Divorce is hard. No matter what the circumstances, there are always painful questions that accompany the situation and powerful emotions that are difficult to overcome, especially in cases of infidelity.
But not all marriages end because one spouse begins an adulterous relationship and abandons the other. Many people, including Catholics, are forced to separate from their spouses and eventually divorce due to abuse that takes place in the family.
Abuse comes in different forms: sexual, physical, emotional, psychological. There is a different kind of infidelity that takes place in this situation. It is the betrayal of a spouse who will not or cannot change behavior that gravely hurts the health and well-being of the rest of the family. Who ever goes into a marriage relationship with the express consent to being abused or having their children abused?
Yet, this sad scenario plays out every day and an even bigger problem is making the decision to leave or stay. The guilt alone can be overwhelming and the reasons to stay might seem to outweigh the abuse.
The most common reasons a spouse believes he or she can’t leave the situation are:
- No one understands the situation the way I do.
- I believe I can help/change my spouse.
- I don’t want anyone to know what’s been going on.
- Catholics are not allowed to divorce.
These are common scenarios unfortunately. I have heard many of them throughout the years – too many, and they don’t only happen to women and children. But one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this is that so many spouses and children remain in abusive marriages because they believe they are required to by the Catholic Church. But it’s important to understand that God does not want His children to remain in situations that threaten life and health.
This may sound like a pro-divorce stance, but it’s certainly not. I’ve always beat the drum for more ardent marriage preparation so situations such as these are less likely to happen.
But consider this: If the perpetrator of the abuse is unwilling to change and does not respond to the pleas of family/friends to change, then the spouse has every right, and in my opinion, a moral obligation to change the dynamic of the situation. There must be some break in the behavior and this usually requires removing the family from danger, such as a separation. If this doesn’t happen then the other spouse becomes an enabler to the abuser through knowing the abuser’s behavior is wrong and allowing it to continue within the family.
But, these situations don’t always need to end in divorce. The divorce primarily happens when, after the separation and other consequences, the abuser remains unwilling to change. This can be an indication that there was an impediment to having a sacramental or valid marriage from the start, which would be a segway for the spouse who left to apply for the annulment process and have the marriage investigated for its validity.
The Catholic Church teaches that violence against another person in any form fails to treat that person as someone worthy of love. Instead, it treats the person as an object to be used. When violence occurs within a sacramental marriage, the abused spouse may question, “How do these violent acts relate to my promise to take my spouse for better or for worse?” The person being assaulted needs to know that acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises. While violence can be directed towards men, it tends to harm women and children more.
It further states:
Finally, we emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage. Some abused women believe that church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship. They may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. They may fear that they cannot re-marry in the Church. Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage. We encourage abused persons who have divorced to investigate the possibility of seeking an annulment. An annulment, which determines that the marriage bond is not valid, can frequently open the door to healing.