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How To Leave An Abusive Relationship: Step-By-Step Guide

Jesi Taylor Cruz
Author: Expert reviewer:
March 5, 2020
Jesi Taylor Cruz
By Jesi Taylor Cruz
mbg Contributor
Jesi Taylor Cruz is a writer, doula, community activist, and researcher based in New York City with a focus on Black motherhood, lifestyle, pop culture, and mental health. They have a bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the City University of New York, and their work has been featured in the American Philosophical Association, Self, Vice, Bustle, Zora, Romper, and elsewhere.
Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., C.N.S.
Expert review by
Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., C.N.S.
Holistic Child & Family Psychologist
A unique combination of clinical psychologist, nutritionist, and special education teacher, Dr. Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., has almost 20 years of experience supporting children, young adults, and families. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, a Master’s in Nutrition and Integrative Health, and a Master’s in Special Education, and is trained in numerous specialty areas.
March 5, 2020
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.

This resource is a step-by-step guide on how to leave an abusive relationship. Whether you're ready to leave now or just trying to figure out exactly what to do when the moment arrives, what matters most is that you're considering taking even a small step in a new direction⁠—a direction that is leading you away from your abusive relationship and into a safe space. Even if your next step seems terrifying and your mind is overwhelmed, remind yourself that you've already begun your journey to freedom. Even considering leaving your abusive relationship is a sign of power, a sign of your desire to move forward and start a new life. 

This guide was created with the help of Kayla Katz, MSW, RCSWI, a domestic abuse education and action advocate at Ruth and Norman Rales Jewish Family Services, and Gabrielle Powell, a victim services coordinator for a New York City–based victim services program.

1. Get some clarity and remind yourself that you're doing the right thing.

You are not to blame for the abuse you're experiencing, and none of the harm you are suffering is your fault. It's common for abusers to try to convince you that the abuse is your fault—don't buy it. Like every other human being, you deserve safety, healing, and to be out of harm's way. If you have children, you and your children deserve a home free of violence, aggression, and manipulation. You are doing the right thing by even considering leaving your abusive relationship. 

You may feel terrified, alone, and unsure of what to do, but know that there are people who are committed to finding you a safe place to call home. You do not have to go through any of this alone. If you have access to a phone right now and can make an uninterrupted phone call at this very moment, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at the number listed above to speak with someone who can help you figure out where to go and guide you through all the steps of this process.

2. Prioritize your safety as you plan and prepare.

Safety is the No. 1 concern when beginning to reach out for help and plan how to leave an abusive relationship, Powell explains. Making sure abusers don't become aware that you're planning to leave is the safest way to move forward.

"If you are unsure about technology surveillance and cannot safely hide documents, it may not be best to use your phone or personal computer," she says. "Try using other people's phones or public computers to look up information."

As you're thinking about your next steps, also remember the most important thing is to get to a safe place. After you're in a safe place and away from your abuser, you can worry about things like finding a new place to live, finding a job, getting counseling, etc.

3. Talk to a professional in private.

Local victim advocates can assist you with creating a safety plan and guide you through all the steps of this process, Katz explains. You don't have to do it alone. In fact, reaching out to hotlines and local shelters (which are listed at the bottom of this article) can ensure that you can make the most informed decisions as you navigate your situation. Hotlines that specialize in domestic violence can also help you locate shelters and other resources you, and your children, might need throughout this process. 

4. Reach out to friends and family who can help.

If your abuser isolates you from your friends, family, and other people in your life who could help you or sense danger, there's a chance that you're feeling alone. In reality, the people in your life who loved you before your abuser took over your life will want to help you when they find out you're in serious need of love and care. Contact people in your life that you miss, who make you feel safe, and who you've considered a loved one in the past. Not only will their love be a guiding light during this difficult time, but they can help you stay safe and possibly prevent you from returning to your abuser. Don't be afraid to tell the people who love you what you're going through.

5. Consider your phone privacy.

If you have access to a cellphone, change your privacy settings immediately. If you don't already have password protection set up, set up password protection to keep the information on your phone private, especially if you plan to start saving important phone numbers or information for resources to help you escape. Turn off your location services until you need to use it to find a local shelter or loved one's home.

If you worry enabling password protection might draw attention from your abuser, try to obtain a basic, cheap, prepaid phone from the store or ask a friend to help you get one. That may be even better since its existence won't be known to your abuser.

6. Research local domestic violence shelters.

Going to a domestic violence shelter will give you the opportunity to access resources you need since they often come equipped with clinics, counseling, legal services, and more. Most importantly, though, you'll be in a safe space.

