On average, it takes seven attempts before someone is able to leave an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. It can take years before a survivor is able to separate emotionally from the ex-partner and heal the wounds of the relationship. But why not ‘just leave’ as so many loved ones may emphatically suggest? The logic and deep concern in their request is heard but the victim is trapped, caught between the wishes and reason of others and their own head and heart. Knowing somewhere that this isn’t right, that they deserve more but are unable to break free.
Leaving and separating is not as easy as it may seem from the outside. There are many barriers to exiting an abusive relationship; financial dependence, isolation from family and friends, fear, children, connection to an area or home, feeling they’re the only one that can help their partner to change and, of course, love- because it was not always like this.
This post will focus on practical steps for people to support themselves after exiting an abusive relationship. For more information on how to leave an abusive relationship safely, please see: Women’s Aid, the National Domestic Violence Helpline or the ManKind Initiative. A more comprehensive list of organisations can be found via Citizens Advice.
Leaving is only the first step to ending an abuser’s control.
Abusive relationships corrode the sense of self, with victims becoming intrinsically bound to their perpetrator. The abuser dominates not just the external world – controlling what their partner says or does – but also the internal world. Victims exist in a system where they must get everything ‘right’, walking on eggshells lest they anger the beast and incur the wrath of their abuser. This ‘wrath’ may be subtle, a trickle of emotional put downs and undermining of confidence, silent disapproval. Or it may be violent. Often, it is both. In either case, every decision, action and response is made with the perpetrator in mind. If we are told something enough, we believe it. So if the message you’re receiving, either from someone’s actions or words, is that you are not good enough, that you are always wrong and that everything is your fault, this becomes the way you think about and relate to yourself.
After physical separation, this dynamic remains. The perpetrator is internalised; their narrative still dominant in the victims’ world. The trauma persists. In addition, there are often very real ways in which the perpetrator can continue to exercise their need for power and control, such as through access to finances and children. This is where the legal system can support people on their path to healing, by asserting the rights of individuals and children in an arena separate from the complexities of the relationship. Good representation can empower the victim. It offers a model of someone standing up for their rights, who is not swayed by tactics of bullying, coercion or avoidance, and who holds their ground in the storm.
Practical advice: how to regain control after an abusive relationship.
The idea that you can fully remove your abuser from your life may not be realistic; you may have children together or mutual friends. However, this doesn’t mean they need to stay in your head. It is important that whatever contact you have is boundaried, safe and you are supported.
So how do you break this bond?
Reach out. You don’t have to do it alone. Confronting traumatic experiences such as abusive relationships can be destabilising. Reaching out to specialist organisations and professionals who can support you to process and understand your experience is particularly important. There are many that offer support both prior to and post physical separation, supporting your emotional process through one-to-one and groups, while also offering practical advice around legal processes. As one of the patterns of abuse is isolation, you might find that a group is particularly valuable in helping you to understand that you are not alone, other people have had similar experiences and there are patterns in abuse dynamics that make it difficult for any victim to leave.
Reconnect with family and friends. This may be hard, but reconnecting doesn’t mean you have to tell them everything, unless you want to. Often a lot of guilt or shame can come with reconnection: family and friends are so invested in your wellbeing and these relationships are complex in their own way. Therefore, it’s important to be kind to yourself. It’s also another reason why outside organisations can be helpful. Share your story with those who feel safe enough and have shown themselves to be supportive in the past. Go at your own pace.
Identify your ex-partner’s narrative. The first step is always acknowledging or noticing what is going on and how you are thinking of yourself. Do you think of yourself – or do you remain preoccupied with your ex partner and how they might be feeling? You might want to try making a list of what they would say or how they would respond to you. How did this make you feel about yourself? This will help identify their voice in your head.
Find your narrative. Often your truth of what happened and your experience gets usurped by the narrative of your perpetrator. It is important to try and bring this perspective into focus. It can help to write from your perspective about any memories that come to mind of specific incidents. If this is difficult to access, try writing the facts of the situation without any emotive content, then reflect on how you would respond to a friend in that situation.
Reflect on and make a list of positive attributes you have. It can help to think of how friends or colleagues might describe you. How would you describe yourself before this relationship? Remember any achievements from the past. What did you enjoy? What were/are you good at?
Actively challenge your ex-partner’s narrative. This can be incredibly difficult and take time. Once you start to notice those thoughts, try to actively challenge them with statements that support you. Such as ‘I know where you come from but you are not my truth’. Whatever they are, it is important to find statements that work for you. Try and do this with kindness towards yourself. Statements loaded with self-blame aren’t helpful; they actually reinforce the perpetrator’s narrative. If you find yourself getting frustrated, try taking a deep breath and saying something like ‘I understand you are here because of the experiences I have had’. Create affirmations and repeat these to yourself on a daily basis, write them down or stick them around a room. It might feel silly but persevere. Like building a new muscle it takes time to feel the benefit.
Alongside this, try and get involved in activities that you did before the relationship, or try something new that you have always wanted to do. Building up your external world will support you to challenge your internal one.
Allow yourself to grieve. Grieve for yourself, for them, for the relationship, for everything you have lost and endured. There were reasons you entered this relationship, things that you love and miss about the person you were with. Acknowledging your partner as abusive doesn’t take that away. You will have had hopes and dreams for your future and the relationship that have been lost. Allow yourself to feel the sadness, anger and pain that change necessarily brings.
You can support yourself by talking to someone about these feelings, by journaling or expressing yourself creatively. Grieving is an important part of the process of letting go and being able to emotionally separate from your ex-partner.
If you find yourself suffering from flashbacks, overwhelming anxiety or panic attacks, seek professional support as you may be suffering with post-traumatic stress. Go to your GP to access support and receive medical advice. If it’s an option for you financially, you may also want to consider finding a private therapist who specialises in trauma and abuse. Many private therapists also offer concessionary rates so don’t be afraid to ask if this could mean you are able to access the support you need.
Unfortunately, there is no ‘quick fix’. The ideas outlined here form part of a process that takes courage to confront. By even considering making changes you have taken an important first step. It will inevitably be painful and destabilising at times, which is why it is essential that you have support around you. You do not have to endure this alone, it is not your fault. Although painful, where there is change there is hope, potential and power to build the life you deserve.
This article was written for Rayden Solicitors who specialise in family law and also published on their blog which can be found here: https://raydensolicitors.co.uk/blog/