How does one document emotional and verbal abuse?
August 28, 2014 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to get an idea of how to document emotional abuse. My sister is in an abusive relationship and I am of the opinion that separation is not the worst idea. I am at my wit's end trying to figure out what to do to help my sister.

My sister is in a very unhealthy marriage. We are an Indian/Hindu family and my sister is in an arranged marriage. They (and I) are in California and since they emigrated when she didn't have a visa and later on had kids(girl now 5; boy 5 mos), she never worked here. We are all permanent residents now.

There was a lot of friction in the relationship over the years but being the 'good' Indian wife, she took everything in her stride. The main bone of contention was the relationship with each others' families. My sister had a baby a few months ago and my mother was here to help out. As part of the ceremonies of having a new born, she had a prayer function to which he took offense that his side of the family (none of whom live in the same town) were invited while my cousins (who do live in the same town) were invited. One thing led to another and he called our mother names. They had a huge fight. My sis is prone to anxiety attacks and she had her most recent one that night. ERT personnel were involved, anti depressants were prescribed and so on. This is a typical kind of fight they have.

1.He belittled her many times before, called her a bad parent and in fits of anger did ask her to get out leaving the kids to him.
2.He diagnoses the root of the problems to her being unemployed. When she did find part time jobs, he ridiculed the jobs she was willing to do.He earns at least twice as I do and probably 4x what she would make if she worked.
3.I have never seen him talk but bark.
4.He lies when well meaning elders sit down to hash out details of their arguments. I don't know if this is a form of gaslighting.

The issue is that we were oblivious of the fact that this was considered abuse and domestic violence. She is scared of the fact that he could get the kids (the daughter of course is who she's most worried about) if she doesn't back down given the fact that she doesn't have any means to support them. Also complicating matters is the fact that my niece just started school and I am worried if the disruption of school is going to affect her side of the argument. After reading through what I could find, there's no doubt she's a victim of emotional abuse. Now I want some way to officially prove this. Thankfully, there hasn't been any physical violence. If this does lead to divorce, I want my sister to get preferential custody. How do I build a case for this?

Any help is greatly appreciated. We all live in the SF bay area if that detail helps...
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Documenting" is pretty much just writing down what happened, as if a third-party observer were recording the observable facts. (So, "He called her a bitch and slammed the door" is good; "He was really mean to her and she was upset" is less good.)

Unfortunately, most law-enforcement agencies can't or won't do much about emotional abuse, so it's almost impossible to get restraining orders or document any breaking of laws -- because emotional abuse doesn't, actually, break any laws.

What often complicates custody cases in abusive relationships is that the abuser tends to come across as very calm, cool, and collected while the abused partner is frantic and frazzled and at her wits' end, and so the judge tends to favor the person who "looks rational," which tends to be the abuser. The more you or your sister can document actual observable facts, the better. (And if you are documenting things without her cooperation, you should be as transparent as possible about how you gathered the information and from whom. "My sister said that XYZ happened. I noticed that her children were fearful because they were hiding from me, which they normally don't do. The neighbor pulled me aside and told me she heard yelling last night.")

The best way, however, for your sister to protect her interests and to get custody is going to be hiring a very good lawyer. If you think it's going to come to that, researching lawyers for her will likely be helpful.

In the meantime, though, be as absolutely supportive of her own judgment as you can. Abuse eats away your confidence in yourself, and additional people telling you that you're making bad decisions only reinforces the belief that you're a fuck-up. Tell her you love her, tell her you you support her, and do that. Point out that what her husband has said is inappropriate when it is, but let her know you will support any decision she makes, even if that decision is to stay with him right now. It will be most helpful to her to know that she has people who love her who will not abandon her no matter what.
posted by jaguar at 8:56 PM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Has your sister expressed that she needs or wants your help?

A great lawyer is a good place to start strategizing a separation and divorce, but your sister is going to have to want to seek a divorce, first.

Nothing you've written indicates your sister is ready to fight for her freedom, ready to fight for her children, and willing to fight for their collective right to a safe and sane home life.

Will she see a counselor or therapist in the meantime? maybe she can read a book or some blogs written by other women in her situation to help her get some perspective on her situation?

Maybe they can start seeing a marriage counselor together? Perhaps her husband will come around if they start seeing a marriage counselor together??


You're kinda inserting yourself into their marriage, and while I understand that you want to help your sister, you're going to need to tread lightly. I don't think if you try to instigate a split or a divorce right now that you will be successful. Even though you mean well. The odds are high this will backfire in dramatic fashion.

It's also complicated that your sister has required emergency intervention and medical attention for her emotional problems. That won't be a good look in front of a judge in terms of custody, I think.

I'm not saying this couple isn't in trouble. Clearly they need some kind of serious help.

Having a newborn is really really tough on both parents. I suggest you give both your sister and her husband all the practical support you can for the short term and drop this temptation you are having to escalate what is already a stressful situation.

