Louisa Whitney is an accredited family mediator and child inclusive mediator at LKW Family Mediation.  She practised as a lawyer specialising in family law for 12 years before realising that mediation felt like a more constructive way of working with separating couples.  In 2013 she set up LKW Family Mediation.  Louisa is also a Professional Practising Consultant training and supervising other mediators.  She also offers training for other family law professionals.  In 2021 she was shortlisted for Family Law Commentator of the Year in the LexisNexis Family law awards.  She has been featured in various newspapers and online publications.

Sara Davison, best known as The Divorce Coach, made a name for herself when she launched the UK’s first ever Breakup Recovery Retreat, now dubbed as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ which was also commissioned for a TV series with Sara starring as the expert.

In July last year, Sara launched the UK’s first ever specialist breakup recovery retreat; How to Divorce an Abusive Partner and Recover from a Toxic Relationship. Sara is a patron of registered UK domestic abuse charity, The Dash Charity, and works with individuals to empower those feeling helpless and overwhelmed with the critical tools they need to break free, so they can start their healing journey and redesign their lives.

Following the success of her Breakup & Divorce Coach Practitioner Accreditation Programme, creating created a global community coaching community of 180 Divorce Coaches spanning 13 countries and five continents, Sara founded the International Divorce Coach Centre of Excellence in 2021 and works with family lawyers and mediators, as part of this, offering a Master Practitioner Coach Training programme on what emotional abuse is and how to support people through it – with dual accreditation from Sara as well as The Dash Charity.

Louisa: I was delighted when Sara got in touch to talk about domestic abuse as this is a subject that I think needs a greater emphasis and training for all family practitioners.  Sara was keen to highlight the collateral damage of lockdown which saw a record spike in calls and messages to domestic abuse helplines with Refuge reporting a 61% increase between April 2020 and February 2021, recording an average of 13,162 calls per month.

As a family mediator I am always aware of how important my initial meetings are with each participant.  These initial meetings always take place individually so each party can share background information with me freely.  This is crucial in being able to make a proper assessment about whether mediation is safe and suitable.  I am very aware that with delays in the court systems many clients want to mediate – even in cases where there has been domestic abuse – because they’re often desperate to achieve a final outcome.   It is therefore crucial to make a proper assessment about whether mediation will enable a perpetrator to continue a pattern of abuse, or whether it might have an adverse effect on either party’s wellbeing.

I always want to get background on difficulties in the relationship and I’m particularly looking for examples of physical abuse, or emotional abuse or financial abuse.  Emotional abuse is usually categorised as cruel comments and continued negative put downs.  Financial abuse is where one party has been controlled financially such as not having access to money where needed.  I am also looking to understand if there have been examples of other control during the relationship. This might be where one party limited who the other party could see or even where they controlled what the other party wore.  Often parties are not aware of having been victims of abuse as this is just the way things have been in their relationship.

But I’m always aware that I don’t have all the answers and that I can always learn and understand more.  So I’m interested, Sara, to know if you have guidance on anything else that you think mediators should be alert to during those initial meetings?

Sara: Yes, these initial exploratory conversations are vital for drawing out any red flags. Emotional abuse can be very difficult to spot which is why is often goes misdiagnosed.  The important thing to understand is that it’s not a one-off incident; it’s a cumulation of incidents over a period of time and, quite often, your client may not even be aware it’s happening to them. As isolated incidents they may seem, to the untrained eye, relatively minor – rationalised as the perpetrator having a bad day or the victim being over sensitive. This is why it’s so often hard to prove in a family court. But when you stack all the incidents up together – that’s when you start to see what’s really going on and build a true picture of a client being ground down.

So many people don’t even know they are in an emotionally abusive relationship – they don’t understand it for what it truly is. I have clients who have been in these relationships for years and think it’s normal – and that’s the human instinct; we normalise it as a way of coping. And that’s what allows the abuse to breed – because otherwise we’d have to make some big and uncomfortable decisions.

Emotional abuse can also be cleverly disguised; for example, a client of mine was called “fatty bum bum” by her husband, which she thought was a term of endearment but of course it was designed to chip away at her self-esteem and made her worry about her weight. He’d give her back-handed compliments saying she was ‘so very brave’ for wearing dresses that showed her arms, adding that, that was what he loved about her.

Many people think that abuse doesn’t happen to “people like them”. Some will think it is all their fault and believe they are difficult to live with. They simply don’t recognise they are in an abusive relationship themselves and some will be embarrassed about their situation so will find it hard to open up. So, it is key that you can spot the signs of abuse.

For mediators, a good indication a client is trying to leave an emotionally abusive relationship might include:

  • Nervousness about being able to get a fair settlement
  • Not being able to talk to their ex about finances
  • Worrying excessively about their ex-partner’s reaction to everything
  • Apprehension about being in same room as their ex
  • Being overly compliant
  • Being unable to voice their own opinion – they are unsure of themselves
  • A sudden shift in behaviour resulting in them retreating and being quiet
  • Looking nervous around their ex if and when meetings do take place
  • Not visibly reacting to unkind comments because they are either so used to them or adept at covering them up and acting as if it’s all normal

As we know, divorce is a very difficult and painful process, but breaking up with a controlling partner, or with someone who has narcissistic tendencies, can be a living nightmare. They can be manipulative and exploitive, feeling neurotically entitled to get whatever they want. They blame everyone else for their problems, and because they are so self-centred, even while bullying their spouses they often perceive themselves to be the victims. They also believe they are above the law which makes them incredibly difficult to deal with.

