Here’s the short version:
Before deciding how and when to leave (remember, it’s not about if), you need to take stock of your situation. Some of these are probably obvious, but it helps to consider everything in one list. Answering these questions will help you formulate a solid plan to leave your Abusive Partner (AP).
- How long have you been together? Are you dating, married, or something else? If you’ve been dating for a few months and have no other attachments, you are lucky. Getting out of such a relationship is relatively simple compared to others. I’m not saying it’s easy; there are just fewer variables to worry about. If you are married or living together, this can make everything more complicated.
- Do you have any children? How old? Are they biologically yours? If there are no children involved, the task of getting out is greatly simplified. If you do have children with your AP, they can and probably will be used against you. To be honest, children are often the most complicating factor in getting away from an abuser. Their ages may be a factor: younger children actually seem to fare better with a change in circumstances than older ones. Teenagers can be especially sensitive to the trauma of a divorce or separation. Non-biological children (stepchildren or adoptions) can also make it more difficult. Being a legal custodian and being a legal guardian are two very different things in terms of your rights.
- Are your finances mostly divided or intertwined? Do you have any significant assets (either singly or jointly)? How much debt do you have, and what kind? This is probably related to the length and nature of the relationship. If your financial lives are still fairly separate, try to keep them that way as long as possible. The more intertwined they become (joint accounts, mortgages, investments, assets, etc.), the harder it will be to untangle them. If you have little to no debt, then there isn’t much of an issue. If you have a lot of debt, especially jointly, then you’ll have to figure out how that’s going to be handled.
- Do you still have close friends and family members? Have you been alienated from anyone who can help you? Who could you turn to if you needed help right now? If you still have close friends and family members, hold on to them. They will likely make a huge difference on your chance of success in getting out. If, like many victims, you’ve been alienated from these allies, you should begin trying to reestablish contact as soon as possible. I promise, you will need help.
- Do you have any money saved up or stashed away? Are you able to begin saving immediately? Who can help you out financially until you are on your feet? If you have a lot of money that can be redirected or your AP already doesn’t know about (legally, of course), you have an advantage. Likewise, if you have a good network of allies who can help you with living arrangements and other physical needs, great. However, if you have no money saved and no allies yet, there is still hope. Shelters and abuse hotlines (like thehotline.org) can help you.
Keep reading for more detailed explanations.
Length/status of relationship
How long have you been together? Are you dating, married, or something else?
- Short time: If you’ve been together for only a few months and have no other attachments, you are lucky. Getting out of such a relationship is relatively simple compared to others. I’m not saying it’s easy; there are just fewer variables to worry about. No matter what, if you are in an abusive relationship, the best time to leave is now. Do not wait any longer; it will only get harder.
- Long time: The longer you are together, the more invested you feel. Even if you aren’t married, a long-term relationship comes with lots of emotional ties that can be difficult to sever. This goes for both of you; your emotional attachment to the AP is one of her best weapons against you.
- Dating: It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together, if you are not yet married or engaged, get out while you can. If she can get you to make any sort of commitment, she will. Even if you are living together, you are still in a better position to leave now than if you wait until a marriage (and/or child) is on the horizon.
- Married: This is by far the toughest spot, especially if children are involved. If you’ve been married for only a few months, you might be able to go through a relatively painless divorce. Obviously, that’s no guarantee, but there’s a chance that your stuff and her stuff are easy enough to distinguish, and you may not have gone through the process of joining bank accounts or financing a home together. If you’ve been married for a couple of years or more, prepare for the worst. Though this list is meant to be helpful, I can’t pretend like some situations aren’t simply harder than others.
- Something else? There are a number of possible scenarios that don’t fall under simply dating and being married. One of the most common is probably the “on-again-off-again” cycle. You date for a while, and things seem great. Then the inevitable fight begins that leads to a “We are done!” kind of ending. Of course, it’s not over. Eventually, you end up back in the same place, thinking this time it will be different. Then, without warning, the same fight, the same breakup, the same reconciliation, and so on. This can easily happen within the boundaries of marriage as well. In any case, it is unhealthy at best and catastrophic at worst.
Do you have any children? How old? Are they biologically yours?
- No children: If there are no children involved, the factors that affect when and how you can leave are significantly reduced.
- Young child(ren): If there are young children, this can put extraordinary stress on the victim of abuse. First, you are afraid for their own safety and well-being. Second, you are afraid of the long-term effects of witnessing the abusive behaviors towards you. Third, you are obviously concerned about the implications of leaving the children with your AP. However, younger children may actually handle a divorce better than older ones, even adults.
- Older child(ren): If the children are of a certain age, you may be able to explain some of what is going on to them. That is not to say you should unload on them or expect them to be your emotional support. Still, older children may be more likely to feel threatened by your decision to leave and may feel abandoned.
- Stepchildren: If your AP has kids who live in the home, be prepared for a serious loyalty split. No matter how close you are to them or how long you have cared for them, you can bet that your AP will do everything she can to show them how much better she is or how much more she loves them. If there are biological children and stepchildren, then the lines of loyalty could fall in many different directions. In any case, you very likely have no legal standing in the lives of your stepchildren. If you leave, they will almost certainly stay with their biological parent.
