.
Essentially, they have no compassion, and nothing is off limits when they’re trying to destroy you. If they are a narcissist, they lack something called “object constancy,” meaning they can be particularly callous and ruthless.
Dealing with your anxiety, depression, or anything else that you feel is holding you back isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity, Neo said.
Survivors need to be ready for the fight
One way to become emotionally prepared is to gain control over how you visualise the abuser. The larger you perceive them in your mind, the more power you perceive them to have.
“If he was really that big and clever he would have world domination, and he doesn’t,” Neo said. “He has so much practise he’s become a bit of an expert. But that doesn’t mean you can’t derail him at all.”
Don’t be afraid to use everything at your disposal, said Neo. There’s a chance you’re still trauma-bonded to your ex, and they will try and play on that so you don’t tell the full truth about their abuse. Or some people might feel like they need to be the better person and forgive and forget.
But don’t fall for it, said Neo. Everyone is on the narcissistic scale somewhere, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person because you occasionally capitalise on the confidence, manipulation, and ego within yourself. There’s also no shame in hiring a cunning – and maybe even borderline psychopathic – legal team.
“You want to hire a shark, a fox, and a snake all rolled into one,” said Neo. “I’m not going to go to someone who tells me to forgive my ex, because that’s only going to lead me down a slippery slope.”
However clever you think they are, there’s a lot the abuser doesn’t know, too. They’re not likely to be a legal expert, which is why the more sophisticated abusers will actually hire their own lawyers rather than do it themselves, despite their ego.
“Some think ‘I’m clever enough, I don’t need a lawyer,'” Neo said. “A more sophisticated narcissist would probably get a lawyer, but those who are less so, a bit more foolhardy, they think ‘I’ll do it myself.'”
There are many reasons to walk away
It can be a difficult decision to escalate domestic abuse cases to the courts for a few reasons.
For starters, there is no guarantee the claims will be believed.
An average of 35 assaults happen before a victim calls the police, according to Refuge. About 85% of people experiencing domestic violence seek help five times before they receive it. Only about 24% of cases are reported anyway, and fewer than 10% of incidents that are reported to police end in a conviction.
With such small chance of conviction, it’s not hard to see why a lot of domestic abuse happens behind closed doors. Not to mention the fact it’s incredibly hard to prove to a jury someone is psychologically abusive – especially if they’re really good at hiding it from others. This fact, plus the anxiety of seeing the abuser again, can be enough for the victim to walk away instead.
Survivors also know how abusers can turn on the charm, and how they may fall for it again. If they feel like they’re not winning, Neo said an abuser may even apologise, or say something like: “Let’s meet and I would like to thank you for everything that you’ve done for me.”
“Logically and emotionally it sounds beautiful, but it’s probably false,” she said. “So this kind of thing, it’s a way to trick you, so be very forewarned and forearmed.”
Neo said it’ll be a rollercoaster if you try and seek justice over the way you were treated. If you feel strong enough to pursue it, you absolutely should. But be wary that you’ll have to face the past which is probably going to be painful.
The most important thing to remember, Neo said, is that the system isn’t against you. You just need to be smart and crafty. And no matter how many times the abuser tries to undermine you and undo all the good work you’ve done to get over them, don’t start to beat yourself up again.
“Every time you are mean to yourself, you are acting like him,” she said. “If you’re unkind to yourself, you feel more anxious, and you get even more destabilised. If there’s this voice in your head, then you get even less prepped and ready for your court hearing, and believe he is going to win – and you don’t want him to win.”