Stopping the Cycle of Abuse: How to Identify an Abusive Relationship, Create a Safety Plan, and Escape

If your relationship is unstable and unsafe, it is important to have a way to protect yourself. If you have children or pets, you are responsible for their well-being also. Having a safety plan can help you process your emotional state and regain a sense of power in a seemingly helpless situation. When you have clarity on how to feel safe, you can feel empowered to implement your safety plan as soon as you need to. 

It is a good idea to establish a safety plan with a professional so that you can escape an abusive situation and not let it continue to hold you back. Keep in mind that at anytime, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or TDD 800-787-3224. If you ever feel unsafe, or are concerned for your own safety or a loved one’s safety, always call 911 immediately. 

We recommend doing this safety plan process with a therapist or mental health professional. You can always call or text Estes Therapy at 619-558-0001 to set up an appointment with one of our skilled therapists. Please note that this blog post is not intended to replace therapy, yet is intended to be informative and supplemental to receiving therapeutic support. 

You might be asking yourself first: How can I identify an abusive relationship?

Here are the three phases of the cycle of abuse, and some common characteristics of abusive relationships, so that you can be aware of what to look out for:

Recognizing the Cycle of Violence

Abusive relationships differ from couple to couple, but at the same time, relationships with domestic violence share a similar cycle, often called the “Cycle of Violence” or “Power and Control Cycle” or “Cycle of Abuse.” Unlike what you might think, an abusive relationship isn’t necessarily in the midst of violence all the time. In fact, much of the relationship may consist of either the build up to or the aftermath of a violent or abusive incident. At times, this aftermath can look very romantic from the outside to the untrained eye, as the abuser tries to gain trust and win back affection of their partner through gifts and affection. Pay attention to the signs of an abusive cycle, and get help if you recognize that your own relationship is unhealthy.

Phase 1: Tension Building

During the tension building stage of the cycle, there is no violence, but you will feel like you are walking on eggshells and sense that the tension is growing. Your partner can be very controlling or jealous, stop you from spending time with family and friends, and there might be other instances of emotional abuse. There can also be minor incidents of physical violence during this stage, and you can sense that a violent attack is possible.

Phase 2: Explosion

During this stage, the violent partner will explode into physical violence, or extreme instances of emotional abuse. You may be hit, slapped, choked, shoved, or thrown around during an explosion. On the other hand, an explosion might also mean that your partner screams terrible names at you, drives recklessly with you in the car with the intention of scaring you, or threatens to kill themselves if you leave. These are all examples of an explosion, even though they look very different.

Phase 3: The Honeymoon

After an explosion happens, an abusive partner will often feel regretful and do everything he can to make it up to you. They will promise that it will never happen again, buy you gifts or flowers, and seem really sweet and maybe even apologize. However, this stage is only temporary, and soon you will feel the tension building again which leads to another explosion.

The cycle of violence can take weeks, months, or even longer to complete and then start over. Even if your honeymoon period is long, that doesn’t mean that the tension building stage won’t begin again.

Red Flag Behaviors:

Abusive relationships can include the following behaviors. If you notice any of these things in your partner, you may be in an abusive cycle:

  • Name calling
  • Contempt 
  • Controlling all the money, or withholding enough money for basic necessities
  • Isolating you from family and friends
  • Physical violence, including hitting, slapping, scratching, or shoving
  • Throwing objects in your direction
  • Destroying your property
  • Ridiculing you in front of other people
  • Being paranoid and jealous without cause
  • Forcing you to have sex
  • Spying on you or monitoring every place you go and who you see
  • Pretending like a past explosion never happened
  • Threatening you 
  • Threatening to kill themselves or hurt themselves 
  • Threatening to hurt or kill your pets
  • Driving erratically to make you feel unsafe and out of control 
  • Preventing you from seeking medical attention
  • Trapping you in your home so you can’t leave or contact anyone
  • Big displays of affection after a fight or explosion, promising to ‘never do it again’ 

If you feel that you are caught in the cycle of abuse, it’s time to start looking at creating a safety plan.  

What is a safety plan? A safety plan is a plan you have in place that you have thought through, planned in advance, and even practiced, in order to keep yourself safe in case an abusive situation arises. A safety plan is executed in a way that it can be implemented at any time, should violence or abuse in the relationship arise. 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you make your safety plan:

  • Who do you feel safe calling in an emergency? Know which friends or family members will harbor you when you leave. Make sure not to reveal this or any of the safety plan information to your abuser. And if you can, think of neighbors who may overhear an attack and will call for help if they are concerned. Don’t just kind of think about who – take a moment, right now, and identify 3 people you would call. 
  • Do you have a safety word or code word? This way, when you reach out to your safety people mentioned above, you can also let them know you are in danger, or you are feeling unsafe, without the abuser knowing – even if the abuser takes your phone or overhears a phone call, your code word will help keep your plans anonymous. 
  • When is the time to leave? The short answer is as soon as you can. If you are in an abusive situation, it is exhausting to your emotional and psychological well-being and also incredibly dangerous and unsafe. There is no reason to believe that it will stay the same or not happen again – this is a risk you don’t want to take. Get your safety plan ready and escape as soon as you can.
  • Do you have a packed bag with important items ready? (preferably at the identified location outside of the home or in your car): One of the most important parts of the safety plan is having this go-bag ready to go at any moment.
    • Items to include in your ready-bag as a part of your safety plan:
      • Cash
      • Documents
        • Social Security Cards
        • Birth Certificates (for you and your children)
        • Marriage license/Domestic partnership papers
        • Any Leases or Deeds in your name or both you and your partner’s name
        • Insurance Policies
        • Checkbook, charge cards, and bank statements
        • Proof of income (W-2’s)
        • Any documentation of past incidents of abuse (photos, police reports, medical records, etc.)
      • Medicine
      • Clothing
      • Snacks 
      • Extra set of keys 

