Originally published on Everyday Feminism
(Content Warning: Intimate Partner Violence)
If you’re being abused by your partner, and you’re reading this right now, then you have awe-inspiring strength.
You’re suffering, but you have the courage to seek out ideas on how to take care of yourself.
I’m guessing you haven’t come across many tips like these. When I was being abused, the only advice I found was about how to leave an abusive partner, or how to heal after you’ve left.
But for a long time, I wasn’t ready to leave. And you and I aren’t the only ones to stay with a partner who’s been abusive.
The very nature of intimate partner violence (IPV) is that it often escalates gradually over time. Then, before you know it, you’re in a relationship marked by abuse, with no end in sight. On average, survivors attempt to leave seven times before leaving for good.
Let’s just acknowledge that leaving any relationship is hard. Abuse isn’t going to make it any easier, and in fact, there are even more obstacles to leaving an abusive partner. So it’s entirely understandable if you’re not ready to do that.
You have your own reasons for staying in your relationship right now. Maybe you’re financially dependent on your partner or you’re afraid they’ll out your immigration status, HIV status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Maybe you love your partner. Maybe you’re afraid of what they’ll do if you leave.
Whatever your reason, only you know what’s best for you.
Staying with your partner doesn’t make you hopeless. It does mean that you need and deserve to have ways to keep yourself safe.
So let’s talk about how.
1. Get Informed About What’s Happening
Only you know your situation best, so nobody else can tell you what to do in your relationship.
But intimate partner violence is complicated, which is why there’s no easy answer to the question of why you’re still with your partner (and you don’t owe an explanation to anyone).
If you’re being abused, educating yourself about IPV can help you identify cycles of abuse, signs of danger, and all of the reasons why it’s not your fault.
That means you’ll be able to sort out some of the confusion and self-doubt that can come up when you’re in a relationship with an abusive partner.
For example, some of the most confusing moments in my relationship came when I did exactly what my ex-partner told me to do, only to have him later claim that he’d told me to do it differently. I felt like a failure as he accused me of being incapable of listening or doing anything right.
Those moments put me on edge, worried that every move I made was the wrong one. So I can’t even tell you how reassured I felt when I learned that there’s a term for his behavior: gaslighting.
Gaslighting leads survivors to doubt our own perceptions. Once I realized where this doubt was coming from, I regained some of my ability to trust my own sense of what was happening. That trust relieved some of the anxieties and self-loathing that had me feeling miserable, guilty, and disappointed in myself.
And gaslighting was just one of many behaviors I recognized among the characteristics of intimate partner violence. Included in the signs of abuse were the dysfunctional aspects of our relationship that I thought were my fault or hurtful only because of my oversensitivity. I was floored when I found that I wasn’t the only one experiencing the things I was so embarrassed to admit were happening to me.
Maybe you’ll come across something surprising when you learn about IPV. Maybe you’ll feel a little less alone, or a little more sure of yourself.
And hopefully, the information you find will also help you avoid minimizing the abuse – trying to convince yourself or others that it’s not a big deal. Instead, you can trust your feelings when you know something’s not right and decide what, if anything, you’d like to do about it.
Keep in mind that your abuser may track your computer or cell phone use, so you may need to take steps to avoid this. Here’s a resource on technology safety.
2. Hold On to Your Sense of Self (And Don’t Let Go)
I felt like I’d lost my sense of self to the abusive partner I was with. Many other survivors have told me they can relate.
You might put your partner’s needs before your own. You might feel like the relationship is all-consuming, that you have no life or identity apart from it.
Implicit in the very definition of intimate partner violence – a pattern of power and control – is your partner’s control over parts of your life.
But you haven’t lost all your power. You can still make choices (good choices!) as you’ve already demonstrated by doing what you’ve done so far to survive.
And you still get to be your own person – and take care of that precious person.
I know that can be hard to do. When I was hearing constant insults from my partner, I believed the toxic messages telling me I was worthless.
But I wasn’t worthless, and neither are you.
So think about how you can combat the toxicity, and hold on to your sense of self.
You could come up with messages of self-love, your own compassionate mantras to replace messages that tear you down. If your partner or your negative self-talk tells you that you’re worthless, tell yourself something like, “I’m valuable and loveable.” If your partner blames you or you blame yourself for the abuse, replace that message with “It’s never my fault, and I’m doing the best I can to survive.”
Find joy whenever you can. Is there a song that rejuvenates you? An online community you can join? A memento that reminds you of someone who cares about you?
Purple is my favorite color, so something as simple as keeping a purple rock with me can remind me that I deserve joy. Find something like that – even if it seems small, having any sense of joy that’s just for you can be a big deal.
Reach out for connection with someone who’s not your partner. Isolation is a common characteristic of abuse, and it’s one of the reasons many survivors feel dependent on their partners. Maintaining some connection with even just one person – a trusted friend, neighbor, or coworker, for instance – can keep you grounded in the world outside of your relationship.
