by Rachel Gore
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 10 million people undergo physical abuse by an intimate partner in the U.S. annually. That’s the equivalent of 20 people per minute. One in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence or stalking in their lifetime.
When discussing someone in an abusive relationship, many ask, “why don’t they just leave?” For people who have never experienced abuse themselves, this solution makes sense. Unfortunately, leaving an abuser is much more complicated than simply walking away. There are many reasons that a victim may be staying with their abuser, such as:
- Fear about what will happen to them if they leave, especially if the abuser is physically violent or has previously threatened to hurt or kill them.
- Embarrassment about telling others about the abuse. Male victims, in particular, may fear being ridiculed by others for “letting” a female partner abuse them.
- Blaming themselves for the abuse or, in cases of emotional abuse, not recognizing that abuse is happening due to not understanding healthy vs. unhealthy behavior.
- Lack of financial means to support themselves.
- Wanting to keep the family together (especially if children are involved).
As a victim of abuse, any or all of these reasons may make you feel trapped, that you are out of options or that it isn’t “bad enough” for you to leave. Unfortunately, the majority of abusive relationships escalate over time. Emotional abuse can turn into physical abuse, and physical abuse can become increasingly violent. The sooner you get out, the safer you are from this escalation. As terrifying as it is to leave, planning ahead will maximize the possibility of staying safe and ending the abuse for good.
Make a detailed plan.
Due to the physically violent nature of many abusers, the most dangerous period for victims is immediately after the relationship ends. Doing so makes planning even more critical. There are multiple questions you should take into consideration when making your plan:
Where will you stay?
Often, abusers force their victims to lose contact with or isolate themselves from family and friends. Contact a trusted loved one for assistance leaving and a place to stay if possible. If this is not an option, communities usually offer domestic violence shelters as space places for victims to hide. They may even help you with transportation.
What will you bring?
While planning is preferable, abusive situations can escalate to the point where you must immediately escape the house. Even if you do not feel ready to leave permanently, consider preparing an emergency bag with essentials like clothing, important documents, prescriptions and cash and storing it somewhere safe that is not in your home.
If you plan on bringing your children with you, make arrangements for them, such as how they will get to school and, depending on their age, how much you want to tell them about the situation.
When will you leave?
The safest time to leave is when your partner is not home—otherwise, you risk facing a dangerous confrontation. If possible, wait until your partner is out of town or will be out of the house, such as while at work. Tell someone you trust your plan, so they know to check in on you, but keep it limited to as few ears as possible.
Will you contact law enforcement?
While not everybody wants to get the police or a lawyer involved, it will be necessary to do so in cases requiring restraining orders or charges against your abuser. They can also help work through matters like visitation rights. Leaving an unhealthy situation is a deeply personal decision, which is a reason to consider speaking with a mental health or domestic violence professional about your plan. If you cannot safely visit a mental health professional in person, many online resources can help.
Protect Your Privacy.
By only telling essential people about your exit plan, you are already taking steps to protect your privacy. Privacy is critical when leaving an abusive relationship, especially if you fear your abuser will retaliate. Do not stay in your own home alone. Change the locks, and add the local police station’s number into your phone as a contact or speed dial.
Do your best to inform trusted individuals at your job and children’s schools so that they know to take action if your abuser is spotted. If you can, block your abuser from texting, calling or reaching out to you on social media and do not respond to their attempts to talk things through. If you have to interact with them, such as having children together, only meet up in public environments and never go alone.
Recover and Break The Cycle.
The way people speak about recovering from an abusive relationship is overwhelmingly negative: “well, you may move on someday, but the trauma will probably impact you for the rest of your life.” While it is true that recovery can take months to years, do not believe you are doomed to have a lifetime of unhealed trauma. Things truly can get better, and there are steps you can take to begin the healing process.
Finding a mental health or domestic violence counselor to help you work through the lingering trauma is a great option. Even after any physical wounds heal, seeking professional mental healthcare is essential. Verbal and emotional abuse can lead to depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, social withdrawal, chronic pain and even physical side effects like migraines.
Seeking help can also help you break the cycle. Unfortunately, many abuse victims end up in other abusive relationships in the future. A counselor can help you establish healthy boundaries, understand what abuse is and isn’t, work through your lingering emotional trauma and low self-esteem, and identify behavioral red flags in future partners.
Leaving an abuser is a challenging and courageous decision to make. Recovery can be a long, bumpy road, but there is always hope for a safe and happy future. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-SAFE (7233) to learn about many helpful resources and discover local shelters in your area. They also have a 24/7 live chat service on their website at www.thehotline.org, or you can text “START” to 88788
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