Self-care is vital when you leave an abusive relationship

As well as a safety plan, you should also have an uncomplicated survival/recovery plan. A safety plan means external safety, a survival/recovery plan means having a measure of internal security. When you consider the debilitating effects of abuse, and how you are almost owned by the perpetrators, you probably realise how difficult it can be to feel secure within. Remember you have a great number of unrecognised resources. Set achievable goals for your recovery, otherwise the victim’s self-critical tendency will set in, and you will be tormented by self-blame for failing to successfully complete your plan. Be gentle with yourself, accept yourself, and try not to blame yourself for the breakdown of your relationship. You must begin to nurture yourself to counteract being emotionally famished by your abuser.
Caring for yourself and treating yourself with tenderness will have a healing effect, and will help raise your self-esteem. When I was in training, some of my colleagues often told me I was self-judgemental and hard on myself. My experience has been that although I have come to love myself, both the good and the shadow side, it has been a long process, and I still can be hard on myself. Very often, we need someone to remind us of how harsh we are on ourselves.
The importance of self-care and basic health cannot be over-emphasised as part of the survival/recovery plan. The Hidden Hurt website, which is worth visiting, outlines four areas of self-care (physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual), which would be helpful following a separation. Physical self-care includes regular and healthy eating, plenty of exercise, medical care, sufficient sleep, vacations, and having time alone. Psychological self-care involves therapy, light reading, reflecting, getting involved in new activities, and paying attention to your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. Any material on awareness, such as blogs or CDs will help. It is also psychologically beneficial to personalise your new environment, making it a familiar place with your identity on it. Paint a room, put up new pictures, and so on.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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As a survivor you may suffer harrassment and stalking

One of the most malignant post-separation control methods is stalking and harassing the survivor. Stalking is illegal in most developed countries, and is a pattern of behaviour with intent to instil fear. It often goes on for several years and it can demoralise you and make your life a misery. It is an obsessive behaviour and therefore very dangerous. The stalker usually starts with annoying, obscene or threatening phone calls, and follows this up with visits to the home or the workplace of the survivor. Stalkers often carry out acts of violence aimed at the survivors’ property, pets and even at the survivors themselves. Again, they may use the children for this end. There are many examples of abusers frightening the children, threatening them, harming them, and even kidnapping them. Your onetime abuser may also attend sporting events in which your children are involved and sit near you to intimidate you. You may also find him sitting next to you if you are having a meal in a restaurant. No place is sacrosanct to the abuser.
Cyber stalking is especially destabilising. Instances have arisen of stalkers concealing GPS equipment in the survivor’s car to track her movements. You should also be aware that computers might be used to gather information about you. Some survivors turn to chat rooms for support and advice. It is easy for an abuser to pose as a supportive female, make contact with the survivor, and gather information. This further feeds their jealousy and need for control.
Yet, you are not without power when dealing with stalking and harassment. On a psychological level, it is best not to react, because any reaction gives the abuser satisfaction and encourages him in his behaviour. Personal power can best be maintained by creating psychological boundaries, which means being aware of the buttons that abusers can push, and disconnecting from them. Controlling or concealing anger, resentment and bitterness, deprives the stalker of the satisfaction of witnessing the torment of the survivor, and may help to weaken his resolve to pursue. On a practical level, stalking should be reported to the police, although this is not very effective. After all a person is entitled to attend events in which their children are taking part. Nevertheless, research shows that being confronted by a police officer can deter some abusers. If you wish to take legal action at some stage, you should keep a diary of all stalking events. There is nothing as powerful as a written record, because it may show a pattern. If the stalker makes phone threats, it might be possible to record them, also.

