How to Leave an Emotionally Abusive Relationship: 10 Steps
Imagine that your destructive, abusive relationship is a hot, burning pit. It’s dark down there. You can’t breathe down there. It hurts down there. You’re stuck down there. It’s relationship HELL down there.
You might be sitting there thinking you need to be rescued. You’ve spent years complaining about the hell you live in, waiting for someone to come along and pull you out. But my friend, you will never be rescued. What you need isn’t rescue.
What you need is POWER.
Because the only way out of hell is up a very hot ladder, and you need to be EMPOWERED to climb that ladder and get out. You need to be PREPARED with a working knowledge of every single hot rung you will have to endure on your way up and out.
Have you decided to get out of your emotionally abusive relationship, no matter what? Because that’s the first step before you can begin the climb. This article is for those of you thinking about making that decision. And for those of you who have decided to make the climb. And for those of you who are half-way up and sorely tempted to let go and fall back into the pit.
Part of getting out is understanding and accepting the fact that it’s hell to climb out. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, it won’t surprise you when you feel the pain of the climb. I also want you to know that the view at the top is glorious, once you get there. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the ten hot-as-hell ladder rungs you need to climb to get out.
Ten Steps to Leave Your Emotionally Abusive Relationship
First Step: FEAR
As you anticipate climbing, you will feel a paralyzing fear of all the hot rungs that lie before you. How will you do it? Is it even possible?
It’s a long way up, and frankly, many will never make it. I think more women are attempting the climb now simply because there are so many women at the top cheering them on. But even just five years ago, all was silent at the top. Not a whole lot of hope that there was anything up there even if you did get out.
When your fear of staying becomes greater than your fear of climbing, you will conquer your first hot ladder rung.
Second Step: Trying to Get Your Abuser to Change
Because then you won’t have to climb, right? I mean, if Hell is transformed into Heaven, problem solved!
So you try telling your abusive partner in 4,789,935 different ways how you can’t do this anymore, and how you love him and hope he’ll see how destructive his behaviors are, and how you may need to take drastic measures if he doesn’t change something soon.
Result? Hell gets a lot hotter.
That rung really stings, and you may be stuck on it longer than necessary. But once you realize hell is hell because it just is, you’ll be ready to take the next step up out of your abusive relationship.
Third Step: GRIEF Because Your Abuser Doesn’t Actually Love You
Next comes the red hot ladder rung of the shocking pain of accepting that you are in an abusive relationship with someone who doesn’t love you. That’s right. An abuser is not capable of authentic love. Once you are out of hell, you’ll be able to see that it wasn’t personal – they couldn’t love anyone. BUT, when you are beginning your climb out, this realization is a tremendous loss and causes you to take a deep dive into the grief process.
Grieving is hard, painful work. It takes time, too, which is one of the worst parts of this rung. You can be stuck on it for a long time. You’ll be tempted to keep climbing and get this one over with, but if you do that, you’ll inevitably fall back down, because you can’t move forward until you’ve done the grief work which includes: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
Where are you in this process? If you journal, consider writing down some of your thoughts about this.
Fourth Step: You Tell Someone, and They Don’t Take You Seriously
You know you’re only human, and you need a little love along the way, so you tell someone you think you can trust about your abusive relationship. A family member. A friend. A church leader.
You don’t want to do this. You’re ashamed that you’ve kept it to yourself for years, decades, even. You worry they might not believe you because your abuser is so nice to everyone outside of the family. You feel like a schoolgirl tattling on your spouse instead of an adult woman able to handle her life.
You don’t want to shame him, either. You’ve always seen it as your job to protect his fragile ego. If you’re a Christian, you see it as your duty to respect and honor him no matter what. Telling someone on the outside about his bully behavior feels disrespectful somehow and makes you feel guilty.
You want him to get help and change, but then you remember Ladder Rung Three.
You hope they will offer some empathy and sit with you in your grief. But shock of all shocks (only it won’t be a shock now, because, well, this post), they don’t. In fact, they don’t even believe you’re telling the truth about the domestic abuse you’re experiencing. Never mind that you’ve had a reputation for telling the truth your entire life. Suddenly, you’re a liar.
False accusations when you were only trying to get help is one of the hottest rungs you’ll face. At this point you’ll be tempted to fall back. In fact, this is the place many women drop, begin the climb to tell someone new, and drop again. It’s that painful. And when it happens multiple times, you begin to lose your faith in family. In Church. In friendships. In the human race.
But hang on, because there is ONE Who believes you. He saw it all happen. Tell Him, and He will help you hang on to take the next hot step. He is the only One You need to make this climb. (And don’t forget the ones on top cheering you on!)
Fifth Step: You Decide to Separate
Logistically, this feels impossible. There are financial considerations. How do you physically force a controlling, abusive partner out? Will YOU need to leave? Where will you go? What if you have children? Sometimes it takes a lot of thinking, preparing, and time before you can make your exit.
