Tactics: How the Abuser Sets You Up

Note from Jeff C and Barb: we are pleased to announce that Katy is now one of our Authors on the blog. In fact, this is the second post with her byline, but we forgot to announce her joining the team when her first post was published.

This post is about ongoing trauma which results after you have divorced your abuser but still must see him because there are children involved. Unfortunately I had another incident with my ex that caused me to freak out, and my family asked “Why can’t you just stop yourself from reacting to him?”  Well, we know that this is much easier said than done.

We are in the middle of the dreaded “summer visitation”. This means my kids must go out of state for 5-6 weeks of the summer. I am allowed to see them on one of those weekends. So I drove 7 hours on Friday and met the ex at the daycare to pick them up. I arrived 30 minutes early, so I texted him that I would wait for him.

Here is where the set-up begins. (I didn’t see this until Sunday afternoon when I was shaking my way through a panic attack.) He meets me, I put the kids in the van, and then he says “I’d appreciate it if you give me 30 minutes advance notice of your arrival.  So, you’ll be dropping off at noon on Sunday, correct?” And this is said in a sneering tone of voice, with a nasty look on his face. I mumble yes and get the heck out of there. I am already having a stress reaction because the message I just got was “you better be on time, to the minute, and you better send me a text so I know to expect you – or else”. (People who have not lived with abusers will not understand this.)

So over the weekend me and my kids had a good time together – we went to a place about 45 minutes further north. (Ex lives in a very large city.) But then Saturday night ex sends me another text: “Noon, correct?” I reply Yes. Then I start panicking inside, thinking oh God I have to make sure that I leave with plenty of time to get there at noon, but I can’t be too early because then he will be angry too. I have to time it EXACTLY RIGHT so that I am there at EXACTLY NOON and I have to text him at 11:30 to tell him I will be on time!  (I swear I could not see what he was doing — my reactions were immediate & well trained after being married to him for 7 years.)

I am traveling in a very large city, and I am from a rural area. I do not know what the traffic is going to be like on Sunday morning but I figure it won’t be too bad. (First mistake). Then I assume that the GPS will get me where I need to be (2nd mistake).  I get the kids ready on Sunday morning, program the GPS, and then text him “I am on my way and GPS says I will be there at noon.” (He does not respond to this)

Here is where things go very bad. I make a wrong turn. Then I get on the highway and discover bumper-to-bumper traffic. I start panicking. I try to leave him a voicemail. He begins calling me as I’m stressing out in the traffic, peppering me with questions and demands: “What are you going to do? We made plans at 1 pm, and now you’re not going to be here until 2pm. I knew when you texted me that you didn’t understand the traffic here. It would be more convenient for us now if you go to the McDonald’s at XYZ exit, since you’re going to be so late.”

I am getting confused because I don’t know what to do. The GPS still says I’m only 20 minutes behind but now he’s saying I’m going to be another hour and a half? He begins talking to me like I’m stupid. I start crying and shaking. I raise my voice. He says very calmly “I understand the traffic is frustrating but don’t take this out on me.” I scream into the phone “DON’T TALK TO ME THIS WAY!” and hang up on him. Then I realize that his current wife probably witnessed that exchange and I just reinforced to her that I am the psycho one. This causes me to cry harder.

He keeps trying to call and I won’t answer. I finally arrive at the McDonalds at 12:30 — 30 minutes late. I text him to pick them up. When he arrives he is wearing his gym clothes, so he has been working out. He tells the kids they are coming back to the gym with him. Then he snarls at me and gives me some more dirty looks.

After he leaves I am still shaking as if he has assaulted me, I am crying, I am wondering why do I feel so scared? He has not actually threatened me…he has not done anything that I can explain to an outsider. My dad doesn’t understand why I still have these panic reactions to him. I calm down and realize….he set me up. And it started on Friday afternoon! But I didn’t see it! I explain this to my dad and he understands now. He said he wants to be there at every single pick-up and drop-off from now on.

Here is the reality about raising children with an Abuser after the divorce: even though my ex can no longer abuse me on the level that he did during the marriage, he is able to terrorize me with small set-ups like this because I still have a trained response to him. I’m like Pavlov’s dogs. And I sit here and wonder if I will EVER be “normal”.


Addit from Barb:  Here is a diagram of The Cycle of Abuse [Internet Archive link] which illustrates what Katy is talking about in this post. The diagram is from the website of ARMS  AbuseRecovery Ministry Services .We have put a link to this diagram onto our Resources page.

