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October 26, 2017

How to (safely) get out of an unsafe relationship

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (in fact, this month is the 30th Anniversary of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, #DVAMturns30).  Domestic violence and dating violence is something that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately. I participated in an amazing photoshoot, where violence survivors and support people anonymously shared their stories (check out A Day in My Shoes exhibit at the Goodman Center, until Oct 30).  An interesting study was just released that found a possible link between home stressors in preschool years (like alcoholism in parents) and being involved a violent dating relationship as a teen. Plus, the news coverage of sexual harassment and assault perpetuated by certain famous people has been pretty much nonstop over the past few weeks.

The thing that is most sticking in my mind right now is recent conversations I have had with patients, colleagues, and friends about the dangerous time that is getting OUT of the abusive relationship.  I have heard stories that their partner would not allow the relationship to end, threatened suicide if partner ended the relationship, and even the partner breaking into the house to intimidate the person into staying in a relationship.  I have had this conversation multiple times with multiple teens (sadly, it is not rare).

There have been some high profile cases of teen relationship breakups that had devastating consequences. There was this story of a teen male killing his girlfriend last year in Colorado when she broke up with him.  There was this story of a teen murdered after a breakup that was featured on 48 Hours (and is reminiscent of one of my favorite made-for-television movies, No One Would Tell). There seems to be at least one of these stories every year. And remember this can go both ways. Both males and females can be victims or perpetrators. This can happen in same sex couples just like opposite sex couples.  Teen dating violence knows no boundaries; neither does breakup violence.

So, how does one safely get out of a violent relationship?

  1. Do not go into the breakup alone. Let your family and friends know of your plan (and even accompany you if necessary). If you plan to do it in person, do it in a public place where chance of violence is lower. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224. They will refer you to the organization in your area which can help you make a plan. If you feel that you (or your teen) is at risk for physical danger, do not hesitate to involve law enforcement.

  2. Be direct and respectful. Practice what you're going to say. Do not let the other person control the conversation or try to manipulate what you would like to say. There is a cycle of abuse, and promises that the abuser will change is just part of that cycle. Stand your ground.

  3. Strongly consider seeking professional mental health support. This is not because you're crazy or mentally unfit in any way. There may be things in your past, or things said during the relationship or breakup that make you feel that you deserve the abuse you've endured. This needs to be talked through. It's also common to second-guess your decision to end a relationship, and an unbiased professional can help you work through these feelings.

  4. Once you leave the relationship, refuse any contact. This may be a little more controversial to some people, but for a time period immediately after the breakup, there should be no contact. Do not respond to texts or phone calls.  Do not meet with your ex to discuss the reasons for the breakup, to "just say goodbye," or because he/she needs "closure."  Your ex knows the reasons you broke up; any attempt to get together to "talk about it" is just a manipulative ploy to rope you in.  Plus, it's dangerous.

Here are some more resources for teens (and parents of teens)