Thinking About Leaving An Abusive Relationship? Here’s A 10-Step Safety Plan

*Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence*

Disclaimer: The views and advice in this article are based on the author’s professional experiences and expertise.

  “This family violence, this kind of violence that happens within the family, is something that I share with a lot of people. I’m not ashamed to talk about it, because I do think that the more we talk about these things, the more we realise we are not alone in any of it” 

-Charlize Theron, Actress, Activist

Up to 75% of abused women who are murdered are killed right before they leave their abusive partners.

When Charlize Theron was 15 years old, her mother killed her father in self-defence. Charlize’s father was an abusive alcoholic. Her mother Gerda’s single act of courage saved her life and the lives of her kids. Charlize later went on to become a model, an Oscar-winning actress and a United Nations Messenger of Peace.  Domestic violence in the form of physical/emotional/sexual abuse is experienced by nearly 1 in 3 women (30%) all over the world. Globally, nearly 40% of women murdered, are victims of intimate partner violence. 

What Type Of Men Commit Domestic Violence?

Psychologists who treat victims of domestic violence regularly suggest that there may be a profile of a typical abuser. Not all violent men will be the same but there are some red flags that you can watch out for when you start dating. Men who are controlling, manipulative and entitled, tend to be abusive. There may be a problem of pathological lying, codependent behaviour, inability to cope with stress or a history of substance abuse, alcoholism and addiction. There may be a background of child abuse.

There might be a tendency to be jealous or overly possessive. There might be genetic markers of mental illness such as schizophrenia, narcissistic personality disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. These are red flags.

Once trapped in such relationships, women find it hard to leave due to lack of independence, awareness and support. There’s also the chance that the abuser is lying, cheating or gaslighting the victim so that she is unsure, confused and afraid to leave. 
This fear is grounded in a dark reality.

Up to 75% of abused women who are murdered are killed right before they leave their abusive partners. According to research, domestic abuse is a cycle that progresses through different stages. It starts with a Build Up phase, where the tension slowly rises; the Stand Over phase, where verbal attacks begin; the Explosion phase, which is the violent outburst; the Remorse phase, where the abuser expresses guilt; the Pursuit phase, where promises are made to never let it happen again; and the Honeymoon phase, where the abuser goes out of his way to make up. Then it starts all over again. If you’ve watched Big Little Lies, you’ll notice that Perry and Celeste’s relationship follows the same cycle of abuse. What keeps the cycle going is, sadly, hope.

“These women need support more than anything else. There is a lot of self-blame, confusion, guilt and shame as they love their partners but are also fed up. A lot of them feel helpless as they’re really stuck in those situations.” – Barkha Bajaj, Executive Director, AKS Foundation, Pune

If you or a loved one are currently dealing with domestic violence, then you need to start working on a safety plan. I work as an independent legal consultant and counsellor, and I specialise in women and child rights.

For the last five years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with activists, lawyers, psychologists, policewomen and women survivors of abuse. You can start right now with a personalised 10-step safety plan:

1. Emergency Fund

You need to open an independent account to stash your money. If you have an income, link it to this account, not a joint one. If you have a monthly budget for household expenses, such as paying your rent, your phone, TV, gas and electricity bills, buying groceries, cosmetics and health-care products, clothes, jewellery and other luxury items, paying the school fees, medical bills or the bus/cab fare, make sure you set aside a little bit regularly in your personal account. If you maintain a ledger, be careful that it does not show any discrepancies. The details of this account should not be known to your partner nor should they be able to access it. 

2. Lawyer Up

From the moment the pattern of abuse is established, you need to talk to a family law advocate from a good firm. Meeting a lawyer is like having legal insurance. In case of a disaster, you want to be covered. The end game is to be able to leave your partner with minimal collateral damage. Now, a good advocate will listen to your story and advise you on things like how to file for divorce, which Court to go to, what grounds to petition on, how to get an injunction, how to claim for alimony, getting your financial affairs in order, overseeing equitable division of assets, obtaining child custody, notifying your spouse etc. Moreover, if you need to file a police report, it’s best that you do it with the assistance of your lawyer.

3. Mental Health

Over the years, the abuse is normalised to a point of self-delusion. Your self-worth slowly erodes and you start questioning your existence. You also lose your sense of autonomy, because you’re used to being controlled and have no identity anymore. You may justify the abuse by blaming yourself and feel guilty for not doing better. Your spouse may be good at creating a facade of normalcy or challenging your perception of reality. If you are fighting to accept what’s happening or are not able to talk about it openly, it may lead to depression, anxiety, chronic stress, insomnia, fatigue, illness etc. Contact your nearest therapist. Therapy helps you to wake up from the stupor that constant abuse can put you into. A clinical and objective voice will help you find the strength to take action.

