Making your escape


Planning for the future after leaving an abusive relationship

Key points:

Establishing a support network:

  • The role of friends, family, and domestic violence support organisations
  • Safety precautions when confiding plans
  • Using prepaid phones and alternative internet access to maintain secrecy

Legal considerations:

  • Prioritising legal aspects, such as obtaining protection orders and understanding custody rights
  • Securing essential documentation and informing key contacts about plans

Protecting children:

  • Balancing communication with children while keeping plans secret
  • Seeking support from teachers or school officials and creating a stable environment


  • Transitioning from temporary to permanent housing
  • Exploring options like staying with family, holiday lets, or shelters

Financial independence:

  • Financial planning before leaving, considering resources and expenses
  • Opening a new bank account and exploring credit card options for financial independence

Safety planning:

  • Carefully crafting a physical exit plan, especially with children
  • Turning off electronic devices and using a “burner” phone to avoid tracking

Emotional and mental wellbeing:

  • Prioritising mental health and seeking counselling or support groups
  • Rebuilding a positive mindset and empowering oneself after leaving an abusive relationship

The article emphasises the significance of a thorough exit plan, detailing practical steps to empower women in their journey toward independence and a violence-free life.

This is the third in our series of four articles on abusive relationships, marking 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. In the first, we described the dynamics of abusive relationships, the different types of abuse and how to recognise them. In the second, we explored the barriers to leaving. Many women are trapped in abusive relationships out of a very legitimate fear of retaliation by the abusive partner, and/or because their self-esteem has taken such a beating that they lack the confidence to make a new start. Sometimes a woman will flee out of desperation, perhaps following a particularly savage beating, or when she finally decides she can’t take any more. There are shelters and support services to help women in these circumstances. However, if at all possible, it’s wise to make an exit plan before actually leaving. This can make the transition smoother and reduce the risk of retaliatory harm. Even if the flight from the home is unplanned and urgent, it’s still possible and advisable to plan for the future from a place of safety. A solid, practical exit plan significantly increases the chances of success and reduces the likelihood that a woman will be forced to return to a dangerous situation.

In this article we’ll look at the role of support networks and professional advisers, safety planning, breaking out of financial dependency, finding alternative accommodation, protecting children, legal considerations, and looking after mental and emotional wellbeing.

Establish a support network and be able to access it

It may feel risky to confide your plans to family members. They may encourage you to “try harder” to make the relationship work, or they may even tell your partner. Many abusive partners appear charming and likeable to outsiders and you may feel you won’t be believed (see Barriers to Leaving). If this is the case, trust your instincts and choose someone you can rely on to disclose your plans to. Ask them to support you in your journey and check in on you regularly. If you have a close friendship group outside of the relationship, they can share this role. If the prospect of telling even one friend scares you, connect with a local domestic violence support organisation or counselling service. Having someone to call when you really need it will make you feel less isolated and more empowered. Make sure you are able to make calls, i.e., your phone is charged and you have airtime. Keep emergency numbers somewhere safe, not just in your phone, or memorise the number of a key contact, in case your phone is taken from you. 

When you seek help, make sure you do so safely. If your abuser keeps track of your online activity or monitors your cell phone, you may need to buy a cheap, prepaid phone (a “burner”) and keep it well hidden. Use the internet at a friend’s house or an internet café (yes, they still exist) so your partner can’t track your browsing history.

When establishing your support network, while you are still in the abusive home, tell the person or people you trust what you need from them. Many people want to help but don’t know how. They may be as frightened of your partner as you are and reluctant to intervene. If you ask someone to keep an “escape bag” for you or offer you emergency accommodation when you are ready, they may feel more able and therefore willing to make a meaningful contribution.

Further down the line, a therapist, counsellor or support group will help you process your experiences and avoid falling into a cycle of abuse. Counselling may not be a priority in the early days, but it should be part of your plan. An objective third party can help you realise and accept that the abuse was not your fault and support you in devising strategies for your future happiness.

Legal considerations

One of your first priorities should be legal considerations. You may want to issue a protection order against your partner so you feel safe. If you have children with your partner, he will almost certainly want access to them after you leave and may even try to gain custody of them, particularly if he thinks it will either entice you back or punish you for leaving. You need to know your rights and have an understanding of the legal process around custody and contact. You may also wish to initiate divorce proceedings. A family lawyer will talk you through your options.

Make sure you have all your documentation with you when you leave, and electronic or paper copies lodged with someone external, just in case. You need your ID documents and passports – for you and your children – and important medical and financial records. Assume you may not have access to your home or your belongings for a period. What information is essential to have to hand? What will you need to open a bank account or apply for a lease?

Protecting children

The hardest part of your transition may be keeping your plans secret from your children, but this is critical. You need to tread a fine line between wanting to communicate changes to your children and avoiding any possibility that they will reveal your plans to your partner or other family members. Behave normally around them; talk about the future, e.g., holiday plans as a family, even if you know that holiday isn’t going to happen. Children are very quick to pick up on signs of tension in their parents, and you don’t want to give them reason to question the status quo.

When you leave, assuming you take the children with you, explain to them in an age-appropriate manner what is happening, but don’t go into detail. It may be too distressing for them to learn that your abuser – their father – physically harms you. Reassure them that everything will be OK and you will all be safe. Remind them regularly that they are loved – by both parents. Whatever your feelings towards your partner, it won’t help you or your children if you turn them against him. Create a stable and nurturing environment for them and be aware and tolerant of any behaviour changes. This is a big life event for them to process. If possible, have a word with their teacher or head of school and make them aware of your circumstances. Your child won’t be the first or the last in the school to go through this and many teachers are experienced at handling the situation with sensitivity.


