Leaving your abusive spouse

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You've had enough of the relationship, the abuse, the threats, the jealousy and the rigid rules. It's time to go, but you are really scared of what your husband or partner may be capable of doing to stop you. Because you do know this person and he frightens you.

Many women are seriously injured or even killed when trying to leave abusive marriages or relationships. While many men would never dream of being violent, there are unfortunately also those for whom violence is a way of getting what they want.

"Planning, planning and planning is what is needed", says Cape Town psychologist, Ilse Terblanche."Many women in abusive relationships are unaware of their rights and they have become very isolated from friends and family, which make up the usual support network. When things are really bad, a woman almost needs more strength to stay than to go."

She suggests the following:

Call in the experts. Contact a woman's organisation such as Rape Crisis or POWA. They will be able to give you support, tell you what your rights are, give you counselling, suggest possible places to stay and discuss the legal implications of your situation. With their help, you can start planning your departure.

Revitalise your support structure. Make contact with family and friends and tell them why you have not seen them for a while. The more people who know the truth, the more disempowered your abuser will be. You may need friends and family for both protection and accommodation for a couple of weeks.

Find out the truth behind the threats. Many women stay in abusive relationships, because the children are used as pawns by the husband, and she does not want to give up her children. Fact is, courts usually award the children to the wife, unless there is some major problem such as repeated drug-related hospitalisation. If a woman has been hospitalised because of physical abuse, hospital records of her injuries may very well convince the courts to give her sole custody.

Call in the big guns. Don't be alone when you break the news of your impending departure. Don't be in a situation where you have to break the news and then still share a roof for a few days – this could be extremely dangerous. Remember that an abusive husband tends to see his wife as a possession, and in his eyes you are not towing the line. Get a few male relatives to accompany you and to help you move. Men who abuse women generally go for people who are smaller than they are and your hulk of a brother will most likely deter any violent episodes while you pack your bags.

Don't live alone at first. Move into a shelter if you can – these are in secret locations and you will be safe there. Or, move in with family or friends. You don't want to be panic-stricken every time the front door bell rings. Other peoples' presence will make you feel a lot safer.

Alert security at work. Many women get attacked by abusive spouses when arriving at work or leaving work. This is the one place the partner knows he is sure to find her. Give instructions that he is not to be allowed in. Get security personnel to accompany you to your car.

Get an interdict. Go to the magistrate's court and apply for an interdict. Be specific about things such as phone calls, the distance he must maintain and places where he is not allowed. While this may not always keep the abusive spouse away, it will give you a certain legal standing, should anything go wrong. Someone who disobeys the rulings of an interdict can be arrested, and should the case go to court, it will count heavily against him.

Get some counselling. This is essential. If you have been in an abusive relationship, chances are that your self-esteem has been destroyed and you doubt your ability to make wise decisions or even look after yourself. Remember, this is what he wants you to believe – don't become your own gaoler.

Be pennywise. Many women stay in abusive relationships, because they have no money of their own and have not worked for a while. Many abusive husbands refuse to allow their wives to work, because they know that having money of her own will give her a certain independence. Get some training, send out feelers and try and find some sort of employment. Self-employment is also an option. Remember that your husband will be forced by the courts to pay you maintenance.

Don't go out alone at night. This is probably only for a short while, but many women have been assaulted by jilted husbands when they are on their own somewhere or arriving home after dark. Go out in a group, don't go to the movies alone – even be alert in the supermarket or post office.

Phone the school. The school should be informed of your new situation, as this is also a stressful time for your children. If you have been given sole custody, your husband may also not fetch the children from school unless you know about it and have informed the school in advance.

(Susan Erasmus Health24, updated 2013)

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