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There are different ways to keep you safe when you leave an abusive relationship

Linda was fortunate in that she had never lost contact with her parents. Her father was particularly supportive
“My father came to me one day, and said that he had got an interview for me with his colleague in my hometown, if I was interested. I look back now and I think that maybe my dad was planning a future for my son and me. Maybe he could see what was going to happen. I wasn’t sure, because it would involve commuting. On the other hand, I would be around people in my hometown, instead of living in an isolated area, not knowing anyone. So, I went for my interview and I got it. My mother had a local childminder sorted out within a few days near my home. Everything fell into place very quickly. Maybe it was fate. I think my angels helped me to be some way prepared for what was to come. I was happy in this job and could call home and stay a night or so when I wanted to do that. I was quite happy. If only my marriage had been so happy.”
As Linda shows, leaving an abusive relationship can be traumatic, and the abuser may resort to all sorts of controlling behaviours to torment you, and re-establish power over you. It is, therefore, not always easy to ensure protection. The first step is to establish physical boundaries. This means getting as far away as you can. It also means having as little contact with the abuser as possible.
There are other practical steps you can take to maximise safety, although some of these are more feasible in cities. Renting a post office box or using the address of a friend for mail is one suggestion. It is always important to hide the new address from the abuser, so only close friends should know it. I would suggest changing the number of a mobile phone, and having it cloaked. The phone company could also issue a caller ID facility on your phone, and your landline could be blocked and unlisted. Children also need protection, and so school authorities should be alerted to the situation. If you have moved a long distance you will have changed your children’s school, and the head teacher should be advised of the situation. Alert neighbours, and ask that they contact the police if there is the possibility of danger. A motion-sensitive lighting system is somewhat of a deterrent, and could be part of the overall strategy to prevent contact with the abuser. Of course, he may have rights of visitation to the children, and in such cases, some of the above suggestions are not relevant. However, if you feel that the children are again at risk, you can take steps to have such rights withdrawn.
Irrespective of the measures you take, your erstwhile abuser may use unscrupulous methods in his desire to keep control over you. He may refuse to contribute any maintenance for the children’s support, and use the children in other ways to distress a mother already worried about the possible destructive impact of the abuse on them. Some abusive fathers, who have every right of access, may use them to undermine their mother. They use them to get information about her, neglect them when they stay with him, try to divide them from her, threaten to take them from her, seek increased custody, and generally make every effort to disrupt the family. Female abusers resort to similar tactics.

Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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You will meet the challenges of separating from an abusive partner.

Initially you needed to create a safety plan to make the world a more secure place. Previously you lived in an unsafe place, and now you bring about a physical and psychological distance from the abuser, to reclaim yourself, regain your power and identity, and dispel the confusion created by years of abuse. Sometimes it can take a long time to ensure a safe world. Some of the appendices in the 2010 report by Cosc, outlining the national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, lists many organisations where you will find appropriate support. You can get this report in your local library. This would also be relevant to the immediate period when you are planning to escape from your abusive environment. The Mid-West Region of the HSE has a very valuable information document that lists various support agencies for the region. I imagine that all the other regions have a similar resource. It is no bigger than a banking card.
A vital element of your survival plan will involve having a good therapist, GP, and family law solicitor. Such professional support will increase your sense of power, and help you deal with isolation, one of the main obstacles to survival. When you were abused, you were isolated and silenced. Now you have to undo this conditioning, and realise that not all relationships are abusive or sexual. You will free yourself from this shackle, and reach out to others. This positive coping strategy helps to reduce anxiety in the immediate term, and expel it in the long term. Re-establishing contact with friends and making new friends not only counteracts this anxiety and worry, but also adds to the safety of your new home. You may find, however, that some erstwhile friends may be uncomfortable, for various reasons, with a separated person. It can also be distressing to find that abusers may get more loyalty and sympathy from some others, because they have more contact with them. Abusers sometimes gain sympathy by portraying themselves as the innocent victims of separation, as they bluntly deny any abuse. Thus, they hope to enlist the help of others in condemning survivors and keeping them isolated. They wish to destabilise the survivors and prevent them from moving on. Linda was fortunate, however, and managed to reconnect with erstwhile friends, who rallied to her. It is clear that they liked her, and missed her when she became isolated from them through the control exercised by her abusive husband
I have made an effort to take up all my friendships, including some of the closest ones that I had with my cousins. It felt great to get back in contact with them. However, some contacts did take a lot of work, as I had hurt people with the way I just walked out of their lives. I even organised a college reunion last year, and caught up with all of my college class. It felt so good to be able to meet up with them, without being made feel guilty. They are all good friends, and I shouldn’t have been made feel guilty about talking to them, whether they were male or female. We are all in touch now via email or on the net, and it’s great. I am so delighted that I did it. My friends told me that they felt uncomfortable around Stephen. Of course they did. If I could feel the tension around him when I was out with him, they could too. At the time, I was so busy trying to calm him to make sure that he did not boil over, and hit one, that I didn’t even notice that they could see through it all.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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You will recover and build a new life if you leave an abusive situation

