Getting out of an abusive marriage: Practical tips and understanding your legal rights in Singapore

You feel an immediate surge of panic and anxiety when you are around them. You find that you dread going home at a reasonable time, as home no longer feels safe anymore. You feel like you are always walking on eggshells. You are in a constant state of trepidation and fear for when the next outburst will happen. You cannot quite remember the last time you felt at ease. You cannot remember who you used to be before you felt this way. You feel burdened with leading a dual life with your friends and family, and you find you have alienated most of your close relationships.

Abusive and unhappy marriages take a toll. For some, it can be much worse than just a sense of dread. Some suffer both physical and emotional abuse that traumatize them and their children. This trauma takes a long time to process and heal from. Some feel fear, betrayal, and loneliness coupled with other negative emotions. These emotions manifest in our lives and wear away a person’s resolve. You might find that you become uncharacteristically short-tempered with your children or family members. You might always be in a constant state of distress and worry and cannot quite focus on tasks at hand. You might have also lost your zest for life and constantly feel that you need your spouse’s approval before being able to do simple tasks, such as meeting up with friends. You might feel trapped and burdened.

It may be hard to accept that there is a problem, but know that you are not alone. Acknowledging your unhappiness and that you do not deserve to be treated this way is the most crucial step. It is what you decide to do next that matters most.

If you are past the point of no return and feel that you cannot have a rational conversation with your spouse to stop their abusive behavior, below are some practical tips to guide you.

If you are in imminent danger

1. Leave the family home immediately

If you and/or your children are the victims of physical abuse or family violence and fear for your safety, you should take your important belongings and leave the family home with your children immediately if you are in a position to do so.

Stay with a family member or friend temporarily. You can also find other temporary accommodation (like a domestic abuse shelter) to keep yourself out of harm’s way before any legal protections are in place. You may also wish to call the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline (1800-777-0000) to enquire about your options and to ask for their help to point you towards a domestic abuse crisis shelter for your safe and temporary refuge.

When you do leave the family home, take active steps to keep your new residence confidential from your abuser. Do not post pictures, videos or any information online which could disclose where you are. You might even feel compelled to not disclose this address to your immediate family members if there is a risk of them disclosing it to your abuser. If you have engaged the help of a lawyer, they will need to know your address, but please highlight to them that this must be kept strictly confidential for your safety.

If there is a need for you to return to the family home, always have a trusted third party accompany you for your own safety.

2. Law enforcement and legal protections

Police Involvement

It is recommended to call the police if you or your children are being attacked by an abusive spouse. You should also try to document such violence, be it through audio or video recordings.

Though the police may decline to be involved where the abuser is not actively attacking an individual, it is always advisable to go to your nearest police station to lodge a police report after an incident. This is crucial as it serves as a record of the incident (be it verbal abuse or past incidents of physical abuse) which can be used in Court later. If you have suffered from physical injuries, this should be included in the report and the police can refer you for medical treatment. These records are essential and can be used in Court to protect you.

Applying for a Personal Protection Order (PPO)

Following this, you may wish to also go to the Family Protection Centre in the Family Justice Courts or to any Family Violence Service Centres to apply for a PPO to protect yourself and/or your children. A list of resources may be found at the end of this article to guide you through this process.

A PPO is akin to a restraining order in Singapore. You may apply for one on your own, or you may wish to engage a lawyer to help you with this.

Under the PPO regime, you may also obtain an Expedited Order (“EO”) which is an urgent and temporary order given to you immediately (and without the need for a trial) to protect you or your children from imminent danger of family violence.

Where you have no other alternatives and must still reside in the same house as your abuser, you may also apply for a Domestic Exclusion Order (DEO) under the PPO which would ban the abuser from entering certain parts of the home or from entering the home entirely.

If there is a breach of the PPO and/or an EO and/or a DEO, you must report this to the police immediately and the abuser may be fined or jailed for their breach of the PPO.

If you are not in imminent danger

If you are not in imminent danger, you should take your time to craft an exit strategy for you and your children to get out of harm’s way in the best way possible.

1. Speak to close family or friends

You may wish to first tell some close family or friends about the situation in order to have their support and to rely on them for help.

Being in an abusive marriage or relationship is difficult enough, without you isolating yourself out of fear of judgment or shame. It sometimes takes an objective person to flag out abuse to you and to give you the wakeup call you need.

While you are going through a difficult period in your life, it is always important to cultivate an emotional support system.

2. Consult a specialist family lawyer

Where possible, you might wish to consider consulting a specialist family lawyer to get comprehensive advice to guide you through the process.

