Leaving an Abusive Relationship: Tips from a Family Law Lawyer

Despite being the most preventable homicide, a woman is killed by her intimate partner every 6 days in Canada.[1] About 100,000 Canadians are subject to partner violence and contemplate leaving an abusive relationship every year.

Education and early intervention are key to preventing intimate partner violence.  However, when these strategies have failed, it is essential to support and empower survivors in order to increase safety and lessen harm.

What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour used by one partner to maintain power and control over the other in an intimate relationship.  This power and control can be exhibited in the form of physical, sexual, verbal, economic, or emotional mistreatment.  You are a victim of intimate partner violence if your spouse commits any of the following actions:

  • Hurting or threatening to hurt you, or those you care about.
  • Engaging in violence, including hitting, kicking, punching, pushing, choking, or physical assault, against you.
  • Criticizing or blaming you for everything that goes wrong in a relationship or life.
  • Trying to humiliate you before others.
  • Restraining your access to money.
  • Off-putting you from the decision-making in the relationship.
  • Limiting your freedom, time, or actions.
  • Harassing you or putting you down that results in you are suffering emotional disturbance.
  • Destroying property you own.
  • Being cruel toward your pets.
  • Intimidating with force/violence or threat of suicide.
  • Forcing you to have sex against your will.

Intimate partner violence accounts for a fourth of all police-reported violent crimes in Canada.

If you are in immediate danger:

  • Call 911.
  • Contact a shelter if you do not have a safe place to go.
  • Call a helpline.
  • If you can, take important documents and essential personal belongings with you.

Why It’s So Hard To Leave An Abusive Relationship

Leaving an abusive relationship is incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons. Any attempt to escape the relationship is sure to change the course of your life completely. Apart from safety, there are other factors that make leaving an abusive relationship challenging for a survivor. Sarah Buel, a lawyer and clinical professor of law  has compiled a list of 50 reasons why survivors stay with their abusers. These range from influence of the abuser to pressure from the children or denial.

Research shows that a woman makes seven attempts on average to leave an abusive relationship before calling it off permanently. This highlights the uncertainty on victims’ part and underscores the need for planning when trying to escape an abusive relationship.

Tips for Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Planning is critical for women trying to escape abusive relationships. It can significantly reduce risks involved, minimize emotional upheaval, and facilitates a smooth transition. Here are some tips to consider when making the decision to end an abusive relationship

  1. Reconnect with friends and family

Isolation is a powerful tactic used by abusive and controlling partners.  Oftentimes, victims of abuse have been isolated from friends or family, leaving them with little to no support network. When planning a separation, it is important to reestablish or create a support network.  This support network will be critical in getting you out of the relationship and back on your feet.  Women who have a social support system are also more likely to leave as leaving without one can be daunting. A support network does not only consist of family members or close friends.  You can build a circle of support with the help of a lawyer, doctor, colleague or counsellor.  Having a support network will also make you feel less financial and emotionally trapped.

  1. Seek Out and Accept support

Speaking to a counselor at a shelter or legal clinic will make leaving an abusive relationship easier. They will connect you with the resources you need to devise a safety plan, arrange for housing, apply for work, or other support services. For example, the Province of Ontario gives victims of spousal abuse priority status on their subsidized housing applications if the application is made within 3 months of the separation.  Most people do not know this and they may stay on a friend’s couch for 6 months before seeking help.  Counsellors are trained to provide support services to victims of violence and are well positioned to connect you to specialized services in your community.  Take advantage of their wealth of knowledge!

Here is a list of additional resources in Canada and Toronto for victims of domestic violence.

  1. Get Legal Advice

Get in touch with a family law lawyer to discuss your legal rights following a separation.  Even a short consultation with a lawyer who is familiar with domestic violence can provide you with legal advice, assist with safety planning and set you on the right path. If you are financially dependent on your abuser and worry about being able to support yourself and/or your children on your own, a family law lawyer will be able to provide you with legal advice regarding issues of support and property division.  They will tell you whether you are entitled to receive child support or spousal support and whether you can expect to receive any money from your home or your spouse’s pension.

How to Obtain Affordable and Accessible Legal Advice

The information you receive from your lawyer will assist you in planning and budgeting accordingly.

If you can afford a lawyer, great.  If you cannot afford to retain a lawyer, there are many resources to assist you in obtaining legal advice.

