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How Survivors Have Left an Abuser for Good

Our survivor community shares their reasons for never going back

by Amanda Kippert | domesticshelters.org

Leaving an abusive partner is intricately more complicated than leaving any other type of partner or relationship. Leaving an abusive partner can put a survivor at risk of violence, stalking, psychological torment or even homicide. That’s why leaving an abuser is not often a split-second decision, but rather a well-coordinated effort akin to rescuing hostages from a kidnapper.

So why, then, would a survivor ever choose to go back to an abuser once they’re out?

What can appear to be a dangerous, foolish or even suicidal decision on a survivor’s part to return to an abusive partner is actually nothing of the sort. Survivors may return to an abuser for multiple, complicated reasons and, according to a survey of 844 survivors by DomesticShelters.org, will leave and come back 6.3 times on average before leaving for good.

Why Survivors Go Back

There are a multitude of reasons survivors may feel their only or best option is to go back. Among them, is hope that the abuser has changed or that things will be different this time. They may still feel love for the abuser, or fear children they shared with the abuser will blame them for separating.

It may also be one of these reasons below:

  1. Fear. As soon as a survivor leaves, the abuser is likely calculating a way to get them to come back. Domestic violence is rooted in a desire to control another individual through coercion or threats. An abuser may tell the survivor that if they don’t come back home, the abuser will find them and harm or kill them, their children, their extended family or their beloved pets. The abuser may threaten to come to the survivor’s place of work and bring violence there. The survivor may think that her only choice is to go back in order to keep herself or others alive.
  2. Psychological Control or Brainwashing. Many abusers use these tactics, which may also be called emotional abuse or coercive control, in order to convince the survivor that the only person who can truly love them or keep them safe is the abuser. Through lies and gaslighting, the abuser may convince the survivor that they are, in fact, at fault for the abuse, causing feelings of guilt in the survivor, which drives the survivor back to the abuser out of shame.
  3. Nowhere Else to Go. In a survey on DomesticShelters.org, 43 percent of respondents said they returned to an abuser after finding out their local domestic violence shelter could not accommodate them. Many survivors, isolated by an abuser in a place where they have no support system, alienated from their support system because of the abuser, and without any financial resources of their own, have to choose between returning to an abuser or becoming temporarily homeless when their local shelter is full. It’s estimated that 50 percent of homeless women have experienced domestic violence.
  4. Child Custody. Many survivors will encounter a family court system that awards shared custody with their abusive ex-partner, a worrying scenario for protective parents who believe the abuser will abuse their children when the protective parent isn’t around. As a result, many survivors will return to an abuser to try and protect their children, or to take the brunt of the abuse in lieu of their children enduring it.

How Survivors Have Left for Good

We asked survivors on social media to weigh in on how they have kept themselves from going back to a controlling or abusive partner, and here are some of their answers. (You can join our private Facebook group for survivors here.)

“I wrote down on one side of a piece of paper all the horrible things said to me. On the other side, I wrote all the things I wanted, my goals, like the type of job, places I wanted to see, things I wanted to do or become. I kept that paper in my pocket so when I was feeling weak or lonely, I would pull it out and remind myself that the things said would not get me closer to my goals, but pull me further from them.”

“I cut off contact. I refused to be alone with him and I refused to talk to him outside of attempting to co-parent our kids. Gaslighting is his specialty. I needed distance to be able to let that bond go.”

“When he hurt my children, that sealed the deal. No way.”

“I started believing in myself.”

“I started a diary of my life with him. Seventy-five percent was bad. I wrote … until I finally ran out of things to write.”

“Got a tattoo that says, ‘On the other side of fear lies freedom.’ It is my daily reminder.”

“I left the state.”

“I joined a support group, tried to make friends, cooked good food, watched shows I wasn’t allowed to watch before, read books and finished my college degree. The support group and counseling helped me to change the voice in my head.”

“One day at a time. Remembered how many people it took to get me out.”

“Look up at the clear blue sky, listen to the sound of the birds, children playing or cars passing by. You’re not allowed to hear those things [in abuse]. All you hear is the footsteps or the door slamming … waiting for that next slap.”

“Wrote out a list of every nasty thing he did and reread it until I quit romanticizing a life that never existed. Then I decided I was the most important person in my life and no one else came before me.”

“I told my therapist that he hit my child. That way, if I did go back, my child would get taken from me. And my child means the world to me.”

6 Steps to Leaving Safely

When a survivor decides it’s time to go, taking a moment to pre-plan the escape can mean the difference between leaving safely and being trapped all over again. Consider these four steps:

  1. Reach out to the Martha’s House hotline in order to create a safety plan. If you’re not able to make this call, a DIY Safety Planning Worksheet exists on our website. Just make sure you fill it out and keep it somewhere the abuser will not find it.
  2. If you have children, teach them safety measures like what to do if you or they are in danger, and, if old enough, discuss your safety plan with them. See “Safety Planning With Your Kids” for more details.
  3. Pack your bag and find at least a temporary spot that’s safe that the abuser cannot locate you, such as a shelter, hotel or a friend’s house the abuser doesn’t know. Be careful not to use a credit card with which the abuser can trace your location.
  4. Consider securing an order of protection and, if you have children, speak to an attorney with domestic violence experience about child custody laws in your state to make sure there won’t be legal consequences for keeping your children with you while you figure out next steps.
  5. Consider filing charges. Abuse is not only wrong, it’s illegal. If you feel it is safe to do so, report your abuser to the police and file a report. You can consult with an advocate for support in doing this.
  6. Find a support system that you can rely on to help you stay strong and avoid an abuser’s manipulative attempts to get you to come back.