How I left an Abusive Relationship (and you can too)

Leaving an abusive relationship is scary and confusing. Furthermore, it's hard to get advice on what to do. After all, no one understands your situation better than you. I was in an abusive relationship for 8 years. I had two children during the marriage. I decided to leave 5 years ago. My hope is that by sharing my experiences, it will help someone out there in need. Please know up front that I am not a counselor, lawyer, or doctor and my advice is not meant to replace theirs. I am simply one person with an experience reaching out to another.

The face of domestic violence is different in every case. The offender can be male or female. The extent and type of control varies based on socioeconomic status, religious background, cultural standards and other external factors. I want to warn you that there are a significant amount of old biases out there and if you're planning on leaving an abusive relationship, you're bound to encounter them. Never allow someone else's opinion change your mind. If you feel you need to leave, then trust your intuition and do it. During the process it is important you be as purposeful and rational as possible through this entire process. Not only must you get out IMMEDIATELY, but you will also want to STAY OUT and keep your abuser from hurting you in the future. Your plan needs to keep that in mind.

I also want to point out that I don't include "call the police" as one of my steps. I'm going to be very honest here...I never went to the police and I wish I would have. When I filed for divorce there was no documentation about my abuse. Had I actually called the police, I might have full custody of my children instead of joint. Had I called the police my abuser would be in jail and wouldn't have moved on to abuse others after me. I also realize that calling the police can be very risky. Perhaps your abuser knows the local law enforcement (mine did) or perhaps he or she is a member of law enforcement. Or maybe you simply do not want to be held hostage when police arrive, or are afraid of what will happen in the minutes after you call for help. For the sake of this post, I won't get into this debate here but I will leave you with this...go with your gut instinct. If you can safely call the police, do it. There will be a day where you will regret it if you don’t.

1. Know that you are making the right decision.
One of the most commonly misunderstood parts of domestic violence is why the abused person continues to stay in the relationship. I explore the reasons "why people stay" in a different post, but for now let's just say that the reasons are deeper than anyone can understand...unless they've been there themselves. It is very possible that you have been told that "If it was really as bad as you say it is, you would have left by now". I am here to tell you: It is as bad as you say it is. You need to leave. You need to be completely selfish in this moment and make this decision for you.

2. Contact a lawyer.
If you are married, or are sharing residence or property with your abuser, you need to call a lawyer. This is an ABSOLUTE must if you have children. You do not want to be put in a position where you are breaking laws. I cannot tell you the number of times that, had I followed the advice of my friends or coworkers, I would have broken the law or got myself into a bad legal situation. Custody battles are always cases of "he said she said". It is of the utmost importance for you to position yourself as a calm, rational person (even though you are a nervous wreck inside) and the decisions you make and actions you take need to reflect that. Most lawyers allow you to have a free phone consultation. Call for consultations until you find someone who supports you and you feel comfortable confiding in. You need a lawyer who is nice to you but a beast in the court room. If you cannot find a lawyer or don’t know where to start, call your local domestic violence shelter and speak to an advocate. They will guide you to someone who can advise you legally.

3. Tell someone you trust what you plan to do.
There are so many reasons why this step is important. Primarily, you need to have the time to rationally talk through your plan of departure with someone. This will allow you to fully realize the plan and also make it physically real to you. I thought of leaving my abuser every single day for seven years. It was not until I told someone that I actually felt like I could do it. From the time I voiced my plan until the time I left was one week. One week, and I was suddenly free from years of pain and fear. You will get there too!

4. Arrange for a place to stay.
I do NOT recommend staying alone for the first couple of days after leaving the relationship, mostly for safety reasons. The most dangerous time for you is going to be the first few days after leaving. I would leave the area, if that is a possibility. When I left my abuser, I drove 4.5 hours away to my mother's house. I did not tell anyone where I was going. In fact, I didn't even tell my mom until I got there. If a friend or family member is not an option, I would recommend a hotel (in a different town) with well-lit parking lots, security, and rooms that can only be accessed from inside the building. Or you can stay at your local domestic violence shelter. Every shelter has their own procedure for accepting people, so you will want to check this one out in advance as it can take time.
Do not underestimate your abuser. People do crazy things when they are placed in these situations. Over SEVENTY percent of domestic violence murders take place AFTER the victim has left. Take every precaution you can.

