How to Leave an Abusive Relationship: 18 Expert Tips
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Here's how to tell if you're in an abusive relationship and how to safely leave for a better life.
What’s an abusive relationship?
The stats are pretty grim: Every minute, nearly 20 people in the United States suffer some kind of physical abuse, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), a nonprofit advocacy group in Denver.
This could include everything from slapping and shoving to beating, burning, and strangling. (These are the domestic violence signs to look for.)
And while abuse is an equal opportunity crime for both opposite and same-sex relationships, typically women are the ones who are more likely to be the victims of what NCADV calls “severe intimate violence.” One in four women versus one in nine men experience severe physical or sexual violence or stalking.
It’s not just the physical injuries, either. Relationships can be emotionally destructive too—researchers have found that roughly half of Americans have reported being emotionally abused by their partner over their lifetimes, according to a 2018 study in Violence and Victims.
Usually, one type of abuse leads to another, say experts. “In domestically violent relationships where there’s physical abuse, there’s usually more emotional and mental abuse that has occurred way before the physical abuse happens,” says Janie Lacy, a psychotherapist and relationship trauma expert in Maitland, Florida.
In fact, emotional abuse can be even more damaging than physical abuse, says Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author of several books on emotional abuse, including Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing From the Shame You Don’t Deserve. “With physical abuse, a woman knows she’s being abused—she sees the bruises, she has the broken arm. When she’s being emotionally abused, she doesn’t necessarily know it,” she says.
You don’t deserve abuse
One thing is clear, whatever type of abusive relationship you’re in, you don’t deserve it, says David J. Glass, a certified family law specialist who practices in Los Angeles and a former clinical psychologist.
Another important thing to remember, he says: “The abuser is not going to change. A lot of people fall under the mistaken belief that they can somehow help this person become a better person. If they’re an abuser, they’re an abuser, and you need to just get away from them.”
Here is how to do exactly that. But before you learn how to get away, you should recognize what an abusive relationship is, and how it can damage you. (Here’s what women in abusive relationships want you to know.)
The hallmarks of an abusive relationship
There’s a pattern
Experts look for repeat offenders, whether the domestic violence is physical or emotional. “In any relationship, we all have a time where we may say something off the wall, or we may do something to unintentionally harm our partners or persons we’re in a relationship with,” says Lacy. But abusive partners do these things often and on purpose. (Learn the signs of a toxic relationship.)
Of course, physical abuse is easier to recognize—that’s when a person is intentionally hurting you to the point of injury or even threatening to kill you. “Emotional abuse can be anything where there’s deception, there’s power and control, there’s dominance over the other person, or someone is regularly devalued, disrespected, diminished, or deceived,” says Lacy.
Abusers use psychological weapons like humiliation and fear to isolate or punish you in some way. “They don’t even recognize that what they’re doing hurts you when anyone else would probably recognize it,” says Glass, who is also the author of Moving On: Redesigning Your Emotional, Financial and Social Life After Divorce. “It’s a lack of development in their own personality—they can’t understand that other people have different wants, needs, desires and feelings than they do. And so it will repeat itself,” he says.
One partner has all the power, says Lacy, and it’s used to control the other. Abusive partners dole out the money or make you ask for it because they are totally in charge of your bank accounts. Or they make you constantly check in with them—or worse, they know your whereabouts all the time because they’ve installed a GPS tracker in your car or are monitoring you via an Apple watch or smartphone, Lacy notes.
Not only do you not have any control, but you’re also not free to disagree with any opinions or statements since abusive partners consider this a sign of disrespect. That can lead to passivity, says Lacy, and you might find yourself thinking, “It’s pointless for me to express my feelings, my thoughts, my wants” just to keep the peace.
You might also start watching what you say in case your partner gets angry and lashes out, verbally or with fists. And that can make you anxious all the time.
It’s filled with shame and humiliation
Not only do you have to watch what you say all the time, but emotionally destructive partners are also more likely to throw you under the bus, usually in front of your kids or friends, Lacy explains. They’ll say things that are demeaning or belittling, like, “Well, you know how your mother is, always so scatterbrained.”
If you object, your partner might just say, “What’s wrong with you? I was just having fun and you always take things so seriously.”
Your partner blows hot and cold
Abusive partners aren’t nasty to you all the time. “It’s a cycle of abuse, and there’s a phase where they’re acting nice, buying flowers, and doing and saying all the right things. That can evaporate in a second, as soon as they feel threatened,” says Glass.
“Relationships are not made to be a cat and mouse chase, and one of the subtleties of an abusive relationship is the dynamic of ‘Come here. Go away.’ or ‘You’re the best thing. You’re the worst thing,'” says Lacy. “This creates an undercurrent of anxiety for the abused partner who thinks she’s now going crazy,” she adds.
