130 Examples of Abuse and Control
Overt and Covert Physical, Emotional, Sexual, Financial and Spiritual Abuse and Neglect
From the book, The Life-Saving Divorce by Gretchen Baskerville. © 2020 Life Saving Press LLC All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Am I Being Abused?
I love this Psalm from the Bible. In it, the writer says that God sees our troubles and our tears. He hears people who are afflicted. He supports them and listens to them.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless…
You, LORD, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry...
—Psalm 10:14, 17 (NIV)
Perhaps you are in trouble—a difficult marriage. Perhaps you have shed tears of grief, been afflicted, and felt alone. And I’m sure you too have cried out to a loving God who cares about the afflicted.
Marriage was created for companionship, not just for sex and having children. God required the husband to provide material care and love to the wife, and if he didn’t, she was free to go, get divorced, and find someone who truly cared for her.
One Christian counselor who specializes in sexual addictions put it this way:
“A marriage must be safe and loving, or at least respectful,
otherwise it’s not a marriage.
It could be kidnapping, incarceration, or servitude.
But it is not a marriage.”
In other words, both people must invest effort to make sure the marriage feels safe and loving to both spouses, not just one.
In an abusive marriage, only one spouse’s feelings matter.
Everyone else makes that one person feels safe and loved. No one else matters, apart from their utility to the abuser.
An abuser can be defined as: a person who feels deeply entitled to their power over their victim, believing themselves justified in using violent, cruel, and demeaning methods to maintain their control of their victim.
In other words, the abuser feels entitled to control you and mistreat you and will use many different tactics to do it. He or she will look for any excuse to coerce you to comply. This is different from a spouse simply speaking up and asking for their needs to be met.
In a good marriage, both spouses work to make sure the other feels safe and loved, and both show gratitude for the other’s capabilities.
But where there is abuse, one spouse carries the burden for the problems in the marriage. They are viewed as have no worth or value other than the benefits they provide to the abuser. In an abusive marriage, the abuser gets off scot-free.
- Do you feel it’s your responsibility to fix your spouse, to change their mood from sullen to happy, or to make sure they feel loved?
- Do you feel that your spouse’s emotions are the only ones in the family that matter?
- Do you feel you should sacrifice your wellbeing for your spouse’s career, hobbies, and goals?
- Do you feel if only you were sexually available enough, you could keep your spouse from viewing porn or being unfaithful?
- Do you feel that if you were only quiet and submissive enough, your spouse would automatically feel more loving toward you?
- Do you make excuses to your friends and family for your spouse’s rudeness at birthday parties or last-minute absences from family gatherings?
- Does your pity for your spouse’s bad childhood drive you to try to fill the empty hole in their heart with your generosity and self-sacrifice?
- Do you feel responsible for keeping up an act, putting on a composed demeanor or a happy face, to cover for your spouse’s behavior?
- Do you feel you have to keep up appearances in order to keep your family’s reputation in the community?
- Do you feel that you are starting to doubt what you saw or heard, to wonder if your perceptions were really true, and to question your experiences, because your spouse tells you you’re crazy, stupid, or incompetent?
- Do you feel that you are only valuable and beloved if you are doing exactly what pleases your spouse?
If you are carrying the responsibility for your spouse’s behavior, that is a sign of abuse.
If you and the children often walk on eggshells to avoid setting your spouse off, that’s a sign of abuse.
When you feel that it’s all your fault, even though other people disapprove of your spouse’s behavior, that is a sign of abuse.
When your spouse blames you for making them cheat, lie, drink, or hurt you, that’s a sign of abuse.
When your spouse treats you as if your time, energy, talents, interests, health, or loyalty are unimportant, that is abuse.
When your spouse brings gifts and says “I love you,” yet treats you disrespectfully, that’s not love—that’s abuse.
For most of us, the hardest thing to do is to recognize that we have been abused and perhaps are still being abused.
Sometimes it can feel scary, intimidating, or wrong to call it “abuse.”
We tend to think of abuse as something that happens to other people, something that only totally depraved monsters do—not something that can happen in a marriage we chose for ourselves, where there have been good times, and with a spouse we once loved very deeply (and maybe still do).
If this is you, please know that you are not alone—this happens to many, many people—and you are not crazy.
