If you are in an abusive relationship, you can take steps to protect yourself, such as getting a restraining order. There are also laws to protect you. One option is leaving the relationship. Many people can support you in leaving safely, including police, social workers, shelter workers, and friends and family. You can also create a safety plan if you decide to leave in the future.
First, the police will make sure everyone is safe, which might mean arresting someone who has a weapon or is physically hurting or threatening you.
Once you are safe, the police will ask you questions about what happened. The police can also offer information about community resources for temporary housing and other support you might need. If the alleged abuser is present, police will probably take you to separate areas to talk individually about what happened.
It can be difficult to talk to strangers — police, counselors, or health care professionals. You might feel scared, ashamed, or embarrassed. It can also be difficult to tell your story many times to different people. Take your time. They are there to help. The questions they ask are necessary for the official police report, which will be used to support a court case if there is one.
If you aren’t ready to report the violence or leave your abuser, you can take steps to make yourself safer now (view under "How can I protect myself if I don't leave?").
When the police investigate a crime, or ask you and other witnesses questions about what happened, they must file a report. A police report is not the same thing as filing charges. This police report is important. It documents the violence, even if the abuser denies the violence, and creates an official record that can be used as evidence in court.
The police may decide to file criminal charges against the abuser after their investigation is completed. Once the police file criminal charges, a lawyer for the state (called a prosecutor) will begin a court case against the abuser.
You can choose what to share with the officers who respond. Only you can decide what to say, because you know your situation better than anyone else.
If you want to hold the person criminally accountable:
- Tell the police about anything your partner did or said that would be an example of a crime, such as physical or sexual violence or threats made to you verbally or in writing.
- Show the police any injuries or bruises you have. It may be painful to talk about or show, but the more information you can give the police, the better it is for documenting the abuse.
- Remember: Even if you do not have physical bruises or other signs of abuse, that does not mean your partner has not committed a crime.
- Share whatever you are comfortable with in order to help the officers understand the circumstances and why you’re seeking support. If you have any emails, screenshots, or texts that show abuse, show the police. Any written or video evidence you have will also be helpful.
Even if there isn’t a criminal charge filed against your partner, you can use the police report to help you if you go to family court or get a protection order.
Learn more at the Center for Domestic Peace about the benefits of calling the police and about what to tell the police when they arrive.
Maybe. If you’ve been abused and call the police, the police must file a report. A lawyer for the state government, called the prosecutor, may decide to file a criminal charge in court against the person who hurt you. When this happens, the state government brings charges against the person who harmed you. At this point, you can no longer drop the charges, because it is the state government, not you, that has filed the charges. In court, the state will try to prove its case against the person who hurt you.
Protection orders, often called restraining orders, are meant to keep you safe from a person who is harassing or hurting you. The police can arrest a person who violates a restraining order and charge them with a crime. Depending on the laws in your state, restraining orders may also allow you to have sole custody of children, make an abuser move out of a shared home, and make an abuser pay your court and legal fees. Federal law says that you can get a restraining order for free.
You can get more than one type of restraining order at the same time. Laws about restraining orders or other orders of protection are different in each state. Learn more about the laws in your state at WomensLaw.org. Experts in local law will be able to help you the most.
Common types of restraining orders include:
- Emergency restraining order: The police may issue this if you are in immediate danger or cannot get to the courthouse right away to file a more permanent restraining order. It usually expires after a few days.
- Temporary restraining order: A judge may issue this to help keep you safe in the time before your case goes to court. Temporary restraining orders usually last for about 14 days.
- No-contact order: A judge may issue this if the case goes to court and the abuser is charged with a crime. It is a punishment for a crime and it means the abuser may not have any contact with you. A no-contact order can last for a short or long time, depending on the facts of your case.
- Domestic violence restraining order: A judge may issue this after a court hearing. A domestic violence restraining order lasts longer than emergency or temporary restraining orders, possibly for several years.
A restraining, or protection, order can legally force someone who abuses you or harasses you to:
- Stay away from you physically and have no contact with you by phone, by email, through social media, or otherwise, even through another person
- Pay temporary child support, continue making mortgage payments on a home you own together or rental payments if the person’s name is on the lease, and allow you to stay in the home while the other person lives somewhere else
- Turn over any guns to the police
- Have regular drug testing and attend counseling for domestic violence or drug and alcohol use
- Stay away from your children and your children’s school, or visit the children only with supervision
- Do other things designed to protect you. Judges have flexibility and will work with you to ensure that the order, if granted, meets your needs.
