Expert Advice on How to Leave an Abusive Relationship

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This story contains descriptions of physical and emotional abuse. If you or a loved one is a victim of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or log on to thehotline.org for help, or call 911 if physical abuse is happening or imminent. For more about the warning signs of domestic abuse, visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) website at womenslaw.org.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, you might think you’re hopelessly stuck. Those feelings are normal — in fact, the stats confirm how hard it is for victims of domestic violence to free themselves. “It takes an average of five to seven attempts for someone to leave an abusive relationship permanently,” says Judy Ho, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist and author of Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation. “Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not successful the first time. And never think it’s not worth it.”

In short, extricating yourself from a physically, emotionally or financially abusive relationship could save your life. It likely won’t be easy, but there are steps you can take and plenty of resources available to help boost your chances of getting out for good.

Remember that you’re not alone.

When you’re dealing with abuse of any kind, whether it’s physical, verbal or any other variety, you may feel like you’re stranded on an island. Sadly, the stats on domestic violence paint a grim picture of just how common domestic abuse is: 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some sort of physical violence from an intimate partner, nearly half of both men and women have dealt with psychologically aggressive behavior from an intimate partner and 94-99% of domestic violence survivors have dealt with financial abuse too, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That means that someone in your community has likely experienced what you’re going through.

Know that wanting to leave is brave.

“One of the first things you should realize when you reach the point of wanting to leave is that you are very, very brave and courageous for taking the steps to do so,” says Shanequa Anne Holiday, M.P.A., senior director of shelters for Safe Horizon. “Be empowered by your bravery in wanting to keep yourself and your family safe.”

Loop in your support system.

Make a list of trusted people — friends, family members, a neighbor or coworker — you can count on to help if you need it. These will be folks who know your situation and what you’ve been going through, on some level, and who you can turn to during the leaving process and beyond. “These may be people your partner knows (or not), but preferably it will be people that they don’t know well. Have the contact info of your support system on hand, and let them know that you may need them at the drop of a hat,” says Kiaundra Jackson, L.M.F.T., of KW Couples Therapy.

Your trusted people can also serve as accountability partners, of sorts, and can help you navigate the many back-and-forths that may be bouncing around your head. “It’s totally normal to second guess yourself — it’s a very serious step to take that is literally life-changing, so it can be scary and stressful. It’s OK to be nervous, but that’s why it’s important to confide in someone (or a few someones) whom you trust who can remind you of why you’re doing this in the first place,” Jackson says. “Having a support system that can snap you back into reality and encourage you to make this change is important.”

Make an escape plan.

Everyone’s action plan will look different, but it’s essential to have one. Organizing your thoughts and resources ahead of time will help you stay calm and know what to do even when emotions are high. You can find step-by-step instructions for what makes a good safety plan through domestic violence resources such as thehotline.org — you can personalize the plan to fit your specific situation, such as if you have kids, pets or are pregnant, and there are trained advocates available to help you navigate the process 24/7 via phone (1-800-799-SAFE), text (text START to 88788), or live chat.

Your safety plan will take into account all the things that are most important to you and what you’ll need for a safe fresh start (such as financials, finding a safe location to go to when you leave or accessing a lawyer). “It may include a list of safe and unsafe areas, a list of phone numbers you may need in a crisis and suggestions for what to include in a go-bag,” says Holiday.

It’s also a good idea to think about where you can store this plan where your abuser won’t find it, such as on a work computer or an innocuous scrap of paper in your wallet or pocketbook.

Research local resources.

Many domestic violence organizations can help you sort out temporary housing, financial assistance and more. Safe Horizon, for instance, works with abuse survivors in New York City to help place them in safe shelters, coordinate transportation, provide essentials like clothing and food. Safe Horizon can even help track down important documents you may have had to leave behind. “We also offer help with childcare, medical care, trauma counseling and more,” Holiday says. “We will connect you with resources you need so that folks have to worry about one less thing.”

See what options exist in your local area — national resources like thehotline.org can help you figure out what’s available to you wherever you are.

Pack a go-bag.

“Try to fill a small bag with all of your essentials that you can grab if you have to make a quick exit,” says Dr. Ho. Think things like necessary paperwork and documents (copies or originals of birth certificates, medical records, social security cards, passports, etc.), any money you can squirrel away without your abuser noticing, medication and clothing. If you know there’s nowhere you can hide this bag at home where your abuser won’t find it, ask someone in your support system if you can stash it with them.

Cover your tracks.

If your abuser is controlling or monitors your communications and internet activity, it’s crucial for you to avoid tipping them off to your plan. Try to access online resources outside your home if at all possible, and delete your internet browsing history on any home computer, tablet and your phone. This is also where your support system can lend a hand— they can help you with research. And never share details of your safety plan with anyone who may give your abuser a heads-up. The circle of individuals who know what you’re doing should be small and trustworthy.

Take notes.

Many people caught in abusive relationships keep track of instances of abuse or other details that may help them down the line if they seek to press charges or navigate a child custody situation, says Dr. Ho. And it’s important to continue tracking these things even after you’ve made up your mind that it’s time to leave. “Keep notes or files about what’s been going on. If your abuser has shared access to your computer or phone, name the file something completely mundane, so they don’t try to open it,” Dr. Ho adds.

Consider talking to a therapist.

When you’re ready to think about leaving but just need that extra little push, finding a therapist to talk things out with can help. As an outsider looking in, they can offer insights that your friends or loved ones may not, and they can often help you jumpstart your escape plan. “This can help you realize the urgency to get out of the situation and give you the confidence to take the next steps,” Jackson says.

Establish distance.

Staying away physically is obviously what your end game is, but distancing yourself from your abuser “virtually” is also a super important step in helping you not go back. “Block their number or delete it, block all their social media, block their email. You don’t want them to be able to have any type of contact with you that could trigger you to want to go back,” advises Jackson. “Tell your family and friends to cut ties with your abuser, too; everyone in your inner circle has to cut ties with them so that it’s not easy for them to try to ease their way back into your life.”

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