Escaping an abusive situation is difficult—if not full on dangerous. Preparing your escape will make you more likely to get out and stay out. In this module, I’ll share some advice for you to consider as you equip yourself to make the first move; a series of starting points to help you remove yourself from an abusive situation.
Please always realize that abusers often escalate when their targets are trying to get out. For this part of your journey over-preparing is better than under-preparing!
There are many charities worldwide that can help you assess your personal situation and give you support. I’ve put some information below to help you find one in your local area.
In this module we will look at the following topics
- Identifying Abuse
- Document, Document, Document
- Beginning to Create Boundaries
- What to Consider Before You Make Your Move
- What to Say, and to Whom
- Be Prepared to Lose Some People
- Get Some Legal Advice
- Finding the Money to Leave
- The Abuse Will Not Stop When You Leave
- Self-Care is Essential!
- Most Importantly: ASK FOR HELP!
- Why Leaving is So Hard
Before we delve into the deepest parts of this, I want to share a few statistics that my dear friend Aubrey Cole shared with me. Don’t let these frighten you, but read them with the attitude that “forewarned is forearmed.” Aubrey had no knowledge of these things prior to getting out of her abusive marriage but learned about them after. She feels they are important for people in abusive situations to know so they can be better prepared. So you can read them below
- Approximately 3/4 of all reported physical attacks occur after the abused partner has left the relationship. In other words, it’s far more common that leaving will increase the level of abuse. While this statistic was first published in 1998, it remains roughly the same today.
- Physical violence (hitting, pushing, choking, etc.) doesn’t have to be present for a relationship to be abusive and dangerous.
- More than 90% of those having left an abusive relationship describe being actively and aggressively stalked by a former partner and having reported it to friends, relatives, and/or authorities with no action taken.
- On average, it takes 7 tries to get out and stay out of an abusive relationship.
Although these statistics are about spousal abuse, they also apply in some ways to other relationships. My psychologically abusive family has over the years – and continues to- try and find me and regain control over me. The abuse increased significantly after I cut contact. So regardless the nature of the abuse you are trying to escape, these statistics will bear some relevance.
I have heard various survivors say something along the lines of: “If only he had hit me, I would have known it was time to leave“. I can understand the notion that physical abuse sounds like it would be easier to identify as being wrong. Unfortunately, that is not how abuse works. By the time a relationship becomes physically abusive, you boundaries will have been pushed back so far, that physical abuse is as acceptable as everything else (which of course, is not at all! I am just talking about perception, power, and control here).
“Domestic violence is not about a single incident, he explained, but an abuser’s attempts to control a victim’s life by depriving them of resources, threatening them, isolating them and disabling their ability to effectively leave.
It’s those behaviors that put a victim at an extremely high risk of being killed, he said, even when there is no physical violence, or physical violence is minimal.
Based on my research, if you rely on physical injury before you identify a case as serious, you miss 95 to 98 percent of all domestic violence,” he said. “Often the severe assault is the fatal assault. It comes as a culmination.” (from: She Was Leaving Her Emotionally Abusive Husband. Now The Whole Family Is Dead.)
Whether or not there is physical abuse present, I think the spark that sends us packing, is usually not something that our abuser does or doesn’t do. It is rather the sudden realization or feeling that there is something worth protecting from their destructive influence. Whether our children, our own (mental) health or a relationship outside of the abusive one… As a spark of inspiration, we realize there is something we do not want to sacrifice to the abuser, and we begin to consider our options.
“The nagging question of when and how to know it’s time to leave remains. Since abuse alters one’s logical thought processes, the challenge is to pull your thinking out of that tailspin. I know for me, the tipping point was the experience in the Paris train station where the attack was against my children and their emotional pain tore at me with the force of an atomic bomb.”
I share my own story of becoming conscious of the abusive situation I was in, and how that lead me to cut all contact with my family, in this 30-minute podcast.
I think sometimes we begin to understand that we are in a bad situation because of how we are feeling about ourselves and our lives. I touch upon this in the podcast, but this list of 8 signs you are on the brink of a nervous breakdown also seems very accurate for issues you may be experiencing as a target of abuse.
But, like Aubrey says, the nagging question of when and how to know it’s the right time to leave remains. Even as we begin to realize the truth of our situation, and our need to get away from it… we have to be careful about how and when to make a move. Because, as I mentioned above, there is a lot that can still go wrong. Chances are— if you are reading this—that you are considering your options. So let me give you some advice about things to consider.
