Spring 2017 - Domestic Violence – More Than Just Physical

by Katherine Schulte

“What comes to mind when I say the words ‘domestic violence’?”

This is the first question I ask when conducting workshops about the dynamics of domestic violence. Usually, the first response is “hitting,” “hurting,” or some form of physical violence. Such a response is understandable, given that physical violence is the most recognizable form of abuse; its warning signs and impacts can be easily identified, and our laws are tailored to respond to this. Under Massachusetts law, abuse is defined as “the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members: (a) attempting to cause or causing physical harm; (b) placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm; (c) causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat or duress (M.G.L. c. 209A, sec. 1; c. 208, sec. 31A).

However, domestic violence practitioners and advocates know that physical violence is often just the tip of the iceberg in an abusive relationship. Survivors of domestic violence may experience many more types of abuse including emotional, verbal, economic, and cultural abuse. This article aims to help family law practitioners identify other forms of domestic violence so that they can more comprehensively and sensitively represent their clients.

Adopting a Broader Definition of Domestic Violence1

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship where one person tries to gain and maintain power and control over another, resulting from sense of entitlement and attitude of ownership. These “abusive behaviors” may include emotional, verbal, economic, sexual, cultural, and physical abuse. This article will focus on emotional and economic abuse as types of domestic violence that may be less explored by family law practitioners.

Economic abuse is a very concrete way that abusers exert power and control over their victims. Examples of economic abuse can include maintaining total control over family finances and blocking a partner’s access, putting a partner on an allowance, or interfering with a partner’s ability to go to school or work. Economic abuse can also include overt acts of power such as spending frivolously, gambling, or destroying a partner’s credit.

Emotional abuse includes words, threats, or actions that change the way one views themselves, their life situation, and their relationships. Examples of emotional abuse are isolation from family and friends, emotional blackmail (“If you loved me, you would…”), lying, and minimizing, trivializing, or shifting blame for abusive behaviors. These behaviors can undermine a survivor’s confidence and self-image, making them more dependent on their abuser.

Impacts on Your Case Theory and Litigation Strategy

Just because Massachusetts abuse prevention and domestic relations laws do not explicitly include emotional or economic abuse does not mean that your client’s experience of these behaviors has no bearing on your family law case. Adopting a broader definition of abuse has practical impacts on the way you litigate your family law case. First, you may start asking different (and often more difficult) questions. For example, if your client tells you their partner managed the family finances during the marriage, you could ask follow-up questions. Did your client know how money was spent? To what extent did they have a say in those decisions? Knowing these answers can affect how you pursue discovery and in turn develop a case theory regarding spousal support or property division.

Another client may tell you that they had poor communication with their partner and often got into arguments at home. You might ask specifically what was said and in what tone, whether these arguments took place in front of the children, and how the children reacted. These answers can tell you a lot about the dynamics of the relationship. For example, if your client describes situations where their partner was constantly undermining or overriding their authority regarding the children, your position on sharing legal custody might change.

Dynamics of power and control are often replicated in family law litigation, making it all the more important to learn to recognize other forms of abuse early in a case. You may start to notice the problems that occur during parenting time or failure to pay support in a timely manner are actually part of a larger pattern of abuse. If you recognize these patterns early in a case, you can seek court orders that will help minimize future problems for your client. For example, a temporary order for child support to be paid by wage assignment through the Department of Revenue may reduce the risk that a financially abusive spouse can evade timely payments. In other cases, supervised visitation may be necessary to prevent an abusive partner from making inappropriate or manipulative statements to children. As a practical matter, cases involving domestic violence become harder to resolve by agreement. However, the time spent seeking orders that help keep an abuser’s controlling behavior in check is worth the investment early on, as it can save you, your client, and the court from time-consuming litigation in the future.

Impacts on the Attorney-Client Partnership

Broadening one’s definition of domestic violence can help you better understand your client’s experience and their own behaviors. When a client describes being physically hurt by their partner throughout their relationship, it can be hard to understand how the relationship didn’t immediately end after the first assault. However, physical violence is often the last form of abuse to appear in an abusive relationship. By the time there is hitting, slapping, or shoving, a survivor may already be so isolated, dependent, and fearful that they can’t “just leave.” Many survivors of abuse also state that emotional and verbal abuse are much more difficult to recover from than physical violence. Rebuilding one’s self-esteem, learning to trust others, and coping with the impacts of trauma are no small feats. In other words, physical injuries may heal much faster than emotional wounds.

The benefits of developing a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of abuse on the attorney-client partnership are numerous. Your feelings about your client may change; you may begin to see that what appears to be a counterintuitive behavior or reaction on the part of your client is actually a result of their experience of abuse. You may adapt your approach to counseling your client to ensure that your words or attitudes do not replicate dynamics of power and control, and instead allow your client to define the goals and pace of the litigation. You may also recognize the limits of your role as attorney, and help your client find ways to get additional support during the difficult experience of navigating family court. All of these efforts can help you and your client develop a more trusting, productive relationship.

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1 Definitions of domestic violence and types of abuse are adapted from Casa Myrna’s Domestic Violence Training Curricula.


Katherine Schulte, Esq. co-manages the Legal Advocacy Program at Casa Myrna Vazquez, where she represents survivors of domestic violence in abuse prevention and family law matters. Prior to joining Casa Myrna, Ms. Schulte was a Supervising Attorney and Fellow at the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law where she co-taught the Domestic Violence Clinic and supervised the DVI’s medical/legal partnerships. Ms. Schulte is a member of the Boston Bar Association Delivery of Legal Services Steering Committee and an alumnus of the BBA Public Interest Leadership Program. She is also a member of the Women’s Bar Association and mentor for the Women’s Bar Foundation Family Law Project. Ms. Schulte is active in training and policy initiatives in the Greater Boston advocacy community, having co-founded a network of legal advocates for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and serving as Co-Chair of the Domestic and Sexual Violence Council. Ms. Schulte is a graduate of Boston College and Northeastern University School of Law, where she received her J.D. and L.L.M. in Experiential Legal Education.