Are you or a loved one experiencing relationship violence and abuse? Through this blog, we hope to share five steps that you can follow to escape the trauma and hardships, and find healing in your life.
Step 1: Acknowledge the Abuse
It can be difficult to identify if you are being abused. Approximately 20,000 calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines daily, and 90% of abusers do not have a criminal record (nacdv.org). Oftentimes, an abusive relationship does not start out with abuse. Rather, it may begin in the opposite way. When the relationship first starts, you may find yourself believing that the person is too good to be true. Slowly, this starts to change with time. As the relationship progresses, the abusers’ true behaviors begin to appear. Whether you have previously been abused, are currently being abused, or know someone that was/is abused, it’s important to know what to watch out for.
Red flags of abuse:
- Extreme jealousy or possessiveness
- Name-calling, embarrassing, or demeaning behaviors
- Antiquated beliefs about the roles of women and men in relationships
- Threatening behaviors with or without weapons
- Threatening to commit suicide because of you
- Financial control
- Accusations of an affair or flirting
- Blaming you for everything that goes wrong
- Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol
- Forced sex
- Cruelty to animals
- Sabotaging your ability to go to school or work
- Limiting the interactions you have with friends and family
- Physical harm to you including, but not limited to hitting, punching, slapping, kicking biting, pushing, and strangling
- Gaslighting (psychological manipulation with the purpose of making someone question their own sanity)
Step 2: Make the decision to leave
There are several reasons why a person chooses to stay in an abusive relationship. From the outside perspective, leaving is the obvious decision, but unfortunately, it isn’t that easy for many victims or survivors. I remember when I was towards the end of my abusive relationship, my father told me, “It’s not going to last. I can’t see you dealing with this forever.” I replied with “I know, but not yet. I’m not ready yet.” In my experience, I was not ready to walk away from a relationship without being 100% certain I gave it everything I had. Some victims choose to stay with their abusers due to lack of support, financial support, fear of homelessness for themselves or their children, fear that their lives would be in danger, religious or cultural reasons, and even fear of losing custody. Regardless of the reasons people stay in an abusive relationship, making the decision to leave is extremely difficult. It typically takes a survivor 5-7 attempts at leaving before they finally do (Domestic Violence Prevention Center). There comes a pivotal moment in a survivor’s life where it all just clicks- the abuse, the impact, the exhaustion, and they have had enough. My moment was a few months before I left. I met with my therapist at the time. He was sitting in his wheelie chair and scooted closer- looking at me dead in the eye, and he said, “If a friend was going through the same things, you are right now, what would you tell them?” And immediately the voice inside my head said “Run! Run! Run!” But at the time, I wasn’t ready to walk away, so I copped out and said, “I don’t know.” When you finally make the decision to walk away, it’s normal to have conflicting feelings: sadness, courage, excitement, and dread. One of the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship is the time between the decision made to leave, and actually leaving the abuser, especially if you are experiencing physical abuse (domesticviolence.org), which brings us to the next step.
Step 3: Seek Support
As you know, leaving any relationship can wreak havoc on your emotions and impact your life, but leaving an abusive relationship is even harder. To some degree, there is psychological conditioning that happens with any form of abuse. Because of this, your mental health has been significantly impacted. Speaking with a professional therapist can help provide support during the leaving process, aid in healing, and help to rebuild your life to how YOU want it to be.
Step 4: Create a safety plan
A safety plan is a list of actions, phone numbers/resources, and supports that can help to increase your safety when leaving an abusive situation. One of the many benefits of having a safety plan is that it helps the victim to feel more prepared in a very intense, uncertain time. These are some things your safety plan should have:
- Identify supports- Who are the people that will help you, whether it be physically or emotionally?
- Assessment of the risk of danger- How dangerous is your current situation? Do you have minimal time to leave? Are there any weapons that could be used against you? Are there cameras in the house that would notify your abuser? If your abuser is physical, what can you do during an attack? Can you make yourself a smaller target, utilize self-defense, or call 911?
- Identify safe areas of the environment and ways to escape- In your environment where you are being abused? Additionally, where can you go to be safe? A closet? A room? Escape out the back door? Identifying ways to escape can add to feeling prepared.
- Developing visual signals- It might be a good idea to speak to neighbors you trust about your current situation, then come up with hand signals that can alert them when you need assistance.
- Be prepared!- Make a ‘go bag’ that has essential belongings such as a passport, address book, money, some clothes, etc. so if a quick escape is needed, you can take your bag and go!
Step 5: Go no contact
This, in my opinion, is probably one of the hardest steps. When you are in an abusive relationship you become trauma bonded to the abuser. Trauma bonding is a strong emotional attachment from the victim to the abuser through a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement. Through trauma bonding, the brain latches onto positive feelings rather than negative ones by experiencing repeated abuse and then being “saved” by the abuser occasionally. The abuser gives just enough love, support, and affection before they rip it away. This causes the abused to question their own sanity and become mentally dependent on the abuser. Honestly, the only sure-fire way to break this attachment is to go no contact. Do not answer their calls, texts, or emails, and most definitely do not agree to see them. Without breaking this bond, you are more susceptible to going back to the abuser. When I first left my relationship, I sat on the couch at 4 am declining call after call after call. There were 5 voicemails- which got progressively angrier each time. It took everything I had not to cave and talk to him, not to agree to meet him, and it took every part of me not to go back even though I knew how bad the relationship was.
Having children with your abuser makes it far more complicated due to having to see and speak to them on a regular basis. In this case, you may not be able to go no contact. If you share custody, only speak to them regarding the child/ren, and with little to no reaction whatsoever. This can be difficult, especially where children are concerned. Most narcissists/abusers will say or do things just to get a reaction from you. Don’t let them bait you, remember you are stronger than that! Also, if you must communicate with your abuser- document everything and set clear and concise boundaries…and stick to them! Because going no contact can be so uncomfortable and sometimes painful, make sure to rely on your support system when needed, that’s what they’re there for!
Remember: You are strong. You deserve to be respected. You deserve love. You CAN do this!
If you identify as a survivor of abuse, please know that here at Our Wave, we support you. To anonymously share your story and join our community, click here.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)