How to have situational awareness in an abusive relationship

Understanding gaslighting, defining reality, making a safety plan can keep you out of danger

SAN ANTONIO – To get out of an abusive relationship, you first have to realize that you’re in one.

It can be difficult to detect since the control in domestic violence typically progresses slowly and gradually.

That’s why author Kelly Sayre became an expert and wrote a book called “Sharp Women” on situational awareness for women in dangerous relationships.

She explains that abusive relationships usually begin with gaslighting, when the abuser causes self-doubt and confusion in their victim’s mind.

“Gaslighting is awful because it makes you question reality and question, ‘Did I really see that? Did I really hear that? Am I reading into it?’” Sayre explained.

Sayre experienced that herself. After she left that relationship, she took physical self-defense classes but realized there was no class for non-physical self-awareness.

“Situational awareness has a background in military and law enforcement fields. So it was a lot of researching those military or tactical manuals and trainings and translating that info to apply to my everyday life,” she said.

The book explains that the key part of situational awareness is understanding and recognizing your intuition, and trusting that it’s your survival instinct.

“Trusting your intuition and remembering that your perspective matters, no matter what the abuser is trying to convince you of otherwise,” Sayre said.

Sayre speaks to many different groups, companies and seminars, teaching people that situational awareness is using all your senses to notice when something is off.

“You’re going to get to know what their normal behavior patterns are. You’re going to recognize those subtle ‘off’ things. Whether it’s a behavior or something they said that are early warning signs of potential danger,” she said.

Some warnings are nonverbal, like body movements or facial expressions.

“Women are statistically, study after study, we are better at reading the tiniest of microfacial expressions and accurately assessing emotions,” Sayre said.

Once a victim can hone that awareness, Sayre said they should make a safety plan for leaving in case it turns dangerous.

That can be done by anonymously contacting the domestic violence hotline, or Family Violence Prevention Services in San Antonio. Case workers can help create safety plans for each specific situation.

“Whether that’s setting up a routed mailing address so when you need to get bills, when you need to get prescriptions for your kids when you need information from their school, that it’s going to a P.O. Box,” Sayre said. “Or anything you can do to set aside amounts of money beforehand because financial abuse is present in almost all domestic violence relationships.”

She also suggests collecting evidence, if and when it’s safe to do so. There’s a website and app called Victims Voice, which helps you record and keep track of evidence that can be used in court if ever needed.

However, it’s imperative to reiterate to only do those things if it’s safe, or won’t provoke an abuser to escalate violence.

“The most dangerous time in a domestic abuse relationship is leaving and after you’ve left. So take the time, reach out to resources, find out what is available to you in your area,” Sayre said.

Though the steps to achieving situational awareness may seem insurmountable, Sayre said they lead to freedom.

“Your life matters and you don’t deserve to live this way in an abusive relationship. So making your personal safety a priority, is never something you should apologize for or feel embarrassed by,” she said.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic violence, help is out there. There is a long list of resources on KSAT’s Domestic Violence web page.

You can chat with someone on the National Domestic Violence hotline website, call them at (800) 799-7233, or text START to 88788.

The number for Family Violence Prevention Services, which runs the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter in San Antonio is (210) 733-8810.

The Bexar County Family Justice Center can be reached at (210) 631-0100.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Valerie Gomez is lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. She began her career in 2014 and has been with KSAT since 2017. She helped create KSAT’s first digital-only newscast in 2018, and her work on KSAT Explains and various specials have earned her a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media and multiple Emmy nominations.

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