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
How to leave your abuser
Step 1: Prepare yourself emotionally
If you’ve been repeatedly subjected to words and deeds that make you feel worthless, and you’re too beaten down to trust yourself, then it’s very hard to muster the courage to leave.
Another reason why people don’t leave? “They place an inaccurate and overwhelming amount of power in this other person—’This person can control my life, my money, how I see my friends, whether I see my family, how we raise our kids’—so they have to realize that all those things are false,” Glass explains. (Here’s why one woman stayed in an abusive relationship.)
So experts recommend that you try to get into the right mindset to get out. To do that:
Give words to your experience
People who are able to walk out on an abusive partner are often able to create a narrative so they can see what is really going on, says Lacy. “So then when I asked them, ‘When’s the first time you felt like you were going crazy? And when is the last time?’ I look to see if the person can give words to the experience and see the patterns,” she notes. That way a therapist (or a trusted friend) can validate your experience.
Keep a journal
An easy way to create the narrative is to write down all the big incidents of emotional abuse you’ve experienced and how you felt about them, advises Engel. “Like you went to a party and in front of everybody else, your partner was putting you down all night. That’s character assassination and humiliating you in front of people,” she explains. “Then refer to that list from time to time, so that you can begin to see the overall damage that it’s causing you,” she says.
The aim of the journal is to help build your resolve to leave. “When they start to waffle back and forth and say, ‘Well, maybe I could stay,’ they go back to that list again, and they recognize how damaging the incidents are. Every person reaches their conclusion that they have to go in their own time,” says Engel. (Need help getting started? Check out these six journaling tips from therapists.)
Realize your partner won’t change
It’s common to make excuses for your partner, says Lacy about her female patients. “Many of these women feel like ‘Well, if only I can get him to therapy’ or ‘If only he would just deal with his anger management problems.’ They’ll take the low hanging fruit that’s going on in the relationship—cheating, gambling, anger issues, these types of things,” she explains. That makes it less likely you’ll be willing to leave.
Instead, says Lacy, you have to identify what you can and can’t control so you can understand that the patterns of abuse aren’t typical relationship problems. “You need to get to the point where you understand it’s a character issue—you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it, you can’t change it. When you really understand those three Cs, then you can walk in reality,” she says.
Be ready to grieve
Of course, steeling yourself to leave is one thing. You also need to tell yourself that you can survive without your mate and strengthen your resolve not to take your partner back even if they beg, says Engel.
Also crucial: “Being prepared for pain and grieving because it’s a loss of a relationship. No matter how painful the relationship is, be prepared they’re probably going to miss their partner,” she notes. (Here are tips on how to move on from the relationship.)
Step 2: Lay the groundwork
You need to start planning your exit—and that means figuring out all sorts of logistical and legal details so you (and your children) can get out safely. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can connect you with a trained advocate to create your own plan. Meanwhile, keep this expert advice in mind:
Don’t telegraph your plans
You can’t broadcast your intentions in any way, says Glass. That means no threats about leaving or getting a restraining order, which can take a lot of self-control in the middle of a blowout.
“If you tell this abusive person, ‘I’m going to get a restraining order,’ what they most likely will do is turn around, call the police, and say that you were abusing them. And the police show up and don’t know whom to believe. So any sort of telegraphing what your plans are will likely be used against you,” Glass explains.
Erase your digital footprint
Abusive people typically monitor their partner’s personal email, computer, and cell phone, says Glass: “Either the account is in their name and they can see who’s being called or who’s being texted, or they can track your browsing history on a web browser.”
As you do your research, whether that’s trying to find a domestic violence shelter, or talking with a friend about moving in with them, or talking to your family members about borrowing money so you can move out, you need to do this carefully so your partner can’t spy on you and learn your plans, Glass advises.
That means using the library or a friend’s computer to do research and buying a burner phone that you pay for on a monthly basis, Glass suggests. “You can get a brand-new phone number, keep it secret, and then you throw the thing away when you eventually get out.,” he says. Glass also recommends hiring a private investigator to scan your car in case your partner’s put a GPS tracker on it.
Pack your bags
Collect your important information—your bank cards, your birth and marriage certificates, your kids’ birth certificates—put them in a safe place, Engel advises. “Tell somebody, even one friend, and leave your important documents with that friend,” she adds.
Enlist professional allies
Having friends and family members who can listen and help you plan your escape is great. But if you can afford it, consider getting a therapist and/or lawyer, especially for the aftermath.
Here’s why: A therapist can help you do the emotional work and validate your experience so you can leave much more quickly, says Lacy. “When we have friends and family who have their own issues, as everyone does, they’re going to lose patience with you. ‘Why don’t you just leave already? You’re always talking about the same thing,'” she notes.