Specialist family lawyers are experienced in helping clients navigate and extricate themselves from abusive marriages. With their experience, they acutely understand your suffering and their hope is to help you navigate the legal system in order to help you find a peaceful solution.

Where you choose to seek advice from makes all the difference between a nasty and stressful Court battle or an amicable and less stressful experience with a specialist family lawyer guiding you through.

3. Navigate moving out of the family home

You should start thinking about how to effectively secure alternative accommodation and when you wish to time the commencement of divorce proceedings.

Some individuals stay with friends or family during this period or find short-term rental options. You should also ensure that you have enough money saved so that you can conduct the move and to support yourself. Alternatively, you may wish to seek the assistance of friends and family for financial support to tide you over during this time. This is crucial so you do not feel compelled to remain trapped in an abusive marriage due to financial constraints.

Before you move out of the home, ensure all of your important belongings (especially your and your children’s passports, birth certificates, and health records) are with you. Besides your important belongings, you should also keep a soft or hard copy of your marriage certificate as you would need that in order to file for a divorce in Singapore.

Navigate the move during a time where you know your abuser is not at home or ask a trusted third party to help you out with the move for your own protection. You may wish to slowly and incrementally move your items, or you may wish to move all of your items at one time. The latter is recommended for your own safety. In this situation, you must be prepared that you will not be able to return to the family home.

Once you have moved out, be sure to change your residential address to your new address with your banks, government agencies and with your employer. The last thing you want is your abuser being in possession of an important document and using that to manipulate you.

4. File for a divorce

Extricating yourself from the marriage is easier when you are not physically living in the same place as your abuser, especially if you engage lawyers to assist you. Your lawyers will organize and ensure that all legal documents are served on your abusive spouse. Your lawyers will also help to minimize the need for you to communicate directly with your abusive spouse by conducting communication through lawyers.

Where you jointly own the family home you have moved out from, this asset and other joint assets acquired during the marriage will be dealt with during the divorce proceedings. Your legal interests in the property will not be prejudiced just because you have moved out. As a joint owner of the home, your legal rights will remain intact whether you reside in the home or not. The likely outcome would either be one party buying out the other party’s share in the home, or for the home to be sold and for both of you to split the net sale proceeds. For joint accounts, monies are usually ordered to be split between spouses. The aim of the divorce is to get a clean break from your spouse and for you to move on from this painful experience.

Where you have minor children and are required by the Court to attend family counselling, a counsellor or third party will always be present. Such mediation and counselling sessions can also take place without the need for you to be in the same room as your abuser. Highlight to your lawyer your concerns regarding you or your children being left alone with the abuser. This would be a prime situation for your lawyer to request that any access time the abuser has with your children will be supervised (this means it will be conducted in a neutral environment with a third-party present).

5. Prioritize your mental health

While you may be a parent with children or overstretched with other responsibilities, you must take care of yourself first. It is strongly recommended that you carve out some time for this. This could be spending time with co-workers, friends or family, or even something as simple as going for a quick 20-minute walk or meditating.

You are going through a traumatic and difficult time in your life. While the hope is that this is not a prolonged period, the trauma which has been inflicted is immense. Begin the healing process by taking care of yourself or speaking to a mental health professional or counsellor. You will be referred to a counsellor when you consult the help of a Family Service Centre or a Family Violence Service Centre. If you require urgent emotional support, please call the Samaritans of Singapore’s 24-hour hotline at 1800-221-4444.

There are many resources available to you, but you need to begin the first step which is to seek help. Once you have chartered a path forward, the dark clouds will start to clear, and you will be on your way to a happier and more peaceful life.

Your well-being is the most important thing, and you should not let another person take that away from you. While some things, such as your spouse’s behavior, are out of your control, what is in your control is how you choose to take charge of your life. Hopefully with the right insight and advice, you can be empowered to make a choice to transform your life into something better.

List of Resources
1. Guides on applying for a PPO:
https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/family/how-to-file-personal-protection-order-application
https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/family/apply-personal-protection-order
https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/docs/default-source/family-docs/ppo_guide_english.pdf

2. List of Family Violence Services Centres:
https://www.msf.gov.sg/Divorce-Support/Divorce-and-Children/Effects-on-Children/Pages/Dealing-with-Family-Violence.aspx

3. Family Service Centre E-Locator:
https://www.msf.gov.sg/dfcs/familyservice/default.aspx

4. Explanations of Family Violence and what you can do:
https://www.msf.gov.sg/policies/Strong-and-Stable-Families/Supporting-Families/Family-Violence/Pages/default.aspx

This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction.

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