What to expect after leaving abuse

Suffering abuse is devastatingly difficult — it’s one of the most challenging things you’ll ever undergo as a human being. For many of us, abuse falls within our frame of reference for “normal” behavior because, of course, abuse is familial and cyclical so many who are abused were raised in such an environment and it was called “normal” family life. Sometimes it requires a dramatic abusive event to wake us up to the reality that we were being abused in the first place. For others, they have understood they were being abused all along but felt they couldn’t or shouldn’t stop it due to impending punishment, guilt, shame, or being in a submissive position socially, financially, or otherwise.

Abuse thrives because it is often secret. Even if it is an “open secret”, it thrives because those who are aware of the abuse either turn a blind eye or think it permissible and acceptable. “She deserved it”, “what were you wearing?”, “your behavior caused him to do that”, “you just want attention”, “everyone deals with that in relationships”, “we never liked them [the victim] anyway”, and on and on and on. Recognizing abuse requires those around us to have undergone a big reality check and, again, because abuse is common to begin with, the people ignoring the abuse or helping to perpetuate it have not been forced to see their behavior for what it really is — a continuation of the abuse cycle they didn’t know they were part of.

Once we work up the courage to leave the abuse or attempt to stop it (which, realistically isn’t and shouldn’t be your responsibility, but this onus often gets placed on the victim), often our only thoughts are on escaping the situation or environment for self-survival and preservation. This is a big first step! We also must be prepared for what is on the other side of leaving because, unfortunately, this can be equally as difficult.

Sometimes abuse can continue and come from sources outside of our perpetrator(s). Be prepared to lose your circle of friends, family, acquaintances, and support from any communities you are involved with — even those who consider themselves “progressive”, “feminist”, “religious”, or “charitable”. This can be for a few different reasons. If these people knew your perpetrator, chances are he/she is very charismatic, friendly, charming, and socially intelligent in person. Others probably really enjoy him/her and can’t imagine them doing terrible things to you. After you leave and/or start speaking about the abuse, these people will likely withdrawal themselves from you and there can be a great deal of social isolation involved which is incredibly painful for survivors. You may feel very lonely, guilty, misunderstood, and even hated. Shunning and shaming are likely responses from others who either don’t believe the abuse ever took place, don’t think it was “that bad”, or simply like and enjoy your perpetrator. You as the victim, on the other hand, may seem standoffish, nervous, sad, or too serious for their taste. Siding with the “likable” perpetrator is the natural response for many.

You are also interrupting these people’s preconceived notion of reality which can cause a great deal of cognitive dissonance which feel uncomfortable to them. They would have to rearrange their entire world perception in order to understand what you have been through and support you and not everyone is able to do this. It would also force them to change their behavior or admit they were wrong, which is hard for any human. On the extreme end, your safety may even be in question and you may continue to be threatened by others who cannot comprehend the reality of the situation.

If you are lucky, there may be a few friends and family who understand, believe, and support you. Though this is usually a rarity so you will need to seek new sources of support and community in order to feel you have motivation and accountability to keep moving forward with your life and healing process. Isolation (and often, silence) are big no-nos for survivors because the anguish of abuse thrives in secret. We need to find others who are safe (who won’t tattletale to the perpetrator or retaliate) and accepting to share our story and life with. Remaining alone can be a big deterrent to the healing process because we can stay in a constant triggered state where the mind goes back again and again to the painful experiences we have unjustly lived. If the perpetrator is still abusing you from afar, remaining isolated will cause you to focus on the continued abuse even if your life is no longer in danger and this will wreak havoc on your nervous system.

On the other hand, if you are at the point in your healing process where interaction with others feels scary, seek out online counseling or phone counseling services just to have someone to talk to. You don’t have to be around other people in person if that feels uncomfortable for you at this point, but finding a safe, anonymous source of conversation and support is often a lifesaver. Once you feel comfortable, locate in-person support groups of survivors who have been through similar experiences.

Secondly, be prepared for the financial fallout of leaving abuse. Many abuse survivors understand this instinctively and have secret funds set aside for the moment they are able to get out. This is a good idea because the continued bullying, defamation of character, and shunning that may happen after leaving can affect your ability to make money and support yourself outside of the abusive environment. Additionally, if the perpetrator has access to your money or bank accounts, they are likely to prevent you from having access to those funds once you leave the situation. Creating a new bank account in your name that the perpetrator does not have knowledge of is usually the best option (though, if they find out, this can be dangerous).

Also, if you have been a survivor of domestic violence, chances are every aspect of your home life was controlled and all bills or financial documents may not have your name on them. Finding a way to safely, quietly switch out any accounts or bills to your name — or create new ones — is another step towards freedom and restarting your life. You will need a financial history in order to get a new place to live, a car, health care or government services, etc. Switching your phone billing method or other essential bills to a new bank account is another good idea because otherwise, the perpetrator could switch this off at any time, limiting your ability to contact the outside world.

Also create new passwords for important accounts because, again, if the perpetrator has access to those accounts he/she can cancel or turn off services which will make restarting your life even more challenging. Bank accounts, phones, health care, any any other accounts in which the perpetrator has password access or has a name on the account can be closed at a moments notice and companies generally do not need both parties to be present to cancel or alter the account.

Also be sure to collect all of your vital records, taxes, and other important documents as you leave. You will need proof of your tax history, social security number, and other essentials like a passport, receipts, etc in order to start over.

Make sure you have a job lined up (if you have not been working, or if you need a new one for sake of anonymity and privacy from your perpetrator) after you leave the abusive situation. You will need to find a job that the perpetrator has no knowledge of because smear campaigns and sabotage are common tactics abusers can use to continue to control their victims. In other words, make sure the perpetrator cannot tamper with your career and make that situation untenable for you as well.

And finally, if there is any evidence of the abuse you have endured, be sure to collect those documents, letters, receipts, pictures, data from old phones, computers, etc. in order to defend yourself should the abuser use legal tactics to further control you after you leave. The sad truth is, sometimes, our experiences are not enough for people to believe without “hard” evidence. What you have endured is painful enough and no one wants to be put into a situation where after all you have suffered, it’s not believed — especially in a court of law. As you leave the abusive situation, you have to go into it with the mindset that you will not be returning to the environment (though statistically, we know this is not always the case) and bring everything you could possibly need — and can afford to bring with you space-wise.

Sometimes, leaving abuse feels like going to war. You have to be strategic and tactical and think about every possible weakness in order to prevent infiltration. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. Remember, abuse is about control and once the perpetrator loses control over you, they will go crazy trying to get it back. That is why these sorts of tactics are used — to try to regain control whether in tangible ways or just mentally and emotionally. It can make finding a semblance of a normal life very difficult for survivors and it can lead to feelings of despair, overwhelm, and defeat. Remember that you have the right to be safe, happy, and successful and we have to creatively find ways to escape the power plays without putting our safety in jeopardy.