My story began in the summer of 1998; it’s hard to believe it’s been two decades. I had just finished my first year of university and was spending the summer away from home where I was going to school. My narc, Brian (name changed for privacy), worked with my sister and noticed me when I came in to visit with her one day. My sister invited me along one night when she and some co-workers were going out dancing after work. I fell for Brian’s charm immediately, and we were pretty much inseparable from that point until the end of our marriage.
I was 19 at the time. I had never had a serious relationship, and this man was sweeping me off my feet. Our first date was much like the closing scene from Pretty Woman where I looked down my apartment staircase and he was coming up with the biggest smile and bouquet of flowers I had seen in my life. It must have cost a fortune for his struggling student budget; and I didn’t even own a vase, let alone one big enough to fit this bouquet. I had no idea that this champagne taste on a beer budget gesture should have been a red flag. He opened up to me very early on in our relationship to tell me about his physically abusive father, who he hasn’t spoken to since he was 12-years-old, and growing up with a struggling single-mother in poverty. I grew up in a very close well-off family, in the country, and felt like I could show him the love and family-life that he missed out on growing up.
The years that followed, I was kept in this fog of love-bombing with romantic gestures, expensive dinners, surprise getaways, gifts; all while just starting out in life when most people are struggling to pay off student loans with entry-level jobs. I had some inheritance that I was happy to use towards the down-payment and furnishings for our first home. I was in this for the long-haul, so I had nothing to worry about. We were on the fast track to having the perfect, white-picket-fence life at 23-years-old. It wasn’t only me who was love-bombed though, all of my friends and my family were blinded by his charm as well so when I got pregnant at 24-years-old, we celebrated it.
It will be 13-years this summer that the rug was initially pulled out from underneath me. I had just returned to work a few months prior, after taking a year’s maternity leave with our daughter. We had just moved into our second home, using the equity from our first home to pay off Brian’s student loans and buy a second car for our family; Brian’s idea that made financial sense in the long-run for our family. Brian worked long hours trying to climb the corporate ladder quickly, so when he called me at work that Friday afternoon to let me know he got off work early, and will pick our daughter up from daycare, I was excited to get home and spend that Friday evening as a family. When I pulled into the driveway, and his car was not there, I didn’t have any cause for alarm, because maybe he had to run to the store for diapers or food. It wasn’t out of character for him to leave instructions for a romantic surprise in cards or letters, so when I saw a note thumb-tacked to our front door frame, I still didn’t think the worst. I was not far off in thinking that the envelope may contain instructions, because it sure did. That envelope contained his “Dear Jane” letter that blindsided me by telling me he was no longer in love with me and was leaving our marriage. It was a cold letter, blaming me for the failure of our relationship, telling me not to contact him, and leaving me with budgets I should follow for the next few months. He had dropped our daughter off at friends of mine asking them if they could watch our daughter that night because he “had a surprise” for me. It was a surprise alright; it was the last thing I saw coming.
Brian left at a time when my closest supports were scattered all over the country; my sister was in the middle of her honeymoon, my parents had just left on a 10-day vacation, my best friend was visiting her brother’s family and I didn’t know how to reach her (this was before the time when everyone carried cell phones). My white-picket-fence life had just imploded and the people who Brian knew I needed were not able to be there with me. Thankfully, the new friends we had only known for barely six-months at the time (the ones who were watching our daughter so he could “surprise” me) took me in that weekend, fed me, and made sure our 15-month-old daughter was taken care of while I slept. I couldn’t eat, but I slept and cried a lot. Other friends brought me meals so I was rarely alone and didn’t have to cook much in those early days. I am forever grateful for that!
I didn’t pause long to consider Brian’s financial gain in the timing of his leaving. Brian entered our relationship with no assets and a hefty student loan, and I entered with no debt, an inheritance and a car. When he left, there was no equity in the home we had just moved into, but he had a brand new car and just had his student loans paid off. Don’t get me wrong; I knew this was not a coincidence, but I had a daughter to take care of and a new direction to figure out, so when my lawyer told me what it would cost to get the value of my inheritance back, it didn’t seem worth it to fight for it, nor did I have the strength. The Brian I was married to was a completely different person from the Brian I was now dealing with and I did not feel I had the strength to fight this stranger who I was learning was so cold and intimidating. So I decided to pick up the pieces and focus on being the best single mom I could be. I agreed to joint custody with me being the primary caregiver and her dad getting every other weekend parenting time. I found a nice townhouse in our neighborhood, and tried to move forward. I wanted to be amicable because I truly wanted our daughter to have parents who put her needs ahead of their dislike for each other.