30 thoughts on “Tactics: How the Abuser Sets You Up”

  1. Yep!! Understand EXACTLY how that plays out! Have been free almost 6 years now. Kids are older now and I never have to deal with him. Married 21years….it was a nightmare!! Still working on “normal” but have very deep scars and not sure if they will ever completely heal. The further away I am from the abuse, the more clearly I can see how evil it is. Still cannot believe I got myself into that situation and stayed there so long. The man is evil and twisted.

  2. yes, can’t believe how long I let it go on. Looking back now, I was re-reading some of his emails and I see how they triggered me but would also seem so casual to an observer.

  3. It’s very difficult for a person who is being bullied in a marriage, or during/ after divorce, to change their perspective or paradigm toward their abuser. The abuser is bigger, stronger, aggressive, and the opposite of everything we care about. He feels some kind of pleasure or “surge of power” by hurting us emotionally. We are especially vulnerable when it comes to our children. Knowledge is power though. If we can learn where we stand as in Ephesians 6:10-18, it is hopeful that we will be better protected. I’m glad the author’s dad is supportive of her! I have no such help, and am hoping that memorizing scriptures and prayer will protect me, and make me better prepared for when the panic attack wants to happen.
    The Whole Armor of God:
    “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

  4. I’ve gotten a couple of emails from readers who say that this is really triggering (but helpful in a way) because they can see that they are NOT ALONE in their inability to “deal with” an abuser and not let it cause traumatic reactions.
    I’m going to give this advice to anyone who can possibly implement it: find someone who can deal directly with your abuser’s emails and demands instead of you. Maybe a parent or trusted friend, a brother, uncle, SOMEBODY that understands what is going on and won’t be easily toyed with. I also think it really helps if it is a man, since abusive men are less likely to try direct intimidation or cruelty with someone they view as an “equal” or at least a possible threat.

  5. Exactly so. I’ve seen it over and over in my practice. Often, the abuser will do something “nice,” like leaving a greeting card in the victim’s church mailbox, knowing very well that it will trigger her fear. It is a not-so-subtle reminder that he can still get to her whenever he chooses.

  6. A-freaking-mazing. And so so true. Exactly how I react & exactly what my parents don’t get.

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. Ahhh, the infamous “set-ups” abuse. So here’s a little advice. If the abuser ever tells you to use the credit card to purchase everything you need, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, for food, clothes, gas, toiletries, prescriptions, supplies, etc., – anything you need to care for your children and yourself, because he has no money to give you right then, but tells you not to worry, because he intends to pay it all off within the year, because he is going to make huge money – don’t be as doggone stupid as I was. I am now having to defend myself from building debt against the marital estate, and he set me up for it! Not the first really nasty set-up and probably not the last one either.

    1. OMG! Mine has done the same kind of thing to me so many times. “Here honey, have all this money and do whatever you want with it- only for him to come back later and say “well, we can’t afford that thing you need because you spent all the money I gave you. I thought you knew it was for a, b or c.”

      1. Mine would tell me to go get my hair colored and cut and “get something for yourself” right after he spent all the food budget on himself. I couldn’t spend more money just on myself when we needed to EAT! ( What a concept) and then he would get mad because I didn’t get my hair done! Reality people …money is not endless!

  8. WOW! I didn’t realize other people suffered like this. We can’t even talk without me shaking. Even reading your post, I was right there, with you. My heart is still beat fast, as I type this.

  9. Katy, thanks for that very open and personal account. I’m glad I’m not the only one to react to things nobody else will see or understand. I agree with you it’s better to let others read his emails or voice messages. The less he can get under your skin, the better.

  10. Katy I too often wonder about a survivor’s trained responses. After mulling over it, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t think a survivor has to react like a Pavlov’s dog forever. Firstly we are much more than animals :), and anyway, even Pavlov’s dog’s conditioning could be extinguished through training. While you have to deal with him, it seems like his behavior reinforces certain reactions, but I think that eventually it will be obvious that he will have less and less power as you see the evidence of your power and freedom. While he still snarls, his snarls can only be reminders of the past, they cannot actually achieve what they could when you were in a covenant relationship.

