This is like preparing your own evacuation plan. Where are your exits? I don’t just mean the literal physical ones like doors, but also the figurative ones. These are opportunities you have to leave the physical location and relationship with safety. For example, can you time your exit to increase your safety while your partner is at work? Or when you’ll need to leave at some point in the future? Thinking about this will help you to build confidence, and also keep you looking out for all possible options. Think through each step so you don’t overlook anything e.g. getting out of the house is great, but less useful if you realise you don’t have the car keys with you.
When I decided to cut contact with my parents, I still had a lot of my stuff stored in their house. My husband and I discussed that we would like to get some of our things out. We assessed the situation to be safe (there was no physical threat from my parents) and decided to go back for some of our things (we had only recently moved out of my parents’ house at the time). I made arrangements to have our belongings stored elsewhere, rented a trailer to move everything out, and was sure not to mention my plans to cut contact to anyone other than my partner. I timed it all for a Sunday morning so my parents would be at church for a large part of the operation. I also decided that the safest way to ask them for no contact was in a letter—which I left on their kitchen table with my house keys moments before heading out of the door.
I had a few contingency plans in place, too. If they got home while we were doing it, I planned to just post the letter to them instead of lighting the proverbial fuse while still in the house. My partner had figured out what our “have to get items” were—like both our degrees from my parents’ safe, for example—and the “would be nice to get items”—like extra blankets, some kitchen gear etc. That way we knew what to get first as top priority, and what to leave behind if we had to.
You are going to want to talk to some people about all this, not in the least because you’ll need some help. It can be hard to determine who you can trust, so perhaps you only talk to people from a domestic violence charity. Maybe you have a best friend or a family member you know will have your back 100%. Before you make your move, you need to figure out who you feel safe and comfortable with—as well as who can keep your confidence.
I didn’t tell my sisters of my intentions until after I had left my parents’ home. They did help me with the move, but I didn’t tell them the extent of my plans (which included cutting contact). I refrained from doing so because I didn’t feel they’d understand or support my plan if I’d been upfront. The only people who knew were my partner and some fellow survivors I’d met online. In the days that followed, I told some of my closest friends, and they all responded with love and support. I also practised what to say if random strangers or people at work asked about my family. That took a few attempts to get right, and I’m sure I unwittingly made a few people feel very uncomfortable! But the reason things can get so uncomfortable is that this topic of abuse is not an easy thing to talk about. These days, I mostly say “it’s complicated” when someone asks about my family—especially if I don’t feel like getting into it. I eventually confided in a manager just because I wanted her to understand that I was dealing with some stuff in my personal life. And the fact that she was one of those managers that I felt I could talk to also didn’t hurt.
Not everyone is going to understand. Not everyone will want or be able to see the abuse. Some people are going to defend your abuser, and even say things like, “But they’re your parents!” or “He seems like such a good man!” Be prepared to leave some people behind because, at the end of the day, you need to keep yourself safe and supported. You also need to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who do the same for you. Those who don’t support the truth of your situation (whether through ignorance or malice) are going to present a great obstacle to you on the way to achieving the already difficult task of getting away from the abusive situation and healing yourself. So it’s best not to worry about trying to keep them on your side.
A childhood friend and I were a part of each others’ lives since I was three days old, and we’d managed to stay friends for 35 years. Unfortunately, she became a flying monkey for my family. She started to look for information to feed back to them and even started dishing out emotional abuse to me because she was under the influence of my parents and sisters. It broke my heart, but I had to back away from her in order to protect myself. Although that was probably the most dramatic experience in terms of the connections I lost, I left many people behind when I cut contact with my family. The flip side of all this, though, is that the friends that do remain—and the people I’ve met since—are much closer friends than I ever thought was possible.
Especially when it comes to issues like divorce and custody, you want to get some advice. The earlier you can get it, the better prepared you’ll be when you’re ready to actually leave. And as I’ve already said, “Document, document, document!” The more evidence you gather, the better prepared you are should it ever come to court proceedings (even if you think it never will). Communicating in writing or by email can really help with that. It’s harder for the abuser to twist your words when they’re in writing— which means that you’ll always have information on file when you need to prove anything.
