(originally written in 2014)
Picture a closet, bursting at the seams. Now picture a girl, back to the door, doing everything she can to brace herself against it to keep the contents from tumbling out all over the place, because what a mess that would be.
Hi, I’m that girl. And I’m going to tell you about the dirty little secret that was in my closet.
I’m a Christian. And I don’t say the word Christian lightly. I don’t say it to mean like I’m a Protestant. Or I try to be good. I mean that I’m a born-again, asked-Jesus-into-my-heart, weekly-church-attending, used-to-be-on-staff-at-a-church, quiet-time-having, worship-music-in-my-car kind of Christian. I was that kind of Christian bracing myself against the world finding out what I was hiding.
And that was this…I was in a very difficult Christian marriage.
And I don’t say very difficult lightly either. I don’t say it like I mean he didn’t bring me flowers anymore. Or the toothpaste cap was always off. I mean it as in there was more fighting than peace, more crying than laughter, more hiding than truth, sobbing-on-my-bathroom-floor-asking-Jesus-to-kill-me-because-divorce-wasn’t-an-option-in-my-Christian-mind kind of very difficult.
And I didn’t want anyone to know. And yet, I was just praying and hoping deep down that someone would figure it out and rescue me.
Between the time I truly stopped hiding once and for all and now has been five years. During that time, I went through a fifteen-month church-led reconciliation attempt. I was released by my church elder board to legally separate. I was then served divorce papers three months later. My kids and I moved out. Our divorce was final. And my marriage has been in my rearview mirror for two-and-a-half years now. (As of 2022, my divorce was final 10 years ago.)
And in the past few years, I’ve been writing about all of this — difficult Christian marriages, domestic abuse, addiction, divorce in Christian culture, and the Church’s response — in part as therapy but much more so as advocacy. Because though I thought I was all alone…the only little girl in a hard Christian marriage in the whole wide world with no hope of help or rescue out there…I have since come to find out that difficult Christian marriages is one of the Church’s darkest, dirtiest secrets.
I was not alone. We are everywhere. We are sitting in the pews. We are sitting in Bible studies. We are sitting in the front row as our husbands – the pastors – preach about biblical marriage to the congregation while we die inside. Case in point: I moderate a private group on Facebook for Christian women in difficult marriages. I started it two years ago and it is up to – by word of mouth alone – almost four hundred women and I know we’re just scratching the surface. (Think of the implications of four hundred dying Christian marriages that are being portrayed as okay.)
Women who love Jesus are dying in their marriages. This is heart-breaking and it should not be. I have a theory as to why. Though there are many pastors and church leaders who get this, there are still so many more who simply don’t understand. I have heard more stories than I want to count that go like this: “I went to my pastor for help. I told him that my husband (drinks excessively, lies to me, has a porn addiction, calls me names, won’t let me access the checking account, et cetera, et cetera) and he told me that I need to (submit, work on my anger, get into a women’s Bible study, pray more, serve him more, have sex more, respect him more, stay put, cannot get divorced without it being a sin, fill in the blank). So I went back home, did what he told me to do, nothing changed, and I felt even more hopeless than before I asked for help.” I literally hear this all the time, over and over again.
So, if you are a person of authority, a pastor or women’s ministry director or small group leader, and a woman comes to you with marriage tales that don’t fall into the black and white standard reasons for divorce (adultery and literal abandonment by an unbeliever), I have some thoughts for you.
Believe her when she says her marriage is harder than the average hard. If she has come to you, she has come close to her bottom as she’s finally admitted to herself that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, and she has more than likely exhausted other avenues of help. She has probably been to counseling or a recovery group, and she’s coming to you as her last chance. Which means, she’s vulnerable and splaying herself out there in front of you. She would only do this if she were dead serious about how bad things are.
Ask her to do only what you’re willing to also ask her husband to do. If you ask her to try a new counselor, you must also require this of the husband as well. In most cases I have seen, the wife has been single-handedly trying to keep her marriage together for years. She has potentially already done everything you’re about to suggest. But odds are, she’ll be much more willing and open to trying again, one more time, if she sees she is believed and her husband is being held accountable as well.
Find someone to walk alongside her. She will need a female mentor to walk her through this, specifically one who understands the intricacies of a marriage filled with abuse or addiction. Being in this kind of marriage pain tends to lead to isolation, and she will need someone to draw her out.
Follow through. I know pastors are busy. But one or two meetings with a couple on the brink of divorce will not be enough. If you cannot commit to follow through with a lengthy, time-intensive process with them, seeing this through to either a healing and reconciliation or a grace-filled ending, then you should be prepared and humble enough to pass them along to another staff member who can.