You also do not have to call what is happening to you “abuse” yet, if you are not ready for that. You can try something that feels easier:
- This is not okay.
- This is not acceptable.
- This is hurtful behavior.
In this chapter, and in the rest of the book, I use the word abuse to describe behaviors that make marriages dangerous. But if that word is hard or impossible for you to apply to yourself and your situation, you can substitute something that feels easier to grasp.
When a marriage turns dangerous, sometimes the pain is so intense and so constant, and the struggle to just survive each day is so all-consuming, that it can be next to impossible to take a step back from the situation and truly understand what is happening.
When you’re in it, it feels inescapable and inevitable, and you can’t imagine that a safer, happier life is possible. Maybe you tell yourself this is just how marriage is, and this is just what it looks like to love someone and be loved by someone. Marriage is hard work—right?
But somewhere deep inside you, a still, small voice says, Surely it’s not supposed to be this hard.
Something’s wrong here.
In that still, small voice, we hear Jesus calling us into greater freedom and release from bondage, though the road to that freedom may be long and challenging. We take one small step at a time, as we are able, and God walks right beside us, leading and guiding and strengthening us to face the next step.
In this chapter, we will work on one important step in particular: learning to see and name the wrong behavior as wrong.
Abuse and betrayal are not how marriage is supposed to be, and it’s not the way God designed love to work between a husband and wife. It really shouldn’t be this hard! Something really is wrong!
Furthermore, it’s important to realize that spouses who behave dangerously and abusively in their marriages tend to do so in predictable ways. Your spouse is not the first or only person using these tactics—far from it! In fact, these behaviors are so common that they have names and can be identified.
Victims of abuse often gain immense confidence, validation, and freedom through understanding what abuse looks like and how it works, and that is what we are going to do in this chapter—together.
5 Types of Control and Abuse
- Physical abuse is the willful infliction of physical pain or injury, such as slapping, bruising, sexually molesting, or restraining. More covert methods also constitute abuse, such as blocking your way, sleep deprivation, physical abandonment, displaying weapons, or giving you drugs or medicine without consent.
- Verbal/Emotional/Mental abuse is the infliction of mental or emotional anguish, such as humiliating or threatening language and treatment. More covert methods also are abusive, such as lying, accusing, isolating, blaming, denying, demeaning, ignoring you, or demanding to know where you go and whom you’ve spoken to. Gaslighting also falls under this category. (The term gaslighting comes from a 1944 movie and is now used in psychology to mean chronic manipulation in which the gaslighter (the abuser) causes the victim to question their identity, their judgment, their self-worth, and their perceptions of reality.)
- Financial or material exploitation is another form of abuse, in which the money, credit, or belongings of a spouse are used—or withheld—without their consent. This also includes running up debt, making major purchases, and withholding information about joint taxes, banks, and credit card accounts.
- Neglect is the failure of a caretaker to provide goods or services necessary to avoid physical harm, mental anguish, or illness: things such as food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care. Indifference to your wellbeing falls into this category.
- Spiritual abuse is the willful use of religious beliefs to manipulate or shame one spouse into giving control to the other spouse, who “lords it over” their partner, rather than giving each spouse the responsibility to follow a loving God above any other person. It is also spiritually abusive to use religious sayings, scriptures, threats of divine punishment, threatened withdrawal of divine favor/blessing, or negative spiritual judgments about your character to make you remain in a dangerous situation. People who claim prophetic authority to tell you what to do with your life, or who claim special knowledge about God’s mind and will that “people like you” don’t have (rather than recognizing your ability to hear from God directly) are also being spiritually abusive. Note that spiritual abuse can be perpetuated by one spouse against the other, but it can also be perpetuated by a pastor, religious leader, or an entire religious community, against an individual whose wellbeing is at stake.
130 Examples of Abusive Behaviors
This is a list of examples, not a complete list.
Physical Abuse and Neglect
Much of physical violence and sexual abuse is a felony, misdemeanor, or criminal behavior. It is illegal in many states. These behaviors are abusive when directed against an adult spouse, and also when directed against children.
- Throwing knives, stones, or other objects at you or near you. Spitting at you.
- Slapping, hitting, kicking, punching, burning, dragging, shaking, kicking, choking, shoving, or “accidentally” knocking into you. Breaking bones or twisting joints.
