Are you triggered by his communications?
Such a common issue in post-separation abuse is that women are often ‘triggered’ by text or email exchanges with their former partner who is still seeking to abuse them. The ideal situation once the relationship with an abusive man has ended, is to walk away and never communicate with him again. It’s often, but not always, the sharing of children that forces women to have on-going communication with their abuser.
With written communications by text, WhatsApp, email or letter, women are often seriously ‘triggered’ to be fearful and anxious. The words might be overtly hostile and angry, or sometimes more calculatingly covert and subtle. On occasions the written communications might be perfectly polite and reasonable – abusive men are highly practiced at turning the abuse on and off, the intermittency a deliberate attempt to confuse. And even when there is no hostility in the message, just the notification ping that a message has arrived can induce fear and panic in the survivor before the message is even opened.
“My phone was like an unexploded bomb waiting to be detonated. Not knowing quite when his messages might arrive induced in me a weary, apprehensive anticipation. Sometimes I’d silence it, but I’d feel forced to check, just in case it was my elderly mother needing assistance. I felt tempted to smash it, but I knew that wouldn’t solve the problem either.
“When I heard the ping of a text, my body would be flooded with panic. My heart would race and my palms would feel sweaty. Often his messages would be innocuous, but I’d read his words as anxiously as if he was being hostile. Just the reminder of him triggered intense feelings in me that immediately transported me back to past times when I lived in constant fear. Following a message from him, I would feel the need to ‘bury’ it immediately by messaging 6 of my friends to say ‘how are you?’ just so that I couldn’t see his name on the first page of my WhatsApp screen.
“I felt physically safe since we’d separated, my sister dealt with handing over the children, but my phone was destroying my life and I had no idea how to eliminate his continued toxic influence.”
Mia’s experience is very common in the women I support. Whether the communications are openly hostile, sarcastic, blaming or even non-offensive, women regularly suffer a huge amount of anxiety when dealing with such messages in the context of post-separation abuse. Even when the messages aren’t hostile, just the reminder of him can trigger a very strong emotional response that can take all day or even longer to recover from. When ‘nice’ messages are sent amongst the hostile ones, women can feel conflicted and begin questioning if he really was abusive – this can lead to self-blame.
There is much that can be done to lessen the negative impact for women. These are some of the strategies that have helped women that I support:
Remember that you control your emotions, not him. Many women that I support believe that their perpetrator has caused their anxious response to his messages. It’s important that we acknowledge the control or potential control we have over our emotions and don’t wrongly credit him with control he does not have. Being ‘triggered’ to feel stress can become an automatic response to seeing his text, but it is possible to disrupt this response and regain control of our emotions. We need to acknowledge that we have the ability to choose to respond differently, it is within our control. He may be providing the trigger by sending the message, but we are generating the stress response, not him. Just knowing and acknowledging that we have this control within us may help us to find a new, less anxious way of responding to his messages.
Grounding techniques. Grounding is a practice that can be used at times of high stress and anxiety. It helps us to focus on the present and away from anxious thoughts, predictions or traumatic memories of the past. Grounding should help us to create distance from distressing thoughts and feelings. There are a huge variety of grounding exercises, for example: concentrate and focus on our breathing; hold ice cubes in both hands and concentrate on the sensation; pick up an item and focus on it completely; feel our heartbeat, the list goes on. It helps some women to practice grounding prior to opening messages from their perpetrator. This can help them to reduce anxiety and feel more in control. As with all techniques I am offering, practice is key, and trial and error is sometimes needed to find a grounding exercise that works well for you.
Do you need to answer his messages straight away, or at all? If you’re receiving hostile messages, is there a need to respond? If receiving numerous messages, could you send just one reply much later in the day? Consider leaving a time lapse before responding to anything. It’s for you to control the pacing of your response, not him.
Act as a ‘grey rock’ in written communication so as not to ‘feed’ his abuse. It is worth keeping all emotion out of written communication. Remember that your abuser will delight in your distress, so not communicating that you’re distressed may frustrate him. In the best case scenario he may stop trying to cause you distress if he repeatedly gets an unemotional and indifferent response, although many abusive men will continue to abuse whatever the response to their abuse. However reading his messages and responding in a non-emotional manner might have benefits for you too. Remaining calm in your response, however difficult this may be should help you to control your emotions when communicating with him. This may also help you to manage your anxiety better.
Limit his communications to email only. Women are often troubled by the constant pinging of text and WhatsApp messages on their phone. Although emails can come with notifications, most people find it easier to silence them. Could you consider restricting his communication to emails only? This strategy works well for some women.
