Given the mental and physical toll of divorce, it is not unusual for one parent to start harassing the other (or even the children) over parenting decisions, child custody, child support or visitation. In these cases, the non-harassing parent might decide that the divorce settlement needs to be changed. This can be done, but there are steps you can take while the legal process works itself out.

What is Harassment?

Harassment can come in many forms, from verbal abuse to physical violence to stalking. Some of these acts are clearly illegal, while others might be illegal, such as verbal threats.

However, other types of harassment–such as bad-mouthing you to the children or spreading rumors to friends–aren’t necessarily illegal, but that doesn’t make them any less hurtful. And they still may be addressed: They could even violate the custody agreement.

If you are concerned about physical injury or other danger, contact the authorities and your counsel. For other issues, consider talking to the police or your lawyer, to determine what actions you may be able to take.

Is the Harassment Abusive?

Again, in cases of physical abuse, you should contact the police and your attorney. They will be able to inform the appropriate agencies, such as child protective services, to help you remove children from a dangerous environment. A court may also issue a restraining order on the abusive parent or, award exclusive use and possession of the marital residence.

Once you’re not in immediate harm’s way, realize that domestic abuse is usually a sign of the perpetrator’s deeper emotional and mental problems. Much like addiction, abuse is unlikely to stop without professional help. Trying to talk to your spouse as a way of ending the abuse is unlikely to work. The better–and far more effective–option is to contact the authorities and seek professional help.

Some parents understandably want to maintain a relationship with the abusive parent and any children. But you must remember that an abuser needs help before any relationship can function. Your first priority must be to protect yourself and your children.

What Can You Do In Cases of Legal, Non-Abusive Harassment?

For minor incidents, you might try talking to your ex. There’s a possibility that he might not be considering the true effects of his actions. Once informed, he might change his ways.

If the harassment is focused on you, establish firmer modes of communication. For example, you can tell your ex-spouse that you will only communicate over email or text messages, which will both provide a permanent record of your exchanges (evidence that you might need in court).

If a spouse is using the children as tools of harassment, you can write a list of subjects that you don’t wish him to discuss with the children.

If the harassment doesn’t cease, or if it is potentially illegal, then you should speak with an attorney.

Should You Retaliate?

It’s only natural. If your spouse or ex-spouse if bad-mouths you to the children, then you may want to retaliate and bad-mouth him in return. If he is spreading rumors, you might want to do the same. Resist these urges. Retaliation is unlikely to stop the harassment on his end; rather, it will probably lead to greater harassment. And your retaliation can also work against you if the problem reaches the court: You’ll share culpability.

Instead, try to keep a record of the harassment incidents. Include the day and time the event occurred, the content of your complaint, names of any witnesses and so forth. If the harassment is coming from emails or texts, you should save these.

Are There Legal Options to Stop Harassment?

If the harassment continues, there are several options open to you.

First, you can make a criminal complaint and request that the prosecutor seek an order of protection in your favor. An order of protection (temporary or otherwise) can limit physical interactions between you and your ex. If your ex-spouse violates the terms of such an order, he or she may be charged with criminal contempt.

If a divorce action is pending, you can also request that the Court award you exclusive use and possession of the marital residence in certain circumstances in order to further limit your personal interaction with your ex.

If the police are not interested in prosecuting the matter, you can also file a family offense petition in family court. You can receive an order of protection in this type of action as well. If the motivation for the harassment is connected with the children, you can also seek an order requiring you and your ex-spouse participate in co-parenting counseling.

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