The following information varies somewhat by state and county. It is based on the author’s experience as a retired family lawyer, family therapist, family mediator, and interviewer of 16 domestic violence experts over 18 months.
Source: Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Shutterstock
How Common Is Domestic Violence an Issue in Divorce?
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, domestic violence occurs in up to 20 percent of all married and unmarried partners.1
Over a lifetime, “on average, more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the U.S. will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner,” according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.2 In family courts, also known as domestic relations courts, concerns about domestic violence may be raised in up to half of all separation and divorce cases.
What Is Considered Domestic Violence by Family Courts?
Each state has its own divorce laws, including its own definition of domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence), but these are similar across the United States. While it is usually considered physical assault by one partner against the other, it may also include other aggressive behavior such as stalking, harassing texts and phone calls, sexual assault, threats of violence, and controlling the other’s ability to: leave the home, make phone calls, spend time with friends and family, spend money, or even eat the food they want.
Such controlling behavior is often known as “coercive control,” which may or may not include actual physical violence. In California and possibly in other states, coercive control may be sufficient to get restraining orders even if there is no history of physical violence.
Domestic violence with coercive control appears to often involve Cluster B personality disorders (narcissistic, borderline, and antisocial) because research has found them to be associated with “domineeringness, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness.”3 However, family courts do not like to address the issue of personality disorders unless there has been a formal diagnosis.
What Will a Family Court Do About Domestic Violence in the Short Term?
Most family courts will consider making restraining orders or protective orders that require the restrained person to stay 100 yards away from the protected person, to have no phone contact, email or text, or other direct contact, nor allow contact through a third person (such as sending messages through a friend). The court will often issue a temporary order (TRO) at an emergency “ex parte” hearing even at the request of one party without the other party’s presence for safety reasons. Then, there will be a full hearing with notice to both parties, usually within two or three weeks.
Such a restraining order may also include minor children who live with the protected person. Family court judges do not always issue restraining orders, often based on how recent the violence, threats of violence, or coercive control has occurred and how serious the requesting person describes the incidents.
What Will a Family Court Do About Domestic Violence in the Long Term?
Most family courts can order an abusive partner to participate in some kind of weekly group treatment program for domestic violence, such as a 26-week or 52-week program. Generally, short-term anger management programs (six-12 weeks) are not considered strong enough to change domestic violence behavior in an intimate relationship. Even after a year-long program, perhaps 30 percent of those engaged in abusive behavior still do not show meaningful change, while 70 percent show some degree of progress.4
If children are involved, family courts can usually issue parenting plans that restrict an abusive parent’s contact in terms of limited parenting time, supervised parenting time, or even no contact with the children (usually temporarily). Even though children may not have directly observed violence and control between the parents, they usually know it has occurred and have been impacted by it. In reality, in the long run, parenting plans issued by family courts in domestic violence cases are similar to cases without domestic violence.
In some states, mediation of parenting plans out of court by a neutral mediator can include domestic violence cases, and in other states, these cases are not included in mediation. Research shows that many cases can be handled well in mediation, but some cases should not go to mediation and should only be handled in court.5
What if Allegations of Domestic Violence Are False?
At a full hearing on a restraining order, a judge must weigh the evidence to determine whether the allegations are sufficiently true to make ongoing protective orders. Both parties get to present their evidence, often including testimony about what has or has not occurred. In most cases, judges find sufficient evidence to grant protective orders, but in some cases, the judge determines there is insufficient evidence or that the allegations are false.
What if the Victim/Survivor Is the Male Partner?
While this occurs less often, men can be victims of domestic violence and coercive control and may be granted protective orders depending on the facts of the case.
This is very basic information. Domestic violence concerns have become a major area of law in separation and divorce cases, treating married partners and unmarried partners mostly the same way. Suppose you have specific concerns about domestic violence for yourself or someone you know. In that case, you should contact the hotline above or a family lawyer or family counselor in your county who can help. For general information about domestic violence in divorce, whether you are a professional or any individual, you can view any or all of the six videos we compiled from our interviews with 16 domestic violence experts on our website: HighConflictInstitute.com.
If you are in immediate need of assistance, contact the Domestic Violence National Hotline at 800-799-7233 or call your local police. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.