The key to maintaining your sense of self is doing something that’s just for you and honoring the strength it takes for you to do that, no matter how small. You think so much about what your partner wants from you, and you deserve to spend as much time as you can thinking about you.
3. Make a Plan
You may feel stuck, like you know you’re being mistreated, but you don’t know what to do about it.
This hopeless feeling is really discouraging, but you do have options. A safety plan can help you figure out and prepare for those options.
Most safety plans focus on preparing to leave your partner or protecting your physical safety. This information is useful to have, in case you change your mind about staying in the relationship, or in case of a violent incident. So you can follow these links for help in those areas.
But you also deserve emotional well-being right now, even while you’re not planning to leave your partner. So our safety plan’s going to be a little different. This is all about preparing to protect your well-being and alleviate some of your stress in non-emergency situations.
What works for some survivors won’t work for everyone, so this guide is meant to be a starting point to help you figure out what’s best for you.
I suggest writing down your plan – that way, you’ll have all of your options in one place for reference (be sure to keep it someplace safe from your abuser).
Identify Your Needs
When you’re used to putting your partner before yourself, it can be pretty hard to figure out what it is that you need. So ask yourself:
In what ways does my partner hurt me? Make a list, and don’t limit it to physical injuries. How do they hurt you with their words or actions?
What will help me heal from that pain? Don’t wait to get medical attention for physical pain. For each of the ways your partner hurts you emotionally, consider what would support your healing.
What will I get out of taking care of this need? You may be used to dismissing your needs, but this plan is all about taking care of them. For each harmful action, consider why it’s important for you to heal from it.
For example, if your partner is constantly putting you down, you’ll need something to lift you up, which will help you feel good about yourself instead of believing you’re inadequate.
Build Options to Meet Your Needs
For each action that calls for healing, you may have several options to choose from. These tips can help you come up with those options:
- Start with what you already know, listing all the ideas that come to you when you think of dealing with each abusive action.
- Reflect on what how you’ve dealt with this struggle in the past, to include the strategies that have already worked for you.
- Talk with a counselor, a hotline, or a trusted friend to help you brainstorm ideas for the areas where you feel stuck.
Write out your list of ways to take care of yourself for each abusive action.
So if you need something to lift you up when your partner’s been putting you down, your options might include:
- Keeping a computer file or notebook with positive affirmations that make you feel good about yourself. Repeating one of those affirmations to yourself each time your partner puts you down.
- Thinking of a friend you can always count on to help you feel good about yourself, and calling or texting them to say that you could use a pick-me-up.
- Preparing a thought to counter each of the put-downs your partner uses. For example, if someone insults my intelligence, it would help me to say to myself, “I’m smart as hell, and I’ve got the coping skills to prove it.”
- Ignoring the put-downs (and finding something positive to focus on instead).
Don’t worry if right now you can’t come up with any options for some of your needs. It’s a great first step just to identify the need, and as you learn more about IPV, you may come up with ideas.
Keep Your Options Within Reach
Now that you know your options, you can do any necessary preparations to make sure they’re always available.
For the put-downs, if you think positive affirmations would help, then search the Internet or books and compile the ones that resonate with you. If you’ve thought of a friend to provide pick-me-ups, memorize their number or post it somewhere to remind you to reach out.
Decide where you’ll keep this plan, so you can look at it and remember your options when you feel stuck.
Our lives and relationships change over time, so revisit this plan often to adjust for changes. It might help to keep a journal, for your own record of the relationship’s patterns, your struggles, and your tools for resilience.
Now you know what you need and how take care of your needs, and you’ve got your strategies ready to support you.
Your Choices Are Yours – And Yours Alone
You already have too many false messages saying you can’t make your own choices – from your partner’s force, coercion, or manipulation to resources that tell you that your only option is to leave your relationship now.
So here’s a reminder that you have you have the wisdom to make your own choices.
This is about keeping yourself safe, not taking on being responsible for stopping the abuse or getting your abuser to change – that’s not your obligation.
As Carmen Rios wrote in her article on why survivors stay, “Leaving and staying aren’t the factors that cause abusive behavior; abusive behavior causes abusive behavior.”
Give yourself credit for everything you’ve done to survive so far, and use that incredibly adaptive power of yours to build yourself more options for much-deserved self-care.
Maisha Z. Johnson is the Digital Content Associate and Staff Writer of Everyday Feminism. She is also an apprentice editor with Black Girl Dangerous and a blogger for Pyragraph, and she facilitates empowerment groups with incarcerated women as part of Fired Up!, a program of California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Through her own project, Inkblot Arts, Maisha taps into the creative arts and digital media to amplify the voices of those often silenced. Read her blog or follow her on Twitter @mzjwords.