Ditto a lawyer. “An attorney can provide you with valuable feedback, because anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship probably starts to doubt their own beliefs about anything,” says Glass, who keeps a list of 10 false threats abusive partners make to give to his clients.
Two common ones: If you leave, your partner gets the kids or you’ll have to pay support—threats that a lawyer or therapist can quickly tell you probably won’t happen in a million years if your partner is abusive or you make less money or aren’t the one working full-time.
A lawyer can also help you file a restraining order, which is a court order that states that your partner can’t get within a 100 yards of you, can’t contact you, or go to your home or approach your car or go near your kids or their school, says Glass.
Figure out where you’ll go
Once you leave, you need somewhere to go, says Glass. So maybe it’s a domestic violence shelter (you can call Safe Horizon at 1-800-621-HOPE to find one near you). Or move in with friends or family. If you have the resources, maybe start looking for a place to rent (or start tucking money away), Engel advises.
Be alert to your partner’s changes in behavior
Sometimes abusive partners have a sixth sense, even if you’ve been careful to cover your tracks. That’s when you have to be aware of your partner’s red flags—especially when they’re unpredictable, says Lacy.
Destructive partners want to change your reality, so instead of getting angry or violent, they may start doing nice things—washing the dishes, spending time with the kids, paying attention to you.
Instead, says Lacy, focus on your goal and remember your partner’s character and patterns of abuse. (Are you with a narcissist? Here are real-life examples of narcissistic abuse.)
Have a code word
Work it out in advance and share it with your most trusted friends or family or even neighbors so when you use it, they know you’re in danger and can either come over and intervene or call the police, say experts.
ID a secure room
“If it’s going to take a while to get out of the house, you should identify some safe area in your home where you can go in case your partner gets abusive, whether it’s locking yourself in one of the bedrooms or a bathroom,” says Glass. Your goal is to be able to get away from the abusive person just long enough to be able to call someone using your code word.
By all means, take your kids in there too, he adds. “Abusers will use any sort of leverage possible and it doesn’t matter that it’s their child or someone else’s child. They’re going to take whatever opportunity they have to create leverage to get you out of the bathroom,” Glass says.
Step 3: Get out fast
Pick a safe time, not the right time
There’s no right time to leave, so it comes down to finding a safe time, says Glass, which usually means some time when you’re home and your partner is either at work or out with friends or visiting family. “You need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, especially under Covid where everyone is just sort of stuck at home and you’re never sure when your partner might be going out,” Glass notes.
Step 4: Once you’re out of the house
Keep your whereabouts secret
At least until you get the restraining order, which then provides you the additional protection, says Glass.
File the restraining order
Or get your lawyer to do it pronto. It may be a piece of paper, but it can be an effective tool in keeping your partner away from you and the kids, says Glass. “It puts you to the top of the list that if you call the police and you can say, ‘This person’s here, and I have a restraining order.’ Once the police see that it’s in the system, they come out immediately.”
It’s temporary, so it’s only good for several weeks. That can buy enough time for a family court judge to issue a permanent order. “In most states, there’s a presumption against the abusive parent having any significant time with the children, especially if the parent was abusive to you in front of the children or abusive to the children,” Glass explains.
Stop all contact with your partner
“If you still have the same phone and they text you, you cannot respond under any circumstances. If they call, if they send a message through a mutual friend, any contact with this person will be the first piece of information they’ll use to try and find you,” says Glass.
Besides, having any kind of contact means you’ll just encourage your mate to keep texting or calling. “If the abuser doesn’t hear from you at all, it’s a lot less likely that they’ll continue persisting. They’ll persist for a certain amount of time, and then, in essence, they move on to their next victim. They start looking for the next person that they’re going to control,” Glass notes.
Don’t leave clues
Don’t forward any bills or update your driver’s license with your new address, warns Glass. “You can’t do any of those things because those things make it easier for someone to track you down. Just having a cell phone number and finding one utility bill that’s been forwarded is usually enough for me to track down someone I’m trying to search. And so if I, as an attorney, can do it, an abuser can probably do the same thing,” he says. Later, when you have a permanent order, you can make the change.
Be prepared to call 911
“If, God forbid, your abuser shows up where you are or shows up to your work or sees you on the street, then you’ve got to call 911 immediately and say, ‘I have a restraining order. This person is right near me. I need help immediately,'” says Glass.
To find more support or resources, and create a personalized plan, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline—1-800-799-SAFE—or go the National Domestic Violence Hotline site to chat with someone right away. And don’t forget to do this on your burner phone or at the library, so your partner won’t know what you’re up to.
- Beverly Engel, LMFT, a psychotherapist, Los Osos, California
- David J. Glass, JD, PhD, certified family law specialist, Los Angeles
- Janie Lacy, LMHC, a psychotherapist and relationship trauma expert, Maitland, Florida
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: "Statistics"
- Violence and Victims: "Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Gender and Age"