Document, Document, Document
Both Aubrey and I have this piece of advice on repeat: document, document, document! As soon as you even have the inkling that something is fishy, start saving stuff. Open up a free email account to forward messages or send scanned documents. Hang on to credit card statements, phone bills, whatever.
Make sure that these things are safe and cannot be found by the abuser. Remember for example to clear out the browser history if there are certain websites you do not want them to know you looked at. Or go to the library or an internet café to consult those resources instead—so as to be certain your abuser cannot see what you’ve been up to. If you can, store things “offsite”, either by buying secure cloud storage (Aubrey still tells me that her Carbonite offsite backup account was the best money she ever spent), asking a trusted friend to hold on to documents for you, or even put them on a flash drive which is stored in a secure location.
Aubrey explains, “When something was very sensitive, like an email that could compromise him, I would print it, scan it, save it to backup, then destroy the printout. By destroy, I don’t mean shred; I mean I would stand in my bathroom with a pack of matches and burn documents over the toilet, or I would burn things on the patio and till them into the garden soil.”
It is sometimes difficult to really know what can be of value. The rule of thumb is the following: better too much than too little.
Beginning to Create Boundaries
Aubrey once wrote, “Most emotional safety that is found while still in the abusive relationship is by empowering oneself in every safe way possible.
Just as “domestic violence” is sometimes misunderstood as being physical beatings only, boundaries are sometimes misunderstood as being confrontational. While still being subjected to your abuser, you learn that the very last thing you want to be is confrontational. You have already been trained to know your abuser’s triggers and avoid them like the plague. Why stick your head in the lion’s mouth? You can actually create for yourself a number of healthy protective mechanisms if you are still within the confines of the abusive relationship.”
She shared 3 ways to begin empowering yourself while still in the abusive situation.
Develop Mental Toughness
This doesn’t mean becoming angry or hard-edged. Aubrey describes this as creating a way to protect yourself from the verbal abuse—a mental shield if you will. She uses the example of mocking her ex-husband in her head. When he would rage, she would picture him as an out-of-control five-year-old who hadn’t gotten his way. Doing this helped her not to take on his rage as her fault.
This process is a bit of a learning curve, and you won’t get it right on the first attempt. And because of this, it’ll be helpful to create some mental space to plan and strategize your escape. This is really about taking the emotion out of it; creating a less turbulent space within your body and mind to come up with a plan that you can execute when you’re ready.
The “Love” Isn’t Real. Let Go of the Idea That It Is
As much as it pained me to come to terms with it, my mother didn’t love me. She loved controlling me, playing games with me, and using me for her personal gain. But was it real, honest, and unconditional love? Nope!
As difficult as it is to admit it to yourself, the abusive relationship is not— nor will it ever be— what you want and need it to be. You need to begin grieving the loss of that dream; it will help you to begin disconnecting.
As Aubrey explained in the above example, by creating a different—even embarrassing and entertaining view of her partner in her head—she could give herself space to see his abusive behavior for the craziness it was. That took a huge weight off her shoulders.
Strategy Is Everything
Aubrey recalls sitting down with a piece of paper divided into two columns: one side said “His Bullshit” and the other said “How I’ll Deal With It.”
Coming up with strategies to deal with the reality of abuse is important. However, it is not the same type of planning that you may have been used to. Even though you may still be inside the abusive situation, you can already begin to change the way in which you strategize about how to guard your boundaries. In my article The Balance Between Being Prepared and Being Anxious I explain that “I don’t just mean your physical boundaries, but your emotional ones too. That means that your thinking and planning can now focus on how you will protect and defend those boundaries.”
Your strength to leave the situation itself will come from developing the strength to leave the situation in your mind first.
What to Consider Before You Make Your Move
This is like preparing your own evacuation plan. Where are your exits? I don’t just mean the literal physical ones like doors, but also the figurative ones. These are opportunities you have to leave the physical location and relationship with safety. For example, can you time your exit to increase your safety while your partner is at work? Or when you’ll need to leave at some point in the future? Thinking about this will help you to build confidence, and also keep you looking out for all possible options. Think through each step so you don’t overlook anything e.g. getting out of the house is great, but less useful if you realize you don’t have the car keys with you.
When I decided to cut contact with my parents, I still had a lot of my stuff stored in their house. My husband and I discussed that we would like to get some of our things out. We assessed the situation safe (there was no physical threat from my parents), and decided to go back for some of our things (we had only recently moved out of my parents’ house at the time). I made arrangements to have our belongings stored elsewhere, rented a trailer to move everything out, and was sure not to mention my plans to cut contact to anyone other than my partner. I timed it all for a Sunday morning so my parents would be at church for a large part of the operation. I also decided that the safest way to ask them for no contact was in a letter—which I left on their kitchen table with my house keys moments before heading out of the door.
