Tips for helping someone become a confident & effective decision-maker

Most of us struggle with decision making to some extent, but of course this is much more of a challenge for women who have paid the price for making what their abuser decides is the “wrong” decision.

An abusive partner often questions every decision a woman makes, tells her she is stupid and not capable of making good decisions, says he is the only one who can make the right decisions for the family, and so on. And there may be physical consequences for her “bad” decision making as well. All of this builds his power and control over her.

It is no wonder that, when a woman leaves such a situation, she feels unable to make decisions. She may have come to believe that she is stupid and incapable of effective decision making. Even though she is no longer with her abuser, she may fear the possible repercussions of making a decision that someone else does not agree with. She is also likely dealing with trauma as a result of the past and ongoing abuse she is experiencing. 

Having made the very courageous and difficult decision to leave her abuser, she may want to take a break from decision making for awhile.

And yet, for many women, the time immediately after they leave their abuser is one when they need to make decisions – big and important ones – frequently. Among other things, women need to decide:

  • Where they are going to live
  • Whether they are going to look for a job
  • What arrangements they want to make for their children
  • Whether to report the abuse to the police
  • How to resolve financial issues with their abuser
  • Whether they need to take steps to keep themselves and their children safe

Often, she is dealing with people – lawyers, court officials, social workers, police officers and others — who do not understand the impact of the trauma and abuse she has experienced on her ability to make complex decisions quickly. If her partner is engaging in post-separation abuse and legal bullying, this compounds her challenges, because he will likely reinforce her insecurities about her decision making capabilities by reminding her of “poor” decisions she made during the relationship.

The truth is that many women who have lived in abusive relationships are excellent decision makers, even if they don’t know this themselves. They have made decisions throughout the relationship that have kept them and their children safe. They have likely made many decisions about the children’s day to day lives, including decisions about education and health care, often in the face of resistance or opposition by their abusive partner. They have made the decision to leave. Depending on their circumstances, they may have made decisions to call or not call the police, to start a family court proceeding and so on.

You as a service provider and advocate can support women develop confidence in their ability to make decisions effectively.

The first step is to point out to them the good decisions they have already made. As a woman tells you her story, you can comment on the decisions she has made along the way and ask her to reflect on how she felt when she made that decision, what the outcomes of it were and what (if anything) she would do differently in making a similar decision now.

It is also important to remind women that the abuser’s constant criticism of her decision making and demeaning of her abilities is rooted in his needs – his need to have power and control over her, his need to be the decision maker, his need to feel stronger and smarter than her.

Effective decision making starts with being able to correctly identify the problem/issue. For example, a woman may be struggling to make a decision about what kind of custody arrangement she wants/needs. She may have information – some of it accurate, some of it not — from a number of sources; her lawyer, you, friends and family, the internet, her abuser. All of this is whirling around in her head in a way that can make it very difficult for her to sort out her priorities.

You can encourage her to take a step back. What is the key issue for her? Is it the safety and well-being of her children? Is it her own safety? Is it her fear of having to share decision making with her partner? Is she concerned that he might take the children and not return them? Perhaps even take them out of the country? 

Now, help her think through the conflicting information or ideas that she has. Is she afraid her partner will get custody if she does not agree to what he wants? Who has told her this? Are they a reliable source of information? Is she afraid she won’t be able to get a lawyer? Has her partner convinced her she is not capable of caring for the children? Is she focusing on something small that might be able to be fixed relatively easily (for example, financial concerns that could be addressed through child support or social assistance)?

Through this process, you can help the woman identify the key big picture issues she needs to address (custody and access), the roadblocks to making decisions about those issues (lack of legal representation, lack of confidence in her parenting skills) and strategies for dealing with them (application for a legal aid certificate, counselling and emotional support) and the smaller issues (financial concerns) that may be able to be resolved (interim child support order) along the way.

This may free her up to think in a focused way about the big picture issue and to feel more confident about the decisions she has to make about it.

You can also help women understand the difference between what they need and what they want. This can be very difficult, because often others tell women that what they need is unreasonable.

You might want to start by encouraging a woman to make two lists – the things she needs from her family law case and the things she wants. Talk through the lists with her, asking her to explain why she put what she did on each list. It may be that through this discussion, she moves some items from one list to the other. Or, she may feel stronger and more resolved that she has things right where they belong.

For example, she may have put sole custody on her need list but not feel confident about this because people, perhaps including her lawyer, have told her she is unlikely to get it. As she discusses this with you, it becomes clear that for her it is a need and not a want, because she knows that joint custody with her abusive ex-partner would be impossible to manage. You can play a role in helping her feel confident about having put sole custody on her need list. You can give her some suggestions about how she can discuss this effectively with her lawyer and others.

On the other hand, perhaps she has put staying in the family home on her need list, even though she knows she cannot afford it. You may be able to help her feel comfortable about moving this to her want list – she is not dropping it from her case, but it might become an item she is open to negotiating around, especially if it means she can protect something else higher on her need list.

Something else it is important for women to understand is that making a decision that is good enough can be better than trying to make the best decision. Thinking every decision we make has to be perfect can stop us from making any decision at all. Remind the women you work with that most of the time we make the best decision we can in the moment, based on the information and options that are available to us. Assure them that they are bound to make some decisions that they want to change later and that that is okay. Encourage them not to spend too much time looking back at past decisions and second guessing themselves. Reflection is good, but constant self-criticism is not.

Finally, help women understand that, usually, they can take some time to make big decisions. Just because their abuser, family, mediator or lawyer is telling them they need to decide something right away does not mean they have to. Of course, there are times when this is not the case and a decision has to be made quickly, but most of the time, if a woman is at all uncertain about what she wants/needs to do, her best response is to say she needs some time to think about it. 

The women you work with have to make many difficult and important decisions that will have a significant impact on their lives and the lives of their children for many years. This decision making can be made more challenging because of past and ongoing abuse.

With your support, they can become more confident in their ability to make effective decisions that will enable them to move ahead with their family law case as well as other aspects of their lives.

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