A jealous ex threatens you with physical violence. An acquaintance lurks behind your house at night. So you go to court and slap a restraining order on him or her. Will it really work?

Fifty percent of domestic violence victims experience “considerably less abuse and fear” after a restraining order — also called a protective order — is issued, according to the National Institute of Justice .

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 your abuser cease all contact with you.

“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."

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Here are four steps for taking out a restraining order.

Have a plan. Develop a personal safety plan before obtaining 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.

Act sooner rather than later. 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 .But you can probably get a restraining order even if someone has only threatened violence against you or your child. "Every state has their threshold, but there does not need to be an absolute presence of physical violence," says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Threats, coercions, harassment or physical violence are each considered an individual instance when considering whether to issue a protective order."

For quick legal action, call your municipal or county courthouse and ask them where you should go to 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.

You don’t need a lawyer to get the restraining order. However, "it may be safer and advisable to consult with an attorney first to explore all safety, legal and non-legal options before filing for a protective order," says Segal.

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Find an advocate. “Find your local domestic violence program and ask for guidance on obtaining a protective order,” says Glenn.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 (or -3224 TTY) can refer you to an advocate or lawyer in your area, or visit domesticshelters.org to locate a local emergency shelter or hotline.

Report violations. Unfortunately, some abusers choose to ignore restraining orders. “A civil protective order is just a piece of paper,” says Segal. “It cannot stop a perpetrator who ignores it from continuing acts of violence.”

If the abuser approaches you, 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.

If the police show up and don't 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, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“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.”

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David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.