I had a few contingency plans in place, too. If they got home while we were doing it, I planned to just post the letter to them instead of lighting the proverbial fuse while still in the house. My partner had figured out what our “have to get items” were—like both our degrees from my parents’ safe, for example—and the “would be nice to get items”—like extra blankets, some kitchen gear etc. That way we knew what to get first as top priority, and what to leave behind if we had to.
What to Say, and to Whom
You are going to want to talk to some people about all this, not in the least because you’ll need some help. It can be hard to determine who you can trust, so perhaps you only talk to people from a domestic violence charity. Maybe you have a best friend or a family member you know will have your back 100%. Before you make your move, you need to figure out who you feel safe and comfortable with—as well as who can keep your confidence.
I didn’t tell my sisters of my intentions until after I had left my parents’ home. They did help me with the move, but I didn’t tell them the extent of my plans (which included cutting contact). I refrained from doing so because I didn’t feel they’d understand or support my plan if I’d been upfront. The only people who knew were my partner and some fellow survivors I’d met online. In the days that followed, I told some of my closest friends, and they all responded with love and support. I also practiced what to say if random strangers or people at work asked about my family. That took a few attempts to get right, and I’m sure I unwittingly made a few people feel very uncomfortable! But the reason things can get so uncomfortable is that this topic of abuse is not an easy thing to talk about. These days, I mostly say “it’s complicated” when someone asks about my family—especially if I don’t feel like getting into it. I eventually confided in a manager just because I wanted her to understand that I was dealing with some stuff in my personal life. And the fact that she was one of those managers that I felt I could talk to also didn’t hurt.
Be Prepared to Lose Some People
Not everyone is going to understand. Not everyone will want or be able to see the abuse. Some people are going to defend your abuser, and even say things like, “But they’re your parents!” or “He seems like such a good man!” Be prepared to leave some people behind because, at the end of the day, you need to keep yourself safe and supported. You also need to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who do the same for you. Those who don’t support the truth of your situation (whether through ignorance or malice) are going to present a great obstacle to you on the way to achieving the already difficult task of getting away from the abusive situation and healing yourself. So it’s best not to worry about trying to keep them on your side.
A childhood friend and I were a part of each others’ lives since I was three days old, and we’d managed to stay friends for 35 years. Unfortunately, she became a flying monkey for my family. She started to look for information to feed back to them and even started dishing out emotional abuse to me because she was under the influence of my parents and sisters. It broke my heart, but I had to back away from her in order to protect myself. Although that was probably the most dramatic experience in terms of the connections I lost, I left many people behind when I cut contact with my family. The flip side of all this, though, is that the friends that do remain—and the people I’ve met since—are much closer friends than I ever thought was possible.
Get Some Legal Advice
Especially when it comes to issues like divorce and custody, you want to get some advice. The earlier you can get it, the better prepared you’ll be when you’re ready to actually leave. And as I’ve already said, “Document, document, document!” The more evidence you gather, the better prepared you are should it ever come to court proceedings (even if you think it never will). Communicating in writing or by email can really help with that. It’s harder for the abuser to twist your words when they’re in writing— which means that you’ll always have information on file when you need to prove anything.
Since I was an adult with a job and a house, there weren’t so many legal ramifications to consider when it came to my decision to cut contact. I suppose they would have kicked up more of a storm if I’d had any kids, and would’ve probably given me a “we have a right to see our grandchild” speech for that. As it happened, and thankfully so, that wasn’t the case. I did scan the letter I wrote them so I’d have my own copy just in case. Also, although I didn’t, you may want to consider recording the times when they violate your request for no contact. Since I was in a rental apartment and assumed I would move again before too long, I figured I would eventually be out of their reach. That may not be the case for you. Especially if things like intervention orders are involved. While it’s proven time and time again that these are next to completely ineffective (because you have to be able to prove the order was violated and also get the police to come, the abuser can do a lot of damage during that time in between), it’s important to document everything.
Finding the Money to Leave
This wasn’t the greatest of my personal challenges, although for a while it looked like I’d need a guarantor for the rent at my new place. Eventually, my husband and I found a landlord who happily accepted my brand new employment status without anyone to back me up, but when it was still a possible requirement I asked one of my sisters for help. Although I eventually lost contact with my whole family, my initial priority was to only sever ties with my parents. Since they were the ones always trying to gain influence over our finances, I was aware I needed to get a place without their names being anywhere near the lease.
