What you’ll commonly hear from experts and abuse victims alike is that the only way to stop abuse is to leave your abuser. However, that prescription is usually given out freely with little follow-up as to whether the relationship could have been salvaged, whether the victim wanted to stay and makes things work, whether the abuser wanted to try to change, or whether the victim was emotionally ready to handle a life on her own.
All of these factors make it hard to just say: leave and move on. There are many others ways of handling an abuse situation, and thus there are many ways to stop emotional abuse.
With our emotionally abused clients, we always say that there are two options: fight the abuse and demand change, or leave the abuser and start a new abuse-free life. Either option has many levels of emotional health and steps that you need to take to maintain the most important thing: your safety.
Let’s look at leaving vs. staying and the choices you can make.
Many times, leaving is almost impossible to think of. Confusion may paralyze you because you may feel that you can understand where your abuser is coming from, even if you don’t accept his reaction to his personal pain. You might suspect that he’s been left before by parents or women, and fear wounding him deeper by asking to leave.
You wouldn’t be the only one, if this is what you’re thinking. Fear of having no where to go, or hoping that this is just “the only way my husband knows how to show his love” can make you want to stay as long as you can bear it.
We recognize and respect your fears and hopes, but you will need to gradually realize that sometimes leaving is what you need to do in order to preserve your emotional health. Now, leaving doesn’t have to be permanent – it simply needs to send the strong message that you cannot, and will not, allow abuse to be a part of your marriage. It is up to you to decide whether your husband has listened, and how long you need to stay apart.
There are signs you can identify for knowing whether leaving is the best thing for your emotional health. You can see these signs by asking yourself some simple questions. Answering yes to a majority of them most likely indicates that you need a break from the toxicity of the marriage:
- Do you doubt your own memory or sense of reality because of your partner?
- Do you doubt your own judgment about what’s best for you?
- Do you often feel unsafe, as if harm could come to you at any moment?
- Do you feel that you can’t do anything or go anywhere without their permission?
- Do you feel depressed, dejected or like there is no point in being alive?
- Does your partner hurt you physically?
And the most important question: Do you feel afraid of your partner?
If you answered yes to many of these, especially the last one, you probably need to leave your partner for the time being. Leaving your partner for the time you set down will give you the chance to discover how deeply you are wounded, what it will take to heal, and whether it’s even worth the emotional challenge of staying in the marriage.
Where can you go? When you take a break from your home and abuser, you can seek the shelter of friends and family (especially if you’ve been isolated from them), and they will be able to give you feedback about who you are and how loved you are, instead of abusive feedback about your “mistakes.” This would also be a good time to reconnect with what you’re capable of and what you can do with your life, today on.
Leaving sends your abuser a signal of zero-tolerance. The responsibility to change then rests on your partner – the ball is in his court. Will he change? Is being in a relationship with you more important than abusing you? Or will he ignore the signal and refuse to change, signalling to you that it’s time to find a new life that doesn’t include him?
Now we can also look at what might prompt a decision to stay, which is equally doable and fully supported by us, provided it’s safe to do so. If you decide that there’s a chance your abuser can change, and that it’s worth sticking things out to see where they go, it is important to keep plans in place. Always remember that the priority when staying in an emotionally abusive relationship is protecting your safety and that of your children.
When we say safety, we mean both your physical and emotional safety. Make sure you have parents, friends, or other trusted people close by. Don’t isolate yourself any longer, and do what you have to to make sure that you keep connected with them. It is extremely important that you remember that staying does not in any way mean keeping your abuse a secret. If you want to stay and work things out, you should definitely not try to do it on your own. You need support, back up, and a plan B for this mission. You may not feel comfortable telling someone your entire story, but your security relies on other people at least knowing that there is an issue in your relationship that you are staying to solve, and that you them to be there for you.
This brings us to one last important thing. If you stay in the emotionally abusive relationship, the worst possible thing you can do for yourself is just pretend that it will go away eventually. Staying in the marriage is a right decision only if you feel you’re determined to actively work hard, and strive for change and health. You must always remember to send a firm message that abuse is not okay if you want anything to ever change.