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Violence against women

Sexual assault
Learn about rape trauma syndrome, date rape, and the impact of rape on relationships

Domestic violence
Learn why it happens and how to get help.

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Learn how to spot child sexual abuse and how to report it.

Domestic violence

Leaving an abusive relationship

Adapted from Leaving An Abusive Relationship, a brochure by the B.C. Council for Families.
ISBN I-895342-93-7

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 effectively.

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 it to.

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

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.

Euphoria

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.

Anger

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 your self-respect.

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 patient.

Disorientation

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.

Loneliness

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 seem impossible.

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 support.

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.

New relationships

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
  • depressed to the point of failing to properly look after yourself or your children
  • manic or euphoric to the point of being a danger to yourself or others
  • jeopardizing your own safety and that of your children by drinking excessively 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.

Domestic violence

Editor's picks

Following are just some of the wonderful books on this topic available from Amazon.com. Click on the cover art to learn more.

Why Does He Do That?

The Verbally Abusive Relationship

Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence

It's My Life Now

For even more resources, visit Amazon.com

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Mary Kay Inc. Supports Women's Shelters
Since 2000, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation has awarded millions of dollars to women's shelters across the United States. From 2005 through 2007, the Foundation has awarded $20,000 grants, totaling $3 million, to 150 shelters in all 50 states for each of these years.

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