Despite the trepidation, the questions and the fear that you feel, you will survive the abuse, recover and re-experience independence, happiness and peace. Part of our work as humans is to integrate our suffering, as we strive for happiness. We have the capacity, irrespective of apparently insurmountable obstacles, to create a life where we can grow, reach our potential, and experience joy. It is a fundamental principle that we have within ourselves everything we need to be happy, including the capacity to recover. However, it may take a long time for your scars to heal. It may take years before you trust again. Even when you meet a non-abusive partner, you will be on the alert, always waiting for an attack. Learning to trust and experience non-judgemental love within a new relationship is one of the best antidotes to the after -effects of an abusive relationship. Gradually the feeling of wariness will abate. Initially, you might be better to focus on social relationships, rather than intimate ones, because this provides a safer context to rebuild relational skills.
When you leave an abusive relationship, you are no longer a victim, but a survivor. The stench of the abuse may linger for a long time, and you may be confused by the loving feelings and longing you experience for the nice Jekyll, before you begin to confront the vicious Hyde, and you may, perhaps, experience bitterness and regret. But, as you slowly find your feet in the new space you have created, you will begin to see possibilities, and enter the recovery stage, where you will enhance your life and be as you want to be. As you had the strength to endure the abusive relationship, and to leave it, you also have the strength to create a new life. It takes time, and there will be setbacks, as you set about recovering your optimism and reclaiming your identity.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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What happens after leaving an abusive relationship?

Take my hands, my children,
And look into the sun,
We will create our world,
Unwatched and unfettered.
The light shines through the trees,
As they green in time of spring.
I see the summer in your eyes,
Clouded by the storms of winter.
The winter clouds view the horizon,
Driven by the icy wind that chills the soul.
The gentle breeze of Spring rescues you
From barren waste
And I will hold you, too
In loving embrace,
And look into the future
Mirrored in your hopeful face.

Jim O’Shea

It is difficult to imagine the emotional turmoil that victims feel when they leave an abusive relationship. Linda gives us some idea of what it is like.
Your feelings when you leave can be scary, because they make no sense. It is just a big whirlwind, and you are just swished around in this whirlwind, with no control. I felt every emotion I can think of – sadness, anger, helplessness, loss, loneliness, stress, pain, unhappiness with the world, shock, no understanding of my life, loss of hope for me and my life, confusion, and anxiety. Some days I would wake up so sad, and had no interest in the day. Then it could turn to anger and I would say, “No! I’m not giving up. I am going to make a life for me and my son”. Everyday would bring such a mixture of emotions and feelings; it was so hard to keep in line with everyday life, like going to work.
Stress was a huge factor for me. I had been left with such a mess on top of my marriage failure. I was left with such financial burdens, and a completely new life to build. I was getting threatening letters everyday from banks. It was just one thing after another. I could go to work, sad from the loss of the relationship. Then it could turn to anger so quickly, when I would come home and see all these letters and all the problems he had left me to sort out, as he walked away. Confusion is such a big part of things, too. It’s impossible to rationalise any of what is going on in your life. How you got to this stage, and how it went so wrong.
Then you ask yourself the question, was part of it your fault? Why has he such hate and anger in him? Were you doing something wrong that he was so unhappy? And why wasn’t he happy and content with what he had, as you were, and as you both were when you met? It’s impossible to answer all the questions that go around and around in your head.
Of course, there is the stage where you long for your partner and dwell on all the good times. I think I spent a lot of time on my own thinking about this. But, when I would get really sad about the marriage ending, I would pick up the phone and talk to friends and family, and they would give me the courage, or that little shove that I would need to pick myself up and keep going!
Sometimes I would be paranoid that he might come to the house during the middle of the night in a rage before he left the country, and so all doors from most rooms were locked. I used to lock my bedroom door, and for a while I slept with either a Hurley or hockey stick by my locker, in case I was put in the position that I had to protect me and my child from him

Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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You sometimes lose ‘friends’ when your marriage breaks down

