Leaving and Safety
On this page, we'll look at the topic of leaving an abusive relationship.
What many people who think that abusive relationships are easy to walk away from don't understand is that leaving, for some women, is extremely dangerous - the risk of rape or even homicide increases as a woman is leaving or after she has left. (Bergen, R. Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers, Sage Publications, California, 1996) Don't allow anybody to push you into doing anything before you feel ready. You know best what you need to do, and your assessment of danger is more accurate than anybody else's. If your life is in danger, you will need to discuss a safety plan with an advocate - we'll look at this further. Please be aware that what's on this page isn't an attempt to say "If you do A, B, OR C, you won't get hurt." Rather there is some information which may give you a chance of staying safe if you're leaving. If you are looking at leaving, I hope some of the information on this page will be useful to you at what can be a frightening and lonely time.
Some of what follows is based in my professional knowledge, and some in my own experiences.
Again, take what feels right for you and leave the rest.
FOR WOMEN ABUSED BY NON-COHABITING PARTNERS
Women who break up with partners they didn't live with also face threats, stalking, rape, and other acts of abuse or intimidation. This may be particularly true for teenage girls who have to go to school with their abusers. Some perpetrators who don't live with the partners they abuse actually step up control and intimidation tactics.
Teen dating violence is prevalent and increasing. If you are a teenager, please know that if you can't talk to anybody around you about your fear, the hotlines can help you. The following writing is intended for non-cohabiting partners as well as women who have lived with violent men.
WANT TO LEAVE BUT ARE FRIGHTENED?
This is entirely understandable - it is an act of defiance against somebody who has harmed you; it is painful and is a leap into the unknown. It is also true that for some women, leaving escalates a partner's violence., which you no doubt already know. Please, do call a hotline and discuss options for leaving safely. Are there any other supports you have? Perhaps you might list what they are, and how each of them can help you; i.e. is there a friend whom you know will lend you money? A family member who can put you and any children up? Do you need a police escort to help you leave? In preparation for leaving, it will be essential to make a safety plan that has the best chance of working for you. You may want to discuss this with a domestic violence worker. Please see this page: Safety Plans.
THINGS TO BEWARE OF
If you're leaving, it may be that you've tried many times before to go, and you know precisely the sort of sabotages that your partner has up his sleeve. This time, you may want to include as part of your safety plan how you will respond to these sabotages. Let's look at some of the emotional traps men who don't want to let go use (Easteal, P. And McOrmond-Plummer, L, Real Rape Real Pain: Help for Women Sexually Assaulted by Male Partners, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 2006):
Guilt Trips: Do you find that even though it's you who have been hurt, you care more about his feelings than you do about yourself? It's possible that in having to respond toy his needs, yours have had to come a big fat last every time. No fair, sister. You will need to try and put yourself first now. Please know that if he tells you his life is in the toilet without you and so on, you are not responsible, not for his life or his feelings. Consider that he knows which parts of you are fair game i.e. that you are inclined to sympathy for him, and he can turn those parts on and off at will. He does this to control you, not because you are heartless for leaving. Please also know that if he appeals to you to stay "for the children", that seeking to extricate yourself from an abusive relationship is not cruel to your children, it is an act of loving responsibility. You don't have to be 'nice". Judith Herman writes that women leaving a violent relationship must supress their most compassionate parts (Trauma And Recovery: From Domestic Abuse To Political Terror, Basic Books, USA, 1990) This was de\finitely true for me. The alst time I left, I was determined I was never going back. Paul attempted to engage my sympathy and guilt at every possible angle, and I had to ruthlessly deaden myself against it. This is incredibly difficult if you're a naturally compassionate person, but sometimes it's the only way. Do have support to talk to about how difficult it is. I used to cry my eyes out after a successful resistance session. It felt horrible, but I see that it saved me from falling to the guilt-trips.
Ardent wooing: When you threaten to leave, does your house look like a florist salon for a few days, while he gives you unusual help with the kids? Does he say you are the only woman he could ever love? Perhaps you find yourself thinking that this time it really will be different. If your ex is obsessively trying to get you to come back, please remember that no matter what he says, he is operating within a certain agenda. A violent partner usually does not have your interest at heart. He may genuinely love you, but love has become confused with ownership, and this is dangerous to you. Watch your heart too. You've loved him genuinely, and there is appeal in being loved back and believing that he's really sorry. Perhaps you've lived for these times of passionate love as they've given you temporary surcease from the violence. It may be that there's a degree of traumatic bonding going on (for more about this, please read this article). You need to think as he thinks, and get support as you extricate yourself.
