If you're caught in an abusive relationship, your top priority should be safety. You may not be able to control the abuse, but with some planning and determination, you can take steps to protect yourself and your family if it persists.
Even if you plan to continue the relationship, you should have a plan in place for dealing with the next possible attack. And if you intend to leave, you should do it in the safest way possible.
How do I prepare myself and my children to leave?
If you plan to stay in the relationship, there are certain precautions you can take. Keep a phone in a room that locks from the inside and memorize all emergency numbers. Consider carrying a cellular phone.
If you're attacked, avoid going into places like the kitchen and garage where there are plenty of potential weapons. Avoid rooms with small areas like closets or crawlspaces where you can be trapped. Stay away from rooms without windows.
Make up a code word to let friends, family, or a neighbor know that you're in trouble and you need help. Keep your purse with important items in a place where you can grab it if you need to leave in a hurry.
If you do plan to leave, first decide when and where you will go. You may have to confide in your children that it may be necessary to abandon the abusive person at some point in the future. Be sure they are old enough to understand that this must be kept secret. Reassure them that you have plans for how to protect them but need their cooperation. Plan an escape route and teach it to your children. Make up a code word to signal to your children that it's time to leave NOW.
How do I know what to take?
When you leave, don't forget the essentials, especially documents that may be hard to retrieve later. Among your immediate needs are money, clothing, identification (driver's license, passport, birth certificate for you and your children), medication, ATM card, checkbook, credit cards, keys to your car, home, and office, and your children's favorite toys or blankets.
You'll also need to procure health insurance cards, Social Security cards, school and medical records, welfare ID or work permits, housing documents such as a lease, deed, or mortgage payment books, financial records, marriage license, protection orders, custody papers, and sentimental items such as photos or favorite books.
What are the important phone numbers to remember?
Be sure to take important phone numbers -- including friends and family, the local women's shelter, your work supervisor, clergy person, police detectives, and domestic violence hotline.
Many domestic violence organizations and police departments also have pre-written personal safety plans, and can provide assistance filling one out. But be sure to put it somewhere your partner won't discover it, because violence can often get worse if a batterer thinks you're about to leave.
You can also create your own safety plan addressing any part of the situation. For example, your plan can focus on how you will protect yourself during the next violent outburst, how you will continue living together, or how you plan to stay safe after ending an abusive relationship.
Are there things I can do to protect my safety after I leave?
In your new home, get an unlisted phone number and get caller ID, or screen calls with an answering machine. Save all messages that are threatening or which violate a restraining order. Open new accounts in your name only. Avoid staying home alone, and vary your daily routine -- change your commute to work, and don't frequent the same bank or grocery store too often. If you have to meet your partner, do it in a public place -- and don't meet at all if you suspect he will try to harm you.
Tell your children what they should do if they see the abuser, and let their teachers know that you are the only one authorized to pick up your children from school. Make sure that no one at your children's school gives out your contact information.
Let your supervisor at work know about your situation, and arrange protective measures there, too. Don't go to lunch alone, and ask a colleague to walk with you to your car or bus stop. Give your supervisor a photo of your attacker in case of a confrontation at work.
You may also need an attorney for custody or criminal proceedings. Check with your local shelter or domestic violence advocacy program to see if you qualify for free or low-cost legal services.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800/799-SAFE (7233) can also give you a referral, or you can call your state bar association for a list of lawyers experienced in domestic violence cases.
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Domestic Violence. 2011. http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp083.cfm
Violence Against Women Office. A Community Checklist: Important Steps to End Violence Against Women.
National Domestic Violence Hotline. National Domestic Violence Fact Sheet and Statistics: Incidence of Partner Abuse.
Stanford University. Controlling and abusive relationships. http://www.stanford.edu/group/svab/relationships.shtml