Q: I left a very unhappy marriage just under a year ago. My husband is a drinker and he can be aggressive and violent. I left with my son, who is now five, after an episode of violence that my son witnessed, and went to live with my mother. His father has not been in touch much since then although he called to my mother’s house twice: she threatened to call the Garda as he became verbally aggressive. It was a very stressful and difficult time but my son and I are finally getting back on our feet.
Since I left I have been feeling much better and I realise how much my ex-husband intimidated me throughout our marriage and, although there was only sporadic violence, I was completely beaten down and controlled by him. Luckily I was renting with my ex-husband so, financially, living separately has been less complicated.
Recently, I received a solicitor’s letter saying my ex-husband is seeking shared custody and contact with our son and I am not sure what to do. I know he is his father, but I worry about his drinking and violence. I also dread the thought of having anything to do with him but would do it if it was best for my son.
A: Violence in the home leaves a terrible legacy for everyone concerned and the first priority should be safety for everyone. It is good that you had the courage to act and to move to a safer place.
As you indicate, the dynamics of intimidation and control that underpin violence and the threat of violence can be particularly emotionally damaging. Breaking the silence, acknowledging what is going on and seeking support are all important steps to moving forward.
Children having contact with a parent who has been violent
In incidences of domestic violence, the question of what ongoing relationship the parent should have with their children is complicated. A simple ban on contact is not necessarily in the children’s interest as this removes the possibility of healing and having a good relationship with their parent in the future. Also, such a ban can leave a lot of issues unresolved for children and they can build an unhelpful fantasy about the parent they don’t meet.
Sometimes they can idealise the absent parent, which can stress their relationship with the parent who looks after them on a daily basis. Further, they can interpret the fact that their father is excluded as meaning something is wrong with them, as they share 50 per cent of the genetics. Such fantasies can be grounded by some ongoing, ordinary contact with the parent.
On the other hand, simply agreeing to extensive contact with a parent who has been violent without addressing the issues of violence and ensuring safety can be harmful if it means the intimidation and violence continues.
What role your son’s father should have going forward
What role your son’s father should have in his life now depends on a number of factors. It centres on how much he is willing to take responsibility for the violence in the past, and how ready he is to be involved and take on a positive role as a father.
The ideal is that his father is willing to seek, or has already sought, help for his drinking and to manage his violence, and is prepared to move on constructively. The fact that he has now made contact via his solicitor should be seen as an opportunity to assess the above and to consider a restart to constructive contact, if it is possible.
For example, you could reply to his solicitor’s letter through your own solicitor, saying that you would welcome a constructive role for your son’s father, but you would first need to know that the violence and drinking problems have been addressed.
You would also need for the contact to start gradually and in a supervised way to ensure everyone is safe. You could also ask for an initial stage of mediation to happen and/or for his father to attend specialist counselling before anything is agreed.
Seek specialist advice and support
In your situation, I would suggest you seek specialist legal advice and support before responding to his letter (legalaidboard.ie; aimfamilyservices.ie; parentline.ie). It is likely to be difficult to deal directly with your son’s father so do get support around this. There are some specialist family counselling agencies that could help you. Some of these agencies, for example RelationshipsIreland.com, might be able to help you mediate with your son’s father.
For example, they might meet you first and then invite his father into the process so that you can make an agreement about what is best for your son. A skilled therapist should ensure that the issues of violence are kept to the fore and correctly dealt with and that safety is what is prioritised. Additionally, your solicitor and legal services should be able to advise you on your range of options moving forward.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.