12 Ways to Get Help if You're a Victim of Domestic Abuse

Psychotherapists, lawyers, and more explain how to get out of an abusive relationship.

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According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. What constitutes "domestic violence" is often up for debate, but experts say it all comes down to one question: Is your home a place of comfort and safety, or one in which you consistently feel isolated and intimidated? If it's the latter, it's important to know that there are many ways to seek help, no matter how impossible it may seem.

"Often, victims have a hard time reaching out for help because of fear, shame, and isolation," says Joseph Hoelscher, a managing attorney at the criminal defense and family law firm Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda in San Antonio, Texas. But no one deserves to live in fear. Read on to find out how you can get help if you're being abused, whether mentally, physically, or emotionally.

Know the signs.

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It can be all-too-easy to make excuses for a partner's abusive behavior, or to convince yourself that things aren't all that bad. So the first step in getting help is recognizing that you are in an abusive relationship. Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, says that an abusive relationship is one in which "a partner tries to control the actions, behaviors, thoughts, or feelings of another" by means of "coercion, threats, physical violence, sexual pressure, demoralization, or condemnation."

According to Mendez, other red flags include "isolation, alienation from others, and exclusion from community, friends and family"; an "explosive, impulsive, and intimidating interactional style"; and the tendency to "belittle, name call, criticize, shame, and humiliate others."

Know it's not your fault.

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People who are abusive are often experts at gaslighting, and are skilled at making you feel like something that you said or did "made" them hurt you. Difficult as it may be, it's crucial to realize that this is a manipulation tactic.

"Do not explain away the negative behaviors of the partner," Mendez says. "Do not take ownership of put-downs and degrading remarks. Share the experiences with trusted friends and family who will affirm your value and help you realize that you are not the problem and that putting down others momentarily gives him a sense of power and control."

Know that you can't change anyone else, but you can change your situation.

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"Domestic violence is not typically a one-time situation, rather it is a pattern of abusive behaviors occurring persistently over time and may last for years," Mendez says. In addition to understanding that you are not to blame, you must realize that "you are not responsible for changing the behavior of the abusive partner."

Realize your power.

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In an abusive situation, the only power you have is power over yourself, but it's the only power you need. "Assert your power to decide against living in an environment of domestic violence," Mendez notes. "And value yourself and your well-being above a false belief that the relationship is worth keeping because you can change the abuser's behavior."

Mendez says it's important to "be aware of how you are feeling and own your thoughts and actions. If the relationship does not feel equitable, it is not likely a viable or healthy relationship. Have confidence in your existence and know that you are valuable and equal contributor to the relationship. … Know that you do not have to succumb to someone else's control."

Call a hotline.

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"The first thing victims of domestic violence need to do is reach out to an advocacy center by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-787-7233," says Hoelscher. "Victims of sexual assault can call RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE." If you're dealing with sexual abuse, Hoelscher also suggests reaching out to the closest rape crisis center as an additional resource for support and advice.

Finally, he adds, "victims should be careful to delete their browser history or use incognito mode or the equivalent if there is any chance someone might see their [web browser] history and harm them."

Confide in a trusted friend or medical professional.

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Telling someone about your situation can be a challenge, as no one wants to be viewed as a victim. But it's important to realize that it's better than the alternative, which is harm or even death for yourself and possibly your children, if that applies to you.

Also, for those who suspect someone in their lives is dealing with violence at home, Hoelscher says, you "should not be afraid to ask someone who seems distressed if they need help." He notes: "Right now, a major trend is training caregivers for children to better recognize child trauma—which happens even as a bystander to domestic violence—so that teachers or other caregivers can begin the process of getting help."

Find resources that fit your needs.

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One of the worst things about domestic violence is that it often doesn't just affect you, but also those you love—from your kids to your pets.

Daniel Ryan Kavish, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, says that "some women may stay in an abusive situation because they fear for the safety of their pets." According to the NCADV, 71 percent of pet owners entering domestic violence shelters report that their abuser had threatened, injured, or even killed their pet. And nearly 50 percent of victims have delayed leaving their abuser out of fear of what would happen to their pet.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you locate a shelter that allows pets. But there are also organizations like RedRover, which offers financial assistance for victims of domestic violence and their pets. They can also help temporarily re-house pets while you get back on your feet.

Create an escape plan.

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"Exiting the relationship increases the possibility of lethality by four times," says Ce Anderson, a licensed therapist and the author of Love TAPS: Red Flags of An Abuser & How To Get Out. "The victim is at more risk for death at this time than any other time in the relationship. This requires safety planning. Designate a trusted individual whom the abuser does not know, or cannot locate. Keep copies of important documents, cash, keys in a safe deposit box."

Get the VictimsVoice app.

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This VictimsVoice app enables victims to record incidents in a way that can be used in front of the court, and provides additional resources and support. "Before coming forward to report what has happened to you, it's just about surviving," Heather Glogolich, a police lieutenant and survivor of domestic violence who co-created the app, told NJ.com. "An app like this would have been life saving for me."

Contact law enforcement.

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Many victims are reticent to call the police, because they are worried that they won't believe them. But Zachary C. Ashby, an attorney at Ashby Law in Washington, says it's important to make a police report, for legal reasons, regardless of how law enforcement responds to your complaint.

"It is important that if there is any physical evidence, this is documented," Ashby says. "This means pictures of bruising, damaged property, or anything along those lines. Her version of events should also be relayed to police as near in time as possible to when it happens. … It is important to make that official record."

Anderson adds that "you don't have to press charges to document incidents—the abuser will not be notified."

Contact a legal office.

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That said, if you do want to take legal action, Ashby says that the first step is to apply for a protection order. "A protection order is a powerful tool," he says. "In most circumstances of domestic violence, the police arrive and must assess the best way to keep the peace and prevent harm. This is often a very difficult task. … Victims can defend perpetrators—such is the dynamic of domestic violence. But, with a protection order, the job of law enforcement is easy. It provides a black and white rule that the police can enforce. The order says you can't be within 100 feet. If you are 90 feet away, you are under arrest."

Don't focus on collecting "enough" evidence.

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"One difficulty that people have is that they don't think they have enough evidence or that no one will believe them," Ashby says. "In fact, many perpetrators tell their victims this as part of the cycle of abuse."

He notes that "if a judge believes that an alleged victim is credible … you do not have to have photographs, witnesses, or text messages. You do need to tell the entire story." And for a personal testimony from a survivor, read This Bride Did a Stunning Solo Photo Shoot on the Day of Her Wedding After Calling It Off.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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