Leaving an abusive relationship can be incredibly hard. You might find yourself fearful for your safety, or the safety of your children. You may also worry about losing assets and making ends meet on your own.
Individuals who are currently married to a U.S. permanent resident, but who haven’t yet received their own green card, can face additional problems.The added worry of losing U.S. residency can make you afraid to leave your abusive spouse.
Since we primarily serve immigration clients, this advice is tailored for immigrants in abusive relationships. However, regardless of your immigration status, these steps can prove helpful to anyone in an abusive relationship, and can make your exit from that relationship safer.
Step 1: Make Lists and Keep a Journal
The first, and safest, step is to make a list of reasons why you need to leave. Many battered spouses have endured mistreatment for so long that they lose perspective about what a healthy relationship looks like.
It can be helpful to make a list of specific problems you have that make you want to leave. Doing so can help contextualize the ways in which your relationship is abusive.
You can refer to this list when your abuser temporarily goes into their “honeymoon phase,” which is often the stage where they either apologize and promise to never abuse you again, or no verbal or physical abuse occurs. Whether this phase is long or short, the list will be a reminder of their true nature.
For example, your list could be as simple as:
- I don’t like it when my spouse yells at me.
- I’m uncomfortable with the way my spouse punishes my children.
- My spouse uses money as a way of controlling my actions.
Keeping a Journal
Once you have a list of the behaviors you find to be abusive, demeaning, or that cause issues in your relationship, make a habit of keeping a journal of times when your partner crosses a line. Documentation is critical when proving abuse, and can help you in cases where your partner gaslights you.
In your journal, write the date and a short description of any behavior that makes you uncomfortable or scared. Record any controlling behavior and emotional, verbal, or physical abuse you experience. Be sure to keep your journal secret and in a safe place.
Emotional and mental abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse, and in some cases the lasting effects can be even more serious. Plus, emotional abuse often leads to physical abuse down the road.
Another good piece of advice is to write a short mantra that can remind you that the abuse is not your fault. “I deserve better than this,” “this is not normal,” or even a simple “this is not my fault” are all good examples of this. Regardless of the circumstances, no one deserves to be battered or abused.
Step 2: Have a Plan
The biggest problem abused people have is figuring out the “when” and “how” of leaving their partner. Even an informal plan can help you figure out how to leave. Generally, you should think over each of the actions below to make your exit safer.
Where will I stay? – If you have a relative or close friend you can stay with, let them know your plans so that you can go there immediately after you leave. You can even take over some clothing or other necessary items in advance, if you can do it without your partner suspecting. Whenever possible, choose someone your spouse doesn’t know, or doesn’t know where they live.
Should I get a restraining order? – If you fear that your partner may harm you or your loved ones when you leave, contact a lawyer or your local family court to get a restraining order. Some domestic violence agencies will help domestic violence survivors with this, but the process itself is rather simple.
If you’d like more information on the risks and benefits of protective orders in Virginia, check out our guide on the matter.
What should I take? – At the bare minimum, make copies (or take the originals if you can) of your important documents before you go. This includes birth certificates, social security cards, insurance cards, passports or immigration papers, financial records, tax records and deeds. If you don’t feel comfortable having paper copies, scan them onto a flash drive.
Documentation – You may have to prove your case in court one day. Therefore, the more evidence you have, the better. Take pictures of injuries or damaged property. Keep copies of threatening letters or texts. If there are any incriminating police or medical reports, keep those as well. This is where the journal from step 1 can come in handy.
Step 3: Use the Resources Available to Domestic Violence Victims
There are professionals trained specifically in helping survivors of domestic violence. These professionals know the law, and will be able to tell you what resources can help you get back on your feet. While speaking with a lawyer is ideal, there are many free or cheaper resources tailored to address the impact of the abuse. We’ll list several below.
Trained advocates at The National Domestic Violence Hotline are available 24 hours a day to help survivors. They can give you advice and help you find resources that will assist you in escaping your situation.
Medical Professionals –
Professionals at doctor’s offices and hospitals are also trained to help people in abusive relationships. If you can safely talk to a doctor or nurse, they will know how to help you.
If you are married to a permanent U.S. resident, but are not a permanent resident of the U.S. yourself, you can get help from the USCIS under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
Survivors of domestic violence can “self-petition” for permanent residency. That is, you can file on your own without your abuser knowing about it. To do this, you would use form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant.
Despite its title, the VAWA applies to both men and women. Abused children and parents can also apply for help under the VAWA.
Women’s Shelters –
Local women’s shelters provide resources and a place to stay for women who flee their homes. They provide food, shelter, child care, and legal help to women who are in abusive situations.
Although the time you can spend in a shelter is limited, they can often help you pull together a plan for employment, child care and a place to live. Because of how important the first few days and weeks are, women’s shelters are an invaluable resource for women leaving abusive relationships.
Step 4: Feel Empowered, Not Ashamed.
If you are a in an abusive relationship, remember it’s not your fault. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Leaving an abusive relationship is a reason to feel empowered, as you’ve taken a significant step towards a better future for yourself.
If you need to leave an abusive relationship, it’s best to have a plan. Keep records, including a journal, of what is going on in your household. Seek out help from local resources that are trained to help those who are battered or abused. If you’re an immigrant without permanent residency, USICS has a program to help you escape your abusive relationship.
As you get help and emerge out of your situation, you’ll be empowered to make your own decisions. You’ll get the independence and safety that you deserve.