In 2002 and then again in 2009, I was told by pastors that I had the power to “love him into repentance.” The message was I could save my marriage, single-handedly, and God would bless me greatly for it. [While fervently reading and highlighting, The Power of a Praying Wife.]
Thankfully one of these churches has since stopped giving this advice – with new pastors and different mindsets. What a heavy, heavy weight to put on a woman who is dealing with so many other emotions – often including betrayal trauma – and continued abuse… to be expected to fix it all too.
Lately, there has been a lot of talk in Christian circles (online) about giving abused women (and in other situations) “permission to leave and divorce.” A pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention is accused of saying that abused women can turn things around “just by praying” rather than leaving to find safety – even in cases of physical abuse.
Although some pastors have come to change their point of view after talking with abused women, we still have a way to go. Where has the Church stood on the topic of divorce in cases of abuse? Divided, at best. But mostly “pro-marriage” rather than accepting divorce as an option for many women.
I don’t believe you can heal, after abuse, around the unrepentant person who abused you. Maybe a few have, but I knew I couldn’t, as I shared.
Many women coming to my website are doing so because they’re facing an unwanted divorce and don’t feel they have “permission” to take steps toward separation or to file for divorce. So let’s talk this out together to decide what is the best option for you.
What is an “unwanted divorce?”
Times when divorce is not wanted by the victim, maybe not even the abuser, but it is necessary so one or both parties can get emotionally healthy and/or stop these wrong behaviors. We all have to make the best choice for ourselves.
When there is physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, financial, reproductive or any other forms of abuse.
The underlying issue of abuse is the need of the abuser to control the relationship and have power over their victim. Ultimately, what he wants and needs are always the top priority.
Emotional and psychological abuse is more damaging than physical. Mental cruelty damages the brain. I believe a wife has a right to leave the relationship, seek help, assert boundaries, and then decide if she should divorce based on if she sees repentance or not. Divorce would be a consequence of his continued abuse.
Sometimes God calls us back from toxic relationships so that we can be everything He has created us to be. Without a divorce, we might have died a slow death – from emotional torment or physical ailments caused by years of abuse.
Don’t befriend angry people or associate with hot-tempered people, or you will learn to be like them and endanger your soul. – Proverbs 22:24-25 NLT
An angry person starts fights; a hot-tempered person commits all kinds of sin. – Proverbs 29:22
When there is adultery – physical, emotional, or habitual pornography use.
Sneaking around to meet someone, secretly meeting for meals, or lying about being alone with someone without transparency, is adultery. If someone is covering up a “friendship” with the person of the opposite sex, lying to those closest to them, this is adultery. It doesn’t have to be physical to be damaging. But most unrepentant adulterers will never admit to a physical relationship, saying it was just an “emotional affair”, “we were just friends”, or “it’s just porn” to cover their sin.
People who are telling the truth, full of integrity and trustworthy, have no reason to lie, period. Those who have something to hide, lie to keep their secrets hidden.
But the man who commits adultery is an utter fool, for he destroys himself. He will be wounded and disgraced. His shame will never be erased. – Proverbs 6:32-33 NLT
When a spouse is abandoned – physically or financially.
Pretty self-explanatory – if he leaves and/or refuses to financially provide, explain himself or return, that’s abandonment. I think the Bible explains it better than I can…
But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the Christian husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace. – 1 Corinthians 7:15 NLT
But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers. – 1 Timothy 5:8 NLT
When there is an untreated addiction and/or criminal activity in a marriage.
Unrepentant addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling or anything else that consumes a person’s life or mind will ruin relationships while ruining family finances. If your main focus is fixing this man and you care about him, and his issues, more than he cares about them or himself, you’re only hurting yourself by staying married. God doesn’t expect you to be a servant at the expense of yourself and your relationship with Him.
What sorrow for those who get up early in the morning looking for a drink of alcohol and spend long evenings drinking wine to make themselves flaming drunk. – Isaiah 5:11 NLT
Is divorce a sin?