You may need to get a job, separate your finances, and set aside important documents first. Open up a separate bank account and build up a nest egg and get ready for your big move. This can take years. Maybe you will decide to stay until your kids are out of high school or at some other milestone in their lives.
These decisions are personal and as varied as the people who make them. Everyone will do this differently, but the point is, you’ll need to do it eventually. And it’s a frightening, overwhelming step that will also rouse the anger of your abuser. This is one of the times, statistically speaking, you’ll be in the most physical danger, even if your abuser only attacked you in other ways before.
When you leave an abusive relationship, it is also a good idea to have a safety plan in place, especially if your partner has already inflicted physical abuse in addition to emotional abuse. If you don’t have a good support system or a friend’s house you can stay at, check with your local domestic violence shelter for resources.
The other alternative is to skip this rung and go straight to the next one:
Sixth Step: You File for Divorce
When you take this step, you are jumping off the proverbial cliff. You’ve made a life-altering decision to escape the emotional abuse, and everyone around you is going to explode. All over you. While you are grieving and free-falling through space.
Divorce is expensive. It’s time consuming and emotionally draining. Your stress level will skyrocket even higher than it was before. You may have panic attacks. You may go into a depression.
If you have children, it is common (to avoid paying child support) for the abuser to fight for 50% custody, even though he may have not been very involved in their lives prior to the divorce. This may involve a long, drawn-out court battle that will drag your children and a custody evaluator into the equation. It will add to the trauma your children are already experiencing.
The process of divorce is a nightmare. And it is made so much worse by the next rung:
Seventh Step: You are Rejected and Kicked Out
So during one of the most horrifying, frightening, lonely, sorrowful experiences of your life, you may be kicked out of your church. Disowned by family members, including your own grown children. Shunned by former friends. Reprimanded. Publically disgraced.
Suddenly, you’re THAT woman. A marriage breaker.
(Please remember that divorce doesn’t destroy marriages. Domestic abuse, addictions and infidelity do.)
Eighth Step: Your Kids Suffer and Grieve
Your children will suffer the loss of a two-parent family. Some will process it beautifully with very little intervention. Others will internalize a lot of garbage and suffer relationship consequences into their adult life. You may want to consider counseling by a licensed therapist with experience in childhood trauma. Depending on your insurance, this may or may not cost money.
TIP: “Biblical” counselors are most often not educated, equipped, or experienced in dealing with the fallout of emotional abuse on a family.
Some of your kids will see things clearly. Others will be confused. Easy targets for the ongoing emotional manipulations of your former spouse. He may turn to the kids for his narc supply once he knows you are no longer providing that for him. Triangulation is a common problem at this point, and the children are the ones who suffer most.
Don’t expect help from your church or friends. You’ve made your bed, now you AND your children get to lie in it. Harumph. You are literally on your own. This brings us to the next step:
Ninth Step: You are Single and Alone
You’ve lost everything. Your marriage. Your home. Possibly your financial stability. Your friends. Your church. Your reputation. Possibly some of your children. And now you are a single woman past your prime struggling to make ends meet for yourself and your kids. No sympathy or help from anyone. It’s worse than widowhood. Far worse. Can it get worse than this? Yes, it can:
Tenth Step: You Have Health Problems
You actually haven’t lost everything. You’ve still got your C-PTSD symptoms. Your panic attacks. Your heart palpitations. Your back and neck pain. Your digestion issues. Your migraines. Your frequent illnesses because your immune system is on the fritz from so much stress.
You are a shell of yourself by the time you get to the top.
Except you’re not.
When you climb up over the edge, you look up and see light. The light of freedom. The sound of peace. The color of beauty. The exhaling relief of knowing you made it out in one piece. YOU MADE IT! YOU ARE STRONG! YOU ARE A SURVIVOR!
Finally, you begin to heal.
And now you get to heal from emotional abuse.
You find a friend. Then two. You actually like your job. You find a good counselor and try anxiety medication that changes your world. That child who disowned you comes back around. Counseling is a game-changer for your kids. A new church opens its doors in your city. You like it. They like you. You discover you’ve got a knack for painting, and you start selling your art on Redbubble.
You start reading your Bible again with new eyes. Eyes that see Love instead of Law. Jesus instead of lies and accusations. You reconnect on Facebook with a boy you knew in grade school who is now a widower, and you fall in love and learn what it’s like to be in a healthy relationship. You experience life as a “normal” for the first time in forever. And it feels wonderful.
You join the growing crowd of women at the large hell hole in the ground and start cheering on the next one making the climb.
It was hell. It took a long time. But you are finally free.
And here comes another one.
(For those of you who have made the climb out, would you leave a comment to cheer on the ones who still climbing? Thank you!)
Besides getting to know the amazing group of women in the Flying Free Sisterhood program who know how hot and awful these rungs are because they’re climbing them too, joining the community gives you access to a variety of courses, expert workshops, and weekly live coaching specifically tailored to help with the fears and challenges of climbing to the top. Click HERE for more information.