Survivor Story: Five Things That Happen After You Leave
Written by: BTSADV Survivor
I have spent the last six years of my life dealing with the aftermath of my abusive marriage – six years. I was married to him for eight years, and nearly half of my life has been driven by my experience with domestic violence. I started speaking out only three years ago because I realized that most people do not understand what domestic violence is or what survivors go through, both before and after the relationship ends.
When people told me to leave my relationship, they would coax me with statements like, “Get away from that monster, and you’ll never have to see him again” and “There’s no way he’ll get any visitation rights.” I was completely unaware of how untrue most of these statements were. The road was much longer and darker than even I, a very realistic person, could imagine.
Would I have done things differently had I known? Absolutely. Do I wish I had someone to guide me through the process? You bet I did. Even today I find myself longing for the advice of a friend who truly understands. Unfortunately, my circumstances make me an outlier in domestic violence statistics, so I must be satisfied with being my own friend. My hope, though, is to be that guide for the next wave of survivors.
I have noted five things that could happen once you leave an abusive relationship. Not all of these will fit your circumstances, but it will give you a good idea of some things that you can expect.
1. First comes the legal battle.
Admittedly, this is not applicable to everyone. However, if you have children with your abuser, are married, or are pressing charges against them, you must prepare yourself for a legal battle. I don’t use the word “battle” lightly. Court can be a living hell. The process of divorce can take upwards of a year, or more, if your abuser fights back.
You will need to find yourself good legal representation. If you cannot afford an attorney, there are resources out there to get you one based on your income. You can call your state’s legal aid line, or you can connect with your local domestic violence shelter for guidance.
Make sure you trust the person that represents you. You’re going to be disclosing a lot of ugly things and the last thing you want or need to feel is as though you are being judged. It is important when re-telling your story that you build trust and confidence in yourself each time you do it, because you’re going to tell your story quite often. You will likely have to defend it, on the stand, under cross-examination. It’s ugly. It’s exhausting. But it’s also empowering.
2. You’re going to feel all the emotions.
Many people associate leaving an abusive relationship with relief. Yes, you will definitely feel that relief the first time you can go to bed when you please or go wherever you want, whenever you want, without owing a word of explanation. You will also feel happy and free and sad and terrified, sometimes in one after the other, and sometimes all at once.
When an individual is in an abusive relationship, they suppress most of their feelings in order to survive. The feelings get stuffed further and further down as your abuser’s feelings take over your thoughts and actions, but the emotions do not disappear. They will resurface and will not be resolved until they are dealt with. This could happen quickly, or it might take a few years – or longer. My experience with trauma is that it tends to rear its ugly head just when everything seems to be falling into place. That feeling of security and comfort will allow your psyche to unload the burdens it is carrying, and they will take over.
Talking with friends and family members is nice but not always helpful. Often when I would speak to others, I found myself more frustrated afterward than when I started. I found my greatest healing in the form of counselors trained in trauma. There are a variety of methods that professionals use to deal with trauma and not all of them work for everyone.
Just like with your lawyer, you want to find a counselor you really connect with and a technique that works for you. Trust your gut instinct on this one. If you don’t feel a connection after the first couple of sessions, graciously bow out and find someone else. Your experiences are too important to be made to feel like you are not heard or have your experienced downplayed.
3. The legal system does not operate like you think it does.
I believe that most Americans feel they have adequate knowledge about how our legal system works. They studied it in school, and they watch it on true crime shows. If they don’t understand something, they usually do a quick web search on it. I felt like I was one of these people with sufficient insight, especially because my ex’s mother was an attorney. I was wrong.
There have been numerous times in the past six years where I have stopped talking to people and sharing my feelings because I cannot handle one more, “How can he do that?” or an unwelcome online “expert” opinion from someone who offers commentary like, “At least your kids can choose where they live.” People have said things to me that are so distressing that I have physically removed myself for fear I would scream so loud and deep that they will think I was possessed.
The reality is that people don’t really know the legal system all that well. They don’t have a full understanding of how divorces, property division, or child custody works. Even if they have been through the process themselves, they likely have not gone through it at the hands of an abuser. The difference between the two circumstances is night and day. All divorces are awful but divorcing an abuser can be a form of torture.
It’s important to understand the difference between a divorce proceeding and a prosecution for a crime. All of your evidence will only go toward the divorce and parenting plan. You will not leave a mark on their name or their record unless you file charges against them. More and more states are leaning toward split custody, which is an about-face from the traditional joint parenting plan.
Judges are in some cases ordering week on/week off arrangements split between custodial parents more often than the 1st and 3rd weekend we are accustomed to hearing about. Solid evidence of abuse including a conviction of a crime will be crucial if your children are not safe in the presence of your abuser. You can still get traditional joint custody but that will be up to your judge and the children’s guardian ad litem (the independent lawyer that will be appointed to represent your children in the custody arrangement).
4. Things are going to be very, very unfair at times.
This part of the process is always my biggest struggle because six years later people still make the aforementioned comments. After six years, I’ve paid over forty thousand dollars in legal fees and it is truly never ending. Six years of my abuser being able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
CPS has been phoned six different times, resulting in two clinical interviews, to no avail. If you want to prove abuse, you must call the police and document it. There must be physical proof or the child must be able to clearly state what happened to them when not in your presence. Otherwise, it is hearsay – unless you can call witnesses to testify to the abuse, of course.
I know it’s scary. I know you risk your life by getting others involved, and I don’t blame you if you don’t call the police and file charges. I didn’t. I just didn’t know exactly how that would play out in court. At the end of my divorce, the judge and my lawyer did believe me. However, I have had a different judge since then for custody modifications and he is less sympathetic to what I’ve been through. For every abuse story that is real he has heard one that is fabricated and therefore, he strictly abides by the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra.
My lawyer has heard so many of my stories that he is no longer surprised…or perhaps doesn’t remember. It’s difficult to get him to react to anything anymore which in turn causes me to downplay and second guess everything that I experience.
5. People are going to come and go from your life.
Many men and women choose not to leave because saying goodbye to their abuser also means saying goodbye to money, family and friends. I had a lot of friends before and during my divorce. A lot of people would ask me how things were going, if for no other reason than morbid curiosity. But six years is a long time to maintain the interest of an audience.
As the years wore on, I got more and more eye rolls and unfollows because people were tired of hearing it. After a while, my testimony was no more impactful than an episode of any dramatic courthouse sitcom. Everyone had “been there, heard that.” Many people suggested I stopped talking about what was happening to me, as if portrayal of a good little silent victim would somehow win favor with someone, somewhere.
I don’t know if that was feedback coming from a generation of people who stifled and buried their traumas to “save their dignity” or if people couldn’t find any other way to tell me to be silent. Regardless, many of my relationships, including the ones with my family, will never be the same again.
When someone makes an underhanded comment about your situation, you never look at them the same way again. For many I have started unfriending, unfollowing and deleting because the relationships are more toxic than beneficial. And when you’re in an extended fight for your life, you don’t have the time or energy to waste on trivial things like that. You don’t need people like that in your life.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please reach out to local law enforcement or the domestic violence shelter advocates. A village isn’t required for you to survive this, you are strong enough on your own. But it sure makes it a lot easier.
**If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org, chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777, or send a private message through our Facebook page.
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