This is the question I am asked over and over and over again over email. Christian women in hard marriages from all over the world email me to ask me if they are allowed to leave their marriages.
I hate this question.
I hate this question because I know the pain that it represents.
I hate this question because it means that this woman must be living in some measure of isolation if she feels compelled to write a stranger to ask a life-altering question.
I hate this question because the answer is polarizing and life-changing and is never black and white.
I hate this question because I refuse to answer it.
When I started writing about all of this a few years ago – hard Christian marriages, abuse, separation, divorce, the Church’s response – I made a promise to myself and to God that I would never, ever tell a woman she should divorce her husband (or conversely that she should stay married).
(My strong opinion is that NO ONE should be telling a woman either of these things, but that’s neither here nor there today.)
This decision is, in my strong opinion, between the woman, her husband and God. And when it cannot be reached with the husband – which is often the case in difficult Christian marriages where abuse and addiction are involved – it is between the woman and her God to decide.
So though I cannot possibly answer this question for every single person, because it’s not my place, and because it is such a complicated issue, and because every situation is different, and because volumes have been written on this topic, I do have some thoughts.
If you or your children are being physically abused:
Tell someone and get away. I am not saying you must divorce or should divorce. I am saying you need to seek shelter and make sure you and your children are safe. You should also come up with a safety plan. The decision to stay married or divorce comes after you’re safe.
If your husband is unrepentantly unfaithful or your husband has literally left you:
You are biblically allowed to divorce. I am not saying you must divorce or should divorce but I am saying that you are free and clear to initiate a divorce. And anyone who tells you otherwise can come talk to me. And the apostle Paul.
If your husband is emotionally, sexually, spiritually, financially or any other manner of consistently abusive towards you or has an unchecked addiction that is affecting your life and your marriage and your children:
(WARNING: this is where some Christians disagree with me and stones have been and will be thrown my way. Oh well.)
I believe this is considered abandonment as laid out in the Old Testament. I am not saying you must divorce or should divorce but I believe divorce is an option for you to consider. (Please refer to David Instone Brewer’s Divorce & Remarriage in the Church for a complete discussion of this topic.)
I am begging you to keep reading. Some of you may think you just got what you came for – a get-out-of-jail-free card – and will stop reading. You have not. I have much more to say.
If you have fallen out of love, if you are unhappy, if your marriage takes work:
As a Christian, these are not reasons for divorce.
My story is not one of a walk-away wife, as I’ve been told. I didn’t just up and leave my marriage. I know some people who have. Okay, I know a lot of people who have. I believe that there are many, many people – Christian people – who should have freaking stay married (or at the very least should have freaking stayed married LONGER) and taken steps that they did not take but should have.
So I’m going to lay out what I believe should be done BEFORE initiating a divorce, even if you are in a very hard marriage. (And before you write me telling me I don’t understand – PLEASE. I was in a difficult marriage – a very, very difficult marriage – for almost nineteen years. I asked Jesus to kill me, for heaven’s sakes. I KNOW what a hard Christian marriage feels like. Don’t get me started.)
So, before you just up and leave, sweet girls:
Stop praying. What I mean by this is: stop praying that God will change your husband. Just stop. Instead, start praying for support. Start praying for help, for the right people to come around you. Start praying for wisdom. Start praying for you to speak only when necessary and for those words to be life-giving. Start praying for strength. Start praying for your heart to soften and heal and change.
Stop reading. What I mean by this is: stop reading regular Christian marriage books that will make you feel like crap. Your marriage is on life support. You do not need a date night and to run to Victoria’s Secret. You need different kinds of advice. Try Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Marriage or my e-book, Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage.
Stop complaining. Stop telling your friends – who more than likely cannot help you or do anything about your situation – over and over and over again how horrible your husband and marriage are. Instead, get real help. I’m going to ask you to go to Christian counseling. Even if it’s by yourself. And I’m going to ask you to tell someone in church leadership. Now, here’s the thing. Some pastoral leaders are awesome and will totally get all this and will support you and help you. I’ve met some and they give me great hope. But some will tell you to submit more or whatever. If the first person you tell doesn’t get it, move on and talk to someone else. And keep talking to someone until someone truly understands you and helps you. This part will take perseverance and courage.
