Does God Want Me to Stay in or Leave My Emotionally Abusive Marriage?
We all remember when we were young and had to make half a dozen big decisions. What college should I go to? What career should I pursue? Should I marry this person? Should we have kids now or later? How many? Should we buy this house? Should I take this job? Should I quit my job? Some choices would affect our lives for a couple of years. Others—a couple of decades. And still others—a lifetime.
I remember being taught that each decision was like a fork in the road. One way was “God’s way,” and the other way was the slippery slope to perdition. I’m exaggerating, but you get my drift? I would be in God’s will as long as I took the correct path. So better not make a mistake!
The choice was often a crapshoot. Should I take the path that looks ugly and barren? It could be a test. It might look bad to begin with, but then it might end up being the road to heaven on earth just like in the fairy tales.
Or should I take the path that looks more pleasant? It could be a trap. It might look good now, but down the road it could lead to hell on earth. How do I know what God’s will is?
We all made our best guesses based on our life experience and who had the most influence in our lives at the time, and we started on our journey, hoping we chose correctly. When things went sour, we assumed we picked the path that wasn’t God’s will. Because God’s will always leads to sunshine and rainbows, right?
When things went right, we gave ourselves a pat on the back for being amazeballs, and we secretly turned up our noses at anyone experiencing hardship. If they had just made the right choice, they’d be in God’s will, like us, and all would be well.
One of the most common questions women ask in my private Flying Free group is, “Does God want me to stay in or leave my emotionally abusive marriage? And how will I know what is best for my kids and me?” Making a decision to end a marriage is probably the most momentous decision you’ll ever make. You’re not 22 anymore, and your decision will not only change your life, but it will change the lives of many others as well. The weight of such a choice feels overwhelming, and it is hard to bear up beneath it.
Does God Want Me to Stay in or Leave My Emotionally Abusive Marriage?
There are many emotional factors that go into making this life changing decision, but we are going to try to look at this decision from an objective viewpoint, and I hope this perspective gets you a step closer to making a choice you can live with for the rest of your life.
You need to ask yourself four questions.
- What are your long term goals?
- What are the relationship problems you’re dealing with—and their possible solutions?
- What are your options?
- What are the pros and cons of each option?
1. Figure out your long term goals.
We don’t achieve goals by making one big change after another. Sometimes we will have an opportunity to create a huge shift in our lives. But most of the time we will get where we want to go through the small steps we take in our every day lives. If you are in the middle of a hellish relationship, you might want immediate relief, but that’s not realistic. As I’ve talked about in my “Ten Steps out of Relationship Hell,” the PROCESS of getting out is more painful than staying in. So before you attempt that climb, you want to have your goals very clear in your mind.
Get out a piece of paper or your journal and set your timer for 15 minutes. Now, write down a picture of what you WANT your life to look like in ten years. Try to be as detailed as possible. Don’t worry if it all sounds totally unrealistic—just do some “pie in the sky” brainstorming. Where will you be living? Will you have a career or be involved in some kind of volunteer service? Will you be married? Single? What will you be doing with friends? Hobbies? Other interests?
I did this exercise several years ago, and one of the things I wrote down was this: “I will be remarried and know what a healthy marriage relationship is really like.” At the time I had zero prospects nor was I even remotely motivated to go looking for any. I didn’t really believe this would actually happen (bachelors don’t typically go for women in their 50’s who have nine children), but it’s something I knew I wanted one day, so I wrote it down.
Another goal I wrote down was: “I will be helping other women in destructive marriages find hope and healing.” And yet another goal was: “I will be able to provide a safe haven of peace and love and empathy for my kids.”
Having those goals (and several others) in my mind created a direction for me, and I began to consciously and unconsciously make micro-decisions that slowly turned the ship of my life around so it was moving in the direction of my choosing.
My goals also helped me make the single greatest macro decision of my life: to file for divorce from my husband of almost 25 years. I knew I could not know what a healthy relationship was like if I chose to stay in an unhealthy one. I also knew I would not have the freedom or emotional stability to help other women while I was still in survival mode myself. And finally, as long as my kids and I were living in an emotionally abusive environment 24/7, we would not be able to experience emotional safety and substantial healing.
Set your timer for another ten minutes and write down what your life will be like ten years from now if nothing changes in your relationship. Write down as many details as possible. You want to get an objective, side by side, bird’s eye view of both scenarios. This is about your future. A future that you have some (not all—but some) control over.
2. Define your relationship problems and solutions.
Once again, sit down with a piece of paper or your journal and set your timer for 10 minutes. Write down as many problem areas in your relationship that come to mind. Think about when those problems started. Have you had them from the beginning, or did they develop over time?
Set your timer for 10 more minutes and write down what you want from the relationship. Include everything that is important to you. Then write down what you believe your partner wants from the relationship. Include everything that you believe is important to him based on your observations over the years. What does he pursue? What motivates him? What are his goals for your relationship? If you don’t know, that’s helpful information in and of itself.
Set your timer for 10 more minutes and write down all the things you are willing to do to make your relationship successful, and then write down all the things you believe your partner is willing to do to make your relationship successful.
