Leaving any marriage is hard. It’s even harder when there’s abuse. There are many day-to-day things we take for granted that survivors can’t. It’s easy not to understand what it takes to leave an abuser.
For example, applying for your own credit card means mail to your home which might be intercepted by your abuser. Setting up a P.O. Box to avoid this still means mail to your home which again could trigger your abuser.
If your cell phone is on a family plan, your abuser might be using it to track your movements and with whom you’re speaking.
And there’s more, much more.
Joining me for this Conversation About Divorce are Jackie List and BreAnne Meyer from Safe Shelter of St. Vrain Valley, which is my local domestic abuse organization. Safe Shelter offers services to victims of abuse working with them to develop their safety plan for remaining in the relationship or leaving. Listen in below or keep reading for a synopsis.
What Makes Leaving Possible?
Before you can start to plan for leaving there has to be a shift in thinking away from staying married to believing that leaving is necessary and that it might be possible.
List says there is research that shows that if there are children in the family, then if the abuse starts to be focused on them, many adult victims decide that it is time to act. However, what triggers that shift is very individual and can be practical or abstract. In non-abusive situations I’ve referred to them as catalytic moments.
“For myself, it was carillon bells going off on a campus that I was walking across,” said List. “They took me back to a time when I was not being abused.”
Meyer points out that in her experience people make many attempts to leave abusive relationships.
“They leave their abusive relationships all the time.” said Meyers. “But they end up hitting barriers or having so many problems that they maybe don’t have many more options and they have to go back to their abusive relationship or they’re coerced back into their abusive relationship.”
For Meyer those obstacles and barriers mean that there’s often a little magic required to be able to leave and stay away.
We tend also to underestimate the complexity of our emotional relationships.
“Relationships are like cloth,” said List. “The two people are woven tightly together. Then you have children woven into that cloth. To separate those threads, it’s like one at a time. It’s a task that takes a lot of tenacity on the part of the survivor.”
Both List and Meyer agree that it is the victim that has to make the decision and be ready to leave regardless of what others think or say.
Create A Plan
In the best case scenario, a victim needs a well-thought out plan before leaving. That’s where working with a domestic abuse organization can help. List stresses that the victim is the expert in their life. They know the abuser so the role of a DV advocate is to help the victim create their map for leaving and to navigate it.
“The survivors are the experts in their lives,” said List. “We need to honor that expertise and work with it to get them where they decide they want to go.”
Creating a plan may take many months. During that time it is vital to keep the plan secret from the abuser and anyone who might either intentionally or unintentionally say something to the abuser otherwise the victim is putting themselves at risk.
A part of any plan is a discussion about the use of technology since even the most basic things can be tracked on a desktop computer or a phone. This includes how to call safely and erasing browsing history. One suggestion List has is to use a computer at a public library.
The plan is not just about logistics and physical actions but also an emotional safety plan.
“Ending a relationship that’s abusive is just like ending a relationship that’s not abusive,” said Meyer. “It’s hard and you don’t want it to end.”
As a DV advocate, Meyer talks with her clients about how to cope with grief and what to do when they feel lonely so they have tools to use when they are feeling vulnerable.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224
Assess The Risk
While a victim is the expert on their abuser, a trained adviser knows the red flags for the risk of lethality and may be better skilled at making a more accurate assessment of the risks associated with leaving than the victim.
“If we can see lethality then we might suggest where we could start,” said List. “Then we move through things starting with the most dangerous and leaving other things to rest while we take care of safety and things like support. Money is big.”
Have Access To Money
The best case scenario would be for the victim to have access to money that is independent of their abuser but that often isn’t the case.
List says that frequently the abuser is the one who has access to all the accounts. As soon as the abuser realizes the survivor is gone then they will shut off the survivor’s access to those accounts.
When creating a leaving plan, an advocate will help the survivor to identify financial resources available to them and that does play into how quickly or broadly the survivor can move forward. For most of her clients, List says the survivor’s income, without the abuser’s income is about $5,000 per year which makes leaving extremely challenging.
Move At Your Pace
The risk of physical abuse goes way up when the survivor tries to leave.
“If you pay attention to the news, often when a survivor is the victim of domestic homicide, it’s because that person was trying to break the control of the offender,” said List.
List emphasizes again that the survivor is the expert in their life and they know the pace that is safe for them and what they can accomplish safely. They know the activity and the propensity of their offender better than anyone.
Get Professional Help
The clients who visit Safe Shelter often know what help they need but List and Meyer say they also have people who have been referred to them and they’re not sure why or what they need.
“They know something’s wrong, but they can’t put a name to it,” said List. “When you’re in it, you can’t always see it clearly.”
A trained adviser will be able to connect a survivor with available resources, offer solutions and educate them about what to expect from court processes.
Domestic abuse organizations are mandated to keep client information confidential and it cannot be disclosed without written consent from the client themselves. Safe Shelter also does not charge for any of its services since they are a recipient of federal funding.
What About The Children?
One reason I hear for not leaving is that separation would mean shared parenting and that would put the children at greater risk of harm. The bottom line however is that if the children are witnessing any level of abusive behavior, that’s psychological abuse.
“The children are being abused by virtue of being in that environment, even if they are not directly being hit or sworn at or isolated or any of the things offenders do to children,” said List.
However, again List recognizes the expertise of the survivor and that it is their decision whether to leave. List’s organization does a lot of work with children to help them develop coping skills and a safety plan so that during an incident they have some sense of what to do to keep themselves safe.
Abusers will often make threats of keeping the children from the survivor. That can be intimidating and another reason for not leaving. Again, this is where it is important to get professional help to accurate information about what is really likely to happen and how to shield and protect the children.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224