  11. I am already having a stress reaction because the message I just got was “you better be on time, to the minute, and you better send me a text so I know to expect you – or else”. (People who have not lived with abusers will not understand this)

    So true. Unless you’ve been victim to what I used to call the “mental bully” or “emotional tyrant” you cannot understand this. The “or else” part really hits me. I get it. The “or else” is what keeps you scared and compliant. The anti husband / mental bully / emotional tyrant I used to be married to used to keep me in line with the subtle and not so subtle “or else.” I knew what the “or else” was, but no one would possibly understand it and no one could understand why I was so terrified of him. The “or else” in my nightmare was the ongoing threat that he would paint me as crazy (he’s a psychologist) and take my children if I didn’t stay in the marriage and “act life a real wife” to him.

  12. I still shake if I see my ex or even his van. Crazy. And just last weekend I actually found myself being pulled into his manipulation and lies. Our two boys (21 & 18) got into a fight while my husband and I were out of town…the boys live with me and my husband. My oldest has an anger issue and verbally assaulted his brother who then exploded and punched my oldest in the face leaving him with a split lip and black eye. My oldest of course called his dad to take him to the doctor while my youngest packed his bags to leave “forever” as he cried to me on the phone.
    I ended up talking with my ex about where to take our oldest for medical attention and we agreed that our youngest would stay the night with him. BIG MISTAKE!!!!! And it makes me angry that I bought into my ex’s crap that he would take care of our youngest son.
    Very long, ugly story, really really short…my ex made up a couple rules that my youngest had to follow or he was going to let our oldest file assault charges! My ex told our youngest son that he could never ever see his girlfriend again (she was at the house when the boys got in the fight and for some reason my ex and oldest son agreed she had been a part of what happened, which is ridiculous) and he was to pay his dad $3000 to cover medical costs!!!!!

    When my husband and I got home two days later from our trip we sat my oldest down and said that enough is enough. He needed to call his dad and tell him to back down and they both needed to stop holding the threat of jail over his brother who was at that time bouncing from friend to friend’s house sleeping on couches.

    My ex lied to me about a lot and I actually found myself buying into it all. And yesterday when I sent him a long email explaining the wrong that had taken place against our youngest son I sat back shaking in my chair after I hit the send button.

    It angers me that my ex still has so much control over me after being divorced for over 2 years now. And it angers me how much he is still abusing our boys with his control and manipulation.

    BTW, my youngest son and I have been doing more talking lately about all that happened between his dad and I…he says he finally sees his dad for who he truly is and has completely cut ties with him. My son said to me that all he wanted and tried to have all these years was a relationship with his dad, but he sees now that it will never happen because no one can have a relationship with him.

    1. Amy, two years is a relatively short period for having been divorced from an abuser, so please don’t be hard on yourself for how intense your emotions can become during episodes like this. The reality is, you have been divorced for two years, but the abuse is still ongoing — it continues, although it may be taking slightly different shapes and forms, because he doesn’t have quite the range of opportunities to demolish you as he did before. That just means that with more limited range, he is targeting his venom through fewer and narrower channels and pipes, which means the the pressure coming through those pipes may be more intensified.

      1. You’re right, Barb. The abuse sometimes seems more subtle at first, if I do have any contact with him, but then it suddenly blows out of proportion if I’m in contact with him for too long.
        The only “good” that came of the situation that happened last week with my boys, is that my youngest son at least has come to finally see his father’s true colors. I shared with my son things that had occurred in the marriage that he had never known and I told him that I’d bitten my tongue for so many years in saying anything to him about his dad. And my son said to me that if I had ever said anything he would only have been mad at me and not believed me.
        And the other thing that came from this incident was the complete opening of my eyes to who my ex really is. I posted on my FB wall the day after it all happened that it laid my doubts to rest finally…all those pesky doubts of whether I had truly tried hard enough or been good enough…my eyes were finally wide open to the fact that some people choose to never change and it was not then, nor is it now my responsibility.

      2. Amy,

        As awful as that experience was, what jumps out at me as being incredibly positive is that your son sees his father for what he is. This both validates you and sets your son free from false understanding of this man.

