What to Do If You Think You May Be in An Abusive Relationship

By Carolina Estevez, Psy.D.

Clinical Psychologist

domestic violence

Table of Contents

The content on this page should not be used as a substitute for seeking professional advice or treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, have suicidal thoughts, or believe your safety is at risk, contact the International Domestic Violence Response (24/7) at 833-799-833. Click here for additional information on resources and where to get help.

A REAL Guide on What to Do If You Think You May Be in An Abusive Relationship

Abusive relationships are one of the most complex and difficult stressors you can confront in your life. There is so much confusion, indecision, and guilt involved when deciding how you will handle the relationship and whether or not you should leave your partner.

If you’re feeling lonely and isolated during this time, rest assured that you’re not alone. You are experiencing something that so many people go through in their lives; more people than you can probably imagine. Despite this fact, there is a lot of societal and cultural stigma and judgment attached to people who are victimized by abusive relationships. Yes, not only are you going through a serious stressor, trauma, and (potential) major life transition, you are also often stereotyped and judged along the way, as you attempt to figure out how to keep yourself physically and emotionally safe.

Do any of these statements sound familiar?

“Why doesn’t she/he just leave?”

“If you love yourself, you’ll leave.”

“You’re better than that. You don’t have to put up with it.”

If so, then it’s likely that you’ve been subjected to some of the many ways people react to and judge those who are coping with an abusive relationship. Its no wonder many victims suffer in silence, don’t seek help, and often remain in unhealthy relationships when their true desire is to get out.

unhappy guyPeople who don’t understand the cycle of abuse or who have never been involved in an abusive relationship themselves may minimize your situation, wondering why you don’t just simply walk out the door and out of your partner’s life, just like that.

Abusive relationships are far more complex and anything but easy to navigate. This article will provide you a very real guide to handling the many intricacies and complexities involved in managing an abusive relationship.

We will guide you through taking a closer look at your partners’ actions and behaviors of concern and provide you with realistic and feasible options, from assessing the relationship and any risks involved to seeking help and support or to ending the relationship for good while ensuring your own safety and self-care.

What you won’t find in this guide are the simplistic (and unrealistic) solutions for managing an abusive relationship. No “top 10 signs your partner is abusive” or “love yourself enough to get out” tips. We created this guide with the belief that you have the awareness and insight to know that something is not quite right in your relationship, but knowing doesn’t mean that decision and action is easy and well defined.

This guide provides a nonjudgmental, genuine, and real discussion on making the best and safest decisions. Ultimately, the outcome of your relationship is up to the actions you decide to take, but sometimes it is the decision-making process that is the most difficult and where many victims need the most support.

When emotions are involved, it’s hard to separate feelings from facts and reason. We will provide you with the problem-solving tools you need to cope through this tough time and restore your confidence, wellbeing, and quality of life.

Deciding Whether You Need to Get Out

Ending an abusive relationship is rarely a clear-cut, easy decision to make. Your emotions prevent you from being able to simply turn your back on the person you love (or once loved) even though you may know deep down, that the relationship is unhealthy and toxic. Not only are there feelings involved in this difficult circumstance, but also, the abusive person is typically not all bad, all the time. There are good times and even occasional happy moments in the relationship, which clouds your decision-making even further.

Ending an abusive relationship is rarely a clear-cut, easy decision to make.

It’s the awareness that you’re in an abusive relationship, but staying in it anyways, that creates a lot of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame also occur when you feel you’re right at that point where you can find the strength to take that step to finally leave for good. You become overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings about why you should stay and whether you might be making a decision that you’ll regret dearly in the future. This seemingly endless cycle of doubt can go on and on for long periods of time for many people, sometimes years, or even a lifetime.

There are numerous other complicating, but very real factors that might keep you in an abusive relationship: Financial issues, children, and health problems are just a few significant reasons. For many people, it’s not always feasible or realistic to simply walk out of the abusive situation.

Many people in abusive relationships are well aware that the relationship is bad for them. Most people are able to distinguish between a relationship where they are satisfied and happy most of the time versus a relationship where there is constant conflict, lack of respect and boundaries, and where personal needs are not being met.

arguing coupleMany advice columns and guides on abusive relationships don’t discuss the core issues. Much of the “advice” for people in abusive relationships is geared towards deciding whether your abuser is, indeed, abusive, followed by generic tips on what to do next; advice that you may not be able to realistically apply to your life. The real issue and the source of uncertainty lies in the process of how to end the relationship, leave the abusive situation, and how to resume your life after.