Tips to prepare to escape and create a safety plan:

  • Think of a few excuses that would allow you to leave quickly and have these ready in case you need to do so.
  • When arguments happen, attempt to position yourself in an area that can be escaped from (room with doors or window).
  • Note all possible exits in your home including windows and backdoors. Also think about your place of work or school and how you can exit quickly. Include these details in your safety plan.
  • Practice your exit strategy and include your children on how to do so.
  • Set aside money. Consider opening a bank account in your own name to save money for your exit or open a credit card. If you leave your partner, you will need to have funds to start over. If you can’t set up a private bank account, start giving cash to a trusted friend who will be able to get it to you in a hurry.
  • Have a spare set of keys hidden somewhere in case yours are taken away when you need to get out. 
  • Come up with a few places where you can go if you need to — a shelter or with a friend or family member.
  • Always have access to your car keys.
  • Pack that go-bag for yourself we mentioned above, and for your children, and keep it somewhere safe (for example, at your safety location if it is with friends or family, or in your car so you can quickly leave). Try to avoid mutual friends or family. Include identification and legal records as well as money and medication in your safety plan.
  • Arrange emergency childcare or pet care, especially if your partner is the one taking care of the kids while you are at work or is the primary caregiver. Make sure your children have your cell phone number and the cell phone number of a safety person memorized. Make sure it is your phone number on your pet’s name tags.
  • Ideally, get a new cell phone, you can get a prepaid cell phone and have any numbers you may need programmed into it. If you can’t get a new cell phone (and even if you do get a new one) remove or disable tracking GPS features from the cell phone, from social media, as well as photo capturing devices and applications.
  • Memorize all important numbers or keep a written list outside of your home. Give a copy of these numbers to your safety person(s).
  • Change passwords on personal email, social media, iCloud account, phone lock screen, ect., and/or use devices that can’t be tracked, like at the library.

What to do if/when the time comes to leave:

  • If you have reason to believe you will be harmed, make your exit sooner rather than later. Your life and the lives of your children and/or pets depend on this decision.
  • Get a court order of protection/ obtain restraining order and distribute copies to your safe contacts and your children’s care providers. Talk to your local police about getting a restraining order, and any other measures of protection they might recommend. Your local police can also make recommendations about how to take pictures of any physical injuries, or other documentation of your abuse which might serve helpful in getting a restraining order.
  • Do not go to places where your abuser may look for you. Just because you have left does not mean you are safe; your abuser may escalate if they feel a loss of control.
  • Avoid parking in areas that make you vulnerable to a surprise attack.
  • Stay at a domestic violence shelter or at the safe persons home that you have identified, where you and your kids will be hidden for your own protection.
  • Practice your safety plan with children if applicable.
  • Always keep full tank of fuel in the car.
  • Be aware. Leaving an abuser is a dangerous time. Try to change your routine immediately following leaving the relationship, so it’s not easy to track you down, and be very cognizant about staying safe.

Not sure if and when you plan to leave? Here are some tips on how to stay safe on a daily basis:

  • Start therapy or counseling with a trained therapist and ask for resources on abusive relationships.
  • Create your go-bag just in case you ever need to use it.
  • Keep your phone on you at all times.
  • Keep your keys on you at all times.
  • Have regular check-ins with someone safe.
  • Always make sure you position yourself by doorways or in open areas during a fight 
  • Be cautious with what you post on social media and employ privacy settings.
  • Be careful in your daily activities especially in an empty office or distant parking spot.
  • Make sure your safety plan is clear and that the details of it are known only to you and a close, trusted friend — someone that is guaranteed to not reveal it to your abuser.

Whether or not you decide to end the relationship, it’s a good idea to empower yourself with the knowledge of how to act should the time come for you to keep yourself safe, or to leave the relationship. Your safety plan not only gives you some practical power as well as an emotional sense of control, but it can only make a real difference if you implement it. Do not stay in an abusive situation any longer than you have to. Call us at Estes Therapy at 619-558-0001 to sit down with a therapist or counselor to discuss how to keep yourself safe, or how to begin to process your healing after leaving the cycle of abuse. 

Other Important Resources

Becky’s House: -They also have a IPV/DV crisis hotline 619.234.3164

National Dating Abuse Helpline 1.866.331.9474 or 1.866.331.8453 TTY

Carol’s House:  Phone: (877)633-1112 – Provides shelter for all victims of Intimate Partner or Domestic Violence and their children for 45-60 days. Services include legal advocacy, case management, individual and group counseling, parenting classes, therapeutic child center, and the possibility to be placed in the transitional housing program. FREE. 

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or 1.800.787.3224 TTY  2-1-1

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It’s been nearly 20 years since I first became interested in studying psychotherapy. I began practicing the scientific approaches to psychotherapy in 1997 and I was hooked from then on.

I earned my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family psychotherapy in 2004 and I am currently licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist MFT (LMFT#47653) with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

I focus my practice upon the empirically-based and proven research methods of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

I’ve seen these techniques consistently get results and I truly believe they are the most effective at creating positive, long-term change.

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