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When engaged in child custody battles, many abusers avoid obvious acts of physical or verbal abuse that might make them look bad in court. However, they often engage in a pattern of “spiteful disregard.” Spiteful disregard is a mean-spirited form of counter-parenting where the abuser puts children at risk to spite the other parent. This also places children in the terrible position of feeling confused about how to respond to the contradictory wishes of each parent.
The Saunders Study from 2012 found that abusive fathers use counter-parenting to block the mother’s parenting efforts. Abusers frequently interfere with their children’s psychotherapy, knowing that children are likely to reveal their abuse in therapy. You can read more about that in, “California Courts Harm Kids By Ignoring the Science.”
An Abuser’s Goal is to Antagonize, Undermine
Separated parents often have differing parenting styles. They may disagree about what is in the best interests of children. One may be a vegetarian while the other prefers meat and potatoes. One may be highly religious while the other is a committed atheist. Children learn to navigate their different homes. And parents learn to accept that they cannot completely control what happens in the other parent’s home.
Spiteful disregard is a different story. The abuser’s contempt and disregard for the other parent’s preferences regarding the children is a continuation of their dominating abuse from before separation. In spiteful disregard, an abuser places their children at risk as a tactic to frighten and control the other parent. An abuser uses spiteful disregard to antagonize and undermine the other parent.
Here is what spiteful disregard counter-parenting might look like::
Cindy, a dental hygienist, asked her ex to stop letting 7-year-old Zak eat candy between meals. Steve, Zak’s father, laughed, telling her that she is “just super-sensitive” because of her job. In the following weeks, Zak returned from visits with his father with bigger and bigger bags of candy. Later, Cindy overheard Steve on a video call congratulating Zak for telling his mother that he wanted candy added to his school lunch bag.
Carla and Jacki met while playing college basketball and married after graduation. They decided that Jacki would continue her professional sports career while Carla would “become the mom.” Shortly after Carla gave birth to Sam, Jacki increased her coercive control. Jacki began having affairs, and frightened Carla and the baby when at home. After they separated, Jacki made a point of antagonizing Carla when Sam was with her. During video calls, she would feed Sam popcorn, which she knew was considered a choking hazard until children are four. Jacki got Sam a collection of toy guns and encouraged Sam to play with them while on video calls with Carla, knowing that Carla was a pacifist and that her brother had been shot in a drive-by shooting.
Jeremy began showing up at the house of his ex-wife, Kim, to pick up his three sons in his two-seater sports car, where there were inadequate seatbelts for the children. When she objected that they would be unsafe, Jeremy threatened to call the police on Kim for denying him the right to take his children.
Six year-old Kira began having nightmares and wetting the bed when she came home from her weekends with her father, George. She said she was scared of “Chucky.” Her mother, Chantel, figured out that George was showing Kira movies that terrified her during her overnights at his house. George alternated between denying wrongdoing and telling Chantel that it wasn’t a big deal. He refused to stop and made Kira promise never to tell her mother anything else that happened at his house.
Four Ways to Combat Spiteful Disregard
How can a domestic violence victim-survivor resist spiteful disregard post-separation? Here are some tips:
Carla’s lawyer encouraged her to record her video calls with Sam. Her state requires two-party permission for recording calls. But since the judge had ordered each parent to have privacy on the calls, her lawyer felt Carla could record them to document Jacki’s behavior, without concern. If you cannot record calls, be sure to keep careful notes with dates, times, and a description of what happened. Also keep any text or email exchanges which show the abusive parent flouting the other parent’s wishes out of spite or after having agreed that such ideas would be better for the child.
2. Try to respond calmly.
The abuser wants to provoke a reaction. The abuser wants to rile you up and get you to act in ways you will regret or say things that don’t look good in court. Try to avoid giving them this satisfaction. Try to use the gray rock method, becoming boring, silent and motionless in your response. This is difficult. The abuser cuts your daughter’s hair very short, and this upsets you. Don’t let the abuser see how you feel about it (which also risks upsetting your daughter). Instead, greet your daughter warmly and help her figure out ways to rock that style. She will eventually be in charge of her own hair. Trying to hash out differences with an antagonistic ex will not work. It may be better to ask your attorney to put your most important specific concerns in a letter to the other parent’s attorney.
3. Figure out what you can handle on your own.
Cindy started taking away Zak’s candy as soon as he arrived at her house. She was kind but firm, “This isn’t good for your teeth, and I won’t let you eat it.” While Zak responded furiously at first, with time he learned to follow Cindy’s lead. She also taught him how to brush and floss his teeth at his father’s. The candy was no longer a weapon.
4. In emergency situations, seek help.
Kim spoke with her local police department. They told her it was unsafe and against the law for Jeremy to transport children without adequate seatbelts. She dialed 911 the next time Jeremy showed up at the custody exchange with his sports car. The police would not allow Jeremy to take the children until he returned with his larger and safer car.
Abusive ex-partners use spiteful disregard to rattle and undermine the other parent. The goal is to get a protective parent to overreact or to come across as ‘petty’ or ‘inflexible.’ It’s important for survivors to choose their battles. Seek input from an attorney, a counselor or other ally or a protective parenting support group.
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