Can You Prove Mental Abuse in a Divorce?

Although emotional abuse does not leave scars on the body, it can be just as destructive as physical violence. Unfortunately, emotional abuse is not as easy to document as physical violence. That is why many victims of abuse hesitate to leave a bad marriage; they worry their claims will not hold up in court.

If you are considering divorce to leave an emotionally abusive partner, this is what you need to know.

What Constitutes Mental and Emotional Abuse?

Abuse takes many forms, and all are part of a larger effort to exert control over the victim. Physical abuse involves punching, kicking, choking, and other types of assault. Sexual abuse includes unwanted acts of a sexual nature. Emotional and verbal abuse are less obvious but are just as damaging as the other types of abuse.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, verbal or emotional abusive behaviors include:

  • Gaslighting
  • Acting possessive or jealous
  • Constant criticism, insults, or name-calling
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Attempting to control one’s appearance including hair, clothing, and make-up
  • Monitoring their victim’s activities without their knowledge
  • Threatening the victim, their family, friends, and even pets
  • Damaging their partner’s personal belongings

What Is Gaslighting?

Because what is known as gaslighting is such a common and pervasive pattern in emotional abuse, it is worth exploring in greater detail.

The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 stage play called Gas Light in which a husband repeatedly dims the gas-powered lights in the home. When his wife mentions that the lighting has changed, he denies it in an attempt to drive her crazy.

Gaslighting is a highly effective, and dangerous, form of emotional abuse that leaves victims questioning their own judgement, feelings, and sanity. A victim who is unsure about their own judgment and perceptions is easier to control and manipulate. After all, abuse is all about control.

There are five common gaslighting techniques abusers use to gain control over their victims:

  • Trivializing: Making the victim’s feelings, desires, and needs seem unimportant
  • Countering: Questioning the victim’s account of events, even when their memory is accurate
  • Blocking and diverting: Questioning the victim’s thoughts and recollections, changing the subject
  • Denial and forgetting: Denying promises they have made, pretending to forget things that have occurred
  • Withholding: Refusing to listen to the victim or pretending not to understand what they are saying

Gaslighting is a gradual process. It starts with a few comments here and there, and slowly becomes more frequent until the victim becomes anxious, depressed, and loses all sense of reality. That is when they become dependent on their abuser to define reality for them.

Victims of gaslighting have difficulty making decisions because they doubt their own judgment. They may often apologize to their abuser and wonder if they are being too sensitive. They tend to make excuses for their abuser’s behavior to friends and family.

Proving Emotional Abuse in a Divorce Case

Physical abuse is less challenging to document than emotional and verbal abuse. Cuts, bruises, and broken bones are obvious compared with the invisible scars of mental trauma. But if you are divorcing on the grounds of domestic violence, you need to show evidence of abuse.

First, document every incident of emotional abuse. Record events in a journal and use an app to download and save text messages. Never delete emails or dispose of letters from your abuser. Screenshot abusive social media posts as well. Some states allow victims to record phone conversations. They can often be the most effective form of evidence of verbal abuse.

Witness accounts are also valuable. Keep a list of any friends, family, or neighbors who were present during episodes of abuse. Make copies of documents and keep them in a safe location. Do not forget to share all evidence related to your case with your divorce lawyer.

Fault-Based Divorce in New Jersey

In New Jersey, married spouses can file for divorce on grounds of domestic violence. The law acknowledges that domestic violence takes many forms and does not always involve a physical assault.

According to the 1990 Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA), terroristic threats, harassment, and stalking are all considered forms of domestic violence, and potential grounds for divorce.

When a victim of domestic violence files for fault-based divorce, as opposed to no-fault divorce for irreconcilable differences, their abuser’s actions may have an impact on alimony. In some cases, they are required to pay more spousal support than they might have in a no-fault divorce.

Steps to Take if You Are a Victim of Emotional Abuse

It is not easy to take that first step to leave an emotionally abusive marriage, especially for a victim who has been gaslighted to the point at which they question their own sanity. If you are ready to leave, the first step is to make a plan.

  • Plan ahead: Exiting a violent relationship starts with advanced planning. Make a list of people you can reach out to in an emergency. Memorize their phone numbers in case your abuser takes your phone. Establish a safe word to use with those you trust so that you can alert them if you are in danger. Determine where you will go when you leave, whether that is at a family member’s home, with a friend, or to a domestic violence shelter.
  • Gather important documents. During the planning stage, it is also a good idea to start gathering all your important legal, financial, and medical records. That includes Social Security cards, birth certificates, bank records, insurance policies, and deeds and leases. Make copies and return the originals if you are concerned about your spouse finding out you are leaving.
  • Make safety your top priority. If you fear your spouse’s emotional abuse could potentially escalate to physical violence, take steps to protect you and your children. Assess your home for an escape route. Can you leave in a hurry if you must? Pre-pack a bag so you are ready to go at any time. Always contact the authorities if you are in immediate danger.

It is important to note that although these tips may be useful, they are no substitute for counseling and a legal form of protection such as a restraining order.

The Long-Term Impact of Mental Cruelty on a Person’s Health and Well-Being

It is incredibly courageous to divorce an emotionally abusive spouse. But even after you have left the marriage, the aftereffects of emotional abuse may linger. Research shows that emotional abuse can be just as harmful as physical abuse.

The long-term effects of gaslighting and emotional abuse can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Low self-esteem
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Social withdrawal

Some research even suggests that long-term emotional abuse may contribute to conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Getting Help after Verbal Abuse

Once you and your children are safe and you have begun the divorce process, be sure to get the support and assistance you need to overcome the cycle of abuse. A good friend, trusted family member, or support group can encourage you to share your experience without judgment.

A healthy lifestyle is another way to combat the effects of emotional abuse. A nutritious diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep help improve your mental and physical well-being. Because victims of abuse are often isolated from others, getting back out and being social can also be beneficial.

As you move forward in your healing journey, recognize the signs you may need to seek the help of a professional counselor or therapist. If you are having trouble sleeping or feeling especially anxious or depressed, ask your primary health care provider for a referral for a mental health specialist.

The American Psychological Association and both have online databases to help you locate a professional in your area.

Morristown Divorce Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C., Help Clients Experiencing Domestic Abuse 

The Morristown divorce lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C., understand the complex issues that come with a divorce that involves any form of domestic violence. We treat every client with care and compassion, while building the strongest case possible to protect our client now and in the future. To learn more or to schedule a free consultation, call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.