The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

How to Leave a Violent Relationship

Leaving an abusive relationship is risky - but possible.

I heard recently that a man I dated briefly dated in my early twenties has been arrested for domestic violence.  I had an instant flashback of him hitting his brand new puppy, who had been left alone for hours, for peeing on the floor.  It was the last of the few dates that we had.

Ending this relationship was easy.  I wasn't that attracted to him to begin with, I was leaving for graduate school in a few weeks, and that smack across the puppy's face just brought the curtain down a little sooner.  I wondered what I would have done if circumstances had been different - if I'd loved him as much as I did my college boyfriend, if I hadn't been moving out of state, if he'd hadn't hit that puppy until after we'd gotten married.             

Relationship violence, I think, looks at lot different on the inside looking out than it does looking in.  Perhaps that's the reason it's so hard to leave, that and the very valid fear that leaving will just make things worse.  And it can; ending a violent relationship without careful planning can be fatal.  

But it can be done.  Here's how to reduce the risk:

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

  1. Don't go it alone.  Whether or not you're ready to leave, you need emotional support.  The more support you have - a support group on the internet, friends, coworkers, your church, family, domestic violence professionals - the more likely it is you will be able to make a decision based on what you see and know is true, instead of how you feel.
  2. Expect your feelings to change.  You do not have to hate someone before you leave him.  In fact, it is normal to feel conflicted, grief-stricken or guilty.  It is normal for your feelings to swing wildly from anger to depression to feelings of love for your abuser, especially if your ex suddenly decides he can't live without you and has suddenly seen the error in his ways.  (Trust me; this miraculous recovery will only last as long as it takes to get you back in his clutches).   Accept all of these feelings but know that they are not reliable guides for what is best for you right now.     
  3. Plan (and pack) to leave.  Unfortunately, most women in violent relationships wait until there is a severely abusive incident before finally leaving.  Hopefully, that won't be you.  Take steps now to give yourself the option to escape.  If you don't already have one, open a savings account in your own name.  Gather relevant documents (keys, bank account numbers, birth certificates, SSN), your most treasure personal items (photo albums, special pictures, etc.), money, and a change of clothes and leave it with a trusted friend.  (Don't take anything that is likely to be noticed or missed).  And keep the number of a local domestic violence shelter with you at all times. 
  4. Be realistic when ending it.   Ending a violent relationship is not the same as ending a healthy relationship.  You can not be friends.  You can not trust him.  You can not consider his feelings when you tell him it's over.  So, if you feel like you have to break up in person, do so in a public place, bring a cell phone, and ask a friend to wait for you nearby.  Even better, do it via email or a telephone to give yourself some distance for safety.  Also, give your family and friends a heads up in case he tries to contact you through them.
  5. Once you leave, refuse any contact.  Think of no contact as cold turkey. Do not respond to texts or phone calls.  Do not meet with him to discuss the reasons for the breakup, to "just say goodbye," or because he needs "closure."  He knows the reasons you broke up; any attempt to get together to "talk about it" is just a manipulative ploy to rope you in.  Plus, it's dangerous.
  6. Develop a safety plan that includes the "worst case scenarios."  Never assume you're safe just because you left.  Work with a professional to talk through (and plan for) all the potential dangers that might arise.  Create a list of safe places and safe people, avoid any habits or routines where you have to be or go somewhere alone, and switch your social networking sites to private (asking your friends to do the same).
  7.  Arm yourself with data.  Get a referral for an attorney or legal advocate.  Educate yourself about restraining orders.  And save any threatening e-mails, texts, or letters. (Instead of changing your phone number, get an alternative number that you give out to friends and let your old one be answered by message machine. Not only does this automatically save the messages, it gives the abuser the illusion that this is still your correct phone number).

The Bottom Line

Violence can intensify when a partner tries to leave a relationship, so it's imperative your escape be carefully planned.  However, just as some woman gets trapped into an abusive relationship every day, this very minute a courageous woman is leaving one - despite the safety risks, the uncertainties ahead, and her conflicting feelings.  She's realized, as did Rebecca J. Burns, that long-term domestic violence is ". . . like being kidnapped and tortured for ransom but you will never have enough to pay off the kidnapper."  You decide which is worse.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Equation

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.