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Leaving an abusive relationship
No one should feel unsafe. If you are in an unsafe, violent relationship, you might be thinking of leaving. You do not have to leave today or do it all at once. But a safety plan can help you know what to do when you are ready to leave. Having a plan in place can help you get out safely later if you do decide to leave.Expand all|Collapse all
What are some things to consider as I decide whether to leave?
Leaving an abusive relationship can seem overwhelming. Women often leave several times before finally deciding to end the relationship. There are many complicated reasons why it is difficult to leave an abusive partner.
You may have doubts or fears or just feel overwhelmed at the thought of leaving. That’s normal. But consider the following as you make your decision:
- Domestic violence often starts as emotional abuse and becomes physical later. It’s important to ask for help as soon as possible.
- Your partner may try to make you think the violence is your fault. It’s not. You cannot make someone hurt or mistreat you. Your partner is responsible for his or her own behavior. Violence and abuse are never the victim’s fault.
- Abuse is not normal or OK. You may think that abuse is a sign that your partner loves you. It’s not. Your partner may love you, but abuse is not a sign of that love. You may think that romantic love is passionate and that physical abuse is a sign of passion. It’s not. A healthy relationship is one in which you feel safe and which has no physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse.
- Abuse can happen to anyone. Some women and men believe that abuse is not something that could happen to them. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of whether you have a college education, which neighborhood you live in, your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, or whether you’re married, dating, or single.
- Your partner may be very good to you at times. Most abusers have a pattern of abuse followed by making it up to you or making you feel special and loved. It’s most likely that the abuse will happen again. Abuse usually gets worse over time, not better. Learn about how to get help even if your partner promises to stop the abuse.
- You cannot help or fix an abusive partner. It’s not your responsibility to convince a violent or abusive partner to get help. Your responsibility is to your own safety and the safety of any children in the household. Some abusive partners say they will get help as a way to “make it up to you” after violence. But getting help does not always mean the violence will stop.
- Intimate partner violence is linked to serious physical and emotional problems. The longer it continues, the more damage it can cause.
Also, if you have children, consider their safety. Consider whether you are willing to allow your partner to visit them if you decide to leave the relationship. Many abusers get even more violent after their victims leave. That’s why a safety plan, agreed on with others in your life, can help keep you safe after you leave.
Who can I talk to about leaving an abusive relationship?
Many people can help you think about your options to leave an abusive relationship safely. It might be unsafe if an abusive partner finds out you’re thinking about leaving. Try to talk only to people who will not tell the abuser about your plans:
- Your doctor or nurse. Most people visit the doctor at least once a year for a checkup, so try to visit the doctor or nurse without your partner. If your partner insists on going with you, try to write a note to the office staff saying that you want to see the doctor or nurse alone. Or, tell your partner that you need privacy to speak about a woman’s health issue that you’re too embarrassed to talk about. Or, tell your partner, where others can hear you, that the doctor’s policy is patients only in the exam room.
- A teacher, counselor, or principal at your child’s school. An adult at your child’s school can help connect you to shelters and other safe places in your community. Teachers and others at your child’s school want to help the families of the children they teach.
- Human resources. If you work outside the home, the human resources (HR) department at your workplace may be able to connect you to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other resources in your community.
- Family or friends. Family or friends who knew you before you met an abusive partner might be able to help you. If more than one family member or friend can help you, it might be good for a few people to work together to help.
- A free 1-800 telephone hotline. You can talk to trained advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, for free 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without giving your name or address. The counselors can help you talk through the steps of leaving an abusive relationship. You can call a hotline as many times as you need to.
How can I plan to leave and keep myself safe?
Even if you don’t leave right away, creating a safety plan can help you know what to do if your partner abuses you again. It can help you be more independent when you leave.
Your safety plan will help you be prepared:
- Identify a safe friend or friends and safe places to go. Create a code word to use with friends, family, or neighbors to let them know you are in danger without the abuser finding out. If possible, agree on a secret location where they can pick you up.
- Keep an alternate cellphone nearby. Try not to call for help on your home phone or on a shared cellphone. Your partner might be able to trace the numbers. If you don’t have a cellphone, you can get a prepaid cellphone. Some domestic violence shelters offer free cellphones.
- Memorize the phone numbers of friends, family, or shelters. If your partner takes your phone, you will still be able to contact loved ones or shelters for a safe place to stay.
- Make a list of things to take if you have to leave quickly. Important identity documents and money are probably the top priority. See the Safety Packing List for a detailed list of items to pack. Get these items together, and keep them in a safe place where your partner will not find them. If you are in immediate danger, leave without them.
- If you can, hide an extra set of car keys so you can leave if your partner takes away your usual keys.
- Ask your doctor how to get extra medicine or glasses, hearing aids, or other medically necessary items for you or your children.
- Contact your local family court (or domestic violence court, if your state has one) for information about getting a restraining order. If you need legal help but don’t have much money, your local domestic violence agency may be able to help you find a lawyer who will work for free or on a sliding scale based on what you can pay.
- Protect your online security as you collect information and prepare. Use a computer at a public library to download information, or use a friend’s computer or cellphone. Your partner might be able to track your planning otherwise.
