Domestic Violence: Should I Get a Restraining Order?

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Purple ribbon, supporting efforts against domestic violence
The purple ribbon is often used to raise awareness of domestic violence issues.

A possessive ex threatens you with physical violence. An obsessed acquaintance lurks behind your house every night. You can’t trust your live-in partner anymore.

In these and any other abusive relationship, you have the absolute right to protect yourself from domestic violence, both in and out of the home. So, should you go to court and slap a restraining order on them? Will it help?

Yes, they do work

Based on a survey of police reports, women who obtain a permanent restraining order against a male intimate partner are subsequently significantly less likely to experience physical abuse than those who don’t, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

They’re “often very effective,” according to Debbie Segal, special advisor and former chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence. For instance, the court may require that your abuser cease all contact with you, possess a firearm or even move out of your home.

“Most civil protection orders provide that some violations of the order can be punished by incarceration,” she says. “That proves to be a deterrent for many perpetrators.

However, they can backfire

Unfortunately, some abusers choose to ignore them, occasionally with deadly consequences. “A civil protective order is just a piece of paper,” cautions Segal. “It cannot stop a perpetrator who ignores it from continuing acts of violence.”

In one survey of murders where a male perpetrator killed a female intimate partner, 11% of the victims had already been issued a restraining order.

The JAMA study noted that women who obtain a temporary restraining order (which is often the first step to qualifying for a permanent one) are actually more likely to subsequently suffer from psychological abuse.

In some cases, receiving one just provokes the harasser to seek the victim out. “What happens is that the lethality of a situation and the perpetrator’s behavior can escalate after a protection order has been put in place,” says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Develop a personal safety plan

So, have a Plan B exit strategy in place, in case your harasser ignores the order. This might include listing the items you’ll want to take if you need to leave in a hurry, leaving a spare set of keys and clothes with a friend, or rehearsing the plan with your children.

“A safety plan is extremely individual and takes into account that person’s schedule, resources, workplace, school and habits, to name a few,” says Segal.

Don’t delay until it’s too late

Most women who request restraining orders wait until after they have been victimized by severe violence, according to John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For quick legal action, request a “temporary” restraining order. If you can convince a judge that you are in immediate danger, they will issue the order right away. Plus, you won’t have to confront the other party in the courtroom.

That will give you some breathing room to request a “permanent” order, which stays in effect longer — sometimes years. You will have to go to court, at which time the other party will have the opportunity to challenge the order.

Report any violations

If the abuser approaches you after receiving an order, make sure that you are in no immediate danger, then inform the authorities. “Some options are to call the police in an emergency, or return to court and seek an order of contempt or to ask the court to prosecute the violator in criminal court,” says Segal.

Having an order in place also helps the police to respond appropriately when responding to a call. If the police arrive and don’t already know about the order, you may need to show them a copy. Keep one with you at all times and leave one with a trusted friend or advocate.

Preserve any evidence that you or your loved one is being abused. Take photographs of injuries and save torn clothing.

Get help from an advocate

You don’t have to navigate these complex legal and safety waters alone. “Find your local domestic violence program and ask for guidance on obtaining a protective order,” says Glenn.

Useful contacts:

“Protective orders can serve as a valuable tool for documentation of abuse and the need for safety,” says Glenn. “If they are provided and enforced safely they can be one tool in the box.”


David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.