by Rachel Gore
ccording to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 10 million people are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. each year: 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 talking about someone in an abusive relationship, many ask the question “why don’t they just leave?” For people who have never experienced abuse themselves, this solution makes sense. Unfortunately, the decision to leave an abuser is a lot more complicated than simply walking away. There are a number of reasons that a victim may be staying with their abuser, such as:
» Being scared 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.
» Feeling embarrassed about admitting to others that they are being abused. Male victims, in particular may fear being ridiculed by others for “letting” a female partner abuse them.
» They may blame themselves for the abuse, or in cases of emotional abuse, not recognize that abuse is happening due to not understanding healthy vs. unhealthy behavior.
» Not having the 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 that you stay safe and end 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. This makes planning ahead even more important. There are multiple questions you should take into consideration when making your plan:
Where will you stay?
Oftentimes, individuals in abusive relationships have lost contact with or been forced to isolate themselves from family and friends. If possible, reach out to a trusted loved one for assistance leaving and a place to stay. 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 ahead is preferable, abusive situations can escalate to the point where you need to escape the house immediately. Even if you do not feel ready to leave for good, 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 definitively out of the house, such as while they are 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 that require restraining orders or charges to be filed against your abuser. They can also help work through matters like visitation rights. This 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 are unable to safely visit a mental health professional in person, there are many online resources that 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 critically important when leaving an abusive relationship, especially if you are afraid that 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/or 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 if you have 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 some day, 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, it is important to seek out professional mental healthcare. 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 people who have been abused in a relationship end up being a victim of abuse in future relationships. A counselor can help you establish healthy boundaries, gain a deeper understanding of 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 an incredibly difficult and courageous decision to make. Recovery can be a long, bumpy road, but there is still hope for a safe and happy future.
You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-7233 to learn more about many helpful resources and to discover local shelters in your area. They also have a 24/7 live chat service on their website at www.thehotline.org.