Safety First: Thoughts on leaving your abuser
by: Blain Nelson
Leaving an abusive partner is a very difficult thing to do. It frequently feels like you are failing, or destroying your family, or not trying to work things out, or not giving your partner a “second chance.” It hurts, and it’s scary. Sadly, it is necessary in many abusive families and relationships if people are to be safe and if there is to be any chance of putting the family back together. (Please note that I am not saying that it is necessary in every situation, or that you must leave if you are being abused. The decision to leave or stay can only be made by the person in the situation, and I do not tell people how to make that decision. This information is aimed at those who have already made the decision and are choosing to leave, although it may be useful in helping someone make that decision as well.)
Leaving is also very dangerous. Women are more likely to be killed during or after leaving their abusers than at any other time in their abusive relationships. This is why my emphasis through this whole process is Safety First. No amount of good intentions can overcome being dead.
So, if you’re going to be leaving, please consider the following before you do it:
Think ahead and be prepared — Be Safe
Stash away the things you will need to take with you in a safe place — maybe the house of a friend that you know you can trust. Prioritize what you are taking so you can be sure to have the most important things in hand if you have to leave on short notice — nothing you own is worth more than your life. Make certain that nothing you take ahead of time will be noticed — you don’t want to compromise your safety by trying to take one thing too many (erring slightly on the side of paranoia is what I suggest).
Some good stuff to keep would be:
Legal documents for you and your kids
Social Security Cards
Any evidence documenting your abuse:
Journal/diary in which abusive events were recorded
Money and financial records and instruments, including account numbers:
Mortgages in your name
Insurance documents pertaining to you and your children
Credit Card agreements in your name
Investment documents, particularly certificates
Contact information for any support resources you will be using:
Abuse support groups
Domestic violence shelter
Personal belongings with sentimental value, which have not been destroyed. These should be heavily prioritized with an eye toward safety and ease of movement — Grandma’s wedding ring will be easier to take than her big brass bed, and taking the kids school pictures that are boxed up ahead of time will be easier than taking the ones that are on the wall (which might be grabbed in the process of leaving in a hurry).
Line up a place to stay that will have enough security that you will be safe. Again, err a little on the side of paranoia here — if you don’t think your abuser is going to be dangerous, keep in mind that even abusers who have never used physical abuse tactics have been known to kill when their partners have left. It’s better to be a little more secure than you need to be than to die because you underestimated your danger. You may even need to leave the area to get the amount of security you need — whatever it is, have as much lined up ahead of time as you can, including transportation for you and whatever else you are going to be taking.
Be prepared to stay gone for an extended amount of time — perhaps indefinitely. Your abuser is not going to suddenly become safe in a matter of a month or two. You will need to have a new place to live lined up fairly quickly because any emergency shelter you find will be very temporary in nature — a matter of a week or two.
Be prepared for your abuser to sabotage your efforts to leave. Your car may be tampered with. Your abuser may take time off of work to stay around the house to make sure you don’t leave. The abuse may escalate, or you may begin a whole new Honeymoon Phase.
Be careful about who you notify about your plans to leave. Some friends or family members, with the best of intentions, may tell your abuser of your plans to leave, or otherwise leak the information in a way which could put you in a great deal of jeopardy.
Be tolerant of those who counsel you to “give it one more chance” or to “try to make it work out.” They mean well but have no idea of how much effort you’ve put into this already and how much danger you are in. If it helps, hear these words as “We don’t want you to make the decision to leave lightly because we know it will have serious impacts on the rest of your life.”
Some folks, including members of your family, may go beyond this and actively oppose you leaving. Perhaps this is because they feel that it will reflect badly on them to have this “failure” in their family — it’s hard to say. You may be able to accurately identify the sources of this opposition and the form that opposition may take, and take this into account in preparing your safety plan. Then again, you might not be. So just be prepared to be surprised — it’s much better to be pleasantly surprised that nothing unexpected happens than it is to be unpleasantly surprised when opposition comes from an unexpected source.
Ask for referrals to attorneys with experience in helping abuse victims. Adequate legal representation can help make certain that all appropriate criminal and civil legal steps are taken to protect you.
