Domestic abuse is complex and complicated. When a survivor decides to walk away for good, that’s not always the end. What happens when abuse continues even after the relationship ends?
Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship
Leaving an abusive relationship isn’t easy, nor is it a “one-and-done” event for most survivors. Recognizing and acknowledging the abuse is the first step, but walking away can be a process that takes months or even years.
Survivors stay with their abusers for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the physical or emotional abuse leaves the survivor with very little self-esteem. And in other instances, survivors face significant barriers that leave them feeling trapped in the abusive relationship:
- Financial insecurity
- Fear of housing insecurity or homelessness
- Concerns about leaving children alone with an abuser
- Fear of escalated abuse or future harm
- Lack of resources
It’s not easy to leave, but escaping an abusive relationship often feels like a brand-new beginning. Unfortunately for many abuse survivors, it’s difficult to break free from the past.
When Abuse Continues After the Relationship Ends
Leaving the abuser doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the abuse behind. Many abuse survivors will continue to experience abuse from the perpetrator. In fact, the most dangerous time for survivors is when they leave the relationship.
Abusers thrive on power and control. When the victim leaves, she takes away the abuser’s power and control. In some cases, that can be a recipe for violent and unhinged outbursts from the abuser. That’s why it’s extremely important to connect with a domestic abuse resource before, during, and after leaving an abusive relationship.
Post-relationship abuse might look similar to what the survivor experienced during the relationship. Or it might take an entirely new form. There are many different types of abuse, not all of them physical. The ex-partner may try to regain control over the survivor by manipulating her using various tactics:
- Gaslighting or trying to make the victim believe the abuse “wasn’t that bad” or was somehow her fault.
- Asserting financial control or threatening financial consequences.
- Using children as a pawn by threatening custody battles or bringing the children into the middle of arguments.
- Threatening to take away or withhold animals the partners shared or threatening to harm these animals.
- Using religion or religious beliefs to make the survivor feel guilty about ending the relationship.
- Continued, new, or worsening verbal abuse
- Continued, new, or worsening physical violence
Some survivors may also face a frightening type of abuse after she leaves: stalking. Read more about stalking – including how to report it and what to do if you experience it – here.
What Survivors Can Do
It’s common for abusers to continue trying to assert control over the survivor, even long after she decides to leave. If you or someone you know is experiencing ongoing abuse, reach out to your local domestic abuse shelter or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help.
Continued abuse is unacceptable and can become dangerous. Survivors who experience ongoing abuse can protect themselves by:
- Talk with a family law specialist about your legal options. You might consider filing a restraining order against your abuser or seeking other legal protections.
- Block your ex on social media.
- Save screenshots of any abusive or threatening text messages or calls.
- Update your security system if you feel physically threatened.
- Set clear boundaries with your ex. If you must communicate or interact (because of children or a shared workplace, for example), set ground rules that make you feel safe. Be clear about your expectations and the consequences for failing to meet those expectations. Do not accept abuse in any form.
- Educate yourself about abuse. Consider joining a support group or meeting with a trained therapist. Learning more about abuse and your relationship patterns can give you more understanding about yourself and help you seek out healthy relationships in the future.
- Build a strong social network. Going it alone isn’t always easy. Sometimes, survivors even doubt their decision to leave. Surrounding yourself with supportive, empowering people can give you the strength to stay away and can protect you from future abuse.
Everyone deserves to feel safe in their relationships. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, reach out for help. Contact your local domestic violence shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.