Buying a mobile (cell) phone to maintain contact is also important. This will allow you to communicate with relevant people such as your children’s school, the police, neighbours, friends, or any helpful persons. My advice would be not to make such phone contact until you are far away from the abusive home.
The survival kit should also include essential items purchased from the domestic finances prior to departure. Such items would include extra clothing and sufficient medicines.
Finally, you might like to make arrangements for your children’s pets, if any. It is traumatic for children to leave their pets, and it might be possible to take small pets with you. If not, you might wish to leave them with a willing friend. You will know what to do.
I hope that this short chapter will give you relevant ideas, and help you make the difficult decision to leave an abusive environment. Take heart from Linda’s words, as she came to grips with, and overcame, her feelings about the ‘stigma’ of her marriage breakdown
‘I have also learned not to take on board opinions people have towards me that are not in a good nature. Even though we live in 2010, there is a certain stigma when a marriage breaks down. When you say to people that you are separated, some feel uncomfortable straight away. You can feel this in the conversation. Not everyone is like this, of course, but many people are.
I have neighbours near my home house who gave me THAT look, – the kind of look where you know they are saying, “She’s broken up with her husband“. I have one neighbour who will no longer say hello to me since my marriage has broken down.
This is just another side effect of a marriage breakdown; I used to find this hard at the start and felt embarrassed if someone that felt this way toward marriage breakdown saw me. I would nearly hide, so I wouldn’t get the look of distaste. But over time, it does get somewhat easier. I tell it as it is now. I am separated and I am a single mother. I don’t hide if from people I know and people I meet. This is my life, and if they feel awkward being around me because of that –that’s their problem!’

Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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Abuse is like a jigsaw that confuses the victim.

Many victims leave when they begin to see the pattern that underpins abuse, and the deliberate campaign to undermine and control becomes apparent. One of my clients compared it to a jigsaw. When the jigsaw is fragmented victims are lost in confusion, but as the pieces are assembled, they become clear that it is not healthy or wise to stay. Very often sufferers decide to leave during the third stage of the abusive cycle, when the release of violent anger by the abuser brings about calm, and the appearance of love and warmth. But, when the abuser learns of this decision, the fury aroused makes it necessary to create a safety plan. This will vary from person to person and country to country, although there are some basic ingredients of a ‘survival kit’
One of these is having sufficient finance to support you and your children, if any. I advise opening a separate bank account or hiding money until the time of leaving. The difficulties in this will be determined by the level of control the abuser has on the home’s finances. Linda successfully took this precaution –
“When things were bad, sometimes at night I started making plans. At the time, they felt like things to keep in my head just in case. I never thought I’d use them, because things would be getting better! I set up a credit union account that he didn’t know about, and for months I put little bits of money into it. Initially it was set up to save because he could go off some weekends, and wouldn’t give me any of his wages to do the shopping, and I would be short. It was a safe haven financially for me. But, really, it was the starting point of my planning to live without him. Up to then I had never kept anything from him, but I kept that account from him, as it was a means to survival for my son and me, and I had to think of us, when he would go away and leave us.”
It is vital for you to prearrange a safe place to recuperate, and eventually plan a new life. Creating a new life means having relevant documentation, and so it is essential to copy important documents, and give them to a friend for safekeeping.
Such documents should include birth certificates, marriage certificate, insurance policies, medical records, school records, drivers licence, car insurance, pharmacy records, and lists of important names, addresses and phone numbers, including solicitors, citizens advice centres, and welfare offices. A visit to the citizens’ advice centre could also be made prior to fleeing. They will give you advice and relevant addresses and phone numbers. Since it is likely that you have been isolated during the abusive tenure, try to build up as much support as possible prior to leaving. This includes not only professional support mentioned here, but also reconnecting with friends, family and relatives.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press

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Children should never be left in an environment where one parent abuses the other

