Not all abuse is physical, and the scars from an abusive relationship are not always visible. An outsider seeing a person remain in an abusive situation may ask, “Why don’t you just leave?” However, making the decision to leave an abusive relationship is a complex one. It’s usually not as simple as packing a bag and walking out of the door, especially when children are involved.
Types of abusive relationships
There are many forms of abuse, and these generally lead to an unhealthy power imbalance within the relationship. In many cases, various forms of abuse occur simultaneously:
- Physical abuse, which can include sexual abuse, encompasses all acts of physical violence.
- Economic abuse involves withholding or controlling all household finances.
- Verbal abuse is strongly linked to emotional abuse and includes humiliating you in private or public, being hurtful, and name-calling.
- Other emotional abuse includes controlling behavior, threats and intimidation, jealousy and accusations of infidelity, and being made to feel unworthy or unlovable.
- Psychological or mental abuse occurs when you are manipulated by the behavior of the abusive partner. This is common but not exclusive to people with narcissistic personality traits and includes isolation from loved ones, exclusion from decision making, having your vulnerabilities attacked, mind-games (such as ghosting), withholding of affection, and harassment.
Since control is the priority of the abuser, they will often use technology to perpetuate the abuse by monitoring email or phone communication, cyber-stalking, GPS tracking, and sending harassing messages.
Leaving an abusive relationship
When you are in a physically abusive relationship, it’s easier to acknowledge the fact that your partner’s behavior is unacceptable. When the abuse is more subtle, as in the case of emotional and psychological abuse, you may question whether you are actually in an abusive relationship. These less overt forms of abuse may have you wonder whether you “deserve” to be treated in that way or whether the behavior is truly abusive.
There is no “right time” to leave an abusive relationship. For many, it is often an accumulation of small things that eventually becomes too overwhelming. If, however, you ever fear for your life or the lives of your children, you should not delay removing yourself and your children from that dangerous situation.
How to prepare to leave an abusive relationship
While the decision to leave may be difficult, there are a number of ways you can prepare to exit an abusive relationship. The list below is not exhaustive, but it provides a guideline to empower anyone considering such a step.
1. Get your finances in order
Try to have some money set aside in a separate bank account in your own name or hide cash somewhere safe. Be realistic about your living expenses after you leave.
Being prepared to accept a dip in your standard of living and having a plan to support yourself can ensure that financial insecurity doesn’t force you back into an abusive or toxic relationship.
2. Have an exit strategy
Make an arrangement with a friend or a family member you trust or find the details of your closest shelter or safe house. If possible, agree on a pre-arranged pick-up point if you don’t have your own transport.
3. Keep a spare phone
Buy a prepaid cellphone and keep it fully charged. Memorize contact numbers for trusted friends or your local shelter in case your phone is taken or damaged.
4. Preparing to go
Pack a few personal items, such as some clothing for you and your kids and 1 or 2 comfort toys.
Important documents (birth certificates, social security cards, passports, and insurance papers) should be packed in a safe place and ready to go. Items such as jewelry or heirlooms as well as documents can be stored in a safe deposit box at your bank.
5. Seek legal assistance
You can contact your local domestic violence or family court for information about obtaining a restraining order. They may also be able to assist you with legal aid.
When you file this document, make sure it lists you as the custodial parent to prevent kidnapping accusations.
6. Improve your online security
Change your online passwords, use public computers, clear your browser history regularly, and password-protect and save important documents on an external storage device, not on your phone or home computer.
7. Collect evidence
Threatening messages, proof of harassment, photographs or videos of injuries or property damage, and police and medical reports can be saved remotely or placed in safekeeping with someone you trust.
These can serve as evidence in any legal proceedings, such as obtaining a restraining order or getting a divorce.
8. Alert work, school, or daycare
When you leave, alert your workplace and your children’s school so that they can inform you if anything unusual happens. Remember that your partner may be entitled to visitation, so plan in advance for this eventuality.
How can I leave if I have no money?
In abusive relationships, the abuser is often in control of the finances and may not permit working outside the home. Domestic violence shelters don’t charge a fee and may be able to assist you with transport. You can find details on women’s shelters in your area and learn more about domestic abuse here.
As you consider your options, think about ways in which you can generate an income. You may start a small home-based business with your existing skills, for example, babysitting, baking cookies, doing clothing alterations, or tutoring.
What happens if my abuser shows remorse?
Many victims of abuse are trapped in a cycle of abuse and remorse, with the abuser promising to change and even showering the victim with gifts and affection. Unless the abuser takes action to address the underlying cause of their behavior, things are unlikely to change in the long term. Moreover, there is a risk of the abusive behavior escalating, especially if the abuser believes they have been humiliated by their partner’s departure.
It can be difficult to leave an abusive relationship for good when this cycle is in play, but you can remind yourself about the damage an unstable relationship does to both you and your kids.
One day, I knew it was time to leave. It wasn’t even a bad day; I just knew I couldn’t stay any longer. It was difficult to explain what was happening to my kids, but they knew our home was not a happy place. My advice as a mom is to make sure your kids get some counseling so that they can work through their own trauma and know that they didn’t do anything wrong.—Charlotte, mom of 2
I felt like a prisoner in my own home. I couldn’t buy anything without having to justify the purchase. Leaving was tough because I had to start again with nothing, but now I have my self-respect, and that is priceless.—Laetitia, mother of 3
We are all valuable human beings who have the right to safety, security, and happiness. By finding the courage to leave an abusive marriage or relationship, we give our children the message that we are deserving of a good life and that it is sometimes necessary to make difficult choices to secure a better future for ourselves.
More help is available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
*The names have been changed to preserve anonymity.