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I Will Destroy You if You Leave Me,” or Words to That Effect.

One of the great and continuing tragedies often played out in Family Court is one party’s pledge to “destroy” the other if he or she chooses to leave the relationship. Sometimes that is just an empty threat, one party’s desperate attempt to induce the other to stay – most often, once the relationship is over, the threatening party doesn’t take any steps to carry out his/her evil plan.

Sometimes the threatening party, however, really does intend to destroy the escaping spouse. The threats can be as simple and non-specific as “I’ll destroy you” and “I will take everything you have.” Concerning, yes, but non-specific. Increased specificity yields a higher threat level, as discussed below.

“I will never pay you a dime of support and you’ll be homeless.” Common threat. Not so common in execution. You see, the difficulty with following through on that is twofold: First, a spouse cannot just refuse to pay if he/she has any means of employment or bank accounts. The courts have various methods of enforcement that make it very difficult indeed for a law-abiding person to just not pay. Second, because of those methods of enforcement, the threatening spouse pretty much has to be willing to destroy him/herself financially to successfully follow through on that threat. For the threatening spouse, visions of the future ex on the streets are well and good… but the vision of seeing oneself on the street is quite daunting. Some spouses have followed through with this threat by utterly destroying their own careers and financial lives – but not many. Most often this is, as I said above, just a tactic to keep the spouse who wants to escape from doing so. He/she can seem quite convincing when they’re just talking. The act of self-destruction is far more difficult to execute.

Often we have a client telling us that their partner “says I will never see my kids again.” That’s most often completely a bluff – until it’s not. When you are hearing that you’ll never see your kids again, and your spouse is saying “I will tell the cops you…” Then we have a significant problem. These “I’ll tell the police” threats are too easy to carry out and indicate an intent to escalate – sometimes leading to criminal charges that are difficult and expensive to defend. Language where a spouse is telling you that “you’re abusive” is the first sign that you have a problem. Watch for escalation – and watch closely. “I’ll tell the police you beat me.” “I’ll tell the police you raped me.” This can be coupled with anything from attempts to provoke a physical fight, up to and including hitting herself with a frying pan in the face while a shocked (and innocent) spouse looks on – and is then arrested, because of course no one would hit herself in the face with a frying pan.

I had a client whose wife went so far as to stab herself deeply in the stomach with a steak knife. My client (a few days before he became my client, actually) called for an ambulance and, yes, he went to jail when she told the officers that he had stabbed her. Our client ended up with sole legal and sole physical custody of the children, but only after an expensive, lengthy and painful court proceeding. I won’t disclose the evidence that saved him from losing everything, including his kids and his freedom – but it was evidence, and it was admissible, and it convinced not just the police, but also the Family Court Judge.

Other specific threats are along the lines of “I will take the children to [name a country] and you’ll never get them back.” This is a PROBLEM and if that is what you are hearing, get an attorney as soon as you can – before letting your partner know he or she is about to become your ex. While there are ways to recover children from many countries, you need to know that some countries will NEVER return a child to a parent who is not a citizen of that country (or to a parent who is not the father of the children). You also need to know that it is far easier, and far less expensive, to prevent a parent from wrongfully taking your child than it is to get that child back.

And then we have capital threats. “I will kill you before I will let you leave me.” “I will kill the kids before I let you take them away.” That’s really bad. It’s getting specific. “I will shoot you in the head if you try to leave me.” Now the threatening spouse is having fantasies, ideations of following through on the threat. Ideations generally mean harm is imminent. Get out. Take the kids. Leave the house, go to a public place, call the police. The officers will be able to direct you to an appropriate shelter (yes, even if you are a man). If you don’t want to call the police alone, call an attorney – who may then help you contact the police.

If you have financial resources, family, or friends, you may not need to go to a shelter, and may not wish to do so. Wherever you go, before going to your bolt hole, ensure you have disabled any tracking programs on your phone – better yet, ditch the old phone and get a go-phone, one the threatening spouse has never seen or touched. You may also want to ensure that there’s no tracking device on your car, because those are getting increasingly less expensive and increasingly easier to employ. Yes, they are – in the past year I have had multiple cases in which this has been an issue.

All of the above is presupposing that you haven’t been physically abused prior to the escalation of threats. Believable threats are actionable abuse in today’s legal environment; and they often escalate to physical abuse.

If you’ve been threatened, if you have been abused, if your kids have been abused or threatened with harm, get out. Call the police. Call an attorney. If the police tell you they don’t have enough to arrest the threatening spouse, for sure call an attorney. The burden of proof for the police is “beyond reasonable doubt.” The burden of proof for a domestic violence restraining order is “preponderance of the evidence.” If the police cannot help you, most probably a good attorney can.