How abusive men use texts to continue the abuse

Many women report that their ex-partners will continue to verbally and emotionally abuse them, after separation, using texts. Sometimes a woman will come in to an appointment with me and hand me her cell phone. We will scroll through the texts together and the pattern of abuse is clear. Sometimes the abuser may do what we call “honeymoon behaviour” in that he may seem kind and caring. He may acknowledge some fault or may even apologize. He may say that he is seeking help by going to see a counsellor. But later texts will be full of accusations (tension building) and then an explosion of some sort will happen. He will threaten to get custody of the kids or leave her financially devastated. This is the Cycle of Abuse, playing out over texts. Often the woman has not replied at all to the texts. He is just doing what he has always done, driving the Cycle of Abuse around and around.

This is hard on women. I see how women are exhausted and overwhelmed by the messages they are getting by text. Some women report receiving texts while they are at work or trying to parent. The texts can be seriously distracting, sometimes to the point of damaging the woman’s career or disrupting her ability to parent.

As an outsider, we might think it is simple – they should just block his number. And sometimes women find that they can block his number and that that helps. But for other women, they may need to be in touch because he has the children with him and text is the only way she will find out how the children are doing. Or she may also feel she needs to know where he is in the Cycle. Is he still in honeymoon or is he about to explode? She may be looking out for her safety by staying in touch with him. Some women have said, “If I block his number, he will just come to my house.”

While I never tell a woman what to do. (I let her be the expert on her life.) I do sometimes brainstorm with women how they might limit his contact with her by text. Maybe she can block his number. Maybe she can turn her phone off while at work. Maybe she can turn off her phone an hour before she goes to bed. (Sometimes abusive men will text things in the middle of night which deprives women of sleep.) I wonder aloud with the woman about what is possible and what might give her more peace.

I have been supporting women who have been abused by their partners for a long time. I actually think it is harder for women to exit abusive relationships now then it was when I started this work 18 years ago. Texting abusive messages is a powerful way for an abusive man to get at his ex-partner. Most of us carry our cell phones with us everywhere we go. It is, for women, like having their abusive ex-partner in their pocket all the time. I see women being worn down and confused by the constant stream of abuse that comes at them through their cell phones. I also see that there is no easy answer or no one answer that would work for all women. I do, however, think it is worthwhile encouraging women to consider if they can find some way to limit his contact.

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