Depressingly, abusive relationships happen all the time, leaving women (and men) feeling trapped in difficult situations. Just this year, Reese Witherspoon revealed her abused past and how finally escaping the relationship changed the course of her life completely. People of all races, classes, and education levels can get caught up in relationships that turn violent, and it’s difficult for all of them to find a way out.
Getting out of an abusive relationship is much harder than “just leaving.” After a person has belittled you, trashed your self-esteem, or threatened physical harm (or even death), it doesn’t leave the survivor with many obvious options. I spoke to psychologists, lawyers, and relationship experts to find out how a partner can safely flee their abuser—because no matter how dire a relationship may seem, there’s always an escape route to a better life.
“Reconnect with your friends and family,” says clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, MPhil. “Often abuse victims have been isolated or gaslighted into thinking they’re crazy. But it’s easy enough to reconnect.”
It can be scary to pick up the phone after you’ve lost touch, but it’s worth it—just call an old friend or family member and tell them what’s going on. Even if years have passed, loved ones will be happy to reconnect and give support. Neo says there’s only one thing you have to do on these vulnerable calls: “Be honest.”
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Without a social system of support, it’s incredibly hard to leave a relationship. But by rekindling old connections, your reliance on your abuser decreases—and it gives you a place to go once the relationship has ended.
So, if you’re experiencing abuse, reach out. It doesn’t even have to be a best friend or family member. You can tell someone at your place of worship, talk to your doctor, or even speak to the police, Neo says. “Get it all on record. The police may not be useful, but sometimes you need documentation.” If you feel uncomfortable with those options, you can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and they’ll help you find the resources you need.
Plan and plan again
The Lifetime movie version of a battered partner simply runs out the door when her husband finally “takes things too far.” Or she shoots him. (I mean, we’re talking Lifetime movies.) But in real life, escaping an abuser is rarely a last-minute decision. Of course, if you suddenly fear for your life or feel you must leave now, it’s definitely a good idea to escape at a moment’s notice, and you can find shelters across the country at DomesticShelters.org.
More often, though, the abused partner considers leaving long before they actually go. And that’s a good thing. The more planning that’s done in advance, the more successful the separation will be. “The person leaving really needs to plan well and have all of their ducks in a row, emotionally and physically, before they go—if at all possible,” says Jean Otto, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist.
Before leaving, it’s good to know exactly where you’re going to stay. That could mean renting an apartment, arranging to stay with friends, or contacting a shelter. “Pack a suitcase,” says Otto, “and put it in the car trunk or at a friend’s house, just in case.” Though it may take a while to leave, at least you’ll be ready to go at the best possible moment.
Then, you’ll need your own bank account, preferably with enough money to get by for a month or two, Otto says. If you can’t save up that much, simply having your own checking account or line of credit will help you retain independence once you leave.
And don’t be afraid to ask for money. Yes, it feels awful to ask for money, but this is a time when that money can help start a new life. More often than not, people are happy to help, even if it’s just a $20 donation here and there.
In addition to money and housing plans, Otto suggests taking care of mental health needs before and after leaving. Don’t wait to see a therapist till after it’s all over. Begin talking to someone you trust. Then, that person will be able to help you through the transition at the end of the relationship and aid you in the aftermath of emotions that come with leaving. (And if you’re worried about the cost, here are 81 awesome mental health resources for when you can’t afford a therapist.)
Lastly, go over the plan again and leave when you won’t likely get confronted. “Plan the day, time, pack your clothes, leave a note, change and secure passwords, and keep a close friend or family member copied on your plans,” says divorce attorney and relationship expert Vikki Zeigler, Esq.
Try to leave when the partner is out of town or at a consistent time when they’re out of the house. Zeigler says to think about your exit as a covert operation that very few trustworthy people know about. So… on the upside, you get to act like a spy. Sure, that’s a pretty stupid upside in a very difficult moment, but looking for any bits of positivity as you go through this brave and traumatic event can really help.
