In our current culture, bad relationships are extremely common. Nearly 60 percent of young women have experienced abuse, according to a survey done with the NRCDV, and the number of domestic homicides in Canada rose in 2014 to 83.
Unfortunately, I have experience with some of these dangerous situations – but with endless help and tools I was finally able to leave a seven year abusive relationship. I feel that my entire future and person was saved, and have felt an unlimited blossoming of joy since then.
Here’s how I finally left him:
Step 1: Know That You Need To Leave
This may be the hardest step to come to.
Abusive relationships are often formed slowly and with loops worked in to keep you from admitting or knowing that they are abusive. Often the abuser starts off extremely sweet, and they push your boundaries slowly at first – with lots of apologies if you push back. This is a slow erosion of your agency and will leave you vulnerable to their sticky web. They may trap you with comments and actions meant to undermine your sense of self and separate you from all others. The goal is to make you believe that you are unlovable by all others but your abuser – and that “no one gets you like they do”. You may be separated by your friends and family because they do not get along with your abuser – and this will make it much harder for you to compare your relationship to a healthy one.
I started an abusive relationship when I was 15 years old. I had very little experience with healthy relationships and very few role models, so it took a damagingly long time – with repeated warnings from others in my life – for me to finally begin to admit that I was in an abusive relationship.
Entering the relationship as a virgin with very little sex-ed, I had no idea that you could be raped by your boyfriend. Though I was repeatedly held down, coerced, and forced into intimacy – in spite of tears, trying to get away, and “saying no” – I wasn’t aware of the obvious sexual abuse because of the cocktail of emotional abuse that made me accept suffering instead of love.
Google it. Talk to your friends and family about everyday stuff that happens and ask for their reaction. Notice how your mood changes when you are with your partner and when you are alone. How many of your future plans reflect you – and how many sound like they are made by and circling around them? How has your self esteem changed over the course of the relationship? What is your relationship like with sex and with your own body? Do you feel anxious bringing up your feelings and needs?
When abuse is not obvious, we need to do research by talking to those in our circle and those without. Not every relationship is abusive, and all relationships have problems, but this should not stop you from admitting if something is not healthy. You may still love your abuser at this point, but you must be honest about the effect they are having on your life. At every stage of this process, a counsellor or support group can be extremely helpful.
Step 2: Leave As Many Times As You Need
Because of the codependencies created in abusive relationships, breaking the connection between you often doesn’t happen after the first breakup. You and your loved ones may go on an emotional roller coaster as you “leave for good” and then get back with him over and over again. Understand that this is part of the abuse cycle, and try not to be too hard on yourself.
I went through a few significant, public breakups, and then had to embarrassingly tell my family that I was back in the relationship again. This is an awful feeling full of shame and confusion. You may try avoiding this shame by deciding that you won’t leave the relationship again so that you stop showing that you change your mind. Don’t fall for this. If you feel strongly enough to break up then that matters more than the embarrassment of having to tell everyone again.
Step 3: Exit Softly & With Company
After having tried many different attempts at a breakup, the one that finally worked was surprisingly soft. Since my abuser had voiced that his own mental health and reason for living were tied to me staying in the relationship, I was stuck feeling a huge sense of responsibility for what might happen to him if I said I was leaving for good.
Once, when I had tried repeatedly over months to shut down a get-back-together-attempt, his claims about his mental health became so severe that I called the police and his family members to check on his safety. If your ex is making a serious claim about their depression you should treat it as seriously and bring help and attention to them – but also know that your responsibility ends there. If their mental health claims were just a ploy to keep you in their life, then they will have to deal with the consequences of talking to mental health professionals and their families. If they were genuine, then you may have helped them find the resources they need.
After that dramatic attempt, I still dated my ex for 2 more years – feeling that this was my fate and my duty. I made the best of the situation until I met my little sister’s boyfriend and saw a carbon copy of my abuser. This was a shock and showed me that no matter the difficulty, I must find a way to permanently leave. Abuse’s effects are never just limited to those directly experiencing them.
I told my counsellor, friends and family that I was going to break up, and I had a friend in the area on alert that morning in case I needed quick company. Then I opened up the conversation to my abuser by saying that we should take a “break”. Since he often told me that I needed to work on myself and that I had infinite problems in his eyes, I described the break as “a needed opportunity for me to work on myself and be better for a potential relationship for us in the future.” Though I didn’t get to express my anger, I used his own manipulation tactics back on him, and made him believe a break up would be good for him because he’d get a “better woman” at the end.
He was still shocked and hurt, but it allowed me to leave with my stuff without him forcing me to stay. Having a vague ending works to begin the process of leaving – but it cannot stay vague forever.
Step 4: Get Professional Advice
Throughout this process a therapist can be helpful. But as you are leaving, it is especially important to get professionals involved. I did a risk assessment conference call with my counsellor and a psychiatrist within my university who advises on domestic abuse legal cases. To get a true sense of how much risk me and my family might be in as my now ex went through the process of our breakup, I had to be brutally honest and clear about the relationship to them. This is not as official as going to the police, so you can and should mention anything that makes you fearful of your abusive ex. I made a record with them that my ex was a gun owner, and had made previous suicidal comments.
