Leaving an abusive relationship
Adapted from Leaving An Abusive Relationship,
a brochure by the B.C. Council for Families.
Although leaving an abusive relationship is a positive step—both
for you and for your children—it is nevertheless a difficult
one. It should not be a decision you make alone: you will need
the support of people trained in helping victims of domestic violence.
When involved with an abusive partner, your legal rights and personal
safety are more difficult to secure.
You can find help for yourself and your children at a battered
women's shelter or through a crisis intervention program especially
designed to meet your needs. An attorney can guide you through
the legal aspects of separation, and, if you file a complaint
against your abusive partner, the police are needed in order to
press criminal charges. Filing a complaint has been shown to reduce
the incidence of violence after a woman chooses to leave an abusive
relationship. It's important to seek out all the resources and
to accept all the help you can.
In this article, we'll explore some of the emotions you and your
children may experience. We'll also explore some of the ways in
which you can help yourself through the process of separation.
Knowing what to expect may not minimize your pain, but it will
help you to maintain your independence and to continue to parent
Separation is never easy, and you should expect that it take several
months to work through the various steps. In fact, it may take a few
years before you become established.
You may see yourself as a partner and a mother. It's normal when
you leave an abusive relationship—or any relationship, for
that matter—to feel a loss of your self-identity. It's often
painful to move from the role of partner and mother—and
from the private status of victim—to that of a single and
competent person. The transition may take longer than you want
The process involves a journey of self-discovery—you will
need to rediscover yourself in a whole new way in order to become
your own person. Being independent can be a wonderful and liberating
feeling, but it can also be rather scary. It might take you a
while to find out who you really are and what you truly want from
life. Don't worry about making mistakes—take the opportunity
to learn from them and to uncover what you do well.
It's normal to experience feelings more intensely than ever.
You may experience a broad range of emotions—from betrayal,
grief, anger, freedom, joy, strength—simultaneously. While
these conflicting and often overwhelming feelings may make you
feel confused and discouraged, it's important to remember that
you're still a worthy person and that despite their unexpected
and contradictory nature, your feelings are a part of you. They
are a part of you, but they don't make up the whole person.
Allow yourself to feel and don't berate yourself on account of
your feelings. In time, you'll learn how to cope with each one.
Grief is a natural part of letting go of a relationship. It's
natural to want to cry and sometimes, you may feel as though you
will never stop. Everyone grieves in his or her own way and in
his or her own time. You'll stop crying once you've finished mourning
the loss of your relationship. You may wonder why you're sad,
particularly if you were abused. Undoubtedly, you miss some of
the good things about your partner and the relationship. Yet,
you still need to remember the cycle of abuse:
you did pay a hefty price for those good things.
Grief carries with it not only emotional symptoms, but also physical
stress reactions. You may experience sleep disturbances, diarrhea,
constipation, nausea, heart palpitations, changes in your menstrual cycle,
and weight gain or weight loss.
Psychologically, you may experience sadness, hopelessness, feelings of
futility, irritability, poor concentration, an inability to make decisions,
and memory problems. Being in good physical health will help you cope with
these emotional symptoms of grief.
For weeks of even months after you've made the clear decision
to leave your abusive relationship, you may experience a great
euphoria—a sense of great joy that can help re-energize
you and get you back on your feet. Don't be surprised, however,
if you experience sporadic bouts of anger, grief, or depression.
All of these are normal parts of the process of change, and sooner
or later, you'll need to work through each of these stages. Remember
also that timing varies from one individual to the next; however,
if you allow yourself to feel fully at each stage, you should
expect the adjustment process to take about three years.
Once you've decided to leave your relationship, you may feel
as though the floodgates have opened and that all the anger that
built up and was denied during your relationship is now suddenly
spilling over. You may also experience all of the frustration
of never having your needs met, compounded with the powerlessness
you felt at the time. Although often viewed as a negative emotion,
it's normal and safe to feel angry right now. Accept that you
feel angry and recognize that anger can actually help give you
power and motivation, provided you know how to express it constructively.
Expressing anger in a constructive way rather than misdirecting
it at those around you or seeking revenge is the best way to free
yourself of it. On the other hand, being spiteful and seeking
revenge may cost you in the long run by slowly robbing you of
Feelings of failure and/or of futility
Women are socialized to believe they carry the sole responsibility
of making a relationship work and that if the relationship fails,
they too have failed as persons. As a result of this conditioning,
you may feel that admitting the failure in your relationship is
synonymous with admitting your inadequacy. Nothing could be further
from the truth! Chances are that you tried all you could to make
your relationship work. It's not your fault your efforts failed.
