Separation and Divorce When There is Domestic Violence

Reviewed July 2023

"Domestic violence" refers to many kinds of abuse committed by a member of a family, a household, or an intimate partner against another member of the family, household, or against the intimate partner. "Domestic violence" also refers to many forms of abuse committed by one person against another in certain dating relationships or engagements.

You can seek a court order to protect you if your abuser

  • harms you physically,
  • tries to harm you physically,
  • makes you afraid that serious physical harm is going to happen to you, or
  • threatens, pressures or forces you to have sex.

This court order is to protect you from further harm. It is called an "abuse prevention order," a "restraining order," or a "209A."

"Domestic violence" is sometimes called "battering," and it also refers to abusive patterns of power and control in family, household, and intimate partner relationships.

The American Bar Association says that "Domestic violence is a pattern of many behaviors directed at achieving and maintaining power and control over an intimate partner, such as physical violence, emotional abuse, isolation of the victim, economic abuse, intimidation, and coercion and threats."

Learn more about custody and domestic violence in the Domestic Violence section.

Learn more about Can the Other Parent Take Our Child? in the Domestic Violence section.

Learn about What if the Other Parent Tries to Control my Parenting? in the Domestic Violence section.

This article is Chapter 8 of Where Do We Go from Here?, a self-help “know your rights” manual designed to provide community legal education to victims and survivors of intimate partner violence, shelter and other intimate partner violence service provider staff, and other non-lawyers who have questions about getting out of and staying out of abusive situations. 

"Where Do We Go From Here?" was produced by Western Massachusetts Legal Services (now Community Legal Aid).

Produced by an AmeriCorps Project of Western Massachusetts Legal Services updated and revised Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed August 2015

The main difference between separation and divorce is that divorce ends your marriage. Separation means you are still married, but you do not live with your spouse. You have to go to court to be divorced. You do not have to go to court to be separated.

What is a divorce?

divorce icon courtesy of

A divorce is a judgment of the Probate and Family Court that ends your marriage.
Divorce judgments also include:

If you and your spouse can agree about all of these things, you can write up an agreement and ask the judge to approve it.  If you can agree on some things but not on others, you will have a chance to tell the judge. The judge will decide the things that you and your spouse cannot agree on. She will review your agreements to be sure they are fair.  If you cannot agree on any of these things, the judge will decide all of them at a trial. You and your spouse will both get a chance to testify. You will also be able to show the court documents and have witnesses testify.   

Do I have to get a divorce if I want to live apart from my spouse?

No. You do not have to get a divorce if you want to live apart. You can stay married and live in different places. You do not have to go to court to be “legally separated” in Massachusetts. It is legal to live apart from your spouse.

You still have to make decisions about money, property, and child custody and support.  If you and your spouse cannot agree, you can ask the judge to decide these things in a Complaint for Separate Support or Complaint for Support.

What is the difference between a Judgment of Divorce and a Judgment of Separate Support?

The main difference between a Judgment of Divorce and a Judgment of Separate Support is that a Judgment of Divorce ends the marriage. A Judgment of Separate Support does not end the marriage.

A Judgment of Separate Support can include orders of support for you, child support, custody, parenting time, and visitation. It can also decide who gets to stay in your home and what happens to things like bank accounts and personal property. You can get this judgment and still stay legally married.

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