- Try to take with you any evidence of abuse or violence if you leave your partner. This might include threatening notes from your partner. It might be copies of police and medical reports. It might include pictures of your injuries or damage to your property.
- Keep copies of all paper and electronic documents on an external thumb drive.
Advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233), can help you develop your safety plan. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence provides a form (PDF, 193 KB) for developing your own safety plan. You can also find more tips on developing your safety plan. Every person deserves to be safe.
What do I need to include in my safety packing list?
When you leave an abuser, the most important thing is your life and safety as well as your children’s. If you are able to plan ahead, it will help you to have important information with you, in addition to money, clothing, medicine, and other basic items.
Even if you are not sure you want to or are ready to leave, go ahead and make copies of as many of the following documents as you can, or secure them in a safe place outside of the home:
- Birth certificates, Social Security cards, and passports or immigration papers for you and your children
- Health insurance cards for you and your children
- Financial records, including recent bank statements and stocks or mutual fund records
- Housing documents, such as rental agreements, mortgage statements, or the title or deed
- Your most recent credit report (you can request one for free)
- The title or lease paperwork for your car
- Statements for any retirement plans
- The past two years’ tax returns
- A written copy of phone numbers or important addresses in case you cannot get to your cellphone or address book
Many of these records are available online, so try to keep access to these accounts if you do not have paper copies.
You may also want to take photos of any valuable assets in the home (anything you think may be worth some money). Also, if you have any family heirlooms (such as jewelry), take them with you or put them in a safe place before you leave. You can get a safe deposit box at the bank to store copies of the paperwork listed, as well as small valuable items. If you have a joint checking account, consider opening your own checking account and storing money there. Any adult has the right to open their own bank account, even if they are married or dependent on another person.
What if I’m too scared to leave?
Leaving a relationship is not easy. You may still care about your partner or have hope that things will get better. It may also be difficult or frightening to leave because:
- Your partner may be a co-parent to your children.
- Your partner may have isolated you from your friends and family so you feel you have no place to go.
- Your partner may control the money so you feel you have no resources to leave.
- Your partner may have threatened you or your children.
- You don’t want to disrupt your children’s lives.
- You may have an elderly relative or disabled child needing care.
- Your health may be poor because you were injured in the domestic violence or because of illness.
- You may still have feelings for your partner or worry that you’ll be alone for the rest of your life.
You can get help dealing with all of these issues. Talk to a friend, a loved one, or a counselor at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233). People want to help you.
Even if it seems like the only way you can be safe is to leave, you may still be feeling confused and frightened about leaving. That is normal. You don’t have to decide to leave today. But if you are in an abusive relationship, you need to get help.
How can I leave if I don’t have any money?
In abusive or controlling relationships, it is common for the abusive partner to get control of all of the money. Often, an abusive partner will not allow a woman to work outside of the home or talk to family and friends.
Even if you do not have any money, you can find the closest women’s shelter by calling the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) for free. You do not have to pay money to stay at a domestic violence shelter.
Many domestic violence shelters can help you pay for a ride to the shelter. If you are already in a temporary but safe place, call the shelter to ask about help with transportation.
Where can I go if I decide to leave?
Even if you don’t have a friend or family member to go to, you still have a safe option. A domestic violence shelter, also sometimes called a women’s shelter, is a safe place for a woman who has a violent partner. Its location is usually not public, making it harder for an abusive partner to find. These shelters have rooms for women and children.
Find a women’s shelter near you. If your safety and well-being depend on leaving your violent partner, help is available. Go online or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233); or the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE (4673), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What happens after I arrive at a domestic violence or women’s shelter?
Domestic violence shelters provide basic items for women who have to leave in a hurry and arrive with nothing. They may also provide food and child care. These services are usually free.
Domestic violence shelters often provide:
- Individual and family counseling and support groups
- Help enrolling children in school
- Job training and help finding work
- Legal help
- Help getting financial aid
- Help finding permanent housing
Housing in a domestic violence shelter is usually short-term and limited. The shelter can help you with the next step in housing.
What happens after my time in a shelter is up?
The next step can be transitional housing. This type of housing is usually independent, separate apartments for each family. It allows a family to find safety and time to recover from domestic violence. The shelter can help you find transitional housing.
Services offered by these facilities may include:
- Support groups
- Job training
- Legal help
- Child care
- Help finding permanent and affordable housing
Did we answer your question about domestic or intimate partner violence?
For more information about domestic or intimate partner violence, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:
- Family Violence Prevention & Services Resource Centers — Information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Help a Friend or Family Member — Information from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
- Intimate Partner Violence — Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Know the signs of an abusive relationship and how to leave a dangerous situation. — Information from the Mayo Clinic.
- Questions and Answers About Domestic Violence — Publication from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
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The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the medical review in 2017 by:
Kathleen C. Basile, Ph.D., Lead Behavioral Scientist, Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Kathryn Jones, M.S.W., Public Health Advisor, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Sharon G. Smith, Ph.D., Behavioral Scientist, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) Staff
All material contained on these pages are free of copyright restrictions and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Citation of the source is appreciated.
Page last updated: June 11, 2018.
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