As a survivor of domestic violence, more than 30 years have passed since my tumultuous marriage to the father of my children. Feeling trapped in that relationship, I had underlying feelings of shame and guilt that, too many times, compromised my instinct to leave. Desire to be free from his influence and control was there, but I felt that telling anyone would demonstrate my own personal failure. My loved ones would be disappointed because I wasn’t perfect, I told myself. I thus continued to tolerate the daily emotional roller coaster, the physical bruises and psychological scars, while desperately wanting someone to save me. Minimally, someone to help me save myself.
The abused person, your loved one, must know that they ARE NOT to blame, to be shamed or feel ashamed when in this type of unhealthy relationship. Neither should she feel guilty about a relationship in which they find themselves voiceless and effectively stripped of her personal power.
By the time any indications of abuse reach public awareness, she has been worn down, torn down, and ‘blamed’ by the abuser with meticulous consistency. Informed by personal experience, as a loved one, you must resist the urge to emphatically tell her to leave. It is rarely that simple. Although you have the best of intentions, it may be interpreted as yet another demand. More control.
Expect fear. To you, it may seem very easy to just walk out. However, living with intense anxiety and uncertainty on a daily basis, walking away from the relationship is equally uncertain, anxiety-producing and quite terrifying. Better to ‘stay with the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know’. If she lives in fear and a constant high threat level while with him, imagine the fear in contemplating leaving him. Abuse, of any type, is grounded in control, and the abusive partner works tirelessly to control her mind, body, money- all strategically cultivated to erode her sense of self.
So, now that she no longer believes in herself, her confidence to make sound judgments is almost always in doubt. A renewed sense of trust has to be built, as you clearly convey your undying support and openness to listen without judgment. This is your greatest asset, while you help her help herself. Begin to arm that loved one with tools and resources and then assist in the creation of a Safety Plan. This is her personalized toolkit that should include:
- things needed to have prepared and to do before leaving the abuser,
- things needed to do immediately upon leaving and
- a list of people to call and things to do once safely away.
This safety plan must contain the right resources that can be applied at the right time in a potentially dangerous situation. It must consider the ‘what if’s’. Nothing can be left to chance when it comes to planning a successful exit from harm. This makes it vital that you listen to understand both her real and perceived fears.
Escaping an abusive relationship, which is almost literally an ‘escape’, is best executed with the encouragement and support of someone with whom there is trust. She needs to feel free to disclose, and you need to gather critical information from her.
Will she leave at night or during the day? Does he work or drink and abuse drugs? Does she have access to a telephone? Does she have access to a car? Does she have keys to that car, and is that car in her name or his? In my case, I had my own car, but as more control was exerted to limit my independence, he sold it. This left one car and when he didn’t drive to work, he kept the keys with him. You need to know his schedule, his established patterns, and that information must also come from her.
If she has no access to a phone, she needs a prepaid device to which she has exclusive and private access. This may be difficult, but not impossible. The device may have to be hidden somewhere indoors, with a silent ringer and/or kept offline. Restrict use for emergencies and when she decides to leave.
Another aspect of the Safety Plan is preparing for that initial exit. We mustn’t forget to make provisions for the children, if there are any. The young ones have to be carefully considered. Depending on their ages, they may need to be prepped. Not explicitly told of an escape plan, there are ways to prepare them for a seamless exit without him getting wind of your intentions. Encourage her to practice making a quiet and rapid exit. Like fire drills, ensure that the children understand the rules. She can make it seem like a ‘secret’ game. Time and timing is critical.
Whether during an emergency situation or a predetermined time, it helps to have a small utility bag to place a few essential items, for herself and the children. Just one outfit for everyone will be useful once making it to safety. This bag can be kept in a place that is safe yet accessible. The objective is that she can be ready at a moment’s notice. So, even if leaving during the dead of night, there is a change of clothes.
Thinking ahead, we must recognize that each situation will be different, reminding us to plan for the ‘what if’ scenario. Plan A is as important as the Plan B.
Some legal options to consider include-
- A Temporary Restraining Order[TRO]. This is an order of protection that prevents abusers from having contact with victims for a certain period of time. A judge may decide to convert a temporary order into a final or permanent order after a formal hearing. You, as a loved one, must be prepared to give testimony, if necessary, as a witness to the abuse. Keep records of what you notice at all times and when it occurred.
- Safeguarding children. When the abuser and victim have children together,the victim can also request a temporary order of sole custody. Depending on the circumstances, the courts can prevent all contact between the alleged abuser and a child or may be given supervised visitation. If the victimized parent can’t assume sole custody, grandparents may be given temporary guardianship of the children.
- Obtaining money to live. Victims can petition the courts[apply] for temporary alimony and temporary child support at the same time they file that restraining order. No contact with the abuser is necessary to obtain support payments. She may need help with budgeting to ensure that expenses like groceries and rent are met.
- Getting special assistance for ‘financial’ abuse. All too familiar am I, with this form of abuse, in the vast majority of domestic violence cases, abusers exert financial control through means such as forcing victims to turn over paychecks, giving an ‘allowance’, or demanding receipts for even the smallest purchases. The courts can help restore access to joint accounts. You can be an important witness, also informing the courts about the extent of this form of abuse.
- Divorce and separation. When a victim decides to end an abusive marriage, formal separation and filing for divorce are the next logical steps. The divorce process involves dividing marital assets, including retirement plans and the family home. Final custody and alimony decisions will be made, as well. You can help your loved one by seeking the consultation of a divorce attorney who has specific legal experience in cases involving domestic violence and spousal abuses of all kinds.
For now, think practical. An important life-line, a cell phone, prepaid, is ideal. Help with documenting all instances of domestic violence and spousal abuse. Taking pictures, noting times and places, and recording names of other witnesses also helps strengthen your position. Most of all, make sure that your loved one knows that you are her “safe person”. Let her know that when she is ready to leave, you will be there every step of the way. Until then, be supportive, be patient, and a constant source of strength