So. You are married. You have realized that abuse is present in your relationship. What do you do?
Safety Plan, Safety Plan, Safety Plan
If you choose to stay in your relationship, you must safety plan. If you choose to separate for a period of time, you must safety plan. If you choose to drop off the face of the earth and never see your spouse again, you must safety plan.
Safety planning is exactly what it sounds like: you make a plan to keep you (and your children) safe. You are the best person to put this plan together because only you know what it is like to be married to your abuser. You know what sets him off. You have become an expert at knowing how he will react to what you say or do. You know what resources you have, and what resources you need. So, you find a safe way to start making that list and planning what happens if you stay, or if you go.
Here is a list of things you may need to think about:
- People that will help you plan: relatives, domestic and sexual violence agencies, counseling, spiritual directors, friends, service agencies (social services, lawyers, etc.)
- Quietly beginning to collect important documents (financial documents, birth certificates, SSN cards, other forms of identification, car title, insurance information, etc.)
- If you use the internet or your phone or paper to start making these plans, do you need to cover your tracks?
- How to alert others when you need help
- Temporary and long term plans
- How to keep yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually safe
If I Go There Will Be Trouble
We know that once the victim has decided to leave, she is entering the most dangerous time in the relationship. The abusive spouse begins to feel control slipping, so tactics and behaviors meant to help regain that control can become erratic and unpredictable. The lethality of the situation greatly increases (see the FAQs fact sheet) when the victim tries to leave. In the book Why Does He Do That, Lundy Bancroft lays out an extensive list of the possible responses an abuser might have when their partner attempts to leave. The list ranges from promising to change, to making threats about the custody of children, to harming or possibly death. It is truly a terrifying time, and many times the victim goes back more than once out of fear.
Only you will be able to determine when the appropriate time to leave comes around. It is common for friends and family to press for you to leave. This is because they are concerned for you and do not want to see you hurt. Deciding to leave or separate from your spouse even on a temporary basis can be a big move. After all, you may have only recently realized you were in an abusive relationship. Leaving can put you into physical danger, cut you off from your support system, and resources, or spur your abuser to take legal action if you leave with children. This is why safety planning becomes so important. When you are aware of and can plan as best as you can for what might happen, you can feel more secure in leaving. There are certainly legal steps that you can take to protect yourself. Contacting your local domestic violence agency is always helpful as they have advocates that are familiar with what your local options might be (legal and otherwise) and they are invaluable in helping you navigate through the complex web of surviving IPV.
If I Stay There Will Be Double
Continuing the relationship is also an option. There are many reasons a victim might stay: financial, lack of support, religious beliefs, inability to leave the house with all children or at all, citizen status, or fear of any number of things. Remember: the abuser has likely spent the entire relationship trying to put you in the position where you either think you cannot leave safely or you really cannot leave.
If you do stay, it is important that you plan how to best preserve yourself. Once you have realized your relationship is abusive, you want the abuse to stop. There can be an amount of courage and bravery that comes with this that is helpful, but the abuser sees these things as a threat to his control. It mostly likely will be physically, emotionally and spiritually painful to stay, especially when the abuser has no plans to change their behavior. This is also damaging to children in the home.
If you determine that the best way to keep you and your children safe is to stay in the relationship, there are a few important things to consider:
- You still need to safety plan. Have a plan for violent outbursts, or verbal fights.
- Think about what needs to happen regarding children.
- Consider how you can maintain a support network of friends, family, and counselors that support your decisions and your right to make informed decisions.
- Keep in mind that abusive relationships hurt. The abuser's only concern is for what they want, and controlling their partner. They will do what they can to make certain you feel alone, responsible for their actions, and unimportant. The goal is to break you.
The Importance of Support from the Religious Community
Abuse and sexual assault victims report that they often turn to their spiritual community after an incident, so it is important for the Catholic Church to have well-informed support for survivors. In April 2015, I wrote a post called Sexual Violence Against Women and the Catholic Response. Sources for that piece confirm the importance women of faith place on being able to turn to their spiritual leaders for help.
It is overwhelming to have a friend, relative, or member of your parish turn to you ask ask for help because their marriage is falling apart due to abuse. I would like to draw attention to a passage from Why Does He Do That?. Bancroft states:
- Religious beliefs have often condoned the abuse of women.
The most influential religious scriptures in the world today, including the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, and major Buddhist and Hindu writings, explicitly instruct women to submit to male domination. Genesis, for example, includes the following passage: "Unto the woman He said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee." I have had numerous clients over the years who explicitly rely on quotations from scripture to justify the abuse of their partners. Similarly, religious prohibitions against divorce have entrapped women in abusive marriages.
I don't know about you, but for me that is a hard pill to swallow. I know that the Catholic faith does not view women as less than men, but what are we doing to protect women that are victims of abuse from their spouse? How are we supporting them, protecting them, and helping to end IPV? Let us remember Ephesians 5:21-30 in its entirety. We should want for victims of abuse to include the Catholic Church among their resources and support system as they safety plan and discern to stay or leave their abusive spouse.