God certainly hates the pain, shame and family destruction that is caused by divorce but for probably half of all divorcees, their divorce is not a sin. Adultery and abuse that cause divorce are sins. The person who must divorce… especially if it’s “unwanted”… is not a sinner!
He also offers healing, restoration, and freedom to people who have endured divorce. As a divorced woman, I hate divorce too. I’ve worked with some abused women and my hope is always that their husbands would stop their sinful actions. I think we need to work to protect marriages and encourage strong families, while also leaving room in our hearts for people who simply cannot stay in irreparable relationships.
Should I Stay or Should I Divorce?
I think we can hope for change but we need to look at the bigger picture. Look at the pattern of behavior and the length of time it has been going on. And honestly, we need to ignore the excuses. Everyone is capable of change but those who won’t work for it every single day… don’t really want it or they’re not doing it for the right reasons.
- Are you being abused? Learn all that you can about abuse (see my resources pages for great books). Work with a counselor who is trained in abusive marriages or your local domestic abuse shelter to gain the wisdom to know the difference between normal relationship problems and domestic abuse (called violence).
- Are you being lied to? Do you feel something is going on behind your back but when you inquire you are told, you are crazy?! Chances are those feelings are the truth. The Holy Spirit has a way of telling us that sin is going on around us – we feel it in our gut. If we are wrong, a normal healthy person would be willing to do anything, with full transparency, to prove their love – never in an angry way. An abuser or an addict will lie to cover up what he knows he’s doing wrong.
- Have you been physically sick for most of or during the worst parts of your marriage? Most abuse victims start to show physical symptoms, even just repeat headaches or other pains, within months of living with an abuser. Our body will tell us when something in our environment is not right. Read more about this in my Divorcing with a Chronic Illness article.
- Do you have years of unresolved issues because your spouse is not willing to work through them? Things boiling under the rug at all times? Issues don’t just go away, they must be dealt with by both parties. This could be a lack of healthy communication or it could be a sign of abuse. Seek out a therapist just for yourself (not “marriage counseling”) that is knowledgeable in domestic abuse and narcissist personality disorders – because sometimes just a “Christian counselor” can’t help or will make things worse.
- Do you feel the need for anxiety or antidepressant medications just to stay married? Some people need these medications for their own internal imbalances which have nothing to do with their external environment. But if psychological abuse or gaslighting is taking place, some might be misdiagnosed. When we’re able to separate from that toxic environment we learn to see everything more clearly. There is nothing wrong with medications, but if you need them to stay married to someone, maybe the better option (with fewer side effects) is divorce.
- Do you notice more peaceful conversations and lack of anger when your husband is not at home? Maybe he has emotional issues or addictions he needs to be working on or he might be an abuser. Again seek help for yourself rather than trying to help him. The best and safest way to deal with these types of things is to assert boundaries and allow him to decide what he’s going to do with his own life. You cannot fix him!
- Is your husband at the center of your life, so much so that you aren’t anything without him? Does he expect to be worshipped? Husbands aren’t meant to replace God in your life. Abusers force their wives to worship him and forsake themselves at all times. This is damaging and not a healthy relationship; this is a destructive marriage. Some toxic marriages need to end in divorce.
- Would you want your daughter to be married to a man like your husband?
- Would you allow your son to treat another woman like you are being treated?
These last two questions are what helped me to decide that divorce was the best option for me. I didn’t want my kids to be from a divorced family but I didn’t want my children to turn out to be just like their dad or me, even more.
Please don’t just take my or anyone else’s word for it, if you should stay or divorce. Make your decision the most educated decision that you can make. If your pastor hasn’t given the greatest advice, find someone else and read books by authors who’ve researched these topics (see right sidebar or my resources page for recommendations).
Divorce may not be what you want… but abuse, adultery, addiction, and abandonment make divorce necessary to live a thriving life!
Help is out there. Let me know if you need encouragement to find it.
May God bless your healing journey,