Leaving for good
When you're stuck in an abusive relationship, everyone tells you to gather the emotional strength to leave. You partner won't change, if they loved you they would have treated you differently, sooner or later they'll kill you, you deserve so much better, etc. All of it is true. However, aside from making the decision to leave, you also need to figure out where are you going to go. Many DV victims run out of the house in the middle of a violent confrontation, only to return once things calm down - not even because they love their partner so much, but simply because of not having a plan of independent living. However, you have the highest chance of getting assaulted or killed while trying to leave, so it's not the time to close your eyes and take a leap. It's the time to think and plan, with meticulous attention to detail. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to succeed. Here are some pointers to get you started:
It's possible to leave an abusive relationship without any support. However, your chances of success are a lot higher if someone is helping you. Domestic violence affects all areas of your life, so leaving it would mean juggling many issues at once: housing, employment, custody of children, family relationships, friends, financial assets, etc. It's confusing and overwhelming, so splitting this workload with someone else is a very good idea: you worry about what you're planning to do and what risks you feel you'll be running into, and your counselor worries about how to solve these problems practically. If you're a woman, you can find a trained domestic violence counselor in any DV shelter or victims center, it's free. They can help you plan your optimal escape because they understand how DV works, and know the specific programs available to DV victims in your area that you might qualify for.
Finding a DV counselor is a lot trickier if you're a man, but it's doable. Google men's rights organizations in your area, call DV centers just in case (there are a few in the US that work with men too), or enlist a friend. The goal is to have someone you can run your plan by, who would help you identify tangible, specific, concrete steps that need to be taken or implemented. For example, if you need emergency housing, your counselor could google DV programs, homeless shelter, hostels, etc, and present you with the list of options, including addresses, phone numbers, and hours of operation. It needs to be the same person throughout the process, assisting you with whatever problems you encounter, seeing the whole picture. This person has to be someone local: laws and assistance programs vary by location.
It's hard to leave if you don't have a job or a place to go; your partner might cut off your health insurance, cell phone plan, access to the shared bank accounts and credit cards, etc. These problems can seem insurmountable, but most countries have programs available to victims of domestic violence that will keep you afloat till you get back on your feet. Those vary by location, so you need to have your counselor research them for you, preferably beforehand. You might qualify for emergency housing (i.e. shelter), affordable housing (e.g. section 8), healthcare, legal help, job training, financial assistance, daycare, foodstamps, etc. Of course staying at a shelter is not as comfortable as staying at your own house, but it's a temporary solution, and physical safety has to come first. Don't be ashamed of taking advantage of these programs: you aren't a freeloader, you're in an emergency crisis, it can happen to anyone, that's what these programs are meant for.
Leaving an abusive relationship does not automatically stop the violence. Most abusive partners won't simply accept your departure and move on with their life; they might stalk you (trying to bring you back by promises or threats), assault you (to retaliate), or even attempt to murder you (so that you won't have a life without them); murder-suicides aren't rare either (e.g. the abusive partner killing both their victim and themselves). Fearing for your safety is a good thing, it allows you to avoid danger - but it can be paralyzing. That's why escaping DV takes planning: you need to think about what specifically you're going to do, and how it might work out. Walk your counselor through your plan step by step: when are you going to leave (at night while your partner is asleep, during the day while they are at work, in the evening while they are watching TV)? Do you need police to come pick you up? Where are you going to go: to a shelter, to your mom, to a hotel? How would you get there, do you need a taxi? Will your partner be able to guess where you went, will they follow you there? Do you need an Order of Protection? Each situation is unique, so you need to come up with a detailed plan of action, and run it by someone.
