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Keeping It Safe, When It's Time to Part

by Nancy Blake(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 260 - February 2020

Keeping It Safe, When You Have to Part

Nancy Blake BA CQSW 


If you are in a dangerously abusive relationship and thinking of leaving (not just reading this article out of interest!), it is essential to keep plans to leave secret.  Safest is to use only public phones or computers.  Next best is to protect yourself online.  Exit this article, unless you are already on a PC not your own, and follow these instructions[1]:


If you are in immediate danger, call 999.  For further advice and assistance,

Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline:  0808 2000 247.

Bear in mind that due to government underfunding, all the organizations which help women in dangerous situations are increasingly limited in what they are able to do, and that this trend will continue.

The understanding and the compassion suggested in this article may turn out to be the most powerful safeguards available to you.


Keeping Yourself Safe


Keeping Yourself Safe

I hate you but I’m not going to let you go!

Once in love with your partner, you are now desperate to leave.  Your partner is equally desperate to keep you.

The frightening reality is that two women a week, in the UK, are killed by partners or ex-partners, most often shortly before or shortly after leaving.[2,3]

No amount of justice, punishment, revenge or remorse brings back the dead.  This article is about preventing it happening in the first place.


Understanding the deep roots of feelings so intense that they lead to murder…or even ‘over-killing’  (violence beyond that needed to kill) helps us to avoid behaviour that could trigger attack.

Learning as much as possible about the legal and practical assistance available to us in advance can help us make sound plans for a safe separation.  (The woman who refuses to leave her abusive partner may have discovered that, without private financial resources, this is not a practical possibility.)


Why do relationships which begin because two people have fallen in love go so wrong that one or both of them want to end it?

And why, when things have gone so wrong, would one partner kill the other rather than letting them leave?

We can look to nature, nurture and culture for explanations.


The two fundamental drives:  Individual survival, and the survival of our genes. 

You don’t have to watch that many wild-life programs to see that in every species there is competition to select sexual partners, and behavioural strategies for ensuring genetic survival. 

Male lions use the simple device of murdering any cubs his chosen mate may already have before impregnating her.

The male stickleback lures the female to the nest he has made,  spreads his semen over the eggs she lays, and takes charge of caring and protecting them right through their first week of life.[4] (The male human also has stickleback tendencies…to attract a mate, to provide for and protect his mate and his progeny [5])

But the human male (before DNA testing!) has no absolute way of knowing whether his progeny are genetically his.  He must trust his mate, or control her.

Possessiveness, jealousy, wanting to control his mate’s behaviour to ensure her progeny are his… these instincts are deeply ingrained.

This does not condone or excuse the man who murders his partner rather than lose his control over her.  It simply points out the power of what he, and you, are having to deal with.


Our very earliest attachments influence whether we  can develop the ability to trust, or remain ruled by the anxious need to control.

The human infant is completely helpless for longer than in any other species.  Our brain is also undeveloped:  our intelligence and ability to learn is the secret of our success as a species. 

Our helplessness means that we will die unless there someone who has both the physical and the mental capacity to take care of us, and is totally focused on meeting our needs for the long period of our total dependence.   (‘Attention-getting behaviour’ is the only survival strategy available to the human infant.)

If you have ever seen the purple rage of a hungry baby, you can understand how frightening it is to be completely dependent on another for physical survival.  And imagine how much what happens now will be engraved into emotions in later life.

Lou Cozolino, in his book on attachment and the developing brain[6] describes in detail how early experiences cause change in the actual structure of our brain. 

Melanie Klein takes a psychoanalytic look at how the mother/infant relationship affects our ability to form loving connections in later life.[7]

If the mother (or other care-giver) is responsive to the child’s needs, (the Good Breast) he learns to feel that the universe is a safe and reliable place, that people can be trusted, and that his needs will be met.  He becomes the adult who can form loving attachments, but also knows he will survive if their main attachment fails in some way. 

The child who has not been loved enough to have that confidence will only feel safe in a relationship through gaining control of his partner.   Her potential departure will be experienced as life-threatening, because his emotional development has been arrested at the point where loss of his carer would have been life-threatening.  (You can feel this terrified rage in all the misogynist posts and tweets directed at women, especially at women in public life, who have financial independence, status and power, and appear to be outside of male control.)