If you have a restraining order and the person who hurt you does not follow it (tries to contact you or your children), call the police right away. The police can arrest the person for not following the order.
You can apply for a restraining (or protection) order at courthouses, women’s shelters, lawyers’ offices, and some police stations. You do not need a lawyer to get a restraining order. Federal law says that you can get a restraining order for free.
Still, you might want to get help from a lawyer to understand your rights. Often, a local domestic violence agency can help you find a lawyer. Some lawyers will help you for free. You can find a list in your state of organizations and lawyers that provide free and low-cost legal services at WomensLaw.org.
To file most types of restraining, or protection, orders, you will go to a family court located in the county where you live, where the person who hurt or harassed you lives, or where the abuse happened. You will fill out forms and provide specific information about when, where, and how the abuse or harassment happened.
A family court is very different from a criminal court. A family court will view you and your partner as equals. It becomes your word against your partner’s, unless you have police reports and documents showing criminal charges against your partner. The family court must include those documents when making a judgment about your case.
If you decide to go to family court, work with an experienced attorney to prepare your case. Collect police reports, arrest records, and documents showing charges filed against your partner. If you have pictures of injuries, hospital records, or pictures of property damage, include them. Tell your attorney about any witnesses to the abuse so the witnesses can provide statements about what they saw.
You can find a lawyer to help you at WomensLaw.org. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233), or the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE (4673), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can answer questions or help you find resources in your area. The Victim Connect Resource Center also provides referrals to local services.
Your partner may threaten to take your children if you leave. Here are some steps to help protect your children:
- Keep their identity documents. Keep important legal documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards with you or in a safe place. Make sure you have recent pictures of your children and their birth certificates. The police can help you more easily if you have these items showing you are their parent.
- Get contact information for family. Make a list of your partner’s family and friends, including their addresses and phone numbers. This can help the police find your children if your partner takes them without your permission.
- Get a restraining order. Apply for a restraining order that says your partner has to stay away from you and your children.
- Apply for sole custody. Apply for a custody order in family court that says your children have to live with you. You can also ask for the order to say that your partner may not take your children out of the United States.
If you have a restraining order or custody order, give a copy to your children’s school and child care providers. Ask them not to release the children to the abuser or anyone else not authorized to be with your children.
- Talk to a legal professional before leaving the state to get away from someone who hurt you. State laws vary and can affect whether you or your children are required to return to your original state.
- Notify the U.S. Department of State’s alert program if you’re worried your partner will try to take your children out of the country. This program lets you refuse a passport for children up to age 18. Call 1-888-407-4747 or visit the alert program website for more information.
Yes. There are laws against domestic and sexual violence, and they can help protect you. To protect you, a law must be enforced. For it to be enforced, a person must report domestic violence to the police as soon as possible after it happens.
Most domestic violence and sexual assault laws are state laws, which means they might be different in different states. So what is against the law in one state might not be in another. Regardless of the specific laws in your state, domestic or sexual violence is never your fault. It is never OK to hurt or abuse someone else.
Find out more about domestic violence and sexual assault laws in your state.
It can be difficult to think about leaving your home, your partner, and the life you have right now. You may not be ready to leave the relationship right away, but if you are in immediate danger, get to a safe place. You can start thinking about what to do if you need to leave in a hurry, and how you can be safe.
If you can’t leave or you decide not to leave right now, consider these tips for protecting yourself:
Create a safety plan. Leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous, but you can make a plan to make it safer. Start with your safety packing list, which includes a list of the most important documents, medicines, and items to take when you leave. Learn more about creating a safety plan.
- Find a place you can go in a hurry. It could be a friend’s house or a local women’s shelter. You may not stay there permanently, but you need a temporary place where you know you will be safe. Try to have more than one place in case you need to escape in a hurry.
- Find out what resources are in your community. Contact your local domestic violence or sexual assault program and ask for the help and support you need. There are programs that may help you with finding a place to stay, buying food, and finding health care if you need it. If you work or go to school, ask whether there is an employee assistance program or a student counselor. Get involved with people and activities outside your home.
You may think you can stop your partner’s abusive behavior. But only your partner is in control of changing his or her behavior. You must take steps to protect yourself and your children.
- WomensLaw.org. (2016). Protection From Abuse Orders.
- King, S. (2017). Difference Between No Contact Order Vs. Restraining Order. Legal Beagle.
- FindLaw. (2017). Domestic Violence: Orders of Protection and Restraining Orders.
Content last updated September 13, 2018