What Domestic Abuse Victims Need to Know about Leaving and Divorce
- What is domestic abuse?
- Warning signs
- How common is domestic abuse?
- Fear of leaving
- Questions to ask yourself before leaving
Leaving a relationship and starting over is difficult at any stage in life. In situations where abuse is a factor, many stages of emotions and grief need to be processed as well. Regardless of the type or length of abuse and who will be impacted by the decision to leave, there are many factors that you should be aware of. You may also need to tap special resources as needed along the way. First, let’s look at what domestic abuse is, and how to safely leave an abusive relationship.
What is domestic abuse?
Anyone can fall victim to domestic abuse. By definition, behaviors and patterns demonstrated by one partner to control or hold power over the other are considered domestic violence. It’s not always physical; there are multiple forms of abuse that often overlap.
Domestic abuse can be any of the following:
Domestic abuse warning signs
Abusive behaviors can be difficult to detect. Most abusive individuals appear to be great partners: They seem attentive, kind, doting, and considerate. Warning signs rarely appear rapidly; in fact, they can take years to recognize.
Often, an abuser’s controlling and possessive behaviors are initially masked as concern or protectiveness. Not all abusive partnerships look the same, though. The level of manipulation varies from one abuser to another, but there are warning signs.
An abusive partner might:
- Appear extremely jealous
- Exert financial control over you (e.g., restricting your access to money or forcing you to have a shared banking account)
- Pressure you to do things that make you uncomfortable (e.g., sex, drugs)
- Demean and insult you; tell you that you never do anything right
If your partner is abusive, you might feel:
Rarely do abusive partners begin a relationship with physical violence or harm. Instead, victims almost always experience any number of the above warning signs (or “red flags”) for a time before behaviors escalate. As a result, victims often believe that they are the problem. Feelings of depression and low self-esteem often follow.
Abusers are highly skilled in the art of manipulation, which is why it can be so hard to identify when you are being abused.
How common is domestic abuse?
Statistics vary due to factors such as location, reporting, documentation, and more. In general, there are 24 victims of abuse per minute in the U.S., with women being victimized more often than men. The resulting psychological trauma of abuse can be tremendous and has been known to cause symptoms of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more.
An abusive relationship doesn’t just impact the victim of the abuser. If children live in the home, their safety, well-being, and future emotional health are in jeopardy as well.
A victim’s fears about leaving
Once a person has entered the cycle of abuse and has been manipulated by their partner, leaving becomes a challenge. The mere thought of leaving can become a source of panic and fear for victims, especially if children are involved.
Many victims ask themselves one or more of the following questions:
- How will I start over? What if I can’t do it without them?
- What if they won’t let me leave?
- What if they find me and try to hurt me?
- I’ve been isolated from people; who will I call for help and support?
- They control the money. How can I leave with no money?
- How am I going to be a single parent with no job or money?
- How can I protect the safety of myself and my children while leaving?
- Will they change?
Victims also often wonder if it’s possible for their abuser to “change” and worry about the impact a broken relationship would have on their children.
It’s hard for the victim to leave
Making the decision to leave an abusive relationship takes a tremendous amount of strength and courage because it is very hard to do. In fact, victims “leave” an average of leaving seven times before they are able to stay gone.
The act of leaving could pose a safety threat
The moment a victim attempts to leave their abuser, their safety is in jeopardy. Since abusers thrive on control, they will often escalate their patterns and behaviors if they begin to feel like they are losing control. Sometimes, the decisions they make are not rational and can be dangerous. For this reason, abuse victims must reach out for support and create a safety plan.
Locally and nationally, there are abuse advocates, hotlines, and companies who aid in providing support, advice, material needs, and even safe shelter for abuse victims and their children. Visit the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health to find resources near you.
Crafting a safety plan
Assume that your abuser will be able to access and track all activity on your phone and computer. Your safety (and your children, if there are any) is the top priority, and a safety plan is paramount.
Before you begin making your safety plan, speak to a trained professional if possible. If this is not an option, visit here for assistance in making your plan.
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Questions to ask yourself before leaving an abusive partner
Have you thought about ending it with your partner in person or after you have found somewhere safe to go?
If you decide to end the relationship in person, do so in a public location, and have a witness or support person with you or in sight. If you’re worried about your safety, consider not driving yourself and leaving in a vehicle they may not recognize.
If you opt to end the relationship after you are in a safe location, be mindful of any communication that could lead them to your location.
Do you have a job?
If so, is there a way you can put aside money without being noticed? If not, it’s going to be okay; there are resources available.
Does your partner have access to your social media, bank accounts, or any other apps?
Change passwords if necessary.
Do you or have you ever had any kind of protection order or pressed any charges against your partner?
If so, plan to grab those documents before you go, if possible.
If you needed to leave your home in an emergency, have you identified somewhere you can go that will be safe?
Examples may include a family or friend's home or a local domestic violence shelter. Local organizations often have shelters, supplies, and resources that can be provided during times of need. More specifically, there are shelters specifically in place to help people in similar situations and can help with safe escape plans and assist with starting over.
Have you confided in a friend or family member about the abuse?
If so, select a word or phrase that can easily be sent via text as a “safe word” without your partner becoming suspicious. Be sure to provide clear instructions to the person you have confided in that the safe word means you are in danger and to call for help.
If you have children, do they know how to call 911? Do you have someone you can trust to watch them if needed?
Tips for leaving
Consider packing a bag that can be hidden
Or, place the following items in a location that is easy to find in the event you had to leave quickly:
- All forms of identification
- Phone charger
- Insurance cards
- Diaper bag packed with essentials (if this pertains to you)
- A change of clothes for yourself and each child
- Any necessary legal documents
This can begin at the first initial thought of trying to leave, but for legal purposes, try to document as much as possible. Examples may include (but are not limited to): all abuse (include pictures whenever possible), threatening text messages or phone calls (keep all texts and voicemails), medical records pertinent to any potential abuse, pictures of your home after violent outbursts, pictures of damaged items, witness statements, pictures of any weapons used or threatened, etc.
Lean on supportive family, friends, and professionals
Accept help from all resources available, if need be. This will be a hard transition, but you are strong and can do this. When the time is right, seek out a mental health professional.
Divorce after leaving an abusive partner
Once you’re ready to file for divorce, you might need an outside professional to assist you. Some people are able to get through a divorce with the help of mediation alone. Other (more complicated) situations may require each party to hire an attorney. Having an abusive ex-partner can add another level of difficulty, especially if children are involved.
First and foremost, be sure to maintain your safety and learn to develop boundaries with your ex-partner. Since abusers are driven by the need to control, they do not like being told “no.”
During the divorce process, your ex-partner may exhibit behaviors that make it difficult to progress such as delaying or being stubborn and difficult to work with. Read this Hello Divorce article for tips on keeping those conversations productive.
Co-parenting with a difficult ex
No parent ever wants to have to raise their children in separate homes, but sometimes, it’s necessary for the safety and sanity of everyone involved. The primary goal is to do what’s best for the children.
In situations when there was abuse, co-parenting is often not easy, and children often suffer because of it. For example, your ex may speak negatively about you to your children or around your children. Your best option here is to model empathy. If badmouthing continues to be an issue, consider consulting a therapist for your children or even a support group.
Abuse and divorce are hard, but you don’t have to make this journey alone. Help and support are available everywhere; don’t be shy about seeking it out. Remember: Abuse is not the fault of the victim, nor does it promote a healthy relationship between partners.