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How is the process of leaving an abusive marriage different?

Safety is always the top consideration. We always screen for domestic violence and other safety issues, such as threats of violence, substance abuse and mental health issues that are not well controlled.

The typical steps that are taken in a regular family case, such as first contacting the other party and suggesting an amicable separation process, are often not appropriate where there is physical or sexual abuse. If there is a clear risk to safety, only the courts can issue a restraining order. In urgent situations, a court can consider an emergency motion, which is often brought to court without notice to the other party (sometimes called an ex-parte motion). For example, a court has the power to order temporary custody of children, exclusive possession of the matrimonial home, make restraining orders to keep the other party away from the spouse and children, and to order the police to help enforce these orders. The orders are generally granted on a very temporary, without prejudice basis, which means that another court date will be scheduled, usually within a week, to give time for court papers to be served and allow the other party a chance to be heard.

Even when there is no immediate risk to physical safety, such as when there is verbal, emotional or financial abuse, certain ways of resolving cases may not be appropriate. Mediation, which involves both parties trying to resolve their issues with a neutral third party, doesn't work well if there is a power imbalance and if the abused spouse is too intimidated to speak openly. In some cases, if the parties shouldn't be in the same room together, we may need to have settlement meetings where lawyers are able to meet in the same room, while each party has there own separate conference room, or where settlement discussions take place by telephone conference.

Having a good support system is important for anyone going through a separation, but it is especially important for someone who has been in an abusive relationship. Safety planning is crucial. It's also important to have good sources of emotional support. Control is often an element of abusive marriages and relationships, and it can be challenging to regain independence and confidence.

Another difference with abusive marriages and relationships is that we do NOT encourage reconciliation. If a couple does wish to reconcile, we strongly recommend that the abusive spouse receive counselling specifically geared toward abusers first. Marriage/couples counselling is not appropriate until the abuser has dealth with his or her issues first. Reconciling too soon can cause some real safety concerns, both for you and for any children who may be exposed to domestic violence. In some cases, the Children's Aid Society may even get involved if they believe that a reconciliation puts children at risk.

If you are a women experiencing abuse, contact the Assaulted Women's Helpline:

In York Region, contact Yellow Brick House and other community resources here:

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