4. Community

Victims will go a long way to protect their family from public censure. That means even covering up the abuse or defending the abuser. What women don’t realise is that the more people know about it, the higher their chances are of getting out of it alive. So talk to your friends and family, and assign a code word for danger, so that someone can check in on you regularly or come to your aid if you are facing an immediate threat to your safety. Be on friendly terms with the neighbours, so that instant intervention is possible. Communicate as often as you can with people you trust, and learn to express your fears to them. You can join a support group and learn how to heal in a healthy environment.

5. Evidence

Proving domestic abuse is not always easy. If you have physical signs, such as bruises and cuts, take pictures from your phone. Record audio or video of the fights, particularly those that involve verbal or physical violence such as swearing, shouting, screaming, pushing and breaking of things. If you’re suffering from a sickness that has been brought on by the abuse, save the medical paperwork and speak to your Doctor. Store the text messages and emails from your partner that display aggression, like constant questioning of your whereabouts and who you’re with or contain explicit threats. Document the abuse, because, the proof matters.

6. Secrecy

Secrecy is vital to your survival. When you’re trying to come up with a safety plan, its success or failure is dependent on its secrecy. The walk-out that you’re planning must be unexpected, unpredictable and unforeseeable for your partner.

How does secrecy play into this? You must learn to master your emotions and not show any signs of outward frustration, impatience or anger with the abuser. The idea is to avoid any provocation, confrontation or altercation to buy you time. To maintain a facade of calm while planning your escape is no mean feat. Do not try to explain, reason or plead with to your partner.

Most of the time, abusers know what they’re doing. It is not your job to change them. It is your job to safely see yourself out of this tinderbox situation. Do not lose hope, focus on the steps of your plan and do not give in to your emotions. Once you’re free, you can heal emotionally, but while you’re struggling with abuse, your emotions may cloud your judgment. Think on your feet, because you’re going to need it to outwit the abuser. You may love your partner, but that does not mean that they haven’t hurt you before or will not hurt you again.

7. Exit Plan

In case of a potential threat to your life, you do not have time to figure out your options. By then, it may be too late. So you need a contingency plan to make a quick and secure exit from the premises. Map out your exit route in advance from your house to your vehicle or to the nearest public spot.

Pack a bag of essentials, with clothes, shoes, toiletries, credit cards, chequebook, cash, a spare set of keys, prepaid burner phone with a new SIM, pepper spray, first aid kit, medications, electronics with their chargers and all your important documents. These would be your driver’s license, passport, PAN card, vehicle title, registration and insurance, birth certificate, medical prescriptions, deeds to land, house and other property, financial records and bank account numbers, divorce and custody papers, health insurance cards, toys and books for your children, police reports, protection orders and a bowl, leash, kibble for your pet.

8. Emergency Contacts

Your address book and the contact list on your phone must include the following numbers: local domestic violence hotlines, domestic shelters, hospitals, ambulances, women’s rights groups, activists, general physicians, paediatricians, vets and police helplines. Nobody thinks about these numbers unless they’re in a difficult situation, but once they’re in a difficult situation they can’t get these numbers. Emergency services are lifelines and their importance should never be underestimated. You may try to anticipate every possible outcome but usually whatever happens, in the end, is the thing that you’re least prepared for and is wholly unexpected. For your own protection make sure that you have saved these numbers and can access them easily.

9. Children

The police officers that answer calls of domestic disputes often talk about the children. The circumstances are undeniably more complicated when children are involved. The stakes are higher with kids around and they can easily become bargaining chips or if worst to comes to worst, unintended casualties.

When you acknowledge you’re being victimised, it is best to talk to your children. This will be hard. But if you are to pull off an escape, it is easier when your children are complicit in it. If you don’t have a conversation with them about what’s going on, things might go awry. They may never be able to comprehend the damage done to you and they may even resent you for the separation. It might be easier for if they can appreciate the gravity.

Children are not as naive as we like to believe; they pick up on everything. The pain you’re afraid of causing them by speaking up is manifestly tenfold when you lie to them. You may have to simplify things, but your best policy as a parent should be to keep your children in the loop, so they can support you. It comes down to their age, maturity, understanding and even personalities. If you feel that telling them what you’re planning to do is going to help, and you can keep them safe that way, then it’s a good idea to alert your children to the need to leave.

10. The Law

In India, the Domestic Violence Act of 2005 contains various provisions that are crucial for women trying to survive. This information must be available to all women. Firstly, it gives a very broad definition of domestic violence which includes all forms of violence. It expounds on the duties and functions of Protection Officers, Magistrates, shelter homes, medical facilities and other service providers.

It prescribes the procedure to be followed when making an application to the Magistrate for a protection order, monetary relief, compensation, residence order or custody order. It empowers the Magistrate to refer the victim to a counsellor. It lists the Judicial Magistrate of the First Class or the Metropolitan Magistrate as competent to grant orders and elaborates on their jurisdiction. If you know the law and what it says, then you can do this.

“She knew that the suffering of women started in the suffering of men, that the bondages of one became the bondages of the other” – Etaf Rum, A Woman is No Man

(If you need help, dial 1091 for the National Women’s Helpline in India)

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