For the most part, the next few years went “okay”. There were definitely more red-flag moments that I chose not to pursue (like the midnight phone call from the woman he left me for and had been having an affair with while we were married), but I found it easier to just let it go and give Brian his way than to fight. I ended up getting pushed around a lot. When Brian didn’t want to be a dad, I didn’t push too hard; when he wanted time with our daughter, I ended up giving in. Brian knew I grew up in a family who was very anti-conflict and laid back, and he knew as soon as I felt conflict approaching, I’d back down and give him his way. He exploited this quality in me for a long time, and I allowed it to happen.
It wasn’t until I remarried many years later that his need for control over our daughter became more apparent. I attribute this to two things; our daughter was at an age where she was able to see his true colors and voice her opinions, and Brian grew jealous of our daughter’s close relationship with my current husband. Brian was also onto his second marriage (fourth victim) by this. It was around that time that our daughter was beginning to complain a lot about her dad’s abusive behaviors towards her and others. I was also learning that her dad was spending very little time with our daughter on his parenting weekends, and he never tried to contact her between his access time. When I tried talking to him about these things he would always have excuses, shift the blame, and play the victim.
Brian’s legal abuse started approximately six years ago when I informed him of my husband’s and my plan to move to a nearby suburb. When I brought up the move, I followed our Separation Agreement’s protocol by giving the required notice and discussing it with Brian before taking any steps forward. Our move would increase his travel time for access exchanges by approximately 15-minutes each way, but would have no impact on his parenting time with our daughter. Brian agreed in person, and even wished me luck when I mentioned there was a house we were interested in putting an offer in on, yet he refused to provide his consent in writing. He waited until he knew my husband and I were putting the offer in on our house before sending me a legal threat letter claiming he did not agree to our move, and if I moved prior to receiving his consent he will seek sole custody and primary residence; a complete contradiction to what he had discussed with my husband and I in person. We put in the offer anyway and purchased our home. Rather than seeing how moving to a quiet neighbourhood would benefit our daughter, Brian saw it as leverage. In order for him to provide consent to our move, he demanded that I sign an Amendment to our Separation Agreement that would reduce his child support, and provide a list of “rules” that I had to abide by. I knew he would scrutinize everything I did to try to accuse me of breaching that Agreement, so I did not agree to sign it as-is. I attempted to negotiate on some terms that would protect me and our daughter, but when I would make attempts to negotiate, he would bite back harder, adding more demands. Eventually he filed a Motion to enforce me to sign the Amendment, using a claim of parental alienation to manipulate the Courts.
When I was served that Motion five years ago, it was the first Affidavit I received in our eight years of being separated, but it was clear that he had been preparing for this for a long time. The Affidavit was 236-pages long and I had less than 24-hours to supply my responses to my lawyer. I had no idea how to respond to an Affidavit or what to include. I naively took my lawyer’s advice that we will just wholly deny the parental alienation allegations, and provided barely any evidence to support my blanket denials. That first time in court was horrible. I felt like a sitting duck. Brian and his lawyer were like machines. My ex was passing sticky notes to his lawyer to help with his arguments, while I just sat there listening to my lawyer’s weak arguments and unpreparedness for who he was up against. I can still see that court reporter glaring at me for being such an evil mom to alienate an innocent child against her loving father. I was not prepared for the shaming and emotional beating that a parent accused of alienation gets in Court, but I refused to show emotion.
The result of that day…I lost. I was ordered to sign the Amendment, and we were ordered to attend Mediation-Arbitration with the Mediator-Arbitrator that Brian and his lawyer chose. This would prove to be my next encounter with a different devil.
When we started working with our newly assigned Mediator-Arbitrator, I had just learned that Brian had lost his high-paying job and had drastically reduced his child support to 10% of what he had been paying for years; another one of Brian’s calculated moves. One of the terms that Brian modified in our Amending Agreement was how the child support clause was worded. It wasn’t until after he stopped paying that I learned that the verbiage that any Enforcement Agency required in order to enforce a child support value had been removed. Brian barely waited until the ink was dry on the Amending Agreement (three days) before I received a letter from his lawyer informing me he had lost his job three-months prior. That meant he filed the Motion I just described above, and attended in Court, knowing that this job loss would impact the Court’s decision on whether I should be forced to sign the Amending Agreement in its current form. He knew exactly what he was doing.