In making a decision about whether you must begin taking the difficult steps towards ending the relationship, consider these factors:

  • You’ve tried to express your concerns to your partner, but he/she minimizes the situation and/or your feelings.
  • In the process of talking to your partner about the abuse, he/she continuously discredits you (e.g., attempts to ‘win’ arguments or provides reasons as to why you are wrong and then uses these explanations to claim that your overall judgment is poor).
  • Your partner engages in blaming you and deflecting, refusing to take responsibility or accept that he/she has a role in the conflict.
  • When you discuss your concerns about the abuse, your partner engages in putting you down or criticizing you when he/she feels cornered.
  • Your partner threatens to take away money or financial support, your children, or any other object, need, or possession when you discuss ending the relationship.
  • Your partner uses ‘guilt trips’ or other types of manipulation when you voice concerns about the abuse or about ending the relationship.
  • The abuse has affected your ability to function on a daily basis or most days (e.g., the abuse has affected your work/school life, your ability to parent, your social life, your interest in doing activities you enjoy).
  • You feel sad, lonely, or isolated, even when your partner is around.
  • You have lost trust in your partner and even during better times (or periods of no conflict), you can’t seem to regain trust in him/her.
  • You must be on guard or feel you must protect yourself constantly, whether physically and/or emotionally.

There is a grieving and decision-making process that victims must go through where you first acknowledge and understand the reasons you should leave and then take action to remove yourself from the relationship once and for all.

The Grieving & Decision-Making Process

1.) Identification: Is it abuse or are you having relationship problems?

A major source of uncertainty for many people is deciding whether the problem with their partner is indeed abuse or if the situation is more indicative of relationship conflict. Typically, if your partner is severely abusive, you intuitively know that it is a problem worse than simply a rough patch in the relationship.

Severe abuse might be easier to identify, but what about other types of abuse that are less obvious? First, let’s go over how to identify the different types of abusive relationships.

Typically, if your partner is severely abusive, you intuitively know that it is a problem worse than simply a rough patch in the relationship.

Severe abuse involves any situation where you are physically harmed, held or restricted against your will, threatened or controlled, or if your partner engages in abusive language like name calling or other verbal bullying or harassment. In severe abuse, your physical safety is jeopardized or in cases of non-physical abuse, the actions of your partner are significantly affecting you emotionally. You may experience symptoms such as depression, anxiety, changes in your appetite or sleep patterns, concentration difficulties, or intense fear, among other symptoms.

In addition to experiencing these symptoms, severe abuse impacts other areas of your life, such as your ability to work, go to school, interact socially, and engage in parenting activities (if applicable). The abuse is significant enough to take over your life, making functioning on a daily basis very difficult.

In cases of moderate abuse, your physical safety is not at immediate risk; however, the abuse is severe enough to impact one or more areas of functioning, such as work or school, social interactions, parenting, etc. Moderate abuse typically involves actions and behaviors such as more subtle verbal threats or attempts to control you, abusive language or name-calling, or other types of bullying or harassment.

Mild abuse typically involves less frequent incidences of abusive actions and behaviors; however, your partner may demonstrate an overall lack of respect for you and your needs, may act in a dismissive manner, and may be verbally demeaning or engage in discrediting your requests and needs. Mild abuse represents a gray area in abusive relationships, as it can be confused with relationship conflict or even circumstances where two people simply do not get along and the relationship may eventually end. Nonetheless, mild abuse causes a significant impact on your emotional health and wellbeing.

desperate-womanIn the identifying process, keep in mind that physical abuse is not the only scenario that makes abuse severe. Emotional and verbal abuse can be just as serious and harmful; however, we distinguish physical abuse as particularly dangerous because it can cause an imminent threat to your health and safety. Although emotional and verbal abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse, it does not pose an immediate safety risk if it occurs in isolation (i.e., if emotional and verbal abuse occur in the absence of physical abuse).

Sometimes, verbal and emotional abuse can serve as red flags or warning signs for future physical abuse, so it’s important not to overlook or minimize any type of abuse.

2.) Identification: Analyze options and reach out to sources of support.

If you have identified that the abuse has affected you to the point that it is harmful to you and your wellbeing, the next step involves creating a plan of action so you can safely and feasibly leave the relationship.

If you are in immediate danger, you must leave immediately, plan or no plan.

Things like finding a place to live, making caretaking arrangements for children (if you have children or share children with your partner), and ensuring you are financially able to support yourself independently are very real factors that must be planned and organized, oftentimes before you can take the final step to leave the relationship.

Keep in mind that if you are in immediate danger, you must leave immediately, plan or no plan. However, many cases of abuse are not at this point of severity (or at least not yet); therefore, creating a plan of action will make the process easier on you.

This step is without a doubt where many people in abusive relationships get stuck and this is also precisely why acknowledging that your partner is abusive is such a small part of the bigger picture. The logistics related to what you will do if and when you leave is where the real decision-making takes place.

If you are financially independent and can sustain a living on your own without your partner, then the process of leaving could be less complex. However, so many people in relationships feel tied either financially and/or due to reasons related to parenting and children. It’s common for abusers to be the primary ‘breadwinner’ in the family and this is often related to manipulation, control, and other traits typical of these individuals.

