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This article was originally published in 2014 as “Staying Strong After Leaving The Shelter.” It was updated in 2023.
Survivors who seek help by escaping to a domestic violence shelter, be it for a day or a month, are making a strong and courageous decision. It’s not easy to go to a shelter, but survivors who do are often in imminent danger and have few, if any, other choices. The hope is that a stay in a shelter allows a survivor to feel safe and begin to plan for a brighter, healthier future.
Of course, when your stay at the shelter comes to an end—the median length-of-stay limit being 60 days—you may feel uncertain, anxious and fearful about what to do and where to go next. Without a solid plan in place, you’ll be even more vulnerable to the idea of returning to an abuser who led you to the shelter in the first place.
Why Do I Want to Go Back to My Abuser?
As we’ve previously covered, there are at least 50 reasons it’s so difficult to escape an abuser. And these are often the same reasons survivors return to an abuser even after escaping to a shelter. These reasons include things like financial control, denial, fear of losing custody of their children, guilt, homelessness, disability or other health issues, religious beliefs, a sense of obligation or hope that the abuser might change this time. And, more often than not, an abuser is doing everything they can to convince the survivor to come back. That can be in the form of promising to change, love bombing or threats of violence.
One of the strongest pulls to return to an abuser comes from trauma bonding, a type of attachment that one can have to an abuser, making you fraught with sympathy, compassion and love, but also confusion.
The theory of traumatic bonding was first introduced in the 1980s by researchers Donald G. Dutton, PhD, and Susan L. Painter, PhD.
“Strong emotional attachment develops [between survivor and abuser] due to two features of abusive relationships: power imbalance and intermittent good-bad treatment,” says Donna Andersen, author of Lovefraud.com.
Lauren Cook-McKay, a licensed therapist with DivorceAnswers.com explains further:
“Trauma bonding develops as a result of long-term exposure to the inconsistency of love bombing and abusive experiences within the relationship,” she says. “Essentially, the trauma bond causes the survivor to be physically addicted to their abuser. It’s a psychological trick that can impact a victim so intensely that it convinces them they cannot live without their partner.”
7 Ways to Resist Returning to An Abuser
Domestic shelters are designed to help survivors feel safe and confident in their choice to escape abuse. But it’s easy to feel vulnerable again once your stay has ended and you’re on your own. Coupled with manipulation tactics by your ex, it can be difficult to remain committed to staying away from an abuser. Taking the following steps while you have a safe place to stay and easy access to shelter resources can help you reduce your chances of returning to an abuser once you leave.
- Find the Support You Need
In addition to seeking a trauma therapist who can help you heal psychologically, connect with a trained domestic violence advocate. An advocate can help you with safety planning and navigating issues like divorce, custody and protective orders. It can also help to attend a support group or find an online support network of like-minded survivors. And if you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to confide in a trusted—and nonjudgmental—friend or loved one.
2. Learn About Domestic Abuse
It may sound absurd considering you’ve experienced abuse first-hand but many survivors aren’t aware of exactly what domestic violence is and what they should expect in a partner.
“It is important for survivors to learn about the nuances and complexities of domestic violence,” says Shanita Brown, PhD, a licensed trauma therapist and DV advocate. “The psychoeducation component of domestic violence is critical for survivors to understand the why for what they experience. For example, many survivors have a difficult time coming to terms that their experience is rooted in power and control, especially if they have never experienced physical abuse. Learning about the many faces of power and control and aspects of domestic violence will empower survivors to choose themselves over abuse.”
You can start learning more about domestic violence with our Domestic Violence FAQ.
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3. Get a Protective Order
Also called restraining orders, these legal documents are designed to restrict an abuser from contacting, intimidating or threatening you. While many people assume a protective order doesn’t actually offer protection, considering it’s “just a piece of paper” outlining actions that, in many cases, are already illegal, there are benefits to having one. First, it sends a clear message to an abuser that you’re serious about leaving. Second, having one in place can make arrest and prosecution more likely in the future. In the legal system, it’s often easier to prove someone violated a no-contact order than it is ‘claiming’ you were threatened or stalked if there were no witnesses.
4. Secure Steady Income
Financial security is one of the most common reasons survivors return to an abuser after leaving a shelter—they don’t have the means or credit to pay for new housing and may not have a job to be able to support themselves. If this is your situation, discuss it with your advocate or case manager as early in your stay as possible. Inquire about resources and programs available to help people get back on their feet after leaving the shelter. Ask about employment assistance, resume and interview prep, and work training programs and begin applying for jobs right away.
5. Remind Yourself Why You Left
Sometimes all you need to stay strong is to remember why you left in the first place. It can be easy to gloss over the bad times, especially when an abuser is on their best behavior and showering you with love and reassurance. Jot down a list of ways an abuser hurt you or your children, or journal about the abuse. Reread the entries when you’re having thoughts about returning to your ex.
6. Identify a Call Buddy
No matter how awful the bad times were, you can expect there will be occasions in which you miss your ex after leaving and are tempted to reach out. Enlist a friend or support group member you can call when you’re feeling lonely who can talk with you about how returning to the abuser can be harmful and make it more difficult to leave if the abuser should engage in harmful behaviors again —or, at least keep you occupied until the feeling passes.
7. Adopt New Coping Strategies
If your ex was someone you turned to in times of hardship, you need to find new coping mechanisms so you’re less likely to return when things get tough. Try reaching out to a friend, family member or counselor, or start a new home-healing practice, such as attending an exercise class, getting out of town for a day or two, treating yourself to a massage or seeing a funny movie.
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