5. Have enough money to get away. Do not worry about having enough money to start over.
Money is the number one reason why so many people I know in abusive relationships do not leave. Part of the control your abuser has over you is financial. They either spend all of the money or you do not have access to it. I must stress to're never going to have a "perfect" amount of money saved to leave. Delaying until you have a sizable cushion is delaying your freedom and guaranteeing that you'll be sticking around for more abuse. I for one told myself multiple times that I "would leave when...I got the tax return/student loan refunds/the kids were out of school" etc. When I left my abuser I had $100 in cash on me. I used $50 of that to get to my mom's house. Once I arrived safely, I started to work with my bank and my family to get enough money for the bare essentials. I would also recommend applying for government programs (temporary assistance, food stamps, etc) if you qualify.
Note: if you do have money in the bank, I would withdraw it as soon as you are safely able to. The first thing my abuser did when he found out I had left was drain my bank account. That was his first priority, to make sure I didn't make it far. Again, do not underestimate them.

6. Make your exit swift and without commotion.
Even before I left my abusive relationship I enjoyed watching crime shows on a regular basis. After several episodes I began to notice a disturbing pattern. Domestic violence situations that ended in murder almost ALWAYS occurred over an argument where, investigators theorized, the abused person revealed their intent to leave. Don't make this mistake. Do not sit down with your abuser and try to rationally talk about leaving. Chances are you've done it before and they've either threatened to hurt you or themselves. Don't give them an opportunity to fulfill that promise; even if you don't think they are capable of it (another common pattern in domestic violence murders is people saying "I honestly didn't think he/she would do something like this..."). The safest time to leave is when your abuser is not expecting it. This can be while they are at work, at a friend's house, at the store...any opportunity where you know they will be gone for a set amount of time. I did not pack a suitcase in advance as I did not want my abuser to find it. He left for a friend’s house and I threw what I could into a bag and left with my children. It took five minutes. Do not worry about your possessions; you will get those another time. Your life is more important.

7. Make arrangements with your work or children's care provider.
If you have a job and your children are in school it is important to maintain contact with these people (unless there is a risk involved). Mostly this is important because it demonstrates that you are a calm person making a sane decision and doing what you can to protect yourself. I was employed when I left. I called my boss and filed for a personal leave of absence. I was honest (but brief) about the situation. I did not tell anyone from work where I had gone (low and behold, my abuser called my employer and my coworkers demanding to know where I had gone). I also called my children's school every day I had them out and let them know that the children were with me, I was out of town and that I would return in a few days. Again, no details about my physical location.
After a few days of being gone my abuser did call the police and attempt to report myself and my children as "missing". When the police investigated and discovered I had been in contact with the children's school and my work, they did not allow him to file. He immediately changed his request to wanting to file kidnapping charges against me. The officer told me that since I did not leave the state, he was not able to file those charges against me either. This is a good discussion point for you and your lawyer before you leave. As always, take their advice, as they know your situation and the laws of your state.

8. File a restraining order.
Once you have determined you are safe, file a restraining order. In cases of alleged abuse, judges are very willing to sign a temporary order. Be sure to include any and all facts that you can recollect about how your abuser has hurt you and any threats that he or she has made. You will eventually have to go to court to get a permanent order. However, the temporary order allows you to call the police any time your abuser comes within a certain distance of you. It also does not allow them to contact you. Seek your attorney's advice for further detail. Also, continue to take precaution. A restraining order will not protect you if your abuser decides to physically harm you.

9. Do not go back.
At some point in the future, your abuser is going to attempt to reconcile with you. They will say a number of things to try and get you to come back. They may try manipulation (crying, threatening to hurt themselves or others). If that doesn't work they may try bargaining (saying they will get help, that you can go to counseling together, that they will turn themselves into the police and take accountability). If that doesn't work, they may try threatening you (you're not going to win this battle, the courts are on my side, and I’ll prove that you're crazy). DO NOT agree to meet with your abuser alone. If a meeting must take place, leave that to the lawyers to coordinate. DO NOT agree to any of your abusers demands.

You will be emotionally exhausted and vulnerable. You may have doubts about whether or not you did the right thing. Your abuser will take your moment of weakness and exploit it. They may try multiple times (which is why I recommend the restraining order). DO NOT GIVE IN. The abuse will begin again once you return. And it will get worse. Unfortunately, I speak from experience here too. If you have a story to share about your abuse, please feel free to leave in the comments below. My hope is that you are able to reach deep within and find encouragement and strength to do what you need to do. 

Good luck.


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