Over the course of our time working with the Mediator-Arbitrator, our M-A was aware of this calculated child support manipulation, he witnessed Brian being verbally abusive towards me, he saw that Brian would agree to something in a session and then go back on his word and have his lawyer threaten me, denying he had agreed in the first place, he saw the abrupt end to Brian’s second marriage, saw that Brian was living well beyond his declared income level, saw that Brian was making poor parenting decisions, yet I was regularly chastised in our meetings. I was chastised for not having financially prepared for the possibility that Brian wouldn’t meet his child support obligation and advised to get a second part-time job in addition to the full-time job I already had (meaning our daughter’s primary caregiver should have two jobs, before the non-custodial parent is advised to get a job; any job), I was asked to leave a meeting when I continued to advocate for our daughter’s voice instead of letting the Med/Arb and my ex control every decision that impacted our daughter, I was made to apologize to my ex for being too sensitive and for that sensitivity rubbing off on our daughter (but my ex was never made to apologize for any of the abusive behaviours that our Med/Arb witnessed). Mediation meetings were becoming so traumatic for me, and I was tired of being emotionally beaten down, but I was locked into a Mediation-Arbitration contract and they are hard to undo. The meetings had become so crazy-making that I didn’t know what else to do but to ask that our next meeting be recorded. The meeting was hell, and would turn out to be my last meeting with that Med/Arb. My ex arrived and requested that our daughter be removed from my care and will live with him full-time because he is concerned about her emotional well-being in my care. This was not on the agenda we agreed to when scheduling the meeting, but the Med/Arb entertained his request and set it for Arbitration. The puppet-master had orchestrated the perfect situation to make him feel powerful, and I hurt and broken. My ex got to sit back and soak it up while our Med/Arb emotionally abused and gaslighted me for two hours. The meeting is a blur, and I barely got a word in edgewise, but I remember repeating, “I’m just a normal mom” over and over. I left that meeting dazed and confused and wondering how the hell I’m going to turn this freight train around and protect my daughter’s world from being turned upside-down
As it turns out, Arbitrators have a lot of power, and it is extremely rare to have an Arbitrator removed from a case when you’ve entered into a Mediation-Arbitration Agreement. My lawyer at the time did not seem at all confident in filing an Injunction because the case law is simply not there to remove an Arbitrator. I turned to my supports at One Moms Battle and everyone urged me to get a new lawyer; I needed a pit bull. This would be my fourth lawyer in two years, and I knew it would give my ex something else that he could use against me. However, I met with the “Barracuda” lawyer I had heard was the best in our area, and I retained her on Christmas Eve of that year; the deadline to file the Injunction. That Christmas Eve was spent running between my old lawyer and new lawyer as they worked together to draft the Application and it was filed by 4:00 PM on Christmas Eve. I went home, took a deep breath, and had a strong glass of holiday cheer with my family!
I won that round. The judge ordered that our Mediator-Arbitrator be removed from our case, and found bias and unfair process. Not only did I win that round, but our case was precedent-setting where Mediation-Arbitration is relied upon in family law. In the words of my lawyer, that recording I requested was “gold”, and I don’t think that I would have been believed without it. That round was over, our daughter was still safe in my care, and hopefully our case will help protect other children from this Mediator-Arbitrator’s abuse. But I knew the war would continue.
After the removal of our Mediator-Arbitrator, Brian did not move forward with his claim seeking primary care of our daughter with the Arbitrator who had been assigned to replace our abusive Mediator-Arbitrator. He created a lot of chaos and confusion, but my lawyer was always on top of unraveling his manipulations. He was still paying next to nothing for child support but flaunting living in his penthouse condominium, driving a Mercedes Benz, traveling the world, and refusing the provide financial disclosure. So I filed an Application for child support to get an Order in place that could be filed with the Enforcement Agency. Not surprisingly, my ex retaliated with a claim for sole custody and primary residence. I did not think the Courts would even entertain his claim, because firstly, our Amendment directs us to Arbitration for custody issues, not Court. Moreover, I had documented abusive behaviors, he’s clearly evading his child support obligations, and I had recently found out that Brian had moved out of country and was only returning for access weekends with our daughter to create the illusion that he still lived here full-time. Turns out the Courts did entertain his custody claim.
