This two-part post is based upon my observations working with women who are leaving relationships where there is intimate partner violence; in my nonblogging life I am a domestic violence advocate, having completed an excellent training program required by the state where I live to do such advocacy.
Does that make me an expert, qualified to tell you what to do? No, but it does mean that I have gotten to know and follow a large number of women who are leaving relationships. I have learned by watching them solve the problems that come with the decision to leave that there are things you can do to help yourself prepare for and endure the process you are considering making your next step in life.
The reason this post is divided into two parts - this is the first - is that having children in common with your partner changes things. Acting like it is the same for a couple to break up and a family, however dysfunctional, to break up ignores reality, to say the least. This post is about breaking up with no children in common involved. There may be stepchildren you have been raising, but when breakup time comes, those children stay with their natural parent.
Even in situations where women are in for a fight for their lives by trying to leave, there is the hope that, once the dust settles, the partner will come around and they can be friends, or friendly, or no hard feelings, or something along those lines. Mentally flipping ahead to a wished-for resolution instead of concentrating on the reality of tearing down and breaking up sets you up for big problems.
Problems like trying to share things which need to be divided, i.e. a home, a business. Failing to obtain copies of all the paperwork involved in running your family business like income and bank statements, tax returns, trusting that your partner will hand over complete copies at a later date. Staying, or allowing your partner to stay in the same residence during the divorce. Sharing an attorney, trying to do without legal help. Assuming friends and family will still be your support system, and letting them know your plans or even your emotional state.
The end of a relationship changes all your other relationships. Acting like you are an independent person, starting to build a life, is not cold or selfish. It mirrors the fact that this is a Big Shift and by taking a firm stand as your own person, you give friends, family, the Court, your attorney, and your support system the assurance that you are ready to move forward. Staying in "we" mode signals you have a foot in two camps. Which "you" are people to believe?
By yourself but not all by yourself. It takes help to leave a relationship, before, during, and after. The most common mistake women make is to draw that help from pre-existing friends, from family, an attorney, and maybe a therapist. Your attorney is not your friend. He/She is not your enemy either, by the way. An attorney is a guide through the maze of legal procedures and paperwork involved in a relationship breakup with the predetermined goal of getting you a divorce document that covers all the bases, one that a judge will approve. More about that later.
Therapy is a must, not a luxury. You might have to wait for a while to gather the time and energy to find someone, but processing how the breakup happened and who you are post breakup eventually requires a trusted, experienced advisor.
What of family and friends? Can't they be your trusted advisors, maybe even help you with some of the legal-type decisions? In a word, NO. They may love you, be on your side (or not), have gone through divorce themselves, etc. But they lack one important thing, objectivity. Your breakup shakes up their world and they need time to process the change in your situation and the change in you. They don't know you anymore, and you'd be surprised who decides they liked the old you better, and who steps up to welcome the new you with open arms.
Build a team of experts, learn from them, become your own advocate. If you are thinking about leaving an intimate relationship, step 1 is to educate yourself. Hit the bookstores, library, and internet. Use your brain and your gut instincts to ferret out information about yourself, your partner, and divorce or dating breakups that adds to your understanding of what you are going through.
Get a NOLO state-specific do-it-yourself divorce book even if you have no intention of doing it yourself. Find out if your relationship is a controlling abusive one. Look for the phrase "coercive control" and information that acknowledges the devastating effect of emotional abuse, financial abuse, jealousy, and fear in an intimate relationship.
Call a domestic violence hotline, either national or local, and have a frank, completely confidential talk with the trained counselor who takes your call. Do you need financial help, do you need a place to get away where your partner can't track you down, do you need a restraining order, do you have an escape plan? What are the resources out there in case things start to go badly. Your partner may know you are unhappy and be on supergood behavior in the hopes that you will stay, but if you make it clear you are leaving, he is more than a little bit likely to do a 180, something you need to be prepared for.
Get legal help. You don't necessarily get what you pay for when it comes to divorce attorneys. An hour at a Bar Association Legal Clinic at your courthouse can serve you better than a high-priced lawyer who never returns your calls or treats you like a moron. If you can, hire a lawyer you respect and like. But don't depend on him/her to "get" you a divorce. There is no substitute for knowing where you are in the process, what your options are, and what your attorney should be doing. The lawyer is there to get you a solid, complete divorce decree and hopefully, make sure things are signed and filed properly. You will probably have to do some of that yourself. The best divorce is the one you babysit all through the process. No one cares more than you do about the new life you are trying to build.
Good luck! Millions of women have ended bad relationships and built new lives and new relationships. You can do it!
(Graph from The Journal of Economic Perspectives)