You haven’t solved anything with this exercise, but it will give you some valuable insights you can use to make your decision when the time comes.
3. Get your options clear.
Someone recently posted a comment on Facebook criticizing women who chose to stay in their abusive relationships. But this person had little understanding of the diverse and complex factors involved in their situations. I know some women who had grown children and their own business, and they filed for divorce, covered all their attorney fees, and got their divorce with relatively little fanfare. Others can’t leave because they’ve got a nursing baby and no education and no job. Others are married to men in pastoral leadership positions, and the wives face intense pressure to stay for the sake of an entire congregation and ministry.
This doesn’t mean they will never have a future opportunity to leave, but it means their journey out will be more complicated and time consuming. It is not a cut and dried thing, and it’s not our place to say what is the best choice or the best timing for them. Part of supporting abuse survivors is empowering them to make their own choices and supporting them in those choices. We don’t know what is best for them (that’s just ridiculously presumptious). This is THEIR life. They get to decide.
So, considering your particular situation and set of circumstances, what are your options? Take another piece of paper or get out your journal and set a timer for 15 minutes and brainstorm all the different scenarios. It might look something like this:
- Stay – but make own set of friends, get a job, and live like roommates with spouse.
- Stay – but continue to work on relationship and learn how to cope with the abuse. Get a therapist.
- Try a separation plan for 6 months and then decide.
- File for divorce now.
- Get a job, separate accounts, get some coaching, and file for divorce in fall of 2019.
Getting all your options down in black and white will help you see your options more objectively. Once you’ve got your options laid out, its time for the next step.
4. Figure out the pros and cons of each option.
Use a separate piece of paper for each option and divide it in half. Make a list of the pros of that option on one side and a list of the cons on the other side. Again, this will not solve your dilemma of what to do, but it will lay out the information you need to make that decision. And keep in mind that you might make one decision right now and a completely different decision a year from now. That’s okay. This is a long process.
But what about the Bible?
Sometimes your long term goals are determined by your theology. “I want to give glory to God, and I’ve always believed divorce dishonors God. I don’t want to disobey Him.”
Part of making your decision will involve studying things you’ve maybe never studied before. Many Christian women are spoon fed theology, and they believe what they’ve always believed because it’s the only thing they’ve ever known. Now that you’re an adult woman, you get to study things for yourself! There are many resources that will help you do this (see the end of this article for a list to get you started.) We do a lot of deprogramming from religious propaganda in the Flying Free membership group. I also devote a large portion of my book, Is it Me? to figuring this out.
What about my kids?
Children complicate things! This isn’t just our life we are dealing with. If you have underage children, you are no doubt considering their needs and willing to set aside your own in order to make sure their needs are met. This is probably a subject for a separate article, but for now, consider two things.
- Parenting is a tough job even in the best of circumstances. In an abusive home, parenting can be overwhelming. If you and your children are always walking on eggshells or feeling that oppressive atmosphere of criticism, passive aggressive attacks out of nowhere, or a pervasive sense of worthlessness, anxiety, and depression, you may want to consider the fact that even though divorce is hard on kids, abuse is harder.
- Kids will almost always need to spend some custody time with their abusive parent, but it is often limited. They have time to recover and get their emotional tanks filled up in a place of peace and rest in between visits. Also, sometimes (not always) the abusive parent will compete to be “the good parent,” and he will actually treat them better post-divorce. Either way, the children get a break and have the opportunity to experience a healthy environment without abuse.
Final Tips for Making The Decision to Stay or Leave
1. Be very clear in your mind that this is YOUR decision to make. Not your church’s or your counselor’s or your kids’ or your parents’ or your friends’ decision. YOURS. You are an adult, and this is your life.
2. Don’t make your decision until you are confident it is the decision you are willing to live with, for better or for worse. It took me two years of thinking, studying, observing, and praying before I made my final decision. But when I made it, I was SURE. There was no looking back even when my church shunned and excommunicated me, and I lost a close relationship with my oldest child. You will also face some serious and painful fallout. You want to be able to have inner peace even when all hell breaks loose against you.
3. Make sure you have a supportive, non-critical environment in which to walk through the difficult process of either staying or leaving. The Flying Free membership community opens up every four months to new members. It’s jam packed with educational resources and personal contact with hundreds of women in your exact situation. If you want to find out when it opens up next, be sure to get on my mailing list. Sign up at the top of this website.
4. If you are still unsure about whether or not your marriage is abusive or just your average run-of-the-mill challenging relationship, read my book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Relationship. I wrote it so you would know.
5. You are in no rush. Try not to panic or make any rash decisions.
6. Never, ever forget that Jesus loves you and promises to be with you no matter what you decide. His Word promises that NOTHING can separate us from His love. Not even separation or divorce. You may not be safe with all the human beings in your life (although you will be safe with some), but you will ALWAYS be safe and loved with Jesus.
Divorce and Remarriage in the Church by David Instone Brewer
Should I Stay or Should I Go? By Lundy Bancroft
What Paul Really Said About Women by John Bristow
God’s Word to Women by Katharine Bushnell