Therapist Q&A: I’m leaving an abusive marriage…

Preparing to leave an abusive relationship by Em Capito, LCSW

Preparing to leave an abusive relationship by Em Capito, LCSWQuestion: I’m preparing to leave an emotionally abusive marriage from a narcissist, and I’m scared. What should I think through before I go?

Note: Whenever I receive an inquiry like this, I first assess for physical safety of the person, and anyone else involved. The below response addresses the more practical considerations. If safety is at risk, leaving looks very different, and often requires much more preparation and support. Never hesitate to reach out to law enforcement, domestic violence support lines, family shelters or your trusted loved ones to come up with a plan to keep you and your children safe.

When it comes to leaving a partner who has a history of becoming manipulative or abusive in order to try to control you, it’s wise to prepare. 

We’re not talking about rational partners who have demonstrated an ability to listen and empathize, to restrain themselves from abuse, and to accept others’ decisions even when they disagree. In those cases, working together for a peaceful departure that respects the needs of everyone involved is the way to go. Therapists can help navigate painful relationship endings in ways that honor the love you once shared, and perhaps the new coparenting relationship you must embark on.

However, in emotionally abusive relationships, these types of efforts have often already been attempted and tend to result in more of the same: shaming the partner who is trying to leave while leveraging control by any means necessary – money, property, outside relationships, the children and the legal system.

If you find yourself in this situation, know that you are not alone. 

Reach out for support. There are (sadly) many others who have been through this experience who understand.

Unfortunately, family and friends who have not experienced long-term emotional abuse tend to give well-intentioned unhelpful advice based on a misplaced belief that all people can be reasoned with and will come around and do the right thing.

The reality is that some people suffer from personality disorders that prevent them from being able to prioritize the emotions and needs of others. They lack the capacity to see past their own needs, and the rejection of a love partner feels like a life and death survival challenge that can result in terrible outcomes.

Note that this response was to a mother in a heterosexual relationship, and therefore the pronouns reflect this circumstance, but this dynamic can occur in reverse or any other configuration.

As you are preparing to leave, some considerations collected from the stories of too many others in our high conflict divorce support group:

  • If you leave the marital home, you may be leaving it forever. There is no guarantee of ever having access again, or retrieving items you didn’t think to grab. Take your precious items – all of them. Think of the garage, basement, attic, school pictures, your children’s comfort objects, etc.
  • A narcissistic partner will pull out a confusing array of tactics and accuse you of everything under the sun as you leave them. Walking on eggshells is no longer your best tactic. Stand respectfully in your core values, protect yourself and your children, and do what you need to do right out of the gate.
  • Document and record everything. I can’t emphasize this enough. Record conversations and fights you are having before you leave. He said / she said means nothing in court. A narcissistic partner has few to no limits and they will often fabricate their own evidence to win.
  • Always have a witness with you when you must interact. Law enforcement is always willing to be present to “keep the peace.” Otherwise, off-duty law enforcement friends, firefighter acquaintances, reputable colleagues you trust are more credible options when you can get them. The more objective the better. Just always have someone with you and your voice memo recording rolling.
  • Go into every interaction after you leave ARMED with mindfulness and clarity. I know that sounds impossible, but your greatest asset is to keep. your. cool. If you become activated, step away. Again, never hesitate to call for an officer to keep the peace. They do this work all the time and police reports serve as evidence of the volatility.
  • After every involvement of law enforcement, get the case number and immediately put in a GRAMA request for the report. It’s overwhelming to pull these together down the road, and you don’t want surprises in court. Officers often document what each party states, including perhaps a consistent storyline from your partner that you suffer from mental illness. Narcissistic or antisocial partners are smart: by getting police offers, school counselors, and other credible individuals to put their lies in writing, they can plant doubt and muddy the water so that they appear to be the victim, and you appear out of control.
  • Live by the guiding golden question: What is in the kids’ best interest? That can be a hard question to answer much of the time. Even if the other home is toxic and your coparent is actively manipulating one of your children, it is sometimes still in the child’s best interest to continue parent time. Our kids must traverse their own reckoning with who their parents are, just like we did. We can’t save them from the pain. Our primary objective is to maintain a safe, unconditionally loving sanctuary for them to always come home to, which means doing your own work and never speaking ill of their other parent; they carry both parents inside of their identity. This is where a support group can be very helpful, because knowing where to draw this line is hard.

Documentation tips:

  • Yes, you really do need to document everything. When a personality disorder is present, it’s likely you will be in a custody battle at some point. Commissioners tend to order custody evaluations, where a psychologist or therapist invasively digs through your life. The binder of timelines, court records, police reports, mental health records, and correspondence handed over at that point could accrue to 500+ pages. It’s the high conflict divorce dissertation, and it’s a lot easier if you already have everything documented in real time, as it happens.
  • Use what you already use. If it’s an extra step, you won’t be diligent and you’ll find yourself scrambling to recreate timelines or events down the road. Some clients use Google Calendar to coordinate their life already, in which case it’s easy to quickly pop open an all-day calendar entry with a consistent title, such as “Laundry” and then throw in quick facts about what happened that day – “X taken out of school at 12 pm – no reason.” In this way, you can search your calendar for “laundry” to pull up all your notes at once, while preventing curious clicks from children who might glance at an open laptop. You can also create a separate calendar type in Google Calendar so that you can turn it off when you don’t need it. Do not keep your documentation is such a way that your children could happen upon it, and practice objectivity – stick to the facts, not your emotions.

Keep your guard up while supporting the children’s relationship with their father.

Separating from a parent with a personality disorder is ripe for unpredictable, scary behavior and having the tables turned on you in a heartbeat. If your partner was abusive while married, recognize that their limits are far less once you’re their perceived enemy.

Also recognize that you have been through hell.

You likely become activated into a fight-or-flight frame of mind easily due to the abuse you’ve already experienced. This does not serve you well, and can result in impulsive, survival mind decisions that undermine your values. Seek out therapy.

If you’re part of a church, there are often financial resources to help pay for crisis therapy. If you’re insured, use your benefits. If you don’t have any ability to access individual therapy right now, search for a support group, which often costs much less.

Bottom line: therapy may be the most important investment you make in this matter. The ability to persevere through this and be fully present for your children relies on your mental and emotional healing.

Never hesitate to reach out for safe haven – those who have been there are your best resources in what can be a very long, chronically stressful journey.

  1. So true. It’s hard to acknowledge, but we can’t rely on beliefs that others would not cross lines that we would never cross. Hopefully we simply over-prepare, but just-in-case considerations can help ward off worst case scenarios.

  2. Great advice on a very difficult subject, Em. The tip on recording & documenting everything, and having a third party as witness, is particularly valuable. Once the relationship is severed, you can’t count on the other party negotiating or acting in good faith.

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