Since I was an adult with a job and a house, there weren’t so many legal ramifications to consider when it came to my decision to cut contact. I suppose they would have kicked up more of a storm if I’d had any kids and would’ve probably given me a “we have a right to see our grandchild” speech for that. As it happened, and thankfully so, that wasn’t the case. I did scan the letter I wrote to them so I’d have my own copy just in case. Also, although I didn’t, you may want to consider recording the times when they violate your request for no contact. Since I was in a rental apartment and assumed I would move again before too long, I figured I would eventually be out of their reach. That may not be the case for you. Especially if things like intervention orders are involved. While it’s proven time and time again that these are next to completely ineffective (because you have to be able to prove the order was violated and also get the police to come, the abuser can do a lot of damage during that time in between), it’s important to document everything.
This wasn’t the greatest of my personal challenges, although for a while it looked like I’d need a guarantor for the rent at my new place. Eventually, my husband and I found a landlord who happily accepted my brand new employment status without anyone to back me up, but when it was still a possible requirement I asked one of my sisters for help. Although I eventually lost contact with my whole family, my initial priority was to only sever ties with my parents. Since they were the ones always trying to gain influence over our finances, I was aware I needed to get a place without their names being anywhere near the lease.
When you’re dealing with a controlling spouse, finding the cash to escape with can be very complicated. Fellow survivor Kylie Travers has some excellent suggestions in How to get money to leave an abusive relationship. Also, speak to a local domestic violence charity (yes, emotional abuse is violence too!) to get information on resources and assistance you can access.
I don’t say this to discourage you, but it’s important to understand in advance. An abuser will not let go without a fight. My parents wrote me a bunch of weird letters, kept inviting me to their parties, and even ambushed me at my sister’s place once. When they were unsuccessful at regaining control of (and access to) me—especially after I moved without giving them a forwarding address—they started recruiting flying monkeys. Like the friend I spoke about earlier.
You need to prepare yourself for the continued abuse after you leave. Consider not giving people your new address so it can’t end up in the wrong hands. Block email addresses, social media profiles, and phone numbers in order to shield yourself. If you need to have communication about the children or the divorce, get a PO Box and arrange a system where a trusted friend is the one who checks it for you. This means that you have an emotional buffer (not just a physical one) in place, too.
I’m not talking about the wishy-washy pedicures and facials type of self-care. I mean, it certainly can be if a bit of pampering is what you need. But what I’m really talking about is the kind of self-care where you look after your physical and emotional well-being as you navigate your way through this difficult process. The situation is tricky enough without adding constant exhaustion and feeling foggy-brained to the list, and you’re much more likely to make errors in judgment if you don’t have systems in place to take care of you. So below are a few suggestions
I so clearly remember the feeling that I couldn’t ask for help from anyone. It wasn’t true, though. I wish I could tell every abuse target out there that asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. And especially that it’s not—I repeat NOT—a nuisance!
If you feel unsafe, call emergency services and ask for help. I had a neighbourhood police officer in my old place who was extremely supportive and understanding when dealing with one of the flying monkeys my parents sent to violate our privacy and even threaten us.
Local charities and shelters will be able to give you advice tailored to your situation and information about how the legal system in your country or state can support/protect you. They exist for a reason (that being the fact that escaping abuse is HARD). So make use of their knowledge and services.
“When people are highly traumatised, thinking through really complex arrangements like how exactly you’re going to leave a relationship that’s this violent and this frightening is really difficult to process,” (from: Women in abusive relationships can now access a step-by-step guide on how to flee)
Aubrey also says that if you have children, you should prepare a separate safety plan for them which includes confiding in a teacher or principal you feel comfortable with regarding the situation your family is going through. Your children will have their own road to travel, and it helps to have an advocate for them in the place where they spend the bulk of their waking hours.
Escaping an abusive situation is difficult—if not full-on dangerous. Preparing your escape will make you more likely to get out and stay out. In this module, I’ll share some advice for you to consider as you equip yourself to make the first move; a series of starting points to help you remove yourself from an abusive situation.
Please always realise that abusers often escalate when their targets are trying to get out. For this part of your journey over-preparing is better than under-preparing!