Many DV victims are worried they won't be able to provide for their kids (while having no job, no housing, no daycare, etc), but also don't want to lose custody to their abusive ex's. Visitation is frustrating (or even dangerous) because you have to interact with your ex to arrange it - yet you can't refuse it because you child has the right to regularly see both parents. The way to win this is to fight for your child rather than against your ex. Make sure your child has housing, food, medical care, daycare, etc; apply for government assistance if you need to. Don't bash your ex in front of your child, it's bad parenting and will inevitably backfire. If you're concerned for the safety of your child while s/he is visiting with your ex - ask for supervised visitations. If you feel you can't take appropriate care of your child at the moment - give the custody to a relative, don't wait for the state to step in; doing it yourself shows responsibility and good judgment, it will work in your favor. Stay in touch, visit regularly, pay child support, send gifts - all of these things are not only crucial for your child, but will make a difference if you plan to regain custody later on.
Friends and family
Many people are against divorce and single parenting, and, if your friends and family don't realize that your physical safety is at stake, some of them might not support your decision to leave your abusive partner. That's very unfortunate, but you need to be prepared for this possibility. You can talk to them ahead of time, to see if you can count on them for support, or if it's best to avoid them at first. Whether they seem supportive of your decision or not, it can help to be specific about what you need from them. Even the most supportive person can feel confused as to what's expected of them, and even the least supportive person can be helpful if the goal is clear. Don't ask for general support, ask for specific actions. For example, to babysit your children for the weekend, to let you store a suitcase in their house for two weeks, etc. The more you interact with your friends and family, the better they'll understand your day to day reality, and the more supportive they'll grow as a result.
Therapy and support groups
Whether you're noticing it or not, domestic violence causes psychological trauma, which needs to be addressed once your physical safety is ensured. It's not rare for DV victims to escape their abusive relationship and immediately go back to it, or sink into depression, substance abuse, even suicide, or quickly find another partner that's just as abusive as the previous one. Therapy can help you deal with the past trauma and formulate a concrete plan for a healthier future that is less dependent on others. Support groups can help you see that you aren't alone, compare notes with other survivors, and give and receive emotional support between therapy appointments. Journaling can help you process your feelings (about past, present, and future), re-discover who you are and where you want to go with your life. Structured journals (or workbooks) are particularly helpful: for example, you might keep a gratitude journal, writing down one thing you feel grateful for every day, or a "three things that made me happy/angry today" journal, or an "all about me" workbook, where you answer questions such as "what's your favorite ice cream flavor" or "have you ever been abroad." These things are helpful because abuse robs you of your identity, so once it's over - you feel lost and unsure of who you are anymore, which is what causes depression, addictions, or return to abuse.
If you're a woman, DV shelter is a very good option. It's a lot more than a place to sleep: they provide assistance with everything listed above, create a plan of action tailored specifically for you, and the structure to keep you on track. You can look at it as a rehab: they provide clean bed, three meals a day, curfew, counselors, group therapy, etc, keeping you busy with various programs, so that you stay focused on rebuilding your life and don't have the opportunity to sink into depression or go back to your abusive partner. Everyone there is a DV survivor, so you can make a lot of friends who understand exactly what you're going through and are aiming for the same goal as you are. Many DV shelters offer nice extras like art therapy groups or hair makeovers. On a more practical note, residents of DV shelters get pushed ahead of the line with many programs (e.g. affordable housing ones), or qualify for programs that aren't available to general public, so if you're determined to change your life and are patient enough to follow through the process - DV shelter is what you should be doing.
If you're a man, you aren't likely to find a DV shelter (there are only a few of them in the US). You can see of homeless shelters are any good in your area: structured environment is crucial while you're rebuilding your life from scratch, and shelters provide structure. If that's not an option - talk to your counselor, have them help you with this. A lot of people relax immediately after leaving their abusive relationship - that's a very bad idea because the hard part is only starting, you need to restructure your life so that you won't go back to abuse, won't commit suicide, won't sink into alcohol or drugs. You need to stay busy: work and/or volunteer, get new hobbies and interests, make new friends and spend time with them, preferably outdoors, exercise, join support groups, consider therapy, etc. Have your counselor research the opportunities available in your area: free classes, activities, support groups, etc.
~ Mark Twain
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