Klein talks about envy…when it goes beyond desperately wanting what the Good Breast can provide and becomes hatred so strong that it turns whatever she provides into poison.  The enraged baby vomits the milk he finally receives.  The enraged adult, threatened by loss of his needed partner, hating his dependence on her, hating her for his dependence on her, strikes out.


The moral prescriptions and prohibitions of most world religions and most nations legal systems include much that concerns control of female reproductive behaviour, and the rights of men to control it, including the justifications for ‘honour killings’.  In fact, femicide in our culture, and our relative tolerance of it, could be seen as a modern version.[8]


The theme of women’s responsibility for male behaviour goes right back to Genesis, in which man’s sexual awakening (and fall from grace) is firmly blamed on the woman. 

Women’s  acceptance of this responsibility can be heard in the voices of abused women today.  ‘It was my fault.  I should have managed him better.’

Society’s acceptance of this responsibility can be heard in  courts of law, in which too often, it seems it is the victim who is on trial.  Abuse, rape, murder:  ‘She drove him to it.’

Today’s politics reflect the struggle between those who want relationships based on choice and those seeking to reassert male control of female reproduction.   

In pushing back against these obvious injustices, this political tide, we are, as I am pointing out in this article, pushing back against deeply rooted currents of emotions, beliefs and behaviour.   It is not easy; the struggle is far from won.

Here I must clear up a misunderstanding: In writing about the importance of early experience in determining whether the adult becomes emotionally secure enough to trust his mate, or remains in a state of anxious insecurity that demands ‘power over’ his sexual partner, I seem to be feeding a specific version of ‘blame-the-woman’:


Blame-the-mother has become the cultural default explanation for a wide range of social problems involving men – crime, addiction, mental illness, suicide - including my own insistence on the role of early nurturing in the development of the personality capable of murdering a partner

Blaming-the-mother overlooks and denies that social conditions and social practices can make women unable to provide the secure nurturing required for healthy emotional development.

Abusive family relations occur at all social levels.  Children damaged in toxic families grow up without either the emotional resources or any role model for becoming good parents.  Despite this most will do their best, and many will succeed.

At the bottom of the economic hierarchy, the family, or solitary mother scrabbling for survival in an increasingly hostile environment can hardly provide calm and consistent nurturing when it is a daily struggle just to provide food.

At the top of the economic hierarchy, the very wealthy mother can give birth (preferably by Caesarian, so much more convenient for the doctor, and the women who want to avoid the birth process) in a hospital which will then whisk away the baby when it is being a bother. This sequence is very likely to prevent the maternal bonding which is the essential first building-block of emotional security.

In between, in large swathes of upper middle class British society, an infant’s closest carer would be a nanny…who would become expendable at the age when he is most vulnerable to broken attachments.  She might be replaced by another carer, equally  expendable at the point where he then sets off for boarding school.  Where any show of attachment would be firmly suppressed. 

Our nation is currently being ruled by people who have been damaged by these practices.

As for the rest of us:  there is parenting advice that builds emotional security, and parenting advice that works against it.

If an infant’s cries get a caring response, he builds security and trust.[9]

If an infant’s cries are systematically ignored, he learns fear, mistrust and hatred.

Most of us have experienced some combination, and manage our lives accordingly.  Some of us are at the extremes:  too quick and anxious responses teach us that we may not survive unless our needs are met immediately.  Abusive responses are at least responses, they teach us that power, not love, is the key.  No response at all creates zombies…those hollow-eyed mannikins who just wither away.  Limited responses, whether of a depressed mother or a mother who has been told that ignoring their infants crying ‘will build resilience’, will do proportionate damage.

And as for the ambitious, demanding, critical ‘tiger mother’….high rates of suicide in adolescence, as one would predict.[10]

Good mothering is important. 

Not every woman who is a mother is able to provide it.   

It is not her fault.


The Romantic Ideal – Perfect Love

(Another damaging cultural myth - opera loves it – no one escapes alive!)

We all emerged from an environment in which we were warm and enclosed, within which all our needs were met without effort on our part..we contain deeply within us a memory and a fantasy of this blissful state.

Gaining emotional maturity is a complicated process of managing our emergence from physical union with our mother into independent adulthood. 

Falling in love, sexual passion recreate this conflict.  The romantic myth of perfect love urges us to remain lost in our mergingmy jealousy is a measure of my love, we are two souls united as one, we must be together or die.