I'm going to respectfully suggest you pick this subject up again in a month or two. In the meantime, see if family can pitch in and relieve as much of the childcare responsibilities as possible for these two.

I don't understand why your sister did not include her husband's family in this event. Was he excluded from the event, too? Is that normal for this type of event?

Your brother-in-law may well be an abusive asshole, but this sounds like they are having a tough time with a new born in the dynamic, and it seems like they are goading each other. For the time being, encourage non-engagement and lend all the practical childcare support you can.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:44 PM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify...

A great lawyer can help spin your sister's medical care into something that helps her case. I'm not implying your sister is to blame.

I'm directly stating that this is "heat of the moment" stuff, and if you want to be of help, get your sister to take the right steps:

- Respite child care help so she has time to process
- Education about her situation
- Therapy, jointly or alone
- Then if all else fails, seek legal assistance via an excellent divorce attorney.
posted by jbenben at 9:49 PM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maitri is a Bay Area based resource for women from India and other South Asian countries who are facing abuse. They have a free helpline - 1-888-862-4874.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:48 AM on August 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

For any woman in an abusive relationship, let her talk, listen a lot. Make sure she has information about women's shelters and her rights. Keep your own notes about abusive treatment; you can keep a log in you email calendar. You can also note his behavior with the children. Talk to her about who she is and assure her of her value, parenting skill, etc. Help her get any mental health care she may need.
posted by theora55 at 10:54 AM on August 29, 2014

Just wanted to say, that just because your sister is unemployed, it doesn't mean that she has no means of support.

Her husband may be asked to support her, and the children during their seapration. He'll always need to pay child support if she's the custodial parent, no matter HOW much she makes.

The best plan is to see out specific advice for her situation, such as cultural resources like Maitri and a good divorce lawyer.

Your sister may be catastrophizing her situation due to depression and anxiety. She has many options.

If he's unhappy, he may welcome a chance to separate and he may want your sister to have custody of the children for a myriad of reasons.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:57 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

"He called her a bitch and slammed the door" is good; "He was really mean to her and she was upset" is less good.

This is right. For context, I'm an attorney with relevant experience. Obviously I am not your attorney, OP, nor am I licensed in California. There are a number of resources for legal aid or attorney referrals in California. You should also research domestic violence resources. Whether or not your sister is ready to get help, you may be glad to get a sense of what exists, and the list may prove useful when she is ready.

To return to your specific question—"How does one document emotional and verbal abuse?"—the first answer is right. You want to note facts ("He called her a bad parent," etc) and not characterizations ("He belittled," "he ridiculed," etc). If you are at all familiar with creative writing, you will recognize the adage, "Show, don't tell." That's the relevant principle, except here it's about credibility. If you characterize, you require your audience to trust your judgment: what do you really mean by belittle or ridicule? If you just present facts, your audience can see for themselves.

If your sister isn't willing to do this, you can do it yourself. Document what you see and what she tells you. (You may have heard the term hearsay. Don't worry about it.) It may be unpleasant to do, you may end up with voluminous material, and it may ultimately prove fruitless. But here's what I can tell you. In my experience, it is often revelatory for an abuse victim to hold papers in her hand and to see her abuse documented as facts and dates. Not email. Paper. And I'm not telling you to do this. I am merely saying that in my experience, it often has an effect. You can help a person to make a list herself, or you can just write down what you're told over time and present that to her. It is intervention.

I'm sorry for your family's difficulty. I hope your sister is safe.
posted by cribcage at 12:25 PM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

We have a Women's Center here that provides shelter and assistance for women and children involved with domestic violence and when a friend of mine was living with a controlling bully whom she couldn't please and who kept her in a state of fear of making a mistake or not taking good enough care of him or whatever, I talked to the women at the shelter for advice. My friend was firmly convinced that her partner was right and she was stupid and clumsy and no one would put up with her except this partner, so she wasn't interested in leaving him.

The shelter gave me a checklist to give to her that was a very simple yes/no/sometimes type of thing with only about 20 questions, designed to show exactly how much the person's life was being controlled. There's probably something similar on the internet and I'd really highly recommend it. For one thing, it preserves her privacy, and that's important, but it also is so well designed that these women read the questions and find themselves answering yes to every question and they're dumfounded to learn that the pattern is very similar for all people living that terrible life. Instant insight.

The only problem with it is - and this is serious - that if she's in any physical danger from this partner, the questionnaire should not fall into his hands. Maybe you could take her to lunch one day and give her the document and then go to the restroom or something and let her run through it privately but away from her abusive husband?

I'm so sorry she's in this situation and sorry for you, as well - it's very, very hard to see someone you love in this mess.
posted by aryma at 11:37 PM on August 30, 2014

« Older This puppy has everything she needs, except a name...   |   Surviving a 6-month camping trip Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.