I have lost every Motion since Brian filed for custody. My ex files Affidavits that are hundreds of pages long (the last one I received was 546-pages, including Exhibits), filled with unsubstantiated lies, manipulations and victim-playing of parental alienation. A claim of parental alienation, when paired with a convincing story-teller, has a lot of power in our Courts right now. My ex doesn’t even need to provide evidence to back up his allegations; the evidence that he does supply is manipulated, or taken out of context. I have had to develop a filing system to document emails, texts, his business activity, etc., even if I don’t know if it’s relevant in the moment, just in case I am accused of something down the road and something I’ve documented can disprove it. When I’m served an Affidavit, I usually have 48-hours if I’m lucky to go through his lies paragraph-by-paragraph, and respond to them with the truth WITH the evidence to back up the truth, in a way that is organized and clear so that my lawyer can then transfer that information into my reply Affidavits. The Court system is so overloaded. I am convinced that the judges who are making such critical decisions in our children’s lives are not reading the material that costs protective parents so much time, money, and tears. I have not only had to pay for my legal fees, but Brian has been awarded costs for each of his wins on top of my personal legal fees; the system is rewarding his abusive behavior.
So where are we now? Our daughter will be 14 this year. She has been refusing visitation with her dad for over six months, and has been ordered to attend reunification therapy as a result of her refusals. That will begin soon. We are in the final days of a Custody and Access Assessment that my ex requested and won in one of the Motions he filed. I have provided what I believe to be some clear pieces of evidence, including some very key witnesses, to our assessor to show that my ex is not genuine in his claim for custody, and uses our daughter as nothing more than a pawn in his game of power and control. This parental alienation claim is nothing more than an attempt to silence both my daughter and I. He doesn’t truly want custody of our daughter and everything that comes with that; he wants to punish me and control our daughter. I have little trust and faith that anyone in our legal system will see his behaviours as abusive. I have to hold onto hope that maybe, just maybe, there is a chance that this assessment is the missing piece in the puzzle that is needed to bring my daughter and I peace, but I’ve seen many go sideways.
You may be asking yourself, “If it’s that horrible, then why do you keep fighting?” Our legal system is set up in such a way that forces you to participate, and then blames you for participating by calling both of you high-conflict (the whole “It takes two to tango” myth). However, it only takes one abusive person to require two to participate; let me explain. Let’s say the Applicant is the abusive party. The Applicant files a sole custody claim with the Court, with a list of requests they are asking the Court to Order. The Respondent then has a few choices: A) Give the Applicant everything they are requesting in their Application and avoid Court and legal conflict altogether; B) Try to negotiate with the Applicant to meet somewhere in the middle; or C) Refuse to give the Applicant what he or she is requesting, organize your arguments to present to a judge who will make the decision for you and put it into an Order. When you are dealing with a Cluster B personality, option B does not exist because they cannot compromise. So you’re left with Option A or C. Imagine option A includes agreeing to a list of requests that includes moving your child away from their primary attachment figure, their neighbourhood, extended family, friends, community and general feeling of safety and security, and places your child with an abusive parent, in an unfamiliar home, new school and community, with no extended family nearby. Can you imagine the long-term mental health impacts that such a traumatic disruption in that child’s life would cause? Yet the Courts are making these decisions far too frequently. So, parents who have the financial means are left only with option C; enter the ring to protect your child.
Despite losing all but one of the legal battles in this ongoing war, somehow I have managed to protect our daughter from being a victim of the system when all the cards have been stacked against us. Our daughter is a teenager now. I got her safely to the age where her voice carries a lot of weight, which her dad will continue to try to silence through his parental alienation claims. She has been involved throughout the assessment process, which has not been easy for her, but she is bravely using her voice and defending her decisions and what is best for her. They say it takes a village, and she certainly has a village supporting her through this very stressful process. I am so proud of her strength and resilience.
My personal legal fees from the last five years of keeping my daughter protected have exceeded the value of the mortgage we took out on the house that we moved into five years ago, that started this war. But I am grateful, because I know a lot of families who have not been able to keep up with the legal fees that come with option C. My heart breaks for those families, and I will continue to speak out in hopes that more families don’t have to go through legal hell in order to give their children happy, safe lives. I ask myself all the time, “How did the pendulum in our legal system get so far off center that it is doing more harm to children than good? How did abuse of power and control become so misunderstood? How can propaganda be more powerful than logic and facts?” Maybe someday this won’t be the case
Parents hate to wish their children’s childhood away, but parents who are dealing with cluster B spouses and ex-spouses can’t help but look to the future when that abuser has no power over them anymore; when they can live and parent in peace. No more lawyers, no more social workers, no more judges or assessors; no more oppression from a powerful, but broken system. I feel I’m getting close; #Ijustwantpeace.