If there are children in an abusive household, I believe that it is imperative to leave. Some people, including some researchers, feel that it is best to leave children in an abusive parental relationship, than suffer the trauma of leaving and losing a parent. I do not agree with this view. I strongly believe that if children are in the presence of any type of continuing abuse, they should be removed, before serious psychological or emotional damage is done. As I showed earlier, the longer they are left the greater the harm they will suffer. Children are like sponges. They absorb the tension, anger, hostility, and fear in an abusive home. I am greatly concerned, when I see children who have become withdrawn, fearful, anxious, and insecure as they constantly witness the acrimony between their parents. Not only are these children deprived of happiness and contentment, but they also have poor role models in abusive parents. Non-abusive parents, like Linda, are very conscious of the potential damage to their children
“As much as I thought about Jack coming from a broken home, he was already in a broken home. I couldn’t have my son grow up and see his father call me a “bitch” or a “cunt” which were commonly said to me. I was so fearful for my son and his future that I didn’t want him emotionally damaged from what he saw or heard. There was little love in the house in the end, and it was unfair to bring him up in a house full of tension, and so unstable.”
Her fears for Jack’s emotional safety increased when Stephen physically abused her. On one occasion when he raged and destroyed furniture, she made the decision to permanently remove her child from the abusive environment
“He pushed me out of the way to get inside. He grabbed my arms so tight and pushed. I had marks left on my arms that day from him. I followed him and told him to get out. He kicked things around the kitchen, kicked the clothes-horse to the other side of the room. He was shouting and was in a complete rage. His face turned red. He then went to the bedroom and started pulling the wardrobe doors off in anger, and throwing them across the room. My son was sitting in his high chair when all this was going on, screaming with fright. I told Stephen to get out, that I was calling the guards and that I was leaving. But, he didn’t calm down. When he had his damage done, he went out the front door and sped off in his van with the tyres screeching. I ran and locked the front and back doors, and I called the guards. About 5 minutes later, he came back. The doors were locked, and he told me to open the doors or he would break the glass, as the back door was a patio sliding glass door. I told him that I had called the guards, and he said to me “of course you did, you twisted bitch”. This was crazy – how can he be calling me twisted, when he has done all this. He blamed me for this, just as he did for everything.”
Even if abusers are only targeting a partner, there is always the possibility that in time they will begin to abuse their children. It is also worthwhile recalling that emotional and verbal abuse frequently lead to physical violence. Firstly, it may be a push or a shove, then a blow or a kick, and finally severe beatings. Abuse invites retaliation, which, however justified, intensifies the tension and hatred in the home, and children cannot survive emotionally in such an atmosphere.

Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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Children should not be exposed to abuse in any household

While recognising why people remain in abusive relationships, I consider it unethical as a counsellor to support them over a long period in such a relationship. The role of the counsellor is for the well-being of his clients, and I think it is wrong to collude with them in remaining in a toxic environment. However, leaving is a long, painful and difficult process. Elaine Weiss’s stories reveal that some women remain for years in abusive relationships. One survivor put it at 8 years, 7 months and 21 days. I believe that my role as a counsellor is to listen to my clients’ story, empathise with their suffering, educate them on abuse, challenge them about remaining a victim, and assist them if they decide to leave. Fortunately, as Sandra Horley reminds us, 88% of abused women leave, following repeated assaults. It would probably be true to say that victims leave when staying becomes unendurable, and it becomes less painful to leave than to stay. Linda puts it well when she says
The decision to leave was the hardest, most devastating, decision of my life. Jack and I lost our home, and our possessions. I lost my husband who despite everything I still loved and cared for. And like I predicted he got worse when I left. He didn’t work at all, but went on welfare, and lost all respect for himself and everything around him.
Yet, however devastating it is, there are good reasons for leaving. It is appropriate to leave if the perpetrator refuses to admit that he/she is being abusive, continues to abuse, and is unwilling to get help. You owe it to yourself to look for some type of peace and happiness outside the abusive home. If you are being devalued, and treated as worthless, life is hardly worth living.
Linda decided to leave when her husband said that he would assault her father, who had confronted him about his behaviour. This threat seemed to make her realise that Stephen did not love her
I am extremely close to my father, and my husband knows that. Yet he was willing to hurt my beloved father, and didn’t care about me, and how that would make me feel, or didn’t care about my dad – a man nearly 3 times his age. I was sick to my stomach when I heard that. How could my husband, who was supposed to love me so much, threaten to physically hurt one of the most important people in my life? I think those few words he said that night on the phone about my father really set things clear in my head. He didn’t care about me. He was just an angry man, ready to inflict that anger on a man who was so good to him in the past. My father often got work for him, when he had none, and helped him out as much as he could. I left him the next day for the first time.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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