        Sorry about the rest of it. 😦

    2. I still shake if I see my ex or even his van. Crazy.

      No, that is not crazy. What you are experiencing is common for people who have experienced trauma, and living in an abusive relationship is nothing less than traumatic. And as Barbara mentioned, although you are divorced you are still experiencing abuse. Uncontrollable shaking, chills, heart palpitations and panic attacks are typical emotional and physical reactions which can be triggered when you are faced with reminders of the abuse, such as seeing your ex or something associated with him. For me, it is dreams (nightmares may be a better word). I had them very often right after we separated. They were always the same in that they involved only my -ex and myself and we were always in a situation where I couldn’t get away from him. I was trapped. These dreams were so real that it took me many moments after I awoke to reorient myself. The dreams always increased after I had communication with him, especially if I had to actually see him, and even though we have been separated 2 years (divorced 1 year) I still have them.

      It angers me that my ex still has so much control over me after being divorced for over 2 years now.

      Also, as Barbara said, two years is a relatively short period. Don’t think that you can just “get over it”. Family and friends may tell you that, but research, especially in PTSD and neuroplasticity (how the brain reorganizes itself) will tell you otherwise. The effects of stress don’t work like that. In fact, it is not uncommon for physical and emotional reactions to appear days, weeks, months, and even years after traumatic events. Which is why many people don’t link the reaction to the event – so much time has passed. As I said I have been divorced over a year but in just the past few weeks I have started experiencing new physical reactions to my -ex that I never have before.

      So, give yourself time. You have been through a lot and domestic abuse is not your run-of-the-mill stress.

      (A post on the specifics of PTSD and common physical and emotional symptoms that victims experience may be helpful. The more we can learn about why we react the way we do, maybe the less “crazy” we will feel. Just a suggestion.)

  13. I didn’t fully understand this when it was first posted, but after my experiences today I GET IT!
    Things have been amicable as we approach our first court date. He’s asking me to drop everything to see if we can work things out and if we can’t we’ll just settle it on our own. Riiight!
    Well, being the dutiful battered wife, I decided to at least listen and look at the possibility but keeping my eyes wide open.
    On Wednesday he pronounced I was “part of the remnant” but by Sunday (after I explained that we should go on and divide things since recovery would be a long process…) I am a “Jezebel”
    Today he tried getting flirty. I told him I need us to be friends without benefits in order to build trust. (I’ve made this request so many times but he has no respect for my boundaries… and I end up feeling guilty) Ha!
    I’m getting to the post-separation abuse/trigger… (So I’ve just communicated that if he wants to get back together he’s going to have to work hard and that “cozying” up will not gain him a pass for the work)
    Then I see him this evening at our daughters open house. (An open house which I had no obligation to include him in since I have sole custody with no ordered visitation). The teacher hands me the information packet and our daughter a scavenger hunt form. I let him take the lead with the scavenger hunt and tend to our other children. Then when I turn around he has opened the folder that I set down and is video recording the contents!
    I’m sure under normal circumstances a father perusing through such would be no big deal, and I would have gladly let him look it over, but the fact that he just took it and then was documenting the contents just about made me come unglued! I told him that I would let him have the info once we were outside but documenting it in the middle of an open house was inappropriately drawing attention and besides, it was MINE! He fought me on it. Seriously, in the middle of open house? Nothing loud or anything but definitely a tug-of-war over “rights”. I spent the rest of the time trying to recover! I do not get aggravated easily, but I felt so violated! And the info that I would have happily given him, suddenly became a concern. Why was he so desperate to have her teacher’s contact info? Is this going to be another area he tries to manipulate? Will he call the teacher and play his victim role? Doesn’t he realize how poorly that reflects on our child? Oh the thoughts started racing!
    In writing this out I can see pretty clearly what the problem was. It was troubling that he was documenting the folder but when I asked him to wait until we got outside and he made such a stink about his right to the information (which I wasn’t even denying him) it made me afraid of what he planned on doing with it! I felt hurt, beat-up, scared and disgusted the rest of the time we were there.
    This is the second such incident since our separation. The third took place just an hour later. I’ll spare the details. But just wanted to comment, that I FINALLY get it! I see the crazymaking and the set-up! I see why we have never had a healthy disagreement! WoW!

    1. oh KD. Lightbulbs, eh?

      ….. keep breathing … Destabilization like that is hard to handle, and I remember that waves of outrages would come again and again, as I reflected back on an incident. The way they can pack in multiple indignities, violations and implications into one small action, is astounding, isn’t it?

  14. Ok, so my question is: what can you do about the set up???

    My husband sets me up regularly even now, while we are still together, and it drives me nuts! (Didn’t know what it was until reading more…..) I have no doubt he will continue after we separate and divorce. His communication is terrible and he places unrealistic demands on me, but yet blames me for being a poor manager of my time, money, etc. (when those are really his faults!)