Stay safe — physically and mentally
Leaving an abuser is something anyone should be incredibly proud of. It’s difficult, scary, and preys upon every insecurity. So think of escape as a triumph—even when the aftermath gets hard. “Celebrate every single victory,” Neo says. “Even if it’s ‘I did not respond to his email’ today. Everything counts.”
It’s normal to be in an emotionally unstable state after leaving, so it’s key that you find the little positives and treat yourself well. After leaving, it’s smart to do little things you enjoy, even if that’s just binge-watching The Great British Baking Show.
Now’s the time to quiet any negative inner voices. Survivors need to treat themselves with extreme kindness. “Remember that punishing yourself is you becoming your own abuser. You don’t want them to win,” Neo says.
In addition to mental health, survivors need to think about their physical well-being. Otto recommends getting a restraining order immediately after leaving. She says that many victims are hesitant to take this legal step because they don’t want to anger their abuser, but a restraining order gives you the legal protection you could desperately need if things escalate. Even if the abuser never comes near you, the restraining order provides a sense of security that can help recovery, Otto says.
Talk to a professional
Sadly, the scars of an abusive relationship don’t disappear the moment you leave. “PTSD is very common with women who are abused,” Zeigler says. “They need to learn tools to cope with past abuse and deal with the issues that arise after they leave their abuser.”
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Ideally, an abuse survivor will seek help from a professional. Though a church member or friend will certainly help you through tumultuous emotional times, they aren’t trained to deal with the complexities of abuse. A licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist knows exactly how to help. Whether the ex won’t leave or there are moments of doubt and blame, a professional will be able to guide you through the trauma and onto a happier life.
Sadly, therapy is not in everyone’s budget. And finances are often tight after leaving a controlling relationship. But there are options. Send a message to the Crisis Text Line. It’s completely free and their trained counselors will be able to help through hard times and give references to people in the area for further aid, including sliding scale clinics.
Or if you live near a large hospital system or university, you can often see a psychologist-in-training for free. Psychology interns need patients, but everything they do is highly monitored, so you won’t end up with some naive Doogie Howser type trying to treat you. The Association of Psychology Training Clinics has very low-cost or free options all around the country.
I know it’s tempting to avoid seeing a therapist. Maybe it’s too time-consuming, too expensive, or you just don’t want to talk. These are all valid thoughts, but the truth is, you can’t just paint on a smile and pretend abuse didn’t happen. Talking to a professional will help you truly heal and find your strength again. It’s an investment of time, money, and emotion. But it’s worth it.
End the cycle
After a survivor has left and sought help, that doesn’t mean the cycle of abuse is over. Especially when you’re vulnerable, it’s easy to get sucked into another abusive relationship. I’m not saying this to blame the victim in any way: We all get trapped in certain patterns and cycles. And once you’ve been torn down by someone, it’s easy to think you’ll never deserve to be treated any differently—so another abuser can sometimes seek out that vulnerability and take advantage of it.
But this pattern can stop with some tough emotional work. “Put your wounded inner child on your lap and tell her it’s OK,” Zeigler advises. “You’re worthy of love, you respect yourself, and you only should attract a person who loves and admires you without strings attached.”
It might sound a little corny, but you have to love yourself. No matter how any boyfriend, dad, mom, or family member in your past made you feel, you deserve love. And once you believe that, deep down, you won’t be a victim to the manipulative ways of future abusers. “This type of work is incredibly powerful,” Zeigler says, “and will help women stop the domestic abuse cycle.”
If you’ve decided to leave an abusive relationship, you’ve already won. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will be scary. But you’ll be free. No one deserves to be abused. It’s not your fault, and the fact that you’re leaving shows what a strong, intelligent, and brave person you are. With planning and support, you can leave safely. So if this applies to you, start your plan today. Take your time and check all your details. You can do it. And you are loved.
Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. If you like easy crafts and Simpsons gifs, check out her blog, Half-Assed Crafts.