Q: I need help. My husband has been abusive for years, but I’ve never told anyone because I’ve been too afraid he’ll find out I told someone and things will get worse. But I'm fed up. I’m ready to talk. Where do I start? Should I tell someone in my family, or call a shelter or the police? – Anonymous
A: Reaching out for help is an incredibly brave decision. One of the hardest first steps a survivor has to take is to admit that what their partner is doing is abuse. A lot of survivors can be with an abuser for years and not even realize, or want to believe, what’s really going on.
I understand you’re scared. Your abuser has likely used threats of violence to keep you silent and may have worked on isolating you from your friends and family in order to prevent you from seeking help. This is why it’s important to take the proper precautions when you’re ready to disclose abuse.
You Don’t Have to Make Big Decisions Now
First, know that you can call a domestic violence crisis hotline just to talk (just make sure you’re calling from a safe place when the abuser is not present on a phone that he will not be able to track the call history of, such as a friend’s home, your workplace, a doctor’s office or a payphone).
You don’t have to give any personal information, you don’t have to be seeking emergency shelter and you don’t even have to be ready to leave yet. You can simply call a hotline and say, “I think I’m being abused. What should I do?” The advocate on the other end of the line will help walk you through what you’re experiencing and give you information about what different abuse tactics look like. This small step could very well save your life.
Long-time domestic violence advocate Ruth Rollins, community outreach coordinator for the Elizabeth Stone House in Boston, says she hears from a lot of survivors who feel like something is wrong, but don’t classify it as abuse because they’re not being physically hurt.
“My goal is to educate them on other types of abuse—emotional, financial, etcetera—and educate them as much as possible about the power and control wheel,” she says, referring to the cycle of violence that often continues indefinitely.
Even though, says Rollins, “a good day for me is when a client says ‘I’m ready to go,’” she supports survivors even when they aren’t yet ready to separate from their abusive partner.
“We have a saying here: We meet women where they’re at. We don’t have them choose—if they want to continue being with their abuser, they can,” she explains.
You may not be ready to leave your abuser yet, Anon. There are many barriers that could be standing in your way. But when you are ready to go, it’s important to talk to an advocate about safety planning and orders of protection, for your safety and the safety of anyone else who may be involved, like kids or pets.
Family, Friend or Hotline?
If you’re not sure who to disclose the abuse to, it’s important to think about who is going to give you the best, most unconditional support, Anon. A friend or family member who doesn’t fully understand domestic violence may want to be supportive, but can also say something that minimizes your feelings, like, “I’m sure you two can work it out,” or “At least he’s not hitting you.”
Or, the support person may be adamant that you leave immediately, fearing for your safety. However, as we discussed above, leaving immediately is not always the safest option. It’s better to put a plan in place to prepare yourself for any possible repercussions. If he tries to find you, will he know where you went? Does your place of employment know he might be dangerous? Will you be able to access your bank accounts after you leave?
This is why it’s a good idea to speak to a trained domestic violence advocate first in order to get advice and information about the safest way to move forward. Plus, an advocate should never be judgmental of you or your choices, even if you choose to return to your abuser after leaving (it takes a survivor, on average, seven times to leave permanently).
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As for involving police, you should always call 911 if you are in immediate danger. But if the abuse is not occurring at that exact moment, it’s unlikely that police will respond or make an arrest. Most likely, they will direct you to a domestic violence crisis line. Read more about working with police during domestic violence here.
Survivors sometimes feel reluctant to disclose abuse because they blame themselves. How did they get into this situation? Why didn’t they say something sooner? How could they have let this go on for so long?
“This is not your fault,” reinforces Rollins. “The more you’re informed and educated around domestic violence, the more you’ll realize this.” To this point, she says, it’s helpful for survivors to read or hear about other survivors’ stories to know that domestic violence can affect anyone (we have a whole section of Survivor Stories on this site). Perhaps reading those stories will help you find the courage to speak out about what’s going on and, hopefully, one day, start a healthier, safer life.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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