When you’re dealing with a controlling spouse, finding cash to escape with can be very complicated. Fellow survivor Kylie Travers has some excellent suggestions in How to get money to leave an abusive relationship. Also, speak to a local domestic violence charity (yes, emotional abuse is violence too!) to get information on resources and assistance you can access.
The Abuse Will NOT Stop When You Leave
I don’t say this to discourage you, but it’s important to understand in advance. An abuser will not let go without a fight. My parents wrote me a bunch of weird letters, kept inviting me to their parties, and even ambushed me at my sister’s place once. When they were unsuccessful at regaining control of (and access to) me—especially after I moved without giving them a forwarding address—they started recruiting flying monkeys. Like the friend I spoke about earlier.
You need to prepare yourself for the continued abuse after you leave. Consider not giving people your new address so it can’t end up in the wrong hands. Block email addresses, social media profiles, and phone numbers in order to shield yourself. If you need to have communication about the children or the divorce, get a PO Box and arrange a system where a trusted friend is the one who checks it for you. This means that you have an emotional buffer (not just a physical one) in place, too.
Self-Care Is Essential!
I’m not talking about the wishy-washy pedicures and facials type of self-care. I mean, it certainly can be if a bit of pampering is what you need. But what I’m really talking about is the kind of self-care where you look after your physical and emotional well-being as you navigate your way through this difficult process. The situation is tricky enough without adding constant exhaustion and feeling foggy- brained to the list, and you’re much more likely to make errors in judgment if you don’t have systems in place to take care of you. So below are a few suggestions
- If you’re struggling to eat, stock up on protein bars and/or do some meal prep.
- If you’re struggling to sleep, take some melatonin (tablets or spray), drink some Sleepy Time or Valerian root tea, or meditate before bed.
- Make sure you drink enough water.
- Aside from looking after your physical health, also create some space for emotional processing. Journaling can be a wonderful tool to express and record what you’re going through. Make sure, though, that you keep your writings safe; in a place your abuser cannot have access to them.
Most importantly: ASK FOR HELP!
I so clearly remember the feeling that I couldn’t ask for help from anyone. It wasn’t true, though. I wish I could tell every abuse target out there that asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. And especially that it’s not—I repeat NOT—a nuisance!
If you feel unsafe, call emergency services and ask for help. I had a neighborhood police officer in my old place who was extremely supportive and understanding when dealing with one of the flying monkeys my parents sent to violate our privacy and even threaten us.
Local charities and shelters will be able to give you advice tailored to your situation and information about how the legal system in your country or state can support/protect you. They exist for a reason (that being the fact that escaping abuse is HARD). So make use of their knowledge and services.
“When people are highly traumatized, thinking through really complex arrangements like how exactly you’re going to leave a relationship that’s this violent and this frightening is really difficult to process,” (from: Women in abusive relationships can now access a step-by-step guide on how to flee)
Aubrey also sayss that if you have children, you should prepare a separate safety plan for them which includes confiding in a teacher or principal you feel comfortable with regarding the situation your family is going through. Your children will have their own road to travel, and it helps to have an advocate for them in the place where they spend the bulk of their waking hours.
Why Leaving Is So Hard
Leaving an abusive relationship is hard. Very hard. Statistically, as I mentioned earlier, it takes on average 7 attempts for a target of abuse to get out and stay out!
It’s a struggle that seems nearly impossible for outsiders to understand. It’s common to feel judged and shamed for not being able to cut those ties on our first attempt. Aubrey talks about four reasons you may have felt imprisoned. and they are all centered around fear.
# 1. Fear of ending up alone and unloved
# 2. Fear of ending up penniless
# 3. Fear of losing all other relationships
# 4. Fear of the “dead end”
If you’re experiencing any of these fears, relax in the knowledge that you’re absolutely normal. Maybe it’s okay to wonder what’s keeping you in the relationship. Perhaps there are some issues you need to confront within yourself or circumstances that you need to address in your escape plan. I’ve been thinking that perhaps we need to do some reframing and rewording around the issues that keep abuse targets who haven’t left the circumstances they’re in.
Maybe instead of asking people “Why don’t you leave?”, we should be asking “Why can’t you leave?”
On that note, if you’re trying to identify those reasons, the SwanWaters team and other fellow survivors in the SwanWaters Facebook Group are here to help you as you gain clarity. And to support you when you feel ready to make your escape. You’re not alone, even if you feel like it at times.