Stop expecting an easy answer or a quick fix. If all you go to counseling or to church leadership for is for someone to finally give you permission to leave your husband, you will not only be disappointed but you are not going for the right reasons. Your main motivation should be – even if you are dying inside – for God to heal you and your husband and restore your marriage. (I didn’t say any of this would be easy.) And then, if it comes to a place of that being an impossibility, of walking out of your marriage with grace and support.
Stop doing what you want to do. When I went to church leadership for help, I did not expect an out, but I also had no idea what was ahead of me. I thought I had done all the hard work of counseling and reading and just plain staying the previous sixteen or so years up to that point when I didn’t want to. I wanted credit for all that. I wanted all that to be enough. But that was nothing compared to what was about to be asked of me. What ended up happening was a team of eight people were pulled together to work with us (campus pastor, counselor, elder and his wife, mentor couple, mentor, and mediator) and then we spent fifteen months (FIFTEEN LONG MONTHS, if you can imagine that) meeting and being given assignments and splaying our lives out for everyone to judge and tell us what we should be doing and trying to put our marriage back on track and it was hell. It was the worst fifteen months of my life (and I’ve had some pretty sucky stretches of life, I’m tellin’ ya). And yet, it was the best fifteen months of my life. Because after all had been done – meaning, after I had done every single (sometimes humiliating) thing I was asked to do – I was released to legally separate. And then three months later, I was served with divorce papers.
I could’ve just left. Anytime during that almost nineteen years. And anytime during that church-led reconciliation attempt. But I am so deeply grateful that I stuck it out. Because when it was over, I was able to walk away with my head held high and with the support of people who knew I didn’t just bail.
Yes, you can just leave. You have free will. You can do whatever the heck you want to do. And some of you already have. And some of you will.
Listen, being a divorcee comes with problems. But there is a whole world of hurt that comes to the woman who leaves a marriage when she shouldn’t (or before she should). There is a huge difference between the women who left the right way and the women who left the wrong way; I see it all the time. And it can be prevented.
(“I gave them over to their own stubborn hearts, to walk in their own counsels.” -Psalm 81:12)
Because there are consequences that will be reaped for leaving a marriage when it shouldn’t be left (or when it is left prematurely).
Such as, guilt that you will carry for a long, long time.
Such as, remarriage being frowned upon.
Such as, lingering doubts.
Such as, huge, life-defining regret.
Such as, having a very hard time letting go.
Such as, having a very hard time moving on.
Such as, having a very hard time healing.
Women will still email me. Because when we are in pain, we want help and answers and a rescue. I cannot offer that. I cannot tell you, sweet, sweet woman, if you should stay or if you can go. Only God can tell you that.
But I can offer up that there is a good way to do this and a bad way to do this, and I can encourage the better, harder way with everything in me because I did it the better, harder way. (Not perfectly, mind you, but the longer, uphill way.)
And I can tell you that I’ve been there. That I know the pain. That I know how it’s a killing-your-spirit kind of pain. That I know that you think you don’t have another day left in you to give but that you are stronger and braver than you think you are. That I know that you think you are alone, that no one has ever walked this road, that you have been abandoned, that God must not actually see you because why wouldn’t he do something?? I know, honey. I really do know.
But I see you. And I know. And God sees you. And God knows. And he’s not going anywhere. And he is your rescuer, though the rescue may come later than you hope or look different than you expect, but that rescue efforts are currently in full swing.
I’m so sorry you’re in pain. I’m so sorry it’s lasted this long. I’m so sorry you feel all alone.
God is with you. God will hold you. God will strengthen you. God will not leave you. And most of all, God loves you.
The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. –Zephaniah 3:17