If you are dealing with an abusive relationship, you'll want to read our interview with Victoria McCooey which follows. Victoria shares her story and offers inspiration and advice for others.
DivorceForce: Can you share your own personal experience with regard to being involved in an abusive marriage?
Victoria McCooey: Yes, my own first marriage was an abusive one. Of course, it didn't start off that way. It never does. It evolves like a slow drip, wearing away at you. There were red flags when we were dating, but I didn’t want to see them. He was definitely controlling. I found it flattering. I guess because I had a father who wasn’t very involved, I welcomed the interest in everything I was doing from a man. I thought it meant he cared. I didn't see it as control—at first.
The abuse started as financial. He controlled all of our money. When we started out, he was making much more than I was (or so he told me). Then, when we started having children, I stopped working for a while. When I went back part-time, I wasn't earning much, so I was fine with handing it over to him to manage. Things were going badly with his business, and we were getting into a lot of debt, so I went back to work full-time. He still felt he needed to be in charge because he was juggling the bills and playing things very closely. It all seemed to make sense.
Then he started asking me to sign for loans and lines of credit. When I questioned it, he would become combative. He said he knew what he was doing, and that this is what our family needed me to do. I trusted him, so I did it. Then when he continued wanting me to sign for more credit, I pushed back. This enraged him. He claimed I was too stupid to understand, and how dare I question his intentions or his ability to oversee our finances. This was the beginning of the end. I finally saw that he was taking advantage of me (and my credit) and that he was ruining our family's finances.
For years, I tried to gain control of our money; but the harder I tried, the more abusive he became. First, it was verbal, calling me names and bullying me (in front of our children); then it became psychological (playing tricks on me like hiding things, telling our children that I was mentally ill, and that I didn't love them). When I finally got strong enough to ignore these tactics and to continue trying to gain control, there was nowhere else for the abuse to go but physical. And so he choked me.
This is a pretty standard scenario. The abuse starts out with a raised voice, then some choice words. When the victim becomes numb to that, it has to move on to more torturous abuse like psychological games (gaslighting) and emotional abuse (shaming). When the victim's reaction to this no longer pleases the abuser, he must move on to physical violence.
DivorceForce: People in abusive relationships often feel like there is no way out. You found that your ex crossed a certain line, and you had to get out. What actions did you take? What recommendations do you have for someone who feels trapped, like they cannot move forward from his or her abusive marriage?
Victoria McCooey: The moment after my ex-husband choked me, I called the police. There was no grey area for me. I had three young sons who witnessed it, and there was no way I was going to allow them to believe this was normal or acceptable behavior. The police saw his hand marks still on my throat; so even though he tried to deny it, he couldn't. Plus, the children were witnesses.
What's harder is when the abuse hasn't yet become physical. It's hard to prove to the police that someone is bullying you. And there's not much they can do about it anyway. My advice would be to try to capture the outbursts on tape. This may seem devious, but we're talking about life or death here. Go to your police department and alert them. Tell them you are afraid your spouse may become violent. That way, when you call to say that he was threatening you, they will take it more seriously. At some point, you will want to get an order of protection.
DivorceForce: Your own personal experiences motivated you to take on a completely new and different career path. Tell us a bit about that.
Victoria McCooey: When the police arrived after my husband choked me, they arrested him, took him to jail, and told me to go directly to the courthouse to get an order of protection. I did. When I arrived, a representative from the Coalition Against Domestic Violence was alerted, and she guided me through the process. She helped me fill out the paperwork, briefed me on what would happen, and outlined my options. She gave me the support I needed at a time when my world had turned completely upside down.
The agency kept up with me for months, helping me at every step along the way. I felt so indebted to them for the service they provided for me and my children, that I wanted to give back. As soon as I was stable, I volunteered at the Coalition. At first, I was asked to speak in front of groups of women about my experience, which of course I was happy to do. I knew how much good that could do to help others come to terms with their own situation. Women think that no one else has gone through this and that they are alone. Or they're afraid they’ll be looked down on, or that it must be their fault. Talking openly about my experience was not only important for the women I reached, but it also helped greatly with my own healing.
I wanted to give even more, so I trained with the Coalition to become a hospital advocate. This is the person who responds when a victim of domestic violence is admitted to the hospital. The training was long and intense, but extremely powerful. I spent years counseling women who landed in hospitals at the hands of their abusive partners. I empathized, I supported, and I advised them of their options. It was the most fulfilling position I have ever had. But I was doing this on a volunteer basis. I would commute to my day job in New York City five days a week, then spend most of my weekends in hospitals helping these victims. Something had to give.
That's when I decided to become a divorce coach. Now I am able to do what I love—help women regain their strength after suffering through difficult marriages—and do it full-time while earning a living.
DivorceForce: You make a point that there is a difference between a therapist and a coach. What is that difference, from your perspective?
Victoria McCooey: Some people like to have both a therapist and a coach during divorce. That may not be a reality for everyone. The way I see it, a therapist is helping you understand how you got here, and a coach is helping you figure out what to do going forward.
When you hire me, we are only going to look ahead at the actions you need to take now to get you to the end of the long road that is divorce—and to get you there in the best possible shape emotionally, psychologically, physically, and financially. If you want to explore the patterns that got you to this place, then that's a job for a therapist.
DivorceForce: I listened to a podcast you were on, and you made a very compelling point that someone should contact a divorce coach (or you) before they contact a lawyer. Please explain why you believe this is so important.
Victoria McCooey: Once you write that retainer check to a lawyer, you become a passenger on a runaway train. There are some lawyers who make it their main goal to see how fast they can get through that retainer so they can start billing you for more.
You need to hire a divorce coach FIRST so that, together, we can do all the prep work your lawyer is going to ask you for at a fraction of the cost. Plus, I can help you prepare for the consultations you will be having when choosing an attorney. I can suggest questions to ask and tell you what to look for. Then, after your meetings, we can discuss your feelings about the candidates so that you make the best decision when hiring.
Then, when you show up to your first appointment with your lawyer, you will be armed with a binder filled with all the financials, backstory, and timelines he and his staff would have billed you thousands of dollars to prepare. You will be sitting in the driver's seat from the get-go. This will set the tone for your relationship with your lawyer for the rest of your divorce. You will be in charge.
Victoria McCooey suffered for years from emotional, psychological, and even ﬁnancial abuse from her ex; but when the abuse turned physical, she knew she had to get out—for herself and her three sons. Her divorce took six years, but she persevered. The experience led her to become a divorce coach. She is the founder and head coach at The Divorce Course for Women, a program designed to eliminate your pain and fear, increase your knowledge and confidence, and help you discover a magnificent new life.