Divorce Attorney Shares 5 Keys To Leaving An Unhealthy Or Unsatisfying Relationship

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Woman torn in two directions about her relationship

During my years as a divorce attorney, I have met a good number of people who have been involved in long-term relationships that are either unsatisfying, unhealthy or worse abusive.

Some of them found their way to my office because they had found the courage to get out. Ironically, others were there because their less-than-ideal partner was the one who wanted to get out.

As I listened to their tragic, unhappy stories, one of the questions I have often been left with “How and why did they stay in this relationship for so long?”

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Here are five keys to getting out of unhealthy, unsatisfying, or abusive relationships, according to a divorce attorney.

1. Create a healthy mentality

Getting out is a process. And it starts with a mentality. Part of that mentality is the recognition that divorce or separation is hard.

Making that decision to leave is often difficult, scary, and courageous. However, it can be done. When do people make such a decision? Someone once told me “When the pain of staying outweighs the pain of leaving, people get out.” When people create this mentality in themselves little can stop them.



2. Build a support team

If isolation and negative messaging are elements of control, as cited above, then breaking this cycle of control is critical. People approaching divorce or separation have to build a support team to help them. Enlist the help of friends, family, and colleagues. Talk to them about your intentions and goals. Similarly, get the help and advice of a trained mental help professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychiatric social worker.

Another helpful team member could be a divorce coach or someone who can help deal with your feelings, emotions, and non-legal issues.

You also need to speak with a divorce attorney or family law specialist who can help you understand the process, and what your legal rights are. Go for such a consultation now even if you are not sure you want a divorce. Knowledge is power, and understanding your legal choices is part of this empowerment.

3. Control your finances

Understanding your financial circumstances is an important element of getting out. Make a list of all of your assets and liabilities. Locate and copy income tax returns (even if it is simply the first few pages), bank and investment account records, deeds, insurance policy numbers, retirement accounts, copies of loan applications to banks, and credit card applications (an invaluable source of information), credit card numbers and limits, etc.

Keep all of this information and these records in a secure location (a friend or relative’s house, a bank vault) not accessible by your spouse or partner. Put aside money from earnings, savings, gifts, or loans in an account accessible only to you.

4. Document valuable and important items

Gather and secure important personal papers and effects such as birth certificates, health records, passports, health, auto, home, and life insurance information, jewelry, valuable coins, antiques, photos, and memorabilia. Photograph the contents of the home or other valuable assets.

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5. Address safety concerns

Last but not least, develop a safety plan for yourself and your children. Where will you go if you need to leave the home, even temporarily? Understand your rights concerning how and when to get an order of protection. Seek local domestic violence resources, such as the Pace Women's Justice Center, located in New York. Speak to a Family Law Attorney. For more information, resources, legal advice, and relevant links visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or if you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474.

I once met with a woman in a divorce consultation. The potential client was an attractive, well-educated, sophisticated, and fairly wealthy woman. She had been married to the same man for over thirty-five years, most of which were unhappy. During our meeting, she explained that, over the years, “he had become very controlling”.

When I asked for an example, she related the fact that whenever he cuts the grass at the family home, she is required to get down on her hands and knees to trim the edge of the sidewalk, driveway, and flower beds with a pair of scissors, in to make sure the lawn and edging are neat and perfect. It was like a scene out of the movie Sleeping with the Enemy. All I could think of was how she put up with this guy for thirty-five years. More to the point, how do people stay in such fractured relationships, and why is it so difficult for people to get out?

Based on my many years of experience, I have come to certain conclusions or beliefs on this subject. First and foremost is the notion that unhealthy relationships are like failing businesses — they fail a little at a time and then all at once. Second, unhealthy relationships are often characterized by a dynamic where one of the spouses or partners exercises broad, stifling, overwhelming control over the other partner. This debilitating, pervasive exercise of control extends to several areas.



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Here are the areas of control that make it difficult to get out.

1. Money and finances

One of the first areas of control seized by the problematic partner is the area of finances and money. Initially, it is characterized by a relationship where one partner is not “allowed” to spend money on discretionary items without the “permission” of the other.

One extreme example, which I saw in my divorce practice, was the husband who picked out virtually all of the wife’s clothing, told her how much she was allowed to spend, and also reviewed the weekly food shopping receipts, sometimes demanding that items that were too costly be returned. Limitations on approved purchases, credit card spending, and cash availability are all similar tactics. More importantly, the problematic spouse also controls and often has title to all of the assets of the parties (homes, cars, bank accounts, etc.).

Finally, the other spouse or partner has little to no information about the location or amount of the assets controlled by the other. Such total control over money and finances makes it virtually impossible for the disenfranchised party to get out

2. Social isolation

Another hallmark of the unhealthy relationship is that the problematic partner does everything within their power to isolate the other spouse from family, friends, or work colleagues. Such familial and close friendships represent a lifeline or place of nurturing care.

By isolating the spouse or partner and discouraging them from participating in family events, get-togethers with friends and colleagues, and nights out, the problematic spouse consolidates the position as the center and primacy of the other’s life so that they cannot even imagine not being with their controlling partner.

3. Negative messaging

Another common element of a controlling relationship is a steady stream of negative messaging. The controlling spouse, directly and indirectly, conveys the message that their spouse or partner is “dumb,” “naïve,” “worthless,” “inadequate,” “incapable,” “hopeless,” and “helpless”. This negative campaign intends to suggest and instill in the other partner the belief that they could not possibly live or survive, physically, emotionally, and financially without the problematic partner.

This dynamic becomes even more toxic when the controlling partner is successful in their chosen field of endeavor (movie star, business owner, doctor, lawyer, investment adviser, law enforcement, etc.) and wields their power over other individuals. The controlled individual is also constantly told that “no one will believe them,” “that there is no place to go,” and “no one will help them” – a toxic message which, over time, they come to believe.

man and woman on opposite end of couch, woman is distraught

Photo via Getty

4. Other family considerations

How often have we heard that “people stay together for the sake of the kids?”

It is certainly true in many relationships, and there is no question that children are hurt by divorce. Separate and distinct from this is the issue of whether the children are hurt worse by living in a loveless family dynamic. However, this consideration is sometimes used as an excuse to put off the inevitable demise of the relationship. Along with the other factors cited above, it is a powerful reason why people stay in such relationships.

5. Domestic violence and abuse

In the extreme, the controlling person uses or threatens physical violence to keep the other spouse in a relationship. Much has been written about this dynamic. It is dangerous, sometimes lethal, and all too frequently encountered.

The most recent statistics indicate that one in three women in the United States have experienced physical violence by their intimate partners — on average 24 people per minute are victims of physical abuse at the hands of those closest to them. When caught in this vicious cycle victims find it extremely difficult to extract themselves from the abusive relationship.

How do people get out?

The essential question is not how people stay in such unhealthy, unsatisfying relationships but rather how they manage to get out, given all the barriers and hurdles put in place by the controlling spouse. The answer is to break the cycle of control and to remove the barriers one by one.

Contrary to the message often advanced by the controlling spouse or partner, getting out of an unhealthy, unsatisfying, or abusive relationship is not only possible but also life-affirming.

Having a plan in place will help you achieve this goal. Remember these five keys to freedom.

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Ronald Bavero is a highly regarded divorce attorney, legal educator, and author of the critically acclaimed, five-star book, “An Elephant Doesn’t Marry A Giraffe – Everything I Learned As A Divorce Attorney.” He also maintains a website of information about the book and other interesting and valuable articles about the process of divorce and separation.