I can imagine, as a mediator, this can be very challenging, Louisa? Beyond spotting the signs, what do you find to be the most difficult aspect?

Louisa:  This is super helpful, Sara, thank you.  It is definitely the case that some clients don’t understand that they have been victims of abuse.  In an extreme situation I remember asking a client about abuse not long after I’d started my first job as a lawyer.  She said that there was no abuse.  Then she paused and said “well he hits me occasionally”.  To her this was just completely normal and something she’d put up with for a long time.  That’s an extreme example and I agree with what you say that usually physical abuse is seen as what it is but emotional abuse is often harder to explain or properly pinpoint.  Not least because abusers are often charming and attentive when they need to be and so there can be huge confusion for victims about the fact that they said such nice things sometimes and such derogatory things at other points.

I think there are two big challenges for mediators at the moment (and indeed for other family practitioners).  Firstly, the court system is broken.  There are huge delays and even those that get their hearings can find them cancelled at the last minute, or that the Judge has not had access to all the relevant papers.  Many people are aware of this and so they want to mediate in order to find a resolution more quickly – even where mediation might be unsuitable.  I think for many people although the idea of mediation is scary the idea of waiting another year is worse.  So I and many of my fellow mediators are experiencing pressure to mediate, even in cases where mediation might not be suitable.  If you tell clients mediation is not suitable and signpost them to other people or processes they will often push back and ask you to justify your decision.

It is a very difficult situation because most – if not all – mediators genuinely want to help those going through a separation and we don’t enjoy telling people we can’t help.  There are cases where you might try mediation with safeguards in place if you felt it could be made safe but we are also conscious of people continuing with abuse through the mediation process as you’ve described, Sara.  It is enormously difficult.  We can’t be responsible for picking up where the family justice system is failing.  There does need to be a systemic change I think in the way that these cases are dealt with.  I like the suggestion from the “What about me” report that there is one channel through the system for those that need safeguarding i.e. where there has been abuse, and a different channel where there hasn’t been.  But as you’ve described, Sara, I worry that victims of the “lesser seen” abuses such as emotional abuse might not end up in the channel they need.

The second challenge is one that is facing most people, but I think it is worse for those who have experienced abuse.  Living with the pandemic has taken its toll on lots of people.  I’ve described it as akin to having a program running in the background on your computer all the time.  You don’t always notice it but it slows the capacity of the computer.  Many people are only just starting to process how much they have had to deal with.  I’m finding more and more clients coming into mediation are stressed, overwhelmed and perhaps approaching the point of burn out.  This is before they’ve even started talking about what happens following their separation (and may well be a factor in the decision to separate).  This does mean that discussions can be marked by high conflict and that people are finding it harder to evaluate options, process information and make decisions.

I think if that’s you and you’re also coming to terms with the fact you’ve been a victim of abuse then starting to make arrangements for what happens next is often more than people can have on their plate at any one time.  In an ideal world people would have space to grieve and to get support before coming to mediation.  But sometimes this is not possible financially (or the parties don’t feel it’s possible) and where the parties are still living in the same property they often feel a pressure to resolve things – even where they feel ill equipped to do so – so that they can then physically separate and find space for themselves to then grieve and heal.  Making interim arrangements to enable them to separate and have some space can help here but only if both parties are minded to make those arrangements.

I’m conscious this is a lot of problems and whilst I think it’s right we highlight them I do also like to look at solutions too!  So Sara what changes would you like to see in our family justice system going forwards – especially for victims of abuse?

Sara: I totally agree with the issues you have raised and I also see them in my Coaching Clinic every day. I work with many clients going through the family courts with an abusive ex. The stress and trauma caused by the system and lack of understanding of abuse is huge and a serious concern which needs rapid change.

I would love to see compulsory domestic abuse and also trauma informed training for all professionals dealing with family law, including lawyers, mediators, barristers, judges, court ‘experts’ and therapists. Although I do appreciate that a training course will not change some of the deeper-seated beliefs and attitudes.

I also think there needs to be a much stricter vetting process for every court expert. At the present time this process is woefully unacceptable and has led to experts with a bias or serious lack of expertise influencing family court decisions leading to devastating impacts on victims of abuse and their children, which can result in longer term mental health issues such as PTSD.

In many cases, it is unrealistic to expect legal professionals to be able to spot the abuse in every case so it does need a trained domestic abuse and trauma informed professional. I think it is the responsibility of every family law professional to have a domestic abuse professional (who is properly vetted) as part of their team who they could bring in to help assess where there are allegations or even suspicions of abuse.

Also, it would be great if family law professionals supported their local domestic abuse charities as this would help them to learn more about the real issues and how to spot the signs. As well as helping these charities to provide the services that are much needed in local communities for victims of abuse. Domestic abuse charities often struggle for funding despite offering a lifeline for family law clients of all backgrounds.

Louisa: I agree with all you have said, Sara.  I’m proud that my business is able to give monthly to a number of charities including one supporting victims of abuse.  Having recently done mental health first aid training I think this is essential training for family practitioners too.

Thank you so much, Sara.  This blog chat has been really helpful and I hope that it helps others too.

CREDIT: For more information on one to one coaching with Sara Davison, visit www.saradavison.com or to find out more about Sara’s Master Practitioner Training programme, visit: www.idccoe.com

CREDIT: Tune in to Instagram Live on Thursday 24th February at 2pm (GMT) when Sara and Louisa will be chatting more on domestic abuse and family law. @saradavisondivorcecoach and @louisa.whitney.1