Keep a record of all communications.
Note baseline behaviour and abnormal behaviour. Note potential weapons or patterns of substance abuse and recklessness. I was told to very carefully observe for specific threats – messages mentioning locations, times, and intentions. And to tell my friends and family exactly what they needed to be looking for too.
I got contact information for my university’s security team and the police.
Going to the police can be tricky in abuse cases – but I would generally always suggest it. It is very important to have a record of your concerns in the event that your ex has future dealings with the police. That being said, I know it is daunting and draining.
Keep in mind that not every abusive relationship ends in violence, and your breakup may go perfectly peacefully. But if you are feeling unsure, and scared, it is always best to get some advice.
Step 5: Carve Out Your Boundaries
Next you need to decide where you are going to cut your own life from theirs. This needs to be absolutely clear to you so that you can communicate it in an absolutely clear way to them.
Throughout my initial “soft” breakup, I was going through the risk analysis steps above, and waiting till I got my own clear sense of boundaries before I finally broke it off.
In the communication of these boundaries to your ex, you need to be air tight. Send a short, complete, and clear email outlining that you are no longer going to be in a relationship with them, will not be in any relationship with them in the future, and do not want any contact or interaction with them from then on. Tell them that you are blocking them, and that you will not get any communications they send you. Repeat these phrases any time you are forced to interact with them.
Let others in your life know when you are sending this final message, and have it proof read by professionals before hand if you can.
The most important thing to remember is that they will try to have the last word – there will always be some fireback email. So you must communicate your intentions in a way that does not give them anything to argue with. Though of course it would be healing to say that they are the piece of sh*t that you now know they are, it is best if you use simple phrases with direct structuring. You do not need to give them an explanation or any indication of how you are feeling. Do not soften this email with a greeting or nostalgic goodbye.
Step 6: Go Dark
This was the most important step for me in my own healing and for finalizing the break up to my ex.
You must go completely silent to successfully communicate your boundaries of having no contact with them. Block them on social media, block their number, delete pictures with them, and tell your friends and family not to communicate with them if they try to engage. This certainly needs to be tweaked depending on the relationship, and I urge you to get advice to see what method is best for you.
I knew that I wouldn’t feel safe if I didn’t have some window into what stage of anger he was at during the initial break-up, so I told him that all communications were blocked, but I actually forwarded his emails to my mother or counsellor to read to asses whether or not he was threatening. No conversation or engagement with your ex is helpful in the final breakup phase, and it is therapeutic to aggressively press the delete button.
You may need to block a circle of friends around him if he is still finding ways to contact you.
I was lucky to be able to move away from the community where he lived, but it meant that I had to give up or pause many very dear relationships. I am still grieving this, but know that it is the only way I could have finally left him.
Step 7: Insulate Your Safety
Create a sleeping bag wall of warmth and safety around your new life. Tell those in your safe circle everything that happened in your relationship, and everything you are afraid of happening. The more people that are aware of your ex’s behaviour and on your side, the more likely you are to be protected from going back to him.
You may not win the reputation battle that sometimes ensues after a breakup, and your pain will not be believe by some. This is why the insulation should work both ways. Do not ask how he is doing, even through a friend (this will tell him you are thinking about him). You must find a way to break that dependance and see your life as something whole and complete without him.
I am intensely grateful to my warm, dear family (and cats) for helping me during this time. I went from feeling alone to being pulled into the centre of a supportive circle, where I felt less reachable by his manipulation. This was developed from new relationships that I was now free to make, and from a sexual assault survivor support group I joined.
Step 8: Withstand the Eerie Silence
I still have nightmares about hearing the familiar sound of my ex’s car pull up into my house. I have horrifying images of what he could and still might do to me or my family. Over a year later, the anxiety is still very intense.
The silence that I created and enforced has allowed me to move on, but it also lets my imagination run wild. You must find a way to withstand the urge to break the silence – deal with your anxieties by taking as many actionable steps as you can to protect yourself and prevent domestic violence in your life. Writing this post is part of my own process.
Unfortunately, an abusive ex will not give up easily. For a relationship as long and complex as mine, I was told that it might be several years before he will get over it. Know that it is a long process with many waves of emotions. Track them in a journal and hold yourself in love as you unravel all the ways you hurt.
Step 9: Flourish & Heal
In spite of this very difficult, dangerous and frustrating process, know that you can flourish and heal. When you are freed of the oppressive force of an abuser, you are finally open to the emotional support and encouragement normally given in relationships. With intense joy I have started life again – defining it for myself and without the judgement and manipulation of a bad relationship.
I have bloomed and felt love as I never knew I could feel.
Though I have a long way to go still, I am finally able to ask myself what I want for my future, and who I want to become. Romance, and kindness are mine to receive and give safely.
It is worth it.