- Stalking, repeatedly following you, or harassing you, in a way that would make you fear injury. This is a crime in many states.
- Waving a gun or displaying a gun—or any other weapon, such as a baseball bat or knife.
- Holding down, tying up, kidnapping, locking up, or restraining you against your will.
- Threatening to hurt you, your pets, your children, your possessions, your heirlooms and valuables. “You deserved it because you were _______.”
- Frightening you with dangerous behavior: for example, fast driving, waving weapons, holding you or your child or pet over a ledge.
- Withholding food, water, clothing, or other basic necessities.
- Towering over you, pinning you against the wall, blocking your way, or invading your space.
- Giving you drugs or medicine without consent. Hiding, removing, or tampering with contraceptives. Deliberately having sex without contraceptives with the goal of spreading disease or impregnating you against your will.
- Sleep deprivation. Frequently waking you up in the middle of the night to discuss non-emergency issues, have sex, or to criticize you.
- Sex without your consent. Unwillingness to accept your no. Unwanted sexual contact, molestation, fondling, or brushing up against you without consent. Marital rape.
- Abandonment: Either temporary (for example, leaving you alongside the road and driving away), or long term, by leaving for weeks or months without any significant communication, relying on you to hold things together.
- Neglect during medical situations: Surgery, delivery of a baby, or times you cannot handle basic life functions (using the bathroom, feeding yourself).
- Wife “spanking” for disobedience (also known as Christian Domestic Discipline), which is coercion to establish control.
- Forced labor.
- Exhibitionism, voyeurism (watching people through the window, or other situations where people would reasonably expect privacy), or exposure to pornography against your will.
- For children: Exposure to pornography, taking photos of children in a sexualized situation, having sex in front of children, incest, or attempted sexual contact.
Definition of Battery:
The crime of battery is “the intentional touching of another in an angry manner, or the intentional use of force or violence against another. Grabbing someone’s arm, pushing or punching a person, or striking a victim with an object, all are crimes of battery.” This applies to adults and to children.
Definition of Assault:
In some states, “assault does not involve actual physical contact, and is defined as an attempt to commit a physical attack or as threatening actions that cause a person to feel afraid of impending violence.”
Verbal and Emotional Abuse
Mental abuse (sometimes called psychological aggression and control) causes the survivor to question their own reality, sanity, judgment, and worth. It makes them feel they deserve or caused the abuse. An occasional incident (a snarky comment, a grumpy eye-roll, a flare-up of temper) may not be emotional abuse. Watch for a pattern: repeated incidents combined with an attempt to control.
- Having a chronic pattern of criticism, belittling, blaming, and telling you it is for your own good, so you become a better person.
- Shaming and sarcasm: “You can try, but you’ll never be very good at it.”
- Having a pattern of name-calling, slurs, put-downs, screaming, or yelling.
- Cyber-stalking, demanding to know where you are at all times, tracking you via GPS, or installing cameras, spyware, or a keystroke logger (recorder) on your computer to capture your passwords and read your messages.
- Using location-sharing apps or “find my phone” apps to monitor you.
- Downloading apps on your phone to track you without your permission.
- Hacking your email, looking at your email account without permission, hacking your social media, having unwanted access to bank, music, or other online accounts. (Hacking your email is a felony.)
- Giving you a mobile phone, computer, or tablet they’ve set up for you (which is capable of collecting information about you, listening to your conversations, your calls, and tracking your location), especially if they are known to be good with computers.
- Sending you dozens of texts a day to ask where you are, who you’re with, or what you’re doing.
- Making verbal threats of harm, leaving, divorce, or suicide: anything that makes you live in fear.
- Demanding that you keep secrets, staying silent, not telling anyone what happened.
- Requiring that you report back to them the details of your conversations with others.
- Professing love often, but words and actions don’t match.
- Listening to and recording your private phone calls routinely. Installing listening devices and cameras, or using software to monitor you.
- Refusing to talk, but expressing moodiness, sulking, and self-pity. Forcing you to guess what’s wrong. Saying “If you loved me, you would know why I’m mad.”
- Chronic false accusations of infidelity, stealing, cheating, or lying.