Use a co-parenting app. If your communications are related to child arrangements, the use of a co-parenting app can be helpful if your perpetrator is prepared to agree. This can help reduce hostilities because communications cannot be edited or deleted once sent, and can be downloaded to be produced in court if necessary. Examples of co-parenting apps include ‘amicable coparenting’ and ‘weparent’.
Do you visualise him when reading his messages? Many women do. What image do you create in your mind’s eye? When I ask this question to the women I support, the answer is often – angry, with a sarcastic curl of his lip, big, scary, sneering. Because of the strong emotions our abuser will provoke, the image might appear more frightening than he looks in reality. Because we create these images ourselves, it is well within our capability to change the image to make him less frightening. We might choose to shrink him, make him black and white, make him look stupid or ridiculous. We might think about his vulnerabilities and imagine them showing. One women I supported turned her perpetrator into a muppet in her mind’s eye and this reduced her anxiety when she read his emails. Not everyone can do this, you need to be visual and have the ability to think in pictures, however if you do visualise him as you’re reading his messages, you should have the power to change this image into one that is less threatening. It takes practice, but it’s worth persevering as it should help you to read his communications with less anxiety. It’s all within your control.
What voice do you use when you read his messages? When I ask women this question, they will often reply that he is shouting, sounding sarcastic or just talking normally but this is difficult for them to ‘hear’. As with the image, if we have imagined what he sounds like when reading his messages, if we are reading the messages in his ‘voice’, then we can change this ‘voice’ in our heads, it’s within our control. Less triggering voices might be high pitched, weak, or the voice of a cartoon character. Changing his ’voice’ in this way can make his messages less threatening and may help us manage our anxiety better.
You could change his name in your mobile. If you have children with your perpetrator, this strategy might not be appropriate as they may be offended by his name change. You may also think twice before doing this if you may need to take screen shots of his messages to show to the police or Social Care. If seeing your perpetrators name fills you with dread, then why not change it to another name for him that is less triggering? I won’t tell you the names that women I’ve supported have used, but if you pick something that may remind you how pathetic he really is, this may help you. You may also choose to create an image for him that pops up with his messages that might also diminish him.
When to consider reporting the abuse to the police. It might be that his messages constitute a criminal offence. A more serious offence might be threats to kill. Any threats of this nature are serious and the police should investigate. To prove the offence of threats to kill, firstly it’s necessary to prove that the threat was issued, secondly, that the perpetrator intended the victim to believe the threat might be carried out. It can be difficult to prove someone’s intention, and unless he admitted in police interview that he intended her to believe the threat, it would be unlikely the matter would be progressed to court. However with a serious threat such as this, it’s as well that the police are aware and have at least recorded the incident.
A more common offence that may come about from the sending of abusive or harassing messages, is the criminal offence of harassment. Harassment is when someone behaves in a way that is intended to cause alarm and distress, and it must happen on more than one occasion. A more serious form of harassment is putting someone in fear of violence. With both forms of harassment, the ‘reasonable person test’ is used. The court would decide if a reasonable person with the same information would consider the communication or act harassing.
In my experience the police will often not act on reports of harassment initially. It often takes several reports before they are prepared to take action against the perpetrator. The action taken might initially be in the form of a verbal warning, however if the harassment is ongoing, it can be worth making ongoing reports to the police who may eventually deem it serious enough to take action.
Women are often dismayed by the response of the police to their complaints, and this might discourage some women from reporting abuse. But it’s worth remembering that particularly in serious circumstances, a report should be considered. It’s generally only the police who can progress criminal offences to court, private prosecutions are rarely practical, and it’s only courts that can impose prison sentences and Restraining Orders.
Civil action to address hostile communications. A non-molestation Order is a civil order that can protect you from someone who is being violent, but it can also protect against pestering intimidating and harassing behaviour. If granted, the wording of the order will vary depending on individual circumstances and what is necessary to protect the applicant, but it can include prohibiting someone from written/text/email/phone communication with the applicant. If this order is breached, the breach constitutes a criminal offence, so the police become involved. Breaches of non-molestation orders can result in prison sentences. If you share children with your perpetrator and the children have contact with him, it might not be appropriate to ban all communication with him. But orders might direct that communication is by email only and just in relation to child contact, or it might be that all communication must be through a third party.
When women I support are being subjected to post-separation abuse, I initially work with them to identify practical steps they might take in an effort to improve the situation, such as reporting abuse to the police, applying for a Child Arrangements Order or asking a third party to intervene to communicate with the perpetrator when this is necessary. Once all reasonable practical measures have been considered or taken, the problem sometimes remains on-going. The next stage is for women to develop strategies for managing their emotions around the ongoing abuse. This isn’t always an easy process and it can take a lot of practice to learn new ways of thinking and responding, however it can be highly effective and give women a resilience that will serve them well in many other situations too.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”- Viktor Frankl
Published 12 February 2023