Christian marriage symbolizes the relationship between Christ and the Church, and this thought terrifies me: that the world might think that Jesus controls, manipulates, lies to, metaphorically beats or rapes, or name-calls his followers. Because he doesn’t. He wouldn’t dream of it. He guides, protects and utterly cherishes us. And that’s what a faith-based marriage should do as well. That’s what we should be shedding light on and exposing. That’s what we should all be fighting for in our churches.
Marriage Methods is for women in challenging marriages who are hoping to stay but in better ways. You can see all the details and register here: https://bit.ly/marriage-methods-pwyc
Heartbreak to Hope is for separated or divorced women who are longing to find healing after their marriages have ended. You can see all the details and register here: https://bit.ly/Heartbreak-to-Hope-pwyc
I am going through this now! Almost to the other side. I want to be a part of this ‘great awakening’ for the church…for us all…woman need this…we all need it.
Yes, the type of marriage you describe is not what God intended. There should be mutual love and respect from both parties. It is terrible feeling to sit in church or in a counseling session next to some one who doesn’t love you and just puts on a show so that people will think everything is fine. Then when you get home they are cold or defiant and they pull back more and more and blaming it on you. You try to do things to make it better and they tell you they don’t want you to do any thing for them. Eventually they convince themselves they have grounds to divorce you but then that isn’t enough. They have to prove to everyone you are the monster they say you are or they will have to take responsibility for their actions. The worst is that they fill the children with bitterness against you and try to take away your rights to see them.
Thank you for giving suggestions for how a pastor is to deal with a woman who is desperate and needs help. Your points are excellent. You have taken your circumstances and turned them into a way to help others.
Amen, Elizabeth, amen.
I totally understand what you are writting, I AM SO HAPPY the HOLY SPIRIT has guided you to write about this, My first husband did those things you are talking about, and I did get my divorce, because I tried everything, he didnt try anything to help. I am truley happy with my decision to divorce and was happy to have a suprise a few years later, My now husband showed up at my front door literly, and I KNOW GOD SENT HIM TO ME. We go to church together, we share our emotions, feelings, etc. we have giving, loving, sharing relationship and help each other through life experiences. GOD IS AWESOME !
Wonderful Elisabeth! Thank you. I would add that churches and Pastors not only disbelieve abuse but they also sometimes perpetuate it! My Pastor and church of 20 years certainly did. I can’t count the times I heard about wives “submitting” to husbands from the pulpit but not once did he preach about the manner in which a husband is to love his wife 🙁 I felt it was my christian duty to honor my husband by keeping my mouth SHUT and conditioning myself to suppress my broken heart all these years. No wonder so many women are physically ill with a myriad of conditions!
Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m sure you have heard this said a hundred times or more but I also was in a very difficult marriage. And, also, encouraged to stay in this marriage. To make a long story short, it has been 8 fantastic years since my divorce and things have never been better. I praise the Lord almost every day…literally that I’m free from my horrible marriage!!
I sometimes hold bitterness toward the woman who had mentored me at the time but realize that she is not perfect and didn’t know how seriously difficult ( out of the norm) some marriages could be.
I love your website and enjoy reading your articles. Thanks so much for being a huge resource for women in shall I say… challenging (unconventional) marriages to follow and learn. I wished that you had been around 8 years ago when I didn’t have any resources just as this one whatsoever to guide me and educate me. Thankfully, I have made it to the other side of peace and tranquility in my life through the grace of God and I praise God for that. I know that the Lord will use me in the lives of women going through a difficult marriage at some point in my life. All I know is that if He calls me the I am willing.
Much blessings to you on your journey and thanks for giving us a glimpse of it.
This article was definetly true. People have no idea when some women say they are going through a very difficult time in there marriage. Sometimes prayer and serving isnt enough. We isolate ourselves because we know our family and friends will just look down upon us. The last thing we need is one more person judging us. I thank God for your page on facebook daily!!
My divorce will final week. My husband was a deacon and I was a youth leader. I never wanted to be divorced but I could no longer put on a show anymore. My closest friends no longer speak to me and I have questioned my faith. I am now learning to just sit at his feet. Thank you so much for speaking out!
Mary, I am so very sorry. If you’re interested, I moderate a private Facebook group for Christian women who are separated/divorced. Just send me a friend request to http://www.facebook.com/elisabeth.corcoran and I can add you. -Elisabeth
“Women who love Jesus are dying in their marriages. This is heart-breaking and it should not be.” And ” In most cases I have seen, the wife has been single-handedly trying to keep her marriage together for years. She has potentially already done everything you’re about to suggest. ”
Yes. Which is not to point a finger at my spouse and go ‘Bad Guy!’; I was complicit and active in the destruction of my marriage. Unfortunately, in the attempt to change and rebuild, I’ve been ‘single-handed’ for the last five to ten years, depending on how you define change.
Thank you for your honesty and for providing a place to stand with other women who love Jesus.