- Adoptions: If you and your AP adopted a child together, you should be able to maintain legal custody even if only jointly. In this case, I suspect that the custody situation will largely follow the same arc as a biological child. It all depends on what the paperwork states about legal (not just physical) custody regarding the adopted child(ren).
**Because of the extremely convoluted nature of the subject of children when it comes to divorce and abusive relationships in general, I am going to write more extensively in a separate post.
Are your finances mostly divided or intertwined? Do you have any significant assets (either singly or jointly)? How much debt do you have, and what kind?
- Mostly separate: If you and your AP are still somewhat independent as far as finances are concerned, you are in a good position. Keep it that way as much as you possibly can. If she starts pushing for a joint bank account or to refinance your home, stall her. Do not commit to any financial decisions that will further entangle your life with hers.
- Mostly intertwined: If you have already reached the point where your finances are pretty much inseparable, you will run into a number of problems you might not have considered yet. Again, like everything else discussed here, there is hope. There are certainly ways to untangle the financial mess, but you probably won’t be able to do that without serious help.
- Few assets: If you don’t have much in the way of physical assets, that’s good. It means that there are fewer things to argue about in terms of ownership or legal rights. This is particularly important when it comes to marital assets (which by definition are those assets you accrued during the marriage).
- Many assets: If you share a number of valuable assets with your AP, she will likely use them in a variety of ways to control you. Even things like retirement accounts can be hotly contested in divorce proceedings. Take stock of ALL financial assets, both individual and joint, so that you know what to expect.
- Little debt: If there isn’t much debt between you and your AP, there won’t be much to argue about. If either of you has outstanding personal debt incurred before being married, then it shouldn’t be considered marital debt (things like credit cards and student loans are likely to fall into this category). Anything taken on during the marriage (i.e. mortgage, car loan) will probably be considered marital debt and will be divided equally.
- A lot of debt: If there is any significant debt, this is another possible means of control for your AP to assert. In general, it makes sense to split marital debt evenly and for each person to take on his or her own personal debts. Obviously, APs don’t always do things that make sense. You should once again take stock of your debts just as you did your assets.
**As with the issue of children, the financial stuff can get really complicated. I will write more extensively about that later.
Do you still have close friends and family members? Have you been alienated from anyone who can help you? Who could you turn to if you needed help right now?
- Family: If your family is still in your life, they might just be the most important people you have. Parents and siblings (and extended relations with whom you are close) can be powerful allies. Chances are, they’ve been waiting to help you since the moment they realized what was going on. Even if they don’t know yet, hold onto them tightly. Don’t let your AP isolate you from them.
- No family: If you are in the unfortunate position of being isolated from your family, don’t despair. Many families are able to reconcile with relative ease once they know the details of what you’ve been through. As discussed elsewhere, you should definitely not be afraid to tell them. If you have no family to speak of, then you will have to make do with friends. Don’t worry, though, your friends can be just as supportive as family.
- Friends: If you are lucky enough to still have friends, you have an excellent chance of getting out. Again, you may have to tell them what’s going on, but don’t worry about being abandoned. What kind of friend would actually want you to remain in an abusive relationship? This group of people can be extremely helpful in finding a place to live, securing a job, locating child care services, and all the other things you aren’t even considering right now.
- No friends: If you have lost contact with your friends, you are certainly not alone. Alienation and isolation are absolutely devastating tools that your AP has been wielding long before you knew it. Still, you can make new friends or reconnect with old ones. Doing so may make all the difference. Leaving an AP is extremely hard even under the best of circumstances; you will need all the help you can get.
Do you have any money saved up or stashed away? Are you able to begin saving immediately? Who can help you out financially until you are on your feet?
- Money: If you have some independent source of income or previously acquired wealth, then you are lucky. You should start squirreling some away as soon as you possibly can, preferably in such a way that your AP can’t find it. She would love to claim your money as her own, so as long as it is legal, you need to keep it far away from her.
- No money: If, like most people, you are not independently wealthy, you need to begin thinking about what you are going to do when (not if) you leave. How are you going to pay rent or buy groceries? The ideal solution is to begin saving money in any way possible. Get a little cash back at grocery stores, stash some of your paycheck each week/month, pick up some extra work. Do whatever you can to begin preparing for your departure.
- Allies: As explained above, your allies are going to be invaluable to you. They can give/loan you money, they can give you a place to sleep, they can help you put your life back together. If you have such people in your life, then be sure to lean on them as much as you need.
- Other options: If you don’t have the resources to leave, what are you supposed to do? If you can, take some time to get your situation together in a way that will make leaving a little easier. Save a little money, reach out to your allies, get whatever support your can. If the worst happens and you find yourself basically on the run, then, shelters and abuse hotlines (like thehotline.org) can help you.
Reminder: All opinions presented herein are my own and are not mean to be taken as legitimate legal or financial advice.