But being completely enclosed, completely merged threatens individual survival.  It is this conflict that creates the dangerous ‘can’t live with you/can’t live without you’ dilemma.

The following illustrations show the evolution of a relationship into this state:

 (Figures thanks to Andrew Blake).  

Here is a link to a more detailed discussion of the situation illustrated:


 Figure 1

Figure 1


Each big circle represents a ‘self’.  The little circles represent a ‘core self’.
This is the core which carries the fundamental, infant fear..I
will physically die if this bit of me is either abandoned or suffocated

Figure 1 shows two separate, independent individuals.  They have to make a plan if they want to spend time together.


Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows two people who are now sharing part of their time together.  There is some of the time when it is routine for them to be together, and some of the time when it is routine to be separate. 

There may be an agreement that they always spend weekends together but live apart during the week.  They may be sharing a home, but have separate jobs.  They may have separate groups of friends; separate interests and activities. 

‘I want to be with you’ is already agreed…but it can be reinforced by choices from the still independent spaces.  ‘Let’s have a special meal out’.  ‘Let me pay for this out of my money.’ 

If this is based on mutual agreement, and those agreements are based on the best interests of both, this can be the natural and normal development of a loving and productive partnership. 

If the power relations are imbalanced, and the shared experiences are in the interests of one of the pair at the expense of the other, this can be the beginning of a toxic relationship.


Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows two people who are together virtually all of the time, or who keep close track of each other even when separate. 

Now the situation in Figure 1 has been reversed:  Any separateness has to be specially arranged, defined by the fact that ‘I don’t want to be with you’.  If we are always together, there is no way that we can say to each other ‘I want to be with you’.  Whether you like it or not, you already are.  Every special arrangement is a rejection.


Locked together in mutual hate

Locked together in mutual hate, how can we ever reach out to each other? 

The only way is first to get far enough apart. 

In order to become able to say ‘I love you’ again, we first must create some space between us.  We can’t reach out until there is a distance to reach across…

This concept is beautifully expressed in Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet, writing of marriage:


‘…..let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.


Love one another, but make not a bond of love.

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.’[11]


Contrary to the romantic myth, togetherness does not equal love.  Separateness does not equal rejection.   Too much togetherness can kill love; restoring some separateness can restore love.   

A relationship damaged by too much togetherness can often be repaired.  The loving couple who find themselves trapped into too much togetherness by circumstances (you are now both retired, your house has one shared social space, and he’s always held the remote) can find solutions.   (Golf or fishing for him.  Running for public office for her.)

The couple held together by infant fears and anxious control are now in a dangerous state.  The core self is crowded, threatened by total absorption into the other.  But with so much of your selves emotionally entangled, if you leave me, will you be taking bits of myself with you?  What will be left?  Will you be taking my weakness or my strength?

I cannot bear to be suffocated…I cannot bear to be abandoned.  We are now at the heart of ‘I can’t live with you/I can’t live without you’.  Maybe killing you is the only solution – my only assurance of complete control.

Obsessive jealousy is a symptom of this dangerous mental state, and plays a role in most of these murders.  If your partner has a completely unrealistic conviction that you are having an affair, and is taking extreme measures because of it, he is moving toward the delusional state in which he may not even know what he is doing in an attack on you. 

Take this seriously.  Access advice from Women’s Aid, (link and crisis number at the beginning of this article) from Refuge, using a phone or PC that is not your own…a friend’s, or a public phone or internet connection, and take their advice.

The symptoms leading up to such a crisis point are now classified as ‘coercive control’.  Recognizing coercive control and its dangers is a starting point.[12]

Coercive control’ is now legally recognised as criminal domestic abuse.[13]

Knowing this can help you identify behaviour as abusive, and provide you with justification for leaving.

Confronting him with this and threatening to involve the police could well precipitate violence, and is precisely the kind of scene to avoid.

Knowing that parting is justified and necessary, you don’t have to have a dramatic fight to feel it is OK to leave. 

Knowing that his dangerous rage is fuelled by the primitive terror of an infant about to lose the person on whom his life depends, do all you can to maintain inner compassion and kindness in your behaviour towards him during the time you are secretly organising your safe departure.

You are doing this for both of you.

