Q: I’m struggling with what to do — my family still insists on inviting my ex to family get-togethers, especially around the holidays, and he’ll show up. They insist that because he’s my children’s father, he should be included, for their sake. They seemingly forget that he was verbally and sometimes physically abusive in our marriage, and the thought of having to continue to see him gives me anxiety attacks. My family says I need to just let it go, that it was in the past, but for obvious reasons I can’t. Help?
A: Ugh, don’t you just love it when family is so supportive? If only they’d be supportive of you and not your abusive ex, right?
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It’s hard when people who are supposed to be your built-in support system fail to do just that by ignoring or denying abuse. Let’s first talk about the possible reasons your family is making this choice.
We could rationalize that it’s too hard for them to accept that you were abused so it’s easier [for them] if they pretended like it just didn’t happen, or that it’s “in the past,” as they tell you.
“Or, they might not care,” says Julie Owens, a long-time domestic violence advocate and educator, as well as a former expert witness in domestic violence court cases. That one’s a harder one to think about. And it’s not always that they don’t care about you, exactly. “To a great degree, a lot of people don’t identify domestic violence. They don’t understand it … they don’t understand coercive control, especially if there’s not physical abuse,” says Owens.
Coercive control is when an abuser strips away a survivor’s sense of self through a pattern of controlling behaviors, such as threats, humiliation, jealousy, financial control, sleep deprivation, isolation, guilt-tripping and gaslighting. Coercive control can also involve physical abuse.
Your family might not understand that domestic violence is something that increases in severity over time, explains Owens. They might think that, now that you’ve taken a break, the abuse has stopped. And maybe there’s even a chance of reconciliation (ack!).
“They might think they’re helping them get back together by putting them in the same room and not realizing how dangerous it can be—not just safety-wise but it’s psychologically damaging to the victim and the children.”
Your family might even believe that a “bad” father is better than no father at all.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) is important scientific research that especially applies to domestic violence and child abuse. One of the common mistakes people, including professionals, make without looking at ACE is to ask the victim to “let it go,” meaning the abuse, or to “just get over it” in order to repair the relationship between an abuser and their children. The ACE study showed that this cannot work because, while contact can be forced, there’s no way to remove the fear and stress abusers cause. This fear and stress will inevitably present in more harmful ways, like aggression, behavior problems, separation anxiety, and an increased risk for depression and other chronic health conditions as an adult. This is true for both the protective parent and the children.
There are only two sides support persons can take after abuse, points out Owen—the victim’s side or the abuser’s side. “There’s no neutral stance.”
“If they’ve been supporting him all along … and they’ve been protecting the abuser and then they realize maybe she hasn’t been lying and it’s worse than they thought, they’ll have to do a lot of introspection. They may not want to do that.”
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So let’s talk about what you can do here.
- Make Your Wishes Known. It’s time to voice your boundaries clearly, with no room for interpretation. Here’s what you might say (or text, or email), according to Owens. “I don’t want to be in the same place as my ex. He is no longer family. Please do not invite him because it will not be comfortable, and it may not be safe.” Make it clear that if they don’t honor that request, you won’t be attending. You may want to also identify a few family members who understand the abuse that occurred, and agree that the abuser shouldn’t be invited, and ask them in advance to advocate for you with the host of the gathering.
- Call Before You Go. Double-check that there was no bait-and-switch move and that it’s confirmed he’s not coming. You don’t want to be caught off-guard.
- Talk to Your Kids Ahead of Time. Come up with a code word or phrase in case you need to leave in a hurry. “If you hear me say this, it means get in the car.” You can explain as much or as little as you want, depending on the age of your children, as to why it’s not safe to stay at the event if their father shows up. This can be part of your safety plan, which is important to update even after abuse, as well as one that involves your children.
- Leave If He Shows Up. Easier said than done, right? You don’t have to storm out in a flurry of drama. If your ex shows up to the family event, simply gather your children, ask them to go to the car, tell the host that you’ll need to leave early, unfortunately, and then go. “She doesn’t have to make any other explanation.” Make sure to prioritize your safety in this instant—if there a sense the abuser may retaliate or follow you, have a plan of where you can go to ensure you are safe after leaving.
- Avoid Being Alone with Him. If your quick-exit plan doesn’t move quickly enough and you find yourself in the same place, Owens advises, “Stay with the group and keep your kids with you. You don’t want him to take off with the kids and don’t want to get stuck with him somewhere or get cornered.” It may also be helpful if there’s a trusted family member who you can assign as helper to keep an eye on your kids if he shows up, or who can make sure you’re not isolated with him at any time.
- Host Your Own Events. If your family still doesn’t honor your wishes, it may be time to start hosting your own event where you can control the guest list and also nix that family member who keeps inviting your ex.
- Consider an Order of Protection. If possible, getting an order of protection will squelch all of your family’s complaints about not inviting your ex since it’ll now be against the law for him to be near you. Granted, it won’t necessarily keep the abuser from showing up, but will give law enforcement the ability to arrest him if he does, says Owens.
If there is a joint custody agreement in place, you may still need to exchange children over the holidays, but there are ways to do that while retaining your safety. Read, “Ask Amanda: How Do I Co-Parent with an Abuser” for more on that topic.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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