Abusers can escalate their behavior in the wake of a split.
Content warning: This article discusses domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, and harassment by an ex-partner. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
Leaving a toxic relationship is rarely the end of the story for survivors. While intimate partner violence is often discussed and studied within the context of an existing abusive relationship, it can continue (or even escalate) after a survivor has taken steps to leave.
Post-separation abuse, the official term for physical or psychological violence that occurs after a breakup, is alarmingly common. A 2022 report by the Femicide Census found that 37% of femicide victims in the UK (women killed by a current or former partner) had taken steps to separate from their partner before they were killed. (It often takes multiple tries for a survivor to leave their partner for good, due to a fear of retaliation, lack of resources, or emotional manipulation by the abuser.) Nearly 20 people per minute are abused by an intimate partner in the United States, with women between the ages of 18 and 24 comprising the highest-risk group.
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s recent divorce proceedings have heightened the public conversation around this topic in a major way. While it’s impossible to know what has occurred in their relationship behind closed doors, the ensuing dialogue about domestic abuse speaks to a broader (and often under-recognized) crisis. Experts and survivors have compared West’s public behavior to their own personal experiences of harassment by an ex. Daily Show host Trevor Noah devoted a segment to the issue on March 15, stating that “what [Kardashian] is going through is terrifying to watch, and it shines a spotlight on what so many women go through when they choose to leave.” On March 3, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence published a post titled “Kanye’s behavior toward Kim is abuse, not entertainment.”
“Domestic violence is complex — all forms (physical, emotional, financial) of abuse are harmful and are rooted in one partner exerting power and control over the other,” Crystal Justice, chief external affairs officer at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, tells Elite Daily. The emotions brought on by a breakup can make an already tense situation worse, especially if the perpetrator starts escalating their behavior in an attempt to control the situation and win their ex back.
Survivors know their situation best.
Signs to look out for include intense displays of affection and repeated attempts to violate your boundaries — maybe you’ve tried to cut off communication and your ex insists on calling you daily. Maybe they show up to your home or work with gifts and beg for a second chance. These emotional manipulation tactics are commonly known as “love bombing,” though this term doesn’t fully capture the potential severity of the situation. “I call it manipulative kindness, because it's not love, it is manipulation,” Julie Owens, certified domestic violence counselor, trauma professional, and expert in the field of violence against women, tells Elite Daily. The perpetrator may be trying to flatter you in an attempt to regain the upper hand in the relationship.
Previous abuse by this partner isn’t a prerequisite for post-separation abuse (though it can be a warning sign). “Victims are typically in more danger after they break up with their partner than while they're with them,” Owens says. This turning point can be the catalyst for an abuser to become jealous or fixated on their partner once they’ve lost a sense of control. “The biggest danger is when the victim challenges the abuser or takes back her power,” Owens says. It’s the moment when an abuser may feel most vulnerable and thus becomes most likely to lash out. If you feel afraid of your ex in any capacity, listen to your own intuition about whether they might be employing abusive tactics toward you.
If you’re a survivor trying to leave a relationship but fear repercussions from your ex, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself and prioritize your safety.
Disconnect (physically and virtually) from your ex.
If you haven’t yet left the relationship, you can start preparing now for how you’ll get out quickly and discreetly. “If you can [avoid it], [don’t] tell the person you’re going to leave them,” Owens advises. While this might seem counterintuitive to typical breakup advice, standard courtesies (like having a face-to-face conversation with your partner) don’t apply in a potentially dangerous situation. Your safety is the top priority here.
If there are ways your ex can have access to your location, such as through the Find My app or by following along with you via social media or Venmo, now is the time to block them from those platforms if you feel safe doing so. Open an email account your partner doesn’t know about to communicate about your situation, and go to a public place like a library to seek support and resources if you fear your abuser is monitoring your computer use. If you need a new place to live after the breakup, ask a trusted friend or family member if you can stay with them — as long as they’re also committed to protecting your privacy.
Create a specific plan for your safety.
“It’s scary to acknowledge and think about the fact that this is escalating and [you could be] in danger,” Owens says. But having a safety plan is critically important in case your ex-partner lashes out without warning. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a free safety planning guide, which includes steps like creating a code word to text friends and family if you’re ever in danger, and finding someone to stay with you if you ever have to be home alone. “Safety planning is a process, not an event,” Owens says. “It’s a plan for what you’re going to do when and if things escalate.” Continue to revisit it if your situation changes.
Find a skilled professional and victim’s advocate.
“[One of] the most helpful things any victim can do is to meet with a victim’s advocate to work out a safety plan and figure out what your options are,” Owens says. A domestic violence professional can help you assess the danger you’re in and provide support tailored to your specific situation. They are a third party who isn’t connected to your ex in any way and are entirely focused on protecting your best interest. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a tool to help you get in touch with an advocate where you live. If you’re not comfortable using your own phone to call them, ask a trusted loved one if you can borrow their phone to make the call. Depending on your access to safe transportation, you may also want to ask someone to drive you to meet with an advocate in person.
Confide in loved ones you trust.
“It’s very important that you have people you trust who are not going to go back to [your ex] and tell [them] what you’re saying, or try to be the mediator,” Owens says. Negotiating with your ex is unlikely to de-escalate the situation and might actually make things worse. You want to have people around you who will keep your information confidential and put your safety and well-being above all else. “It's really important to get support, not just from people who know you and love you … but from people who understand that this is domestic violence and understand the potential dangers,” Owens says.
Trust your intuition.
If you don’t feel safe — even if your ex hasn’t done anything resembling abuse yet — it’s worth creating a plan to protect yourself. “Survivors know their situation best,” Justice says. If the people around you are minimizing the situation or trying to talk you into staying with your partner, they aren’t worth confiding in. Survivors can “benefit most from nonjudgmental support, including connection to the resources available and creating a safety plan,” Justice says.
Know your legal rights as a survivor.
If you choose to pursue legal action against your ex, a victim’s advocate will once again be the best source of information. Domestic violence laws vary by state, so it helps to have someone familiar with the legal system in your community. The website WomensLaw.org includes state-by-state information about how to file a restraining order, sue an abuser, and seek full custody of a child. It also includes contact information for state-wide and local low-cost legal assistance in case you want to reach out to a lawyer on your own.
Wherever you are in this process, trust that there are people who want to help you. “Anyone impacted by relationship abuse, even those seeking to help someone experiencing abuse, can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7,” Justice says. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text START to 88788 for immediate assistance and support. Your immediate safety and health (mental and physical) are the most important priorities at this moment. The best thing you can do is surround yourself with as much support as possible before, during, and after the breakup, for however long it takes you to feel safe and free from this situation.
Crystal Justice, chief external affairs officer at the National Domestic Violence Hotline
Julie Owens, certified domestic violence counselor, trauma professional, and expert in the field of violence against women