"Some victims have to start from scratch after leaving their abusers, and that is where DV shelters, victim advocates, and social workers come in to assist them in that process and help them become self-sufficient," Katz explains. She also adds that some shelters "provide temporary financial assistance as well as encourage, and pay for vocational training to help victims obtain employment" and "assist with relocation costs and other temporary financial support such as access to [food pantries]."

Katz recommends starting with resources like the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence or The Hotline websites to find shelters in your area. Since finding a safe place to relocate will be a priority, it's important to know the addresses and phone numbers associated with shelters you can turn to for assistance. If you don't have stable internet access or the ability to use a device with internet connectivity, the next time you are in contact with a friend or loved one you trust, consider asking them to do the research for you and record the information on paper.

Some cities have shelters that are exclusively for women which can cause problems for men and trans and gender-nonconforming folks. For people who need access to LGBTQIA+-friendly shelters or spaces specifically for men, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to chat with an advocate who can help you find a shelter that will be safe for you. 

7. Start saving money.

The act of saving money can help you immensely as you prepare to escape. If possible, think of creative ways to hide and save up money to have on you when you leave, especially if you have to leave in a hurry. Consider storing a few dollars a week in a zipper bag hidden outside in a safe place. Also consider having a trusted friend or loved one hold on to the money for you with the specific intent to give it back to you when you're escaping.

You might consider opening a separate bank account at a new bank your abuser doesn't use. Note that opening a bank account on your own requires access to different identification documents like a driver's license or state ID, birth certificate or other proof of name and birthdate, proof of residency, and sometimes even a Social Security card. These requirements vary by type of bank and the bank itself, but those requirements are listed on official bank websites.

8. Start memorizing important phone numbers.

There's a chance that your abuser may take your phone away from you. It's important to know the phone numbers of shelters, family members, friends, and hotlines in case you can't access the internet or you can't write them down on paper for safekeeping. 

9. Gradually gather your necessities.

While your specific definition of "necessity" is unique to you—and can range from medications and forms to children's toys and sentimental items—it's best to slowly and gradually gather those items if you have the chance. That way, it won't be obvious to your abuser that you're planning to leave. 

Powell says that "collecting necessities gradually can help keep the [abusive] individual unaware. That includes gathering/applying for documents, clothes, and children's needs. Slowly leaving these items with a trusted person, or in a space where the abuser won't check, is better than out in the open."

Alternatively, make a list of your most important items so that, when it's time to leave, you're able to quickly pack and leave without worrying about what to bring. In case you have to leave in a hurry, you can grab what you need and go. Having a list of items to use as a guide can help make this process a bit easier.

10. Gather your forms of identification and records.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends making copies of and safely storing the following items:

  • Birth certificates, Social Security cards, etc., for you and your children
  • Health insurance cards
  • Financial records
  • Housing documents
  • Credit report
  • Tax returns

Additionally, making a police report is one way to document abuse that provides an official, widely recognized account of what's happened, Powell explains. If you've had the opportunity to file one in the past, be sure to keep a record of it if possible. If you have questions about the process of filing a police report or if it's the right next step for you, you can call one of the domestic abuse hotline numbers listed at the bottom of this article, and an advocate can help you figure out the best path forward.

11. Commit to leaving.

"No one can tell a victim when it is time to leave," Katz says. Leaving is often dangerous and terrifying, and "only the victim can determine when would be the best time for them to leave and how to keep [themselves] safe."

If you're in the process of making the decision to leave an abusive relationship, know that there are resources you can turn to to help you navigate this difficult situation. "Being afraid of not only the abuser but the future is normal. It's OK to try to work on the issues that come up one at a time," Powell says. 

12. Make an escape plan.

The first thing to do is make sure you know all of the possible exits you can use. Every door, every window. Know in advance which doors lock and how the locks work, and the same goes for windows. If you're a visual learner, draw a diagram of where you live and clearly mark the places you're most likely to physically escape from.

Once you have a clear understanding of where you'll physically leave from, write down the directions to the first place you'll go once you leave. Is it a shelter? A friend's house? A family member's place of work? If possible, use the internet to find the directions to that location and write them down so you don't need your phone or the internet to get to that location in the future. Do the same for a few other locations as well. 

It can also be helpful to write down step-by-step instructions for yourself to use in the future in case you have to leave in a hurry or in case stress causes you to forget things. Some examples of things on the list can include but aren't limited to, "unlock the back window," "grab the money taped under the dresser," "remember your phone charger," "bring a snack for the walk to the shelter," etc.

Maybe you can just walk out of the front door. If so, do that. You can do it. 

When? "It is always recommended to leave when the abuser isn't around and avoid confronting them at all," Powell says.

13. Consider getting a restraining order.

Getting a restraining order is a decision to consider with care. It's best to discuss this option with staff at a shelter or a legal professional to determine what works for your unique situation and circumstances. Depending on where you live and details concerning your abuser, getting a restraining order may not be the safest option for you, so be sure to consult with a professional who can walk you through your options and help you make the best possible decision for you. 

