If a grizzly bear wandered into your home while you were asleep, slipped into bed beside you, and woke you up with its hot breath in your face, what would you do?
I think you would plan your escape.
You might not run right away. The bear might seem friendly at the moment. You might think it best not to disturb it. You might not want to leave it alone with your family. Even if you didn’t take off right away, you would still plan your escape. That’s what you should do when a loved one has hurt you. Devise an exit strategy for getting out of range, even if you don’t think you’ll use it.
When you escape, you can go far or stay close. You can leave in the middle of the night without telling anyone, travel to another state, and change your name; or you can just say I can’t be with you now, go for a walk, and come back in twenty minutes. Both are escapes that differ only in implications and degree.
Having an escape plan can do wonders for your ability to cope, giving you a feeling of safety and security. Paradoxically, it can make you more able to be present.
Being more present by having an escape plan works like this. If I have a client who needs to talk about something she’s never told anyone before, something she doesn’t think she can tell anyone, and is hesitant about it; we’ll set up an escape plan for her. We agree that, if she feels she can’t go on talking about it, all she has to do is say the word and we’ll stop. I encourage her to try it. When she knows she can use the escape plan, and that I’ll honor it, she’ll be more able to move forward.
It’s also like this. When you’re driving down the highway and you have an empty breakdown lane to your right, you’re going to feel a whole lot safer than when there’s no place to pull over. Having an out feels more secure.
An escape plan works in concert with the Problem-Free Zone. It does you no good to have a Problem-Free Zone if you’re not willing to use it, to escape to it when necessary. If a grizzly bear invaded your bed, you might let the bear have the bedroom and go to the rest of the house. The rest of the house would be what we call the Problem-Free Zone. Ideally, the Problem-Free Zone should be large enough and secure enough so that, when you go there to escape from the Problem, the Problem can’t get to you there. If the Problem follows you out there, then you need a new Problem-Free Zone.
Unfortunately, Problem-Free Zones can be invaded. If you got into an argument and left for a walk and your loved one followed you, your Problem-Free-Zone has been invaded and you need a new way to separate yourself from the Problem.
In the same way, if you had pulled into the breakdown lane on the highway, only to look up and see a tractor-trailer barreling down on you in the breakdown lane, you’d jump out of the car into the weeds on the side of the road. You should always have an escape plan, even when you’ve already escaped and should be safe.
If you’re the person who has hurt your loved one, you should not think of the escape plan your partner puts in place as something threatening to you. I know if you’re in the middle of making your point in an argument, it’s inconvenient when he says he can’t talk any more. You might think he’s avoiding the issue. But, believe me, it’ll be worse if he stays. Similarly, if she moves out and places an order of protection placed against you, it’s for your own good. If you respect it, it’ll keep you and her from doing something you’ll both regret.
As a matter of fact, having an escape plan is good even if you’re the one who has committed the offense; if you’re the one who is alcoholic, drug dependent, a gambling fiend, violent, or whatever. You should have a couple of escape plans. One for when those self-destructive impulses are triggered, so you can escape your own demons. The other for when you fail to escape it and your loved ones finally get fed up with you and what you do. It’s only a matter of time before they are.
In the next piece, we’ll go over the escape plan checklist: the elements of an escape plan that make it a good one.