When you first leave your shared home, you will almost certainly move into temporary accommodation. Finding and organising a new permanent home when you need to keep your intentions private is tricky. The ideal scenario would be to stay with a family member or friend for at least a month, possibly two. Finding somewhere suitable to rent can take time. However, this is a big “ask”, especially if you have children, and may not be feasible. If someone you trust can offer even a few nights’ accommodation, it can make those early days much easier. From that place of safety you can negotiate your next move, which may be to a shelter as an interim measure or, if you can afford it, a long-term holiday let. Outside of peak season, many owners of holiday accommodation offer substantial discounts for lets of a month or more, often on a par with standard rental prices. And they tend to be furnished. This would give you the breathing space you need to find a long-term solution. If your resources don’t stretch to this, you may need to use a shelter. While not exactly luxury accommodation, shelters are run by organisations with expertise in crisis and domestic violence and you will find support, assistance, and compassion. There will be other women who share your experience, and you may feel less isolated and traumatised.

Eventually you will need to find a new home, or it may be that you can move back into the family home and your partner will need to move out. Your family lawyer will advise you on the choices available to you based on your unique circumstances. You will want to consider proximity to schools and the location of your ex-partner. You may feel safer and more comfortable moving away, even with a protection order in place, to avoid any chances of running into him in your daily movements. You may want to move closer to your own family, to bolster your support network. Before you start hunting for a house or apartment, draw up a budget. Know what you can afford, and be aware of costs not included in the rent, such as utilities and parking.

Financial planning

Your exit plan must include financial planning. The effectiveness of this will make the difference between surviving on your own and being forced to return to the abuser’s home. This process can take time. It’s very hard to suggest staying in an abusive situation, but the better resourced you are, the better the chance of survival in the long run. If possible on the income or allowance available to you, stash a bit away every week. The transition from dependence on a partner to financial independence is not easy. But don’t let the fear of the unknown keep you in a dangerous situation. We’ll return to this topic in more detail with practical advice in the next article in this series.

Safety planning

Physically leaving the family home requires a carefully crafted plan of action, especially if you have children. Know where you are going in advance. Don’t wait until you leave to call the friend you want to stay with. You need to know what you are doing. Remember, you will be fearful, and that can cloud your judgement. So the more you have rehearsed your plan mentally, the more confident you will feel and the less likely you are to make risky mistakes. Keep an eye on your partner’s movements for a few weeks to be certain of times when he is away from home for an extended period. This is the best time to leave. Running out of the house in the middle of the night with your partner snoring in bed might be dramatic but is not a safe option. Make sure you have enough time to get to your destination before he discovers you are gone. Let your trusted contact know your plans. Arrange to call them at a certain time (or stay with them). That way, if you don’t call or arrive at the appointed time, they will know to raise the alarm. The person you stay with should ideally not be someone your partner expects. The more predictable your course of action, the greater the chance that he will come after you.

If you know or suspect that your partner has been tracking you electronically, turn off your phone so your geolocation is undetectable. Use the prepaid “burner” phone to contact your friend. Call your family lawyer to get an interim protection order immediately. 

Your escape bag should already be with a friend. If that’s not possible, stash it in a safe place where your abuser won’t find it. It should contain spare clothes, a special toy for your child, if relevant, a set of keys (so you can go back home when safe to do so for your possessions), snacks such as energy bars, spare prescription medicine, etc. Don’t forget to include any special personal items like photographs or jewellery, so they are not destroyed as retribution. Your document copies should also be in a safe place.

If you are escaping to a shelter, the staff will help you cope with those first days and put you in touch with legal and social services. If you are doing this on your own, call your lawyer the next morning and document your situation. You can also discuss custody arrangements. Don’t wait for your partner to do it. Even if you do not opt to stay in a shelter, it’s still a good idea to contact a support organisation. There will be many things you haven’t thought of; they are experts and know how to navigate this difficult time.

If you have been hurt by your abuser, visit your GP or primary health care clinic. You may need treatment. And it will ensure there is a medical record of your condition. If you have bruises or other visible evidence of abuse, take photos. Ask your lawyer to record the information on your file.

Lastly, be prepared for retaliation from your abuser. He is unlikely to let you go quietly. If you work, and your movements to and from your workplace are predictable, speak to your employer about varying your hours or having someone accompany you into and out of the building. Change your passwords on all websites, especially anything financial. Disable your social media accounts so your location and activities can’t be tracked. Change your email address and cell phone number. Tell the school not to release your child to anyone but you (or a designated carer of your choosing and only on proof of identification).

Emotional and mental wellbeing

Escaping from an abusive relationship may feel like the end of a nightmare, but it is also the beginning of the rest of your life. While it may feel exhausting and terrifying at first, it is exciting. You are in charge now. Your mental health and emotional wellbeing have been battered by your abusive relationship. You will need help and support to rebuild a positive mindset and empower yourself. Domestic violence organisations can offer counselling services and support groups, or you may choose to find a private therapist or psychologist. Now is the time to prioritise your mental health and restore your self-esteem.

If you need help NOW

This article is the third in our series about moving on from abusive relationships throughout the 16 Days of Activism. The fourth and final article will cover finding your feet and gaining financial independence – moving beyond the “escape” and into a new life. 

If you need help right now, call us immediately. SD Law has deep experience of helping women escape abusive partners and find peace and dignity in a new life. We can serve a protection order on a controlling partner, connect you to support services, and make sure you and your children are safe. Some resources able to provide immediate support and guidance are listed at the end of this article.

At Cape Town Divorce Attorneys, we understand how deeply distressing abuse can be. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email for a confidential discussion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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