While specific rules regarding restraining orders vary by state, the basic process includes going to court to file a petition, filling out forms, a form review by a judge, further reviews by other officials, and attending a hearing. Eligibility to apply for an order of protection is limited to spouses (both current and those you are separated or divorced from), people related by blood or marriage, people you have a child in common with, and people with which you have an intimate relationship. 

In some places, you can file a petition electronically, but in other cases, you will file the petition in the county where you or your abuser lives. If you are living in a domestic violence shelter or a place you'd like to remain confidential for safety reasons, do not file the petition in a courthouse in your county. 

There are no fees to file a petition for an order of protection, and if you're a minor, you may be able to obtain one with the help of the family court system. Also, even though having a lawyer is not required, it is recommended to hire one—especially if you think your abuser will hire one. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you can ask the court to assign you one. 

In all cases, be sure to have a record of, and bring any files relevant to, police reports related to your abuser.

14. Break the cycle.

Do your best to stay as far away as possible from your abuser so that you can break the cycle. Your abuser might try to do everything they possibly can to get you to return to them. Rely on the help of family, friends, and shelter staff to keep you focused on what's most important: your safety.

Even though it might feel like you need your abuser in your life, you don't. Instead, rely on the countless resources for people escaping abusive relationships and let them help you. Not only are these people trained to help people who are in your exact situation, but they've also elected to be in these jobs for a reason: They genuinely care about your health, safety, and well-being. They can point you in the direction of therapists, religious leaders, counselors, and so many other resources that can help you on your unique journey to safety and peace.

This may be the most difficult thing you'll ever experience in your life, so be patient with yourself as you navigate all of this. You're strong, you're courageous, and you're on the path to healing. Applaud yourself. Be sure to take full advantage of the resources that domestic violence shelters have to offer so that you can limit your chances of going back to your abuser.

Where to go: sanctuaries, women's shelters, and more.

Transitional housing programs help survivors by helping them rebuild after escaping abuse and offer extended stays, sometimes up to two years. Domestic violence/emergency shelters are safe spaces for survivors to go to receive temporary housing. Safe houses and other forms of emergency shelter also offer temporary safe space for survivors and their children. To find out what type of housing is best for you, contact The Hotline to find out your options.  

Powell notes that "domestic-violence-centered programs can offer a host of supports. There are government, social agencies, and organizations expected to guide folks toward the programs they need. Those can include hospitals, clinics (like Planned Parenthood), police precincts, etc. There are varying experiences with all of these, however. If using these resources, self-advocacy can be really important."

Leaving an abusive relationship with no money.

"For those who are financially dependent on their partners or have their finances monitored, this is really complicated," Powell explains. "Financial abuse is one of the many ways abusers maintain control over their partners."

Many shelters will offer you resources to help you get on your feet, so don't let money be the reason you stay with your abuser. "These shelters have funding to assist with relocation assistance and have advocates that will work with survivors to help them become self-sufficient," Katz explains. Reach out to your local shelter to find out about what services they have. Many will be able to ensure you have access to meals, give you a roof over your head, and help you find stable housing, and even help you with finding a job.

Unique concerns for male victims of abuse. 

Many men, boys, and people who are not women across the gender spectrum suffer in silence due to prevailing narratives about abuse. One 2018 study found male victims of abuse worry they won't be believed or worry they will be perceived as less masculine if they report it, and as a result, many men aren't able to leave their abusive relationships.

It's particularly important for boys and men to reach out to domestic violence hotlines to find options for housing, healing, and recovery that take into account the unique struggles of male survivors. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (number listed below) and ask for services for men specifically. You are not alone. 

Free 24/7 phone chat lines:

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224

National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800) 656-HOPE

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project: 1-800-832-1901

Limited phone chat lines:

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender National Hotline: (888) 843-4564

Monday thru Friday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., Pacific Time (Monday thru Friday from 4 p.m. to midnight, Eastern Time)

Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Pacific Time (Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., Eastern Time)

Jesi Taylor Cruz author page.
Jesi Taylor Cruz

Jesi Taylor Cruz is a writer, doula, community activist, and researcher based in New York City with a focus on Black motherhood, lifestyle, pop culture, and mental health. They have a bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the City University of New York, and their work has been featured in the American Philosophical Association, Self, Vice, Bustle, Zora, Romper, and elsewhere.

Jesi is also a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellow, Leader Alliance Mellon Initiative Fellow, Rosen Fellow, and a CUNY Pipeline for Careers in College Teaching and Research Fellow. Their research and academic work focuses on how structural violence impacts interpersonal social relations and Black maternal health.