    How do I deal with the set up? Is there a way to avoid it or just minimize it?

    1. Well recognizing it is half the battle. As I mentioned up thread, another thing you can do is get someone else involved. Someone to witness your interactions. For the last year my dad has come to all of my visitation hand overs, for this reason.
      If you have no adult who can witness your interactions with him, then the only thing to do is say: “I will handle this in XYZ manner” and then do not respond to him at all after that. You must keep interactions to an absolute minimum. Remember that you do NOT have to respond to his texts, emails, or phone calls. For those that find it a safe method, you can “Gray Rock” your abuser (here is the link to that post):
      The Gray Rock Method (or, the Grey Rock Method)*

  15. Since my walls crumbled less than one year ago, this is how I’ve been responding to God. In some cases, I can identify the abuser I am reacting to, many times I cannot – until later.

    Perceiving God as “an abuser” is no revelation to me….the difference is the change in terminology, from “angry” God to “abuser” God.

    Anonymous commented:

    ….For me, it is dreams (nightmares may be a better word). I had them very often right after we separated. They were always the same in that they involved only my -ex and myself and we were always in a situation where I couldn’t get away from him. I was trapped. These dreams were so real that it took me many moments after I awoke to reorient myself….

    I remember having these nightmares regularly as a very small child, though I don’t remember any specific trigger.

    Perhaps I cannot identify a cycle of abuse because – up until my walls crumbled – I have spent a lifetime in abusive relationships, personally and professionally.

    Perhaps I can identify a “cycle of abuse” with God because I am reacting to Him as all my abusers rolled up into one.

    Perhaps this is why I refer to my “cycle of healing”, rather than “cycle of abuse”. I struggle with my perception of God, depending where I am in the “cycle of healing”, exactly the same way as other victims / survivors in the cycle of abuse..

    I cannot respond to God with accuracy, though I can react to God with accuracy.

    Something has to change….

    1. Finding Answers,

      This verse comes to my mind when I read your posts.

      O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. Isaiah 54:11

      [April 18, 2022: The following link is an Internet Archive copy of The Bruised Reed, By Richard Sibbes [Internet Archive link]. The Internet Archive copy is a copy of Richard Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed that is the closest match we could find to the unaltered text in Grafted In’s quote. Editors.]

      Of infirmities – No cause for discouragement – In whom they are, and how to recover peace lost.

      And among other causes of discouragement, some are vexed with scruples (1“To doubt; to hesitate to believe; to question;”), and partly from some remainder of (unawareness); partly by distemper (want of due balance of parts; derangement of the functions of body or mind) of body, helped by Satan’s malice, casting dust in their eyes, in their way to heaven: and partly from some remainder of (unawareness), which like darkness breeds fears; and as (unawareness) of other things so especially of this merciful disposition in Christ, the persuasions of which would easily vanish false fears.

      They conceive of him as one sitting at a catch for all advantages against him wherein they may see how they wrong not only themselves but his goodness. This scrupulosity (or, painstaking irresolution; circumspection, diligent query), for the most part, is the sign of a godly soul, this (unawareness), therefore they are the more to be pitied, for it is a heavy affliction and the ground of it is not so much from trouble of conscience, as from sickness of fancy. The end of Christ’s coming was to free us from all groundless fears.
      The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax by Richard Sibbes
      (with slight editing of words / definition / clarity)

      1(“To doubt; to hesitate to believe; to question;”) Webster’s Dictionary, 1828.

      1. Grafted In,

        After reading your comment, I (re)searched and downloaded a .PDF of (On the Wing) Richard Sibbes: The Bruised Reed [Internet Archive link].

        The next sentence in the text is:

        Some believers are still so ignorant of the comfortable condition we are in under the covenant of grace, that they are greatly discouraged.

        The verse from Isaiah got me thinking of my foundation.

        I needed to reach a way of understanding I am not under the OT Law, something beyond the academic / “head” stuff….a way past the permanent emotional boundary damage done as a result of sexual violation in infancy.

        The Holy Spirit is working in me, therefore I am under the covenant of grace.

        Not a teaching meant to hold exegetical water, but something to assist in changing my relationship with God, and by extension, with Christ.

  16. Finding Answers,

    You said,

    The Holy Spirit is working in me, therefore I am under the covenant of grace.


    to set at liberty them that are bruised. [Luke 4:18]

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