I have been going through this for past 7 years. Thank you for writing this piece.
this article has me in tears at the office…thanks. I do not understand why we feel as if we have to pretend when we walk in the doors of church that everything is okay at home. Why Christian women sit on the floors of their homes, bawling, and feeling absolutely alone in their pain after being emotionally abused by the man who is supposed to be leading their family to be more like Christ. Why we are so scared to admit to others what we are living on a day in day out basis, feeling as if we have no choice but to live that every day because we promised God we were in this marriage. Why we feel so condemned when the other person chooses to walk away.
God did not create us to live in constant fear. He does not ask us to say where things are not safe, nor does He want His children to live in fear and condemnation in their own house.
For me, it took hearing a week long support on KLove, talking about the different forms of abuse and telling me to think of it in a different way…if my daughter came up to me and described the situation I was living in, would I expect her to stay or would I help her to do everything in my power to start over and feel safer? And even then, I prayed with everything I had that God would restore my marriage. In the end, it wasn’t my choice anyways, because God gave us all free will…
My number one fear in becoming a divorced woman…that the church would no longer see me fit to serve within its walls, or that my kiddos and I would somehow have less worth as people, labeled. And the funniest part of that, I was part of a phenomenal church and small group that proved to me Christ’s love for us, over and over and over. My siblings treated us like we were contagious for awhile, but I probably should have expected that one.
Anyways, all that rambling to say this: We can do better. Find a church family that IS family…that is willing to truly be God with skin on and come along side you through the thick and thin, who choose to know you for you…your reality…and want to be transparent back with you. Talk. DO NOT HOLD IT IN…share with your sisters in Christ so that they can cover you in prayer and cry with you and help you take giant steps of faith. Cry out to Daddy God and let Him heal your broken heart and show you the path He has for you. The path He has for you may not be anything that you ever imagined…but its always so much better suited for you and your family. Know that He loves you and sees you for you…you never have to hide anything from Him. And then make it your goal to truly love and be there for others so that they feel safe being transparent and open with you, too. And don’t be afraid to share your story…all of it…because if we go through it, there is at least one person out there that needs the encouragement that our experiences give us to give others.
Just so you know it’s not just women that are in abusive marriages. I’ve been married for 19 years. And most of it I would say has been pretty close to hell. You believe a man (A tough macho man- IronWorker Construction work in the 120 degree heat everyday. And each day you could die. Because we walked 100’s of feet in the air putting steel in buildings.) I only say this so you don’t think i’m some kind of whimp. But my marriage has me go to bed 3 to 4 times a week crying myself to sleep, because the pain of loneliness is more than i can handle. And I’m trapped. I can’t get a divorce, I have stayed for my son’s sake this whole time. and he is going to be an adult in 2 years.
So then we shall see what happens, but now my wife has become physically ill , so I’m really stuck now. I’m not the type to leave a women when she needs me the most. So I keep on praying. And look forward to being in Heaven with Jesus. It’s just been a long wait. Don’t even know why i wrote on here. This is obviously a women site.
So i hope you don’t mind my venting. God Bless you all………Stephen
Stephen, I am so very sorry for your pain. A great book I’d highly recommend is The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. -Elisabeth
I have been reading your book “Unraveling” and it is like reading my life story. I am recently separated by his choice. I wanted to try to make the marriage work, but after 19 years of a very difficult marriage for various reasons, I am learning to let go and find what Christ wants for me. I know its a good plan. Its been a roller coaster to say the least and I tried to make my marriage work because I am a Christian, but my marriage was dead a long time ago. Its encouraging that I’m not the only one going through this (but very sad at how many people are) and that I am not crazy. I am also a mother to two children and very concerned for their well being. Thank you for telling it like it is. God Bless.
If you change all the feminine pronouns to masculine, you have my life in a nutshell. With 4 teenage children in the mix. It’s not just a female problem.
I think it is a church problem. While we all go to church and say we are sinners and struggle with sin in a general sense, I for one do not feel comfortable to mention any SPECIFIC sins, or difficulties for that matter, in our marriage. It’s like we can say that marriage is hard, but we can’t say it’s hard for US, the deacons, youth leaders and choir directors,etc, because we might be seen as not “spiritual.” The church has a lot of growing up to do to learn that the struggles that I face, and deal with, and have victory over, become encouragements to those who will have the same difficulties later on. Instead, all the young people sit there thinking that one day they’ll be married and everything will be hunky-dory, and what a surprise real life will be. And I weep for them.
I think I need more pictures of what you mean by difficult marriages. It is hard to figure out where personal responsibility stops and the reality of one’s partner being irresponsible begins. I know I need definition, so I have to assume others neeed and want it too. So, i will step out on the limb and tell some of what I have experienced that I think is neither my fault nor God’s will for me.