- Blame shifting: “I wouldn’t have done _____, if you hadn’t ______.” “I went to the bar because you’re in a bad mood all the time.” “You drove me to do that because of your nagging.” “You made me do it.” “I would have gone to your mother’s birthday party if you hadn’t ______.” “I wouldn’t have seen prostitutes if you had been meeting my sexual needs.”
- Backing out of commitments at the last minute. Or stonewalling: never making the commitment, leaving you hanging, or coming too late to the event.
- Making demands of your time, energy, or money, but allowing you no voice, vote, or veto.
- Interruptions: Frequently interrupting you during phone calls, at work, naps, bathing, prayer, or a planned event, for something that is not an emergency. Taking non-emergency phone calls while you are together in the middle of an important event or discussion.
- Blaming you for things that happened to you. “If you weren’t wearing that, you wouldn’t have been raped.”
- Suicide threats. “If you don’t do what I say, I can’t go on living.” “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself, and it would be all your fault.”
- Silent treatment (punishing you by pretending you don’t exist). Not talking to you, not acknowledging your presence, or ignoring your attempts to communicate.
- Stonewalling (refusing to talk, discuss important issues, or make decisions in a reasonable timeframe). “I don’t have time for your drama.” “I’m busy right now.” “I can’t do that now.” “I won’t sign that.”
- Humiliating you in public, in front of friends, children, etc. “You’re crazy. You need to see a psychologist.”
- Undermining your reputation, smearing your character to friends, family, children, bosses, and pastors. “She’s a weak person.” “You can’t trust everything he says.” “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” “He’s not the sharpest guy.”
- Finding people to enlist as allies in their cause to discredit you and make you look bad in your workplace, school, social media, neighborhood, organizations, or church. By convincing others that you are the problem, they keep their hands clean. These allies are often called “flying monkeys,” who show their loyalty to the abuser by looking for ways to target you.
- Threatening with injury, and claiming it is fair due to your bad behavior. “If you fall, you’re only getting what you deserve.” “If you do that again, I’m going to snap, and who knows what I might do when I get angry.” Or showing no concern for your wellbeing when you are injured: “If you fall, you’re only getting what you deserve.”
- Threatening you with revenge porn, posting your texts and/or photos in order to get revenge or to blackmail you back into the relationship.
- Body-shaming. Saying that if you were prettier, skinnier, more sexually appealing, or more sexually satisfying, your marriage would be better.
- Claiming you will never see your children again if you don’t do as you’re told. “If you divorce me, I’ll take everything.” “The judge will see you’re a horrible parent.”
- Changing the story. “I didn’t do that.” “How can you say that? You were there.” “You’re just making that up.” “They’re lying because they don’t like me.”
- Turning the tables and accusing the victim of being judgmental and unforgiving. “You’re just a hypocrite.”
- Provoking you in public so you react in front of others, making it appear that you are the aggressive spouse.
- Causing a fight and forcing you to apologize.
- Acting helpless to avoid responsibilities.
- Justifying crossing your boundaries by questioning your decision-making ability. “You’ve got mental problems.” “You’re overly sensitive.” “Sure, I did, but what about when you did this?” “You’ve got issues.” “You always gripe about the same thing.” “You’re always nagging.”
- Giving a gift to force someone to extend forgiveness, while pretending the abuse never happened, making no amends, and doing nothing to change the problematic behavior pattern. (For example, a father exploding at his young son one day, then buying the boy a bicycle the next without ever referring to the explosion, as though the gift settles the “score.” Often abusers who do this grow enraged if their victim brings up the abusive event. “I bought you a bike! Stop complaining!”)
- Minimizing or explaining away bad behavior. “You’re angry over nothing.” “That’s not true; you’re just over-reacting.” “That’s not how it is.”
- Threats, if you say no to requests for sex: “I can get sex elsewhere.”
- Seducing you and then rejecting you.
- Mocking your looks or your clothes: “You are ugly.” “That outfit is ugly.” “No one would want to have sex with you.”
- Degrading you sexually: “I saved myself for you, but you’ve had other partners. You’re dirty.” “You’re no good in bed. I’ve had better sex.” “You’ve got a long line of sex partners coming around. You’re just a ____.”
- Criticizing your hobbies, interests, or sports. Resenting time and effort you spend on things you enjoy, often in the face of their time/money use for their leisure activities.