Promises of change: He may pull out all the stops to convince you that he'll do anything for just one more chance to prove that he can change. Religious conversions are not unusual at this time, and he may promise you he'll attend counselling. If he is really serious about this, he will attend on his own, and the counselling will be centered around him taking responsibility for the violence. He will do this because hurting you is wrong, and he won't hold one or two appointments up as proof that he's such a good boy you should go back. Of course, if you are ready to leave, you may have stopped believing the promises. Please read How To Tell They are Not Changing Their Abusive Behavior.
Getting family, friends or clergy to appeal to you: Abusers often successfully manipulate not just their partners, but family, friends and even counsellors. Anybody who doesn't take the abuse you've experienced seriously enough to support you, or who has greater loyalty toward him than you, isn't the best person to be offering you advice, even if you do like and respect them.
Sex with your ex: Many women are so lonely and broken after the end and regardless of how bad the abuse was. When the abuser comes with declarations of love and entreaties to go back, they might find it difficult to resist going bed with him. You may feel as if he basically still owns you anyhow, and feel intense shame, as if he's all you're good for. But he is likely to think that this is a foot in the door to get you back. It doesn't help if you are trying to break free. If you can, the break needs to be as clean as possible.
The Coercion Factor: Some abusers understand that their control over a woman has not ended with the relationship, and they can continue to terrorize\ze and control her for even years after the end of a relationship. This is called the "coercion factor." Does your ex-partner still expect loans of money, or for you to have 'dates' with him? Women may acquiesce to such demands out of ongoing, trauma based fear. It might be hard for you to believe he can no longer call the shots in your life, and you are trying to survive - after all, defying him in the past has been dangerous. You are responding in ways that may have saved your life in the past. However, if you're afraid of frustrating him, consider that acquiescing to all his demands except what he really wants - your return - will frustrate him anyhow and be dangerous to you. Freedom must be true freedom. Please read this article about limiting contact with abusers - I think it's really helpful.
Overconfidence: I add this one because it was my experience and I hope to help a sister avoid the same pitfall :) The first time I left my abuser, I was free for 3 weeks - the longest I'd ever been free for. I was starting to believe in a future of freedom and felt a little stronger. I felt that I could "manage" him better, and so allowed him into my home one evening to talk to me. I was raped, and it was this rape that I remained most traumatized by for twenty years. I don't blame myself; it's just an honest assessment of something which was not helpful to me. Feeling confident in taking back your life is wonderful. But please, do remember that he may still be dangerous. Look after you, okay? What happens to you matters to me.
If he threatens suing you for custody of the children, this can be extremely frightening. I nearly went back because of it. Sometimes it's an idle threat - but a vile one that the abuser knows will frighten a mother. If you think it isn't, it's a good idea to seek legal advice. For women's legal advice bodies (some of which are free or nominal in cost) go here. If you must see him regarding children, make certain it is to see the children. Too many women have found that men use the pretext of visiting children to harass or abuse the mothers further. If this is what's happening to you, it is still unsafe. Is it possible for him to see the children on neutral territory?
Sometimes, there may be grounds for him having no access to the children if he is dangerous. You'll need to seek legal advice about this.
Please don't feel as if your seeking safety has deprived your children of growing up without a father. People, including him, may try to lay that one at your door. But the end of the relationship is a consequence of his behaviour. Please see here for some legal resources.
If you are being stalked, surveilled, threatened or intimidated in any way, please think about a restraining order. If you feel you are still in danger, please contact the police.
Some women don't seek restraining orders because they're afraid such action may provoke the abuser, or will be useless. Of course they don't offer ironclad guarantees, but they are shown to be helpful in a high proportion of cases. Do read this and see what you think:
Orders for Protection; New News: Only 20% of women who report partner violence get protection orders, known as restraining orders that prohibit their abusers from certain types of contact. While the effectiveness of these orders has been a subject of debate, a new large-scale study suggests that they can and do work. A retrospective study of 2691 victims of partner abuse found that those who received a permanent court-ordered protection order (usually lasting 12 months) had an 80% less risk of further abuse compared with women not receiving a protection order. Women who received temporary protection orders (usually in effect for 2 weeks) were no more likely to experience physical abuse than women without any protection order although their risk of psychological abuse (harassment, stalking and threats) was far greater. The study was authored by Dr. Mary A. Kernic of the University of Washington and the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2002.