My husband is quick to side wiaht anybody against me. When driving, I encounter and abusive driver, one who thinks I owe him every consideration and he owes me nothing but a blaring horn. So, regardless of the situation, the rudeness of the other driver, the codes of conduct, the rulse of the road, even the laws the other driver has violated, my husband says it is my fault. surely no one would find fault with me if I were not at fault?
Recently, a young man driving a red sports car T-boned my blue family-type car, and the police report said “failed to yield right-of-way.” What!? I stopped at the stop sign, looked both ways and proceeded cautiously. Suddenly there is this blur of red coming at me, no time to back up, and my door gets dented in so badly it will not shut properly. And that is MY FAULT! That he decided not having a stop sign meant he didn’t have to let me get out of the intersection? I’ve been back at that intersection since then, and while I am extra diligent now, I still find it a blind intersection, with a poor view, and I still believe it was not my fault. so, I feel betrayed by the witness, by the police, by the insurance company, and also by my spouse, who is supposed to be on my side. I’m fed up with “reminders” to be careful, which are nothing more than taking another oportunity to needle me. (By the way, there is a reason my husband does not drive anymore, and I don’t feel a need to rub that in.)
This one thing alone is not reason to divorce, but it is not fair, and I should be able to take that to someone else and say, this always assuming everyone is right and I’m always wrong isn’t the way Christ treats his Bride. It is symptomatic ot the general sexism I live with all the time. But at my church, I can’t do that.
There will be another installment another day.
Rose, I write about difficult marriage all over my blog, but go to this link for more: http://www.elisabethcorcoran.com/category/difficult-marriage/
Also, I’d pick up Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Difficult Marriage. It’s the best Christian hard marriage book I’ve ever read.
I shared this article on my facebook page as the next baby step in my own journey to freedom. As I am not yet officially divorced, your words were exactly what I have rehearsed endless times in my head, and every fiber of my body yearns to release, but its not quite safe yet. Every word was me… but with the safety of it not being my words… yet.
And this was the first comment I received on the shared entry…
“The church can not abandon scripture to console and play therapist. Marriage is a covenant. Divorce is not honored by God. The churches responsibility is to speak truth in love (which is sometimes overshadowed with law/judgement). Leadership can not waver on truth to comfort a decision against the Lord but they still should offer love through it. Our relationship with the Lord is also often difficult and brings trials and suffering due to sin. This article is not scripture based and therefore dangerous.”
And thus my original commented introduction when i shared this blog was proven all the more. “Wake up church. If we want to look like Christ to anyone but ourselves, then its time to wake up.”
Thank you for your bravery Elizabeth. I can not wait to be able to shout more boldly from the rooftops. Any scripture references you’d like to share are welcome! 🙂
One thing I learned : Pastors are not who you should go to for help. I went to 2, the first one was no help at all. The 2nd one was somewhat more helpful in that he confronted my husband (it did no good, unfortunately). I was immensely grateful that a truly godly man could see what was going on (after I spoke with him, he told me he had suspected all was not what it appeared to be~) and I was so relieved to receive some validation. But marriage counseling really does not belong in the church. Pastors are not qualified or trained for this. And as many of us have learned, counseling with an abuser is not wise and can actually make things worse for the spouse who is being abused.
We have to realize that many of these men/husbands are not truly christians. They might have head knowledge but they exhibit little to no heart change. We are not their judge…however we do live with the fruit and that is something that we can judge to help us determine if we are in something we should continue to work towards improving, or if we need to walk away. Only God can let us know truly what we should do and for how long we should keep trying. We can only change our own responses and seek God’s strength. We can’t change them, At All.
For a few years I did online searches looking for advice about difficult christian marriages. I gave up for awhile, then eventually gave it another try, desperate for help. I was so surprised and glad when I finally found Elisabeth’s site. Thank you, Elisabeth for what you are doing, it is so important and helpful.
After reading the posts by the 2 suffering husbands on here, I just want to say that I have seen cases where the abuser is the woman. My stepmother was the first. After I left home at 18, as a new Christian I unfortunately was drawn in by an especially narcissistic abusive woman who was the ‘head ‘ of a house church. Her 2nd husband was often the whipping boy not only by the wife but her adult daughters. He was kind hearted and se he was easy for the wife to manipulate.
It took me awhile to see what was going on. Decades later this family has a ‘ministry’ and I fear for the numbers of people they have hurt. I got out early but there was so much damage. The last time I saw these people, the husband’s whole demeanor and personality had changed. He now acts just like his wife. Most of the adult daughters have remained living with the parents and have no life of their own. Everyone in the world and the church is wrong except for their little group and everyone else is judged as being beneath them. It is very sad. Abuse, narcissism and control are widespread even in mainline denominations, and especially in off-shoot groups. It’s heartbreaking.