It takes two people's work and commitment in order to make a relationship
work: they must work jointly to ensure its success. Instead of
feeling inadequate, you need to give yourself credit: making the
decision to leave an abusive relationship is never easy, and you
show conviction and strength having made that decision.
Anxiety or loss of control
Because women in abusive relationships grow used to gauging their
safety by picking up on various cues and signals their partner
puts out and by using these to gauge how safe they may be in any
given situation, the absence of these signals may seem frightening.
Once you leave an abusive relationship, you may feel you've lost
your bearings—the signals that determine your behavior and
reactions. Feelings of loss are quite normal while you're in transition
and moving the center of control from your partner to yourself.
The process takes time and can be equally scary and freeing. Be
Now that you've left your abusive relationship, the way you now
view your past, your relationship, your partner, and yourself
will undoubtedly change. You may doubt your memories and feel
disoriented. You may choose to remember only the good or only
the bad. This is normal: because your situation has changed and
you now have new information on which to base your opinions and
perspectives, your view of the past will change as well.
Friends may feel threatened by your new independence. Those in
shaky relationships may abandon you. You may find your circle
of friends will change as your interests and concerns may differ.
Friends may side with your partner and former in-laws may reject
you. All of these things may hurt you and it may take you a while
to trust others again or to have the energy for anyone besides
yourself and your children. This is a normal, self-protective
mechanism. While you may want to withdraw from everyone and from
social activities, friendships—particularly women friends—are
especially important as you move through the process of change.
Reach out to others, hard as it may seem. Isolating yourself,
though it may seem safe, will only leave you feeling lonely and
hurt in the long run.
Tempation to reconcile
It may be tempting to try to reconcile with your partner. In fact,
many women who leave an abusive relationship may return to their partner
several times before leaving for good. This is because, in the
cycle of abuse, there are periods of relative
calm, nurturing, and love between violent episodes. When your partner
pleads with you to come back, promising good behavior and that he or
she will not hurt you again, resisting the temptation to reconcile may
Before you make any decision to re-enter the relationship, be sure
you have concrete proof of change. Ensure your partner has enrolled in
a batterers' program that includes a special component for the victim.
If your partner has a problem with substance or alcohol abuse, ensure
he or she is getting the necessary help to overcome this dependence. Pay
particular attention to the tone and language used by your partner when
pleading with you to come back: these can also indicate whether his or
her attitude has changed. Is he/she calm and without rage? Does he/she
agree to a plan to ensure your safety and that of your children? Does
he/she respect your need to live separately for a while?
Listen to your gut instincts. You?ve heard promises before. If you
believe your relationship is worth saving, be sure to take the necessary
time to build a strong foundation of mutual respect on which to build a
life together. If your gut tells you to stay away, trust your instinct.
The first year
For many victims of domestic violence, the first anniversary
of their leaving is often painful. Be aware of this and be sure
to plan for it. Arrange to spend time with family members or close
friends. You might also want to contact the battered women's shelter
or crisis center in your community and ask for reinforcement and
As you move toward your independence, you'll likely have a series
of ups and down along the way. It's normal to have good days—days
where you feel strong and confident—and bad days where you
feel vulnerable, irritable, and sad. Negative feelings don't last
forever and you can get through the bad times. Eventually, you'll
learn to trust again and to let others into your world.
Before you seek out new relationships, though, be sure you feel
strong enough to live independently. By taking the time to live
independently first, when you have the choice of living alone
or with a new partner, you'll be less likely to repeat past mistakes
and you'll be better able to assert yourself and your rights.
When you need more help
The preceding article outlines the feelings you may experience
when you leave an abusive relationship. It's important to remember
that all of these emotions—grief, anger, euphoria, loneliness,
strength, hopelessness—are normal. After all, you've made
a major life decision and it feels you're in a state of upheaval.
However, you may need additional help and support if you are:
- feeling suicidal
to the point of failing to properly look after yourself or your
- manic or euphoric to the point of being a danger to yourself
- jeopardizing your own safety and that of your children by
or by using drugs
- spending too much money
- being promiscuous or engaging in high-risk sexual behavior
- expressing rage in a manner that hurts others or damages property
All of the above are signs you should see a counselor to help
you find ways to cope with the emotions that are overwhelming
you. A crisis center, battered women's shelter, family doctor,
and mental health clinic—all of these can help you find
a skilled counselor. If you are in North America, you can call
the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224
(TTY). Be sure to check out our list of hotlines
and related web sites.