- Degrading your capabilities: “You can’t make it without me.” “You’re weak.”
- Bribing you to stay silent about the abuse by giving gifts, vacations, or other things valuable to you.
- Saying you are crazy or stupid, then excusing it. “Hey, I was only joking.” “Can’t you take a joke?” “I never said that.” “You’re just imagining things.” “That never happened.” “I never said that. I said this.”
- Saying you’re incapable of living without them. “You’d never make it on your own.” “No one would hire you.” “You’re too stupid.” “No one else could possibly love you.”
- Claiming you have no worth apart from them. “Without me, you’d be nothing.” “Shouldn’t I get first priority in your life?”
- Refusing to be pleased by your efforts to be a good spouse. Saying you ought to be grateful for even the smallest amount of respect, care, affection, or appreciation. Belittling your looks, your mannerisms, or your values.
- Using “always” and “never” to describe your behavior. Exaggerating your behavior to smear your character.
- Walking out of a party or gathering in a way that would draw attention. Eyes turn to you, and you are left to make explanations.
- Walking out of discussions repeatedly. A pattern of refusing to discuss a problem fully, explore various options, list pros and cons, and weigh the risks and rewards of each.
- Claiming you deserve nothing good and your opinions are worthless. “That’s just stupid. No-one thinks that.”
- Condescending and patronizing: “I know you try hard to be a good wife, but you’ll never be a real gem.” “You can work out at the gym, but you’ll never be attractive to me.” “You can read all those books and take classes, but you’re not smart enough to live without me.”
- Predicting you will fail at anything you attempt on your own. “You’re a failure.” “That might be a good idea, but you’d never be able to pull it off.” “You’re not good at figuring this stuff out like I am. You should let me do it for you.”
- Claiming that everyone knows you are the problem, and that everyone sides with the abuser. “No one believes you.”
- Making major decisions unilaterally that they know would affect you: calling your boss or coworkers, opening a new credit card account, making a major purchase, or taking on new debt.
- Lecturing you about mistakes you have made or might make, talking on and on about their experience and knowledge, and generally treating you and others as if you are beneath them.
- Unwilling to listen to your goals and find the best way to meet them.
- Treating you like a child. Stooping to threats or bribery to get your cooperation rather than using respectful means.
- Using social media to bully, stalk, threaten, or intimidate you.
- Changing the rules so they always apply to you, but never to them.
- Threatening to turn people against you and tarnish your good name (your kids, family, friends, coworkers, boss, etc.). “No one will ever believe you.” “Sure, go to the police. They won’t believe you.”
- Isolating you from family and friends. Prohibiting communication with family or friends.
- Coercing you to do their wishes by blackmail: “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll tell everyone what you did.” Or by extortion: “If you don’t do what I want, something bad will happen to you [your loved ones, your possessions, your business, etc.].”
- Making false accusations with no evidence.
- Making hateful or demeaning glances and gestures. Rolling their eyes, smirking, or raising an eyebrow when you speak to indicate that your opinions are invalid or ridiculous. Hand signals or gestures to indicate you are beneath them.
- Blaming strangers for coming up and starting flirtatious conversations with them. Claiming to be innocent and passive in sexual encounters. “I can’t help it; she came on to me.”
- In contrast, blaming you for unwanted attention, flirtation, or sexual harassment you receive. “He wouldn’t have hit on you if you weren’t dressed that way.” “You aren’t modest enough.” “You’re a slut / whore / asking for it.”
- Indifference toward you and your wellbeing.
- Giving the silent treatment or cold shoulder.
- Insisting on knowing your passwords, suggesting you would let them have your passwords if you had “nothing to hide.” Keeping control of your passwords.
- Demanding to know where you were, what you did, and who you talked with. “Why did you go there today? What were you doing?” Giving you a curfew.
- Telling you they have the right to go through your purse, billfold, briefcase, or phone. Asking to see your mobile phone or taking it from you.
- Excusing their hostile treatment by saying they do it only to make you stronger or better, or to teach you a lesson.
- Threatening to destroy you legally or professionally, and to drag your reputation through the mud.
- Demanding proofs of your love or loyalty: “If you really loved me, you would _________.” “If you truly care about me, you would sign this.”