Newsletter of Silent Witness National Initiative Nov. 2002)
You may also want to lay charges, and you are entitled to this. Speak to a domestic violence advocate/counsellor about this - go here for contacts.
For some women, going underground is an option because they will never be safe otherwise.
Remember that plenty of women, self included, get out, survive and go on to have happy and productive lives. Here is a link about restraining orders.
Stalking is a serious problem, and entails a deliberate pattern of threatening or annoying behaviour in the form of following you, threats, phone calls, letters, emails, sending "gifts" ("nice" gifts like flowers, or macabre items like dismembered animal parts), driving by your home, approaching you or your property, or surveillance - watching you, or tapping your phone. Although we most often hear about stalking in terms of celebrities who are victims, the most common context for stalking is after the end of a relationship, especially where there has been violence. American statistics estimate that 90% of women murdered by violent ex-partners were stalked prior to the killings (Stalked: Breaking the Silence on the Crime of Stalking in America, Schaum, M, and Parrish, K. Pocket Books, New York (1995 ).
Teen girls often face stalking by ex-boyfriends as well, which can be problematic if both attend the same school. Violent ex-partners often believe they have a right to reclaim, pursue or punish their ex-partner.
Remember that stalking is a crime. The feelings of fear and unsafety created by stalking may also make it hard for you to move into healing.
If you are taking police action (it is strongly recommended you do), evidence is important. Always record dates and times of incidents. Preserve emails and letters, or gifts. Keep telephone messages. If possible, ask your workmates or neighbours to tell you if they see somebody fitting the stalker's description near your home, school or place of work. Ask any witnesses if they are prepared to testify. For helpful stalking resources, go here
Sexual assault if you threaten to leave or after you have left may be a punishment or a form of sabotage. It is usually all about exerting control. Your partner may believe that if he can "have" you in that way, you'll come back - he may also be attempting to make you pregnant to force you to remain/go back. Some women are not raped until they leave, but if he's used rape as a form of control or punishment in the past, chances are he'll see it as fair game. Contrary to the view of rape of an ex-partner as an act of passion by a desperate man, it of often premeditated, and is a vicious way of trying to force you to change your mind or inflict punishment on you for exercising the right to make choices about your future.
Be very careful of being alone with him. Some perpetrators plead that they "just want to talk to you - perhaps to "say goodbye nicely" and rape may be heralded by late-night visits. Other perpetrators kidnap their partners of the street for the purpose of rape or surprise them when they're alone)
If you are raped in an attempt to leave, or after you have left (and I hope you will not be), you might want to speak to a rape crisis worker about your feelings and options re reporting. Remember that delayed reporting can lead to the disappearance of vital evidence.
Whether you lay charges or not, you also might want to go to a hospital for injury or pregnancy issues - you can have a rape crisis worker or good friend attend with you. Please see the article What do do if you have been raped.. Also, try to get compassionate support as soon as you can. You deserve it.
You may want to try counselling, or your partner may entreat you to go to counselling to save your relationship. Please be aware that if your partner is taking no (real) responsibility for the violence, couples counselling is not a safe option for you. Some couples counsellors see violence as a mutual problem rather than something he does to control you - they may assume a level playing field. Also, they may collude with an abuser who is able to manipulate them. Any counselling should be undertaken at least initially alone, and predicated on empowering you; acknowledging that the perpetrator is responsible for the abuse.
I know I've said "get support" over and over again on this page. Here are just couple of ways in which you may do that: Domestic violence advocates are compassionate and trained in assisting women with many parts of the leaving process, both before and after. Counselling is usually free and is confidential. See this page.
The messageboard I co-moderate for survivors of rape and sexual assault has a forum for abusive relationships. You are most welcome to register and post for support. Alternatively, here is a board especially for survivors of domestic violence. It is a very supportive place, and there are women there who have faced every dilemma that you will face. They will support you.