University of Missouri Extension

GH6608, Revised April 2007

Domestic Violence and Divorce

Cycle of violenceAnn Huey
Jennifer Hardesty
Kim Leon
State Extension Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies

There are four types of domestic violence:

The abuser's need for power and control is often woven through many domestic violence situations, regardless of the type of abuse.

Power and control

There are many different ways that abusers may try to control their partners. They may:

Following break-up or divorce, abusers may:

These actions intimidate and control partners until they are afraid to ask for help. Many abusers also isolate their partners from family and friends so they feel that there is nowhere to turn when they do decide to seek help.

Cycle of violence

Domestic violence tends to follow a specific pattern over time called the "cycle of violence." The cycle of violence has three stages:

During the tension-building phase, abusers often verbally harass their partners. They are afraid that their partners will leave them and they become more possessive, jealous, and aggressive. During this phase, partners may do anything to try and keep the peace. They are very nurturing and go along with whatever the abuser wants. Some victims may try and set the abusers off in order to get the abuse over with. Partners often make excuses for abusers' behavior during the tension-building phase.

The second phase involves acute battering. Abusers are extremely unpredictable and often seem to be out of control. Abusers blame their partners for the abuse and may fail to confine their abusive behavior to the home. Abuse may not necessarily be physical. It can involve humiliation or intimidation as well. Partners are left to passively accept the abuse and often minimize the abuse to themselves or others who may question them.

The last phase is often referred to as the honeymoon period because abusers are calm, loving and apologize for their actions, promising their partners that "it will never happen again." Partners often feel guilty about possibly leaving the abuser. They often hope that the abuser will change.

Over time, the tension-building and honeymoon stages get shorter and the battering increases. This pattern results in battering incidents that become increasingly longer and more severe.

This cycle works to keep partners in abusive relationships by controlling them. Partners hope that abusers do not mean to harm them and will change. Secrecy, fear, lack of opportunity, and low self-esteem all combine to make leaving an abusive partner extremely difficult. Leaving may also be difficult because abusers often escalate violence in order to keep their partners in the relationship. If abusers detect that their partners may leave, their partners' risk of injury or death increases.

Child protection and custody issues

Getting an attorney
Many abused women fear losing custody of their children to their abusive husbands. If any aspect of the custody arrangement or visitation is being disputed, get an attorney.

Domestic violence cases involve complex issues (such as, power and control dynamics, fear). Try to find an attorney who understands domestic violence and has experience with domestic violence divorce cases. To locate an attorney, ask:

Be sure to ask about attorneys who offer their services at a reduced fee or on a no-charge (pro bono) basis. Sometimes they give preference to victims of domestic violence.

Representing yourself
If custody arrangements and visitation are being disputed and you cannot afford an attorney, you can represent yourself in court. Seek out expert advice from local domestic violence programs, law school legal clinics, and the state bar association. To reduce the costs of representing yourself, ask the court to waive fees you are unable to pay. Only represent yourself if you have no way of getting an attorney.

Protecting yourself
Whether or not you are representing yourself in court, you should keep copies and records of the following:

These documents may be necessary when going to court over custody arrangements or visitation. You may also need them if there are future incidents of abuse or motions to modify custody or child support.

During the divorce process, you may have to make a number of decisions about the future of your children. There is a great deal of emphasis by the courts on cooperation between divorcing parents. Remember, however, that mediation and joint custody arrangements can be dangerous for survivors of domestic violence and their children. You can ask the court to waive mandatory mediation because you are a victim of domestic violence.

Don't assume that mothers are favored in custody disputes. Sometimes courts favor the friendly parent, or the parent who seems most cooperative, so avoid making negative statements about your former spouse during the divorce process. Instead, focus on what is best for the children. However, it is still important to let the courts know about the abuse because it does bear on what is in the best interests of the children.

Whether represented by an attorney or yourself, learn more about these issues. You have a right to justice and safety!

If you develop a post-divorce parenting plan with your children's other parent, be specific. Don't assume your former spouse will cooperate because he or she promises to or is being nice during the divorce process. Get in writing what is expected of each of you in your new roles and what steps will be taken if there is a need to change the plan.

When making these decisions, think about the long-term well-being of your children. Many survivors of abuse just want to get the divorce over with so they can move on with their lives. In doing so, they compromise the safety of themselves and their children. Avoid compromising out of fear or for the sake of getting it over with. However, it is still important to take your safety seriously. Do not hesitate to go into protective custody or a shelter and to get an escort to court and elsewhere.

Safety during an abusive incident

There are some important things you can do to protect yourself during an abusive incident:

Safety when preparing to leave

Being prepared to leave an abusive situation can be the difference between success and failure:

Co-parenting after divorce

If you have continued contact with your children's other parent as a result of the custody arrangement or visitation, consider the following ways to ensure the safety and well-being of you and your children:

Some symptoms that are commonly reported by people who have experienced domestic violence are:


Safety is the first priority in domestic violence situations. There are steps you can take to protect yourself and your children. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE, a local shelter, or any resource organization.


We extend our thanks to Sandi Lillard, MSW, LCSW, coordinator of parenting services, ParentLink, for reviewing this guide.


GH6608 Domestic Violence and Divorce | University of Missouri Extension

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