Emotional Aspects of a Restraining Order

by Rebecca David, Legal Advocate

The previous newsletter discussed the mechanical process of getting a restraining order.  The mechanical process discussed the “dry” nuts and bolts of the restraining order process and what “boxes” needed to be checked to get the filing pass the court clerk, and on to the judge or commissioner to get the restraining order granted.

The other thread that is woven with the mechanical process is the emotions that are involved and play an important factor.  The clients that I have been privileged in working with do not like the fact that a restraining order is necessary for their safety.  Some are embarrassed and it takes a lot of courage for them to come through the doors and obtain an application to start the process.  In a small town a person can walk in and realize they may have gone to school with someone working here, or worked with someone in the past, or attend church or a service club, their children go to the same school as DOVES employee.   This can add to their emotions.

The most important thing that I have learned in gathering information for the restraining order is be quiet and let them speak.  They have a story to tell and it is usually surrounded by feelings of fear, embarrassment and confusion.  To compound those emotions, they are usually very tired because they have not slept because they have been thinking about this restraining order all night, they have not eaten so their blood sugar is low, they are dehydrated and their energy is adrenaline.   Sometimes they are feeling disheveled because they have thrown on clothes and threw their hair up, and left the house to get the restraining order done.  If they were physically abused, they could be sore or in pain.  If there was an arrest they are carrying the emotions of their family members being locked up, so they could feel guilty or fear that they will be at greater risk when the jailed family member is released.   They are on a mission to get this completed before anything else can happen to them and their family.

We try to make them as comfortable as possible.  I have a soft comfortable chair with low lights in my office.  We offer them something to drink.  We try to get their children comfortable and occupied with our toys or television.

I need to have the factual information for me to process this correctly.  I need them to tell me the details.  When a client states, “I was yelled at and shoved,” I need to know what was actually said and where and how a person was shoved.  Currently many victims tell me they have been “choked out.”  They have actually been strangled.  I will take photos, if necessary, of bruising, cuts and scrapes.  This is a personal process which sometimes can include sexual assault, or electronic/cyber abuse.   I cannot have a client commit perjury so it is important that the event is factual, and at the same time makes sense to a judge who is reading it.  I tell the client that I need to paint the picture of what happened that caused them to fear for their life.  Everything that is written the restrained party reads and has an opportunity to oppose so accuracy is important.

My job of listening and writing the story of a person’s frightening relationship is similar to the process of listening to someone who is feeling suicidal.  The goal is to turn down the pain, and increase their hope.   While they are trying to recall the small details, I don’t want them to feel frightened which can cause them to second guess themselves, and cause them to doubt whether they have the courage to hold the abuser accountable for their behavior.  They need the courage to let the abuser know they will no longer participate in the relationship and they won’t subject their children to the domestic violence in their home.

While they are preparing this restraining order for their safety, there is sadness because it also marks the ending of a relationship.  The ending of a lifestyle with someone they love; the breaking up of a family.  This is not always a partner who was dating or married; sometimes it is parent against a child, or a child against a parent.

Crying young woman

Getting the “narrative” for court is just one emotional hurdle.  The next hurdle is facing the abuser in court.  The feelings of being frightened can overwhelm the protected party and can interfere with their testimony.  The testimony of the restrained party can be cruel and embarrassing to the protected party. The protected party’s emotions can range from anxiety as they wait to hear the “roll call” of names to see if the restrained party is present in the courtroom, and additional anxiety as they wait for their turn to sit before the judge.   They can feel sadness, embarrassment, anger and hurt.  I have discovered that rarely does anything goes as planned when it comes to court.  A person’s testimony can be rehearsed to perfection and the emotional response can send all thoughts into a tailspin.

The outcome of the case is also emotional.  If it is granted, it is a victory, but it can be bittersweet.  If it is denied, not only can this cause additional frightening feelings, but it can chip away at their self-esteem because they may feel they failed.  They could experience feelings of loss of power over the abuser.  They may feel a distrust of the judicial system.

After the hearing, the protected party also needs to deal with the emotions of the children.  This is a process that could take years to heal, or adjust to living with one parent.   They may also continue in the court with child custody or separation, annulment or divorce.  They may feel overwhelmed realizing they need employment, and childcare.  Sometimes child family services are involved.  This is another entity that they have to address.   The list of details that put back their lives can accumulate.

The process of actually changing their life is similar to any rehabilitation.  When a person gets physically hurt, has surgery, and has to participate in physical therapy, they will tell you the physical therapy is more painful than the initial injury.  The physical therapist will tell their client that the rehabilitation is only as good as the effort and energy put into the exercise.   The pain and suffering that can occur with making a life change to get a better and stronger self, can be more intense then the familiarity of living with the domestic violence.  They can obtain the better and stronger self if their rehabilitation is exercised.  This is where the domestic violence advocate can assist the client.  From my services they are offered the services of the advocate to complete the transformation of changing their life.

I let our client know that knowledge will calm their fears.  I try to answer any questions they may have to stop the elements of surprise.  I tell them that I know they may feel like they are swimming in dark, deep waters, but as long as they keep moving they will be all right.  They will swim to the other side soon and see the shore where they can touch the bottom, and walk out on the shore, a new shore.  From tears to cheers.