Refuge is the national organization for women who need a safe place to go, and my advice is in line with their recommendations.  Consult their website ( ) (safely!) for detailed advice about the whole range of issues you face.  But bear in mind that their resources are increasingly limited.

Carefully, cautiously and secretly, find out your legal position, your financial position, how the local police deal with potential violence (they most probably will tell you they can do nothing until after the violence has taken place!).  Find out about local provision for women leaving a dangerous domestic situation.  Make a plan for an emergency exit…a place you can go where he won’t find you.

If children are involved, your situation is much more complicated.  You will have to make plans for their safety, as well.  You will need to find out how your local Social Services Department deals with such situations.  Can you rely on them to keep your children safe, or will you have to find a way to protect them from an attitude that ‘children need their father’ (no matter how abusive)?  Agencies able to provide safe refuge will provide for women with children.

Once you are assured of a safe place to go, where he won’t be able to find you, make your actual departure as casual, as everyday as possible.  You aren’t going to march out with a suitcase…unless you are absolutely sure he is a long distance away.

Take some things, bit by bit, to a safe place, ahead of time…unless this would arouse his suspicions… so that you can leave without luggage.  Your life is more important than your things. 

Remember that revenge on pets is common… plan for their safety as well.

You know him well enough to have a sense of how much danger you are in.  Don’t let anyone tell you not to be silly!  But if your friends think that your remaining love for him may blind you to the level of danger, take their advice.  Being too careful might make you look a bit silly; not being careful enough could cost you your life.

You may feel that it is only your anger that can give you the courage to leave:  you will feel guilty unless it is the outcome of a serious row.  Forget that.  You do not need any excuse to justify leaving a situation in which the level of tension is clearly leading to violence, or has already lead to violence.  Be calm, be rational, be kind.  Conform to his wishes, do all you can to assuage his insecurity.  You are planning an act which can rescue you both from irremediable damage. 

(Some men, once this has been managed successfully, and they have had a long time to process what has happened, evolve from utter rage into gratitude for what has been averted.  This is not always the case…be careful not to drop your guard until quite a bit of time has passed, and you (and others) can judge how his mood is developing.)

Separating safely is an act of love.  Do it as well as you can.


Afterword:  This article is one of a series of three on the subject of separation as part of a loving relationship.  The first,

discusses the topic in relation to our hopes for the marriage ‘William and Kate’, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. 

This is the second, which deals with ways to keep safe while leaving a dangerously toxic relationship.

Economic policies which deprive public services of funding mean that agencies which could provide safe refuge already must turn away half of the women who come to them.  My third article will be for women attempting to keep themselves and their children safe while forced to continue living with abusive partners.


  2.  “On average two women per week are killed by a partner or ex-partner [in the UK]," Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, told the Telegraph.
  6. The Neuroscience of Human Relationships:  Attachment and the Developing Social  Brain (2nd Edition). Cozolino, Louis W.W. Norton & Company; Second Edition edition, 2014, 656 pp, ISBN‐10: 0393707822, ISBN‐13: 978‐0393707823]
  7. Envy and Gratitude. A Study of Unconscious Sources: By Melanie Klein. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1957. 101 pp.
  11. The Prophet.  Kahlil Gibran, p. 18. Pan Books, First published by William Heinemann, 1926, ISBN 0 330 31972 8 x
  12. Ten Ways To Spot Coercive Behaviour


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About Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake BA CQSW, has worked in mental health settings since 1971. She served as the Chair of the ANLP PCS (now the NLPtCA), as well as on a National Working Party developing postgraduate standards for Psychotherapy (NVQ Level 5), and contributed to the document which led to NLP being accepted as a therapeutic modality by the European Association for Psychotherapy.  She has presented workshops at UKCP Professional Conferences on an NLP approach to working with victims of abuse, and in psychoneuroimmunology.  Recovering from ME since 1986, she is the co-author, with Dr Leslie O Simpson, of the book Ramsay’s Disease (ME) about ME, as well as A Beginner's Guide to ME / CFS (ME/CFS Beginner's Guides). Both titles are available both in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Nancy was previously enrolled at Lancaster University in a PhD doctoral program; her thesis topic was Conflicting Paradigms of ME/CFS and how the Psychiatric Paradigm creates its Influence in contrast to the Medical Model. She may be contacted via Her books are available to purchase at

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