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Divorcing an Emotionally Abusive Spouse

If the bad days in your marriage outweigh the good, you're tired of being criticized or yelled at, and you have to make excuses for why your partner bullies you, you're not alone. Emotional abuse is much more common than most people realize, affecting around 40 percent of adult women and around 37 percent of adult men1. Leaving a relationship can be difficult, but if you are divorcing an emotionally abusive husband or wife, our divorce lawyers in Raleigh are walking you through how to move forward safely.

Defining Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence, though instead of physical abuse like hitting, the perpetrator uses manipulation and fear as a way to control their partner's behavior.

Recognizing an Emotionally Abusive Husband or Wife

  • Acting jealous or possessive
  • Accusing you of cheating
  • Controlling how you spend your time or what you wear
  • Going through your phone or social media
  • Exaggerating your flaws
  • Withholding affection or giving the silent treatment as punishment
  • Erratic behavior with drastic, unpredictable behavior
  • Invalidating your feelings or behavior
  • Threatening you
  • Criticizing you and setting unreasonable standards
  • Isolating you from your friends and loved ones
  • Humiliating you, particularly in front of others
  • "Gaslighting" - the abuser denies their own action or calls into question your memory (in their favor), implying you're "crazy."
  • Screaming or yelling at you

While not every fight necessarily means your partner is emotionally abusive, it's important to look at how your partner treats you consistently or if there is a pattern of behavior, and also how the behavior makes you feel. Many people deny that they are emotionally abused, but often this behavior precedes physical or sexual violence.

Protecting Yourself from Emotional Abuse Before Divorce

If you plan on divorcing your emotionally abusive husband or wife, it's important to put a plan in place to keep yourself and your children safe when you leave. In North Carolina, a couple must live separately for one full year before filing for divorce, and it's important to protect yourself during this time. Women in abusive relationships are particularly at risk, as the greatest violence is more likely to occur after the couple separates2. While economic necessity, fear, fear for your children, and isolation may all be factors keeping you from leaving, there are resources available to protect you.

Before leaving, consider taking these steps:

  • Put your important documents - driver's license, social security cards, extra cash, and children's birth certificate - in a safe location or give them to a friend to keep.
  • Find a safe place to stay, with a family member or a domestic violence shelter (Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for assistance at 800-799-7233)
  • End the relationship either by letter or text after you've left or in a public, populated space.
  • Have child care available on short notice.
  • Connect with a divorce attorney who can help you protect your interests and give you personalized guidance.
  • Consider a restraining order if you are concerned that your spouse will harass, threaten, or cause harm. Your divorce attorney can also advocate for you in this matter.

After you are in a safe place, you and your attorney can work together to prepare for the divorce. While there is a year separation, this time can be spent establishing a timeline of abuse and gathering proof, such as text messages, written documentation, and recordings or video of abusive behavior. This time can also be spent building your new future, free from your spouse's abuse.

Does Proof of Emotional Abuse from My Spouse Affect the Divorce Outcome

Once divorce proceedings begin, you may be able to use your proof of emotional abuse to improve your divorce outcome. Your attorney can assist you and advocate for you in the following ways:

  • Limiting child custody and asking for supervised visits with the emotionally abusive husband or wife;
  • Terminating parental rights in more extreme cases where the abuse was detrimental to the child's well-being;
  • A more permanent protection order may be put in place;
  • Property distribution is meant to be fair and equitable to both spouses. In an abusive relationship in which you were not able to work or had no belongings, you may be awarded ownership of more of the spousal assets.
  • Alimony may be awarded if there is a financial need and proof of abuse.

Schedule a Consultation with a Divorce Attorney in Raleigh Today

If you are in need of an aggressive divorce attorney in Raleigh who will fight on your behalf to help you move forward and protect your best interests, we can help. Schedule a consultation with our family law firm today by calling (919) 301-8843 or filling out the form below to get started.


  1. Karakurt, Günnur, and Kristin E Silver. “Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: the role of gender and age.” Violence and victims vol. 28,5 (2013): 804-21. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00041
  2. Mitchell, Jerry. "Most Dangerous Time for Battered Women? When They Leave." The Clarion-Ledger 01/28/2017.

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