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When they ask, "Have you thought about leaving?" (5 actionable steps to creating safety)

I have a dear friend who was in crisis last week. I went with her to try to get help in a mental health evaluation from the emergency room; I listened to her call the crisis line at our women's shelter. It was hard watch.

It was not hard to watch because of her crisis. I get where she was. I've been there. She's done hard work before, and she will do it again.

It was hard to watch because of people's reactions. You see, my friend is not a drug addict or alcoholic. She is thin, beautiful, has a successful job, and radiates creativity. But, she has a boyfriend who is violent and cruel. She has broken up and gotten back together with him however many times is normal in this type of relationship after about a year of knowing him. But, she keeps going back. He is her addiction. She is hooked on his particular combination of violence, cruelty, good sex, and clinging. At this point, she told us, she knows he will continue being violent, even escalate the violence, but she is self-destructive and suicidal, and he is her weapon of choice.

"Have you thought about taking a break from him?" She was asked. "You're not the problem," she was told, "Just get a restraining order."

Yes. Yes, she has thought about taking a break from him. It was like watching an alcoholic get asked, "Have you thought about not drinking?"

When you want to go back to a violent relationship, getting a restraining order works about as well as it would work to get a restraining order against heroin. It doesn't.

I understand why these conversations are difficult. No one wants to encourage the thinking (AT ALL!) that my beautiful friend has done anything to cause this man's violent behavior. His behavior is all his responsibility, and her safety does not depend on him.

But, there are actionable steps she can take to choose her safety and create safety for herself. That is a separate consideration than his violent behavior. Below are five actionable steps, I recommend to my clients when they find themselves going back to abusive situations:

1. Experience your feelings without resisting or reacting to them. If you are in a heated or emotional situation, separate yourself from it (go for a walk or to a safe place like a room where you can lock the door, your car, a friend's house, or even a public place like a library where you can sit in a conference room), and allow your feelings to have some space. Cry if you want to. Yell. Hit a pillow or a bed. Say to yourself that your feelings, whatever they are, are valid and have a place. If you have compassion for your feelings, it does not mean you are a victim. But, we are usually stronger after we have processed our feelings.

2. Plan one day ahead. Often, we make huge plans about what we are going to change, and if we don't carry them out right away, we use them as evidence that we are failures. Instead, change one small, manageable thing and commit to yourself that you will include that change in your next day. (Example: Joe often doesn't show up for plans, and usually I get angry and wallow. I will make plans with him tomorrow, but I will also make a backup plan, which is something I love to do, that I will do if he does not show up within 10 minutes of when he said he would. If Joe is angry that I've left, I will let him know that I do not want to talk to him until he has calmed down, no matter what he says.) Plan where your time will go one day ahead of time.

3. Start watching what you do without judgment. The more you judge yourself about how well you follow through with your one-day plans, the more difficult they will become. Some days they will be easy, but other days, they will DEFINITELY be hard. If he's yelling at you that you're a bitch, it might be easy to stop talking to him, but what about when he starts saying he can't live without you and that you're all he has? That may be harder. But, when you have committed to your plan, following through is about developing an honest relationship with yourself. So, be aware, without judgment, of when it is easy and when it is difficult to follow through with your plan.

4. Plan for time alone. It doesn't matter whether this is 5 minutes of time at first, but it is important to deliberately choose to spend time with yourself every day. This should be time without your phone or the TV. Just time alone. You could journal, meditate, draw, garden, or do anything else that lets you be alone. This is your time to start to get to know yourself again. Treat this as though you just met yourself, and be curious, again without judgment, about who you are.

5. Plan for joy time. In your one-day plan, plan for one thing you will do every day that brings you joy. This does not have to be time-consuming, it can be different from day to day, and it can involve the person in your life who is abusive or controlling. But, it is important that the joy activity not rely on that person changing. It can be a walk around the block, sitting in a garden for a few minutes and picking a flower, calling your friend or mom, or googling "goats fainting" on the internet. You can do something that brings you joy, and he still gets to act however he wants.

I'm assuming in all of this that you have some foundational experience in setting boundaries. Setting boundaries can be easy, but I get that enforcing them can be a different story altogether.

Setting healthy boundaries and taking care of yourself is the work that will save your life. Don't wait. These steps give you a start, but let me know if you'd like help implementing them and creating safety and freedom in your life.

Love to you all day long!

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