  1. Legal Aid Ontario offers two hours of free legal advice for victims of domestic violence. This service is offered through various legal clinics. You can also call Legal Aid Ontario directly at 1-800-668-8258.
  2. There are family lawyers, who provide unbundled services or work on limited scope retainers. You can retain them to provide a legal opinion, prepare a court application or coach you if your only option is to represent yourself.
  3. Justice Net has a list of family lawyers, who provide services on a sliding-scale based on your income.
  4. Many lawyers also offer services for a deferred fee. They may permit you to pay them once you get money from the sale of shared assets, such as a matrimonial home.

The Importance of Making A Safety Plan

Before you leave, develop a safety plan.  Even if you are not ready to leave now, having a safety plan will help chalk out a strategy for the best possible post-separation outcome and will make it easier for you to become more independent when you leave.  Here are a few important tips to assist you in preparing a detailed safety plan.

  • Consider where you will live immediately following the separation, whether it means renting an apartment, staying with a friend or in a shelter.
  • Keeping an alternate cell phone nearby or memorizing the number of your close friend or a shelter.
  • Keep important documents (or copies of important documents) with a friend or on a pen drive. If you must leave in a hurry, try to take these documents with you.
  • Open a separate bank account and start putting money aside. It will be easier to leave if you have enough money to survive on your own for at least a month or two. Even if you are entitled to child and spousal support, it may take several months to obtain a court order and even longer to have that order enforced by the Family Responsibility Office.  Assume you will not receive any sort of support for at least 6 months.
  • Start speaking with a therapist as soon as possible as this support will start getting you emotionally ready for the change.
  • Consult with a family law lawyer so that you can learn about your rights. Knowing whether you are entitled to support, or an equalization payment will be critical when developing your exist strategy. A family lawyer can also assist you in determining whether you can apply for a restraining order or whether your situation would be considered urgent to the court, warranting an emergency court application.
  • Plan to actually leave your home when your partner is out of town or you know they will not come home while you are in the process of leaving.

You Made the Decision to Leave with your Children, Now What?

In Ontario, both parents have an equal legal right to custody of their children when a relationship ends.  No parent has a greater legal right, even if they did most of the childcare and even if the other parent was abusive towards the other spouse. If you decide to leave and take your children with you, your partner might try to accuse you of abducting the children. Therefore, it is crucial to speak with a lawyer prior to leaving.

Once you have left, it is important that someone (could be you, a friend or a lawyer), notify your spouse that the children are safe and that you would like to discuss the issues of custody and access.  If you have retained a lawyer, a lawyer may be able to negotiate a temporary arrangement for custody and access.  If you are not represented by a lawyer and it is not safe to communicate with your spouse, your only option may be to commence a court application or mediation with an accredited mediator that can properly screen and put safety precautions in place.

Failure to notify your spouse as to the whereabouts or safety of your children will likely encourage them to start their own urgent family court application and may unnecessarily escalate the conflict.

Finding A Shelter

As a family lawyer in Toronto, I have represented many women who have left abusive relationships.   Many of them were unemployed, with young children, and financially dependent on their spouses.  Despite their dire need for support, many of them cringed at the thought of staying in a shelter.

Although I do not know what it is like to live in a shelter, I can attest to the positive ways in which they have assisted my clients.

Shelters do not only provide housing.  They provide support to women escaping abusive relationships and help them rebuild their lives again.  One of my clients underwent a major transformation after her stay at such a shelter.

After meeting with me for a family law consultation, a young mother decided to contact a shelter.  She was unemployed, had no savings, had not finished high school, had no family in Toronto and had just left her abusive boyfriend with her toddler son. A few months later, she enrolled in a college program and was able to secure a subsidized spot for her toddler in daycare. In under a year, she got a part-time job earning minimum wage and shortly thereafter was able to move into an apartment on her own.  This woman is now completely self-sufficient, and her son is now school aged.  She gives all credit of her turn around to the shelter.  Had it not been there, she may have felt compelled to stay with her abusive partner.  I continue to be inspired by her story and the remarkable way in which the shelter empowered her to change the course of her life.

Men in An Abusive Relationship

Although the majority of victims of partner violence are women, men are also subject to abuse in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Abused men often face different obstacles, including a shortage of community resources and a lack of support from family and friends. The information above applies to men as well but here is a list of resources specifically targeted towards men experiencing domestic violence.

[1] https://bc-counsellors.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/The-Most-Preventable-Homicide-Carolyn-Camilleri-Spring-2017.pdf

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