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When Abuse Isn’t Physical: How Recent Legislation Makes Divorce Safer

There are few things scarier than divorcing an abusive partner. A common aspect of domestic abuse is the abuser using fear to control their partner – fear of their anger, fear of retribution, and even fear of others’ reactions. Abusive people react dramatically and dangerously when their partners do anything they don’t like, and there are few things they like less than losing control over their partners.

That’s why the most dangerous time for abuse victims is when they’re leaving their partners. California has recently taken steps to protect victims during this vulnerable period with Senate Bill 1141. This new law aims to help protect victims and help them get out of dangerous relationships before they get worse.

How and Why Abuse Escalates

Domestic violence follows a pattern. Very few people would date or marry a person who immediately started threatening or hitting them. Instead, most abuse begins slowly and builds over time.

This escalation is the most dangerous part of the abuse cycle. People can make excuses for controlling actions by their partner or for cruel language and isolating behavior. After a long enough time with an abusive partner, it may even feel natural to excuse threats or coercion as a natural part of the relationship. However, many abusers will continue to raise the intensity of abuse. Eventually, many abusive relationships will graduate from non-physical mistreatment into actual physical harm.

While escalation occurs slowly in most abusive relationships, sometimes there will be a “trigger” event that causes the abuser to dramatically amplify their mistreatment. The abused partner trying to leave the relationship is a common trigger. Even abusers who have not yet become physical with their partners may turn to violence if they feel like they’re losing control.

California’s New Abuse Legislation

In September of 2020, Governor Newsom signed SB 1141 into law. This bill was the result of years of campaigning by California domestic violence advocates. It’s intended to fill a hole in victim protections by acknowledging that abuse is not always physical. These protections allow abuse victims to get restraining and protective orders against their partners by proving to the court that they have been abused.

The bill specifically expands the definition of abuse to include “coercive control,” or non-physical actions that still control someone’s life against their will. This is a common type of abuse that often comes before more violent actions.

Past Legal Definitions of Domestic Abuse

Before Governor Newsom signed the new bill, California’s domestic violence protection laws were heavily focused on physical and verbal harm. They included actions like:

  • Actively attempting to injure someone
  • Sexual assault and molestation
  • Stalking and harassment
  • Making people fear for their safety
  • Disturbing the other party’s peace

While these actions are all deeply harmful, they did not include types of mistreatment that are less immediately obvious but still abusive over the long term. The result was that only victims whose abusers had already escalated to dangerous behavior could get protections under the law. It’s easy to see how this legal gap may have made it harder for California residents to escape from their abusers before problems did escalate.

Changes Made by SB 1141

Senate Bill 1141 made a single, significant change to California law. On top of the prior actions listed, it names “coercive control” as a type of abuse. However, coercive control has some features that set it apart.

To get a restraining order under the previous law, the victim only had to prove a single instance of one of the types of abuse. Because coercive control is made up of many smaller actions instead of a single violent or threatening event, it falls on the victim to prove a pattern of abusive behavior. While it’s harder to establish a pattern than a single event, it also opens up protections to more people.

For example, people who suffer from coercive financial control can take action against their partners. This type of coercive power can include controlling access to marital funds, preventing you from making financial decisions, or even hiding debts, funds and assets so you don’t understand your real financial situation. SB 1141 allows you to name this as the abuse it is and get the legal protections you need.

What SB 1141 Does for Divorce

If you need to use the new law to make your divorce more comfortable, you may be in luck. While the provisions of SB 1141 don’t affect California’s no-fault divorce laws, they can make you feel safe enough to file for divorce in the first place.

SB 1141 makes it easier for victims to get restraining and protection orders against their partners. Many abusers who haven’t yet escalated to physical violence will respect the law and avoid their victim once these orders are in place. If they don’t, they can be fined and even jailed, guaranteeing that their victim won’t have to worry about their actions for a while.

The new law has also made it harder for domestic violence victims to be forced to pay their abusers alimony. Pre-existing rules bar these victims from having to give their ex-partners spousal support. Filing for a restraining order under SB 1141’s provisions can help you avoid supporting your abusive partner after your divorce, ensuring that you’re truly free from their influence.

Abuse Is Inexcusable – Protect Yourself Today

Leaving a controlling partner is never easy. If you believe that your partner may escalate to physical abuse in the future, then it can become genuinely terrifying. However, for your own safety, you must take the hard step and get out.

Having the right legal help can make divorcing your abusive partner simpler. You don’t have to do it by yourself. By working with an experienced divorce attorney, you can take back control over your life. Reach out to the expert attorneys at Kaspar & Lugay, LLP, to discuss your situation. Don’t let things escalate. For your own health and safety, get out as soon as possible.