In navigating through these major concerns, particularly issues related to financial resources, consider the following steps or potential/temporary solutions:

  • Do you have family members or close friends you can go to for temporary housing and/or financial assistance?
  • Create a budget. Write down the expenses that you will have once you are on your own in order to get a realistic sense of your financial needs.
  • If you’re a parent, talk to a staff member at your child’s/children’s school. It’s understandable to want to maintain your privacy during this time, but it’s also important to ensure your children are taken care of during this process. Contact the school guidance counselor and explain the situation you and your children are going through. You can receive numerous resources for your children and yourself through the school system alone. You aren’t the first parent going through this and certainly not the last. Keep this in mind and focus on problem solving.
  • Consider how you can begin to gradually take back your independence. It’s hard to think about this during such a stressful time, but this can be a long-term goal that you gradually pursue. Things like taking out student loans and going back to school or getting advanced job training can help you move in the direction of gaining financial independence, increasing your confidence, and eliminating your need to stay with your partner for financial reasons.
  • Contact a local victim advocate. Victim advocacy is a service provided by local communities where a trained professional is assigned to you to help provide you support and resources throughout the process of leaving your abuser. Your victim advocate can do things like help you fill out paperwork, assist you with legal affairs related to leaving your partner, and help you find housing and transportation, among a multitude of other services.

escaping abusive partner

3.) Taking the final step.

Taking the appropriate steps and seeking out the right support will make the process of finally leaving your partner a transition you’ve planned for rather than a stressful or painful moment of uncertainty or chaos.

By this point, you have made housing, financial, and parenting arrangements and although things might be far from being perfectly organized and planned out, you are on your way to a fresh start and new beginnings. Most importantly, you will be removing yourself from an abusive relationship that has taken so much from you. Now you are in the process of a much-needed, new opportunity to give back to yourself.

It’s best to take the final step of leaving your partner in the company of someone else: A family member, a friend, or your victim advocate.

It’s best to take the final step of leaving your partner in the company of someone else: A family member, a friend, or your victim advocate. This will ensure your physical safety and wellbeing. Even if the circumstances with your partner don’t pose a safety risk, you will need the emotional support in the process of leaving. You may need help and supervision while packing your belongings and physically leaving the home you share with your partner. Don’t underestimate this need and assume you can do it on your own. Use your resources and take all precautions.

4.) Self-care.

We have placed ‘self-care’ as the last and final step, but this certainly does not mean your emotional wellbeing should be left to the end of the process of leaving your abusive partner. The reason, though, that many survivors of abuse seek mental health care after leaving their partners is because the planning, stress, and turmoil associated with the ‘getting out’ process often overshadows your need for emotional healing. The most imminent issues typically need to be resolved first before you can take a step back and reflect on how you will start over and begin to recover.

Counseling is generally always a must after leaving an abusive relationship. Your self-esteem, confidence, and belief in yourself have likely been significantly affected by the abuse; however, the resilience you’ve shown is an undeniable strength. You must build upon this strength in your healing process and acknowledge what you have overcome.

Your victim advocate can provide you counseling resources if you don’t have health insurance, if your health insurance does not cover psychotherapy, or if you can’t afford out of pocket costs for counseling.

You’re NOT ‘stuck’ or Out of Options: Summary of Resources

International Resources

  • International Domestic Violence Response (24/7 support): 833-SAFE-833

National Resources

United States
  • Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.
  • Domestic Violence Shelter Search
  • Legal Assistance – National Clearing House for the Defense of Battered Women: 1-800-903-0111 ext 3


United Kingdom
  • Self Help UK: 0115 911 1662
  • 24-Hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Domestic Violence Legal Information
  • National LGBT Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
  • National Centre for Domestic Violence: An organization providing assistance to obtain emergency injunctions from being further abused. Call 0800 970 2070.
  • Victim Support: Provides free and confidential assistance to victims or crime, witnesses, and their family/friends. Call 0800 970 2070.

  • The National Sexual Assault, Family, & Domestic Violence Counselling Line: 1-800 RESPECT (or 1-800-737-732)
  • Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline (24/7): 08 9223 1188 (free call: 1-800-007-339).
  • Family & Community Services, Domestic Violence Line (24/7): 1 800 65 64 63.
  • Domestic Violence Services and Support Contact List
The content on this page should not be used as a substitute for seeking professional advice or treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, have suicidal thoughts, or believe your safety is at risk, contact the International Domestic Violence Response (24/7) at 833-799-833. Click here for additional information on resources and where to get help.

Carolina Estevez, Psy.D.

Dr. Carolina Estevez is a clinical psychologist licensed in the State of Florida. She specializes in the administration and interpretation of a variety of psychological tests including personality evaluations, diagnostic assessments, academic and neuropsychological tests, and vocational and disability assessments. Dr. Estevez has provided individual and group psychotherapy to diverse mental health populations in inpatient, outpatient, and substance abuse rehabilitation settings. She has worked with individuals of all ages and with a variety of diagnoses including mood and anxiety disorders, personality disorders, behavioral and developmental disorders, psychotic disorders, and trauma-related disorders. LinkedIn