- When you confront them, immediately turning the tables to accuse you of being un-Christian: unloving, judgmental, and unforgiving. “You claim to be a Christian, but you aren’t loving at all. You’re a hypocrite.” “If you were a Christian, you would forgive me and give me another chance.”
- Not allowing you to visit friends or family. “They are always against me. I don’t want to be around them.” “You like them more than me.” “Shouldn’t I come first in your life?”
- Confessing to a minor betrayal in order to appear honest, and demanding forgiveness, when in reality there’s a larger betrayal yet to be revealed.
- Excusing and minimizing seductive behavior as “boys will be boys.” “Sure, I think our babysitter is cute. Any guy would.” “This is just how guys are.”
- Excusing their porn addiction. “Well, if you just _______, I wouldn’t watch porn.”
- Acting smug or superior.
- Muttering things under their breath. Sighing. “Here we go again.” “Why is that not a surprise?”
- Financial Abuse
- Some of the examples that follow constitute criminal behavior and are illegal on state and/or federal levels.
- Stealing money from your purse or bank account.
- Stealing valuables and pawning or selling them, or using them as blackmail.
- Using your ID to open new accounts and change addresses.
- Refusing to give you access to bank accounts or credit cards used for routine essentials, such as food, clothing, transportation, utilities, fuel, and supplies.
- Storing, keeping track of, and using your user name, passwords, and account IDs without your permission on your electronic devices, including computers, phones, and tablets.
- Opening new credit cards that bill to your bank account without your agreement or without discussing it with you first.
- Running up credit card debt and taking out loans without discussing it.
- Demanding loans for friends and relatives that actually are used in another way.
- Lying about missing or damaged valuables.
- “Accidentally” losing or breaking things of sentimental or monetary value to you, especially after a fight, as a passive-aggressive way of punishing you (often while denying they are upset or did it intentionally, which is gaslighting).
- Removing your access to essential funds as a penalty for making small accounting mistakes or a late payment.
- Demanding to be added to the title (ownership) of a house or real estate they didn’t buy with you.
- Demanding you refinance the house and give them the cash.
- Selling your family home, car, or other marital property without your consent.
- Making major decisions unilaterally that they know would affect you: for example, telling your boss you are quitting; prohibiting you from earning money; opening a new credit card account and making a major purchase; or taking on new debt.
- Without your agreement, using their own paycheck for their own pleasure, leisure, recreation, sports, and other activities, while demanding you pay for all essentials (housing, food, medical insurance) for the family.
- “If you don’t give me money, I’ll tell the police, your boss, or your pastor what you did.”
- “Something bad will happen to you if you don’t give me money.”
- Refusing to help support the family in terms of money, time, effort, or priority.
- Spiritual Abuse
- Forced obedience is forbidden by Jesus, who says Christians must not exercise authority or “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25-26), but many people try. The same people who quote these verses don’t recognize that basic material care (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) and affection are the minimum standards the Bible requires of a spouse, as is discussed in Chapter 6.
- Note that spiritual abuse can be a tool of control that one spouse uses against another, but it can also be something perpetuated by a pastor or other spiritual authority—or even an entire church community or denomination—to dictate and control the way an individual believer lives his or her life. In contrast, Scripture gives a believer the freedom of conscience on topics such as money, marriage, and religious observance.
- “You must submit and obey me in everything… because the Bible says so.” Ignoring the passages that say submission is for all believers, not just wives, as well as the passages that say husbands must love their wives, be sacrificial, and give wives the same care and treatment they get.
- “You must give me sex whenever I want. I have a right to your body. You cannot deny me.”
- “You must stay at home and care for the kids and the house all your life, regardless of your own talents, skills, or desires.”
- “You must be silent because you’re a woman, like the Apostle Paul says. Know your place.”
- “You are a sinner and have no right to claim you deserve good treatment. You deserve nothing more than the privilege of being a slave.”
- “Your suffering in this marriage brings glory to God and makes you holy.”
- “You claim to be a Christian, and therefore you must forgive me and get together again.”
- “You owe God everything. Jesus paid the price for your soul. So every choice you make must serve God through ministry. You cannot have fun, pleasure, hobbies, friendships, possessions, pets, or fun activities.”
- “You have