Understand the limitations and uses of a protective order or no contact order. Although they can not stop a bullet (unless they are printed on kevlar), they can be useful as a part of your total safety plan.
Please consider leaving a note. It doesn’t have to be much — just a short note explaining that you are leaving, that you are safe, that you don’t want your abuser to try to find you or to bother your family or friends, and that you will be in touch as soon as you feel safe to do so. Or any of part of that that you feel comfortable with — certainly be cautious about providing any information that might in any way compromise your security. This little thing can save a lot of heartache in your abuser if he or she has any legitimate concern for you and your welfare — if you feel like showing your abuser a bit of compassion, this will be more than adequate.
The Metro Nashville Police Department has some excellent information in putting together a safety plan before leaving.
After you go
Understand that leaving will not solve all your problems. The damage that has been done has been done, and you aren’t going to heal from it without considerable time and effort. And no, this isn’t fair, but it is real. Enjoy your sense of freedom and safety, but remember that there is a lot of work and tough time in front of you. When those bad times come, you may be tempted to give up or look for an easy way out instead of sticking to your guns. Be prepared for your discouragement and you’re less likely to be blown away by it. As the 12 Step folks say, the only way out is through.
Step up your use of whatever therapy and support groups are available after you leave. Be sensitive to any tendencies in yourself to overlook potential dangers should you return, any feelings that your abuser has changed (with less than six months weekly treatment and a commitment to lifetime support and accountability), any feelings that this was all your fault, any feelings that you are worthless, or any feelings that you are harming your children by breaking up their family — these are very common feelings and fears that people use to justify to themselves (and others) their giving up on the healing and recovering process in favor of returning to the comfort of the abuse cycle they’ve grown accustomed to.
As much as possible in this time period, focus on what you see and think rather than what you feel. Your feelings can be expected to swing wildly, and are not going to be reliable guides in every instance. It is very common after leaving an abusive situation for feelings of love for your abuser and mourning of your relationship to make going back into that situation seem very attractive or even necessary. One of the most important thing you can do is to be honest with yourself and look at the hard cold reality of where you are and work with what is, rather than what might be. Comforting lies and denial will find you back with your abuser and under the gun again if you entertain them, and that’s not going to feel any better in the long-run than where you are now.
Be prepared for your abuser to experience a “miraculous recovery”. You may see tears. You may get presents. You may get wonderful sounding apologies — perhaps publically and embarrassingly. You may hear all the things you’ve wanted to hear but have never heard before. This is all very interesting, and may be heart-felt and sincere. However, none of this matters if your abuser isn’t progressing in an active treatment environment for at least a year. This may be Honeymoon Phase stuff, or it may be reality. Until you see real accountability for the past and ongoing accountability for the mistakes along the way, you will have no way of knowing which it is.
Those considering returning to a relationship they have left because they were being abused, please review this document for ideas on how to tell if this is a good idea and how to go about it if it is.
Give yourself some time before you consider starting a relationship with someone else. A year or two is not an unreasonable time to wait. People, like water, seek their own level, and the sort of person you will attract and be attracted to early in your recovery is not the sort of person you will be attracted to (or even interested in) after a couple of years of healing. There is also a danger of trying to anesthetize the pain you will experience with the strong feelings that come from romance and sex, in much the same way people anesthetize their pain with drugs like alcohol. Be patient with yourself, and be strong.
If you have children, they, of course, will have issues to deal with because of this. Parenting is a whole new set of issues you will need to take into account in the midst of your healing process.
Miscellaneous comments for perspective.
On average, an abuse victim will leave his or her abuser seven times before staying gone. This is due in part to a lack of preparation, be it physical, financial or mental. This going and coming process can be quite grueling and dangerous — remember that the most dangerous point in an abusive relationship is the time during and immediately after leaving.
Leaving your abuser does not mean giving up on your marriage or never giving your abuser a chance to change and put the relationship back together. Leaving can be the very thing that gives you a chance to put your relationship together. However, the longer you wait to leave — the more crap you put up with before leaving — the less chance there is that you will be able to put your relationship back together even if your abuser does change. Abusers can change, but most don’t change fundamentally to become abuse-free — they just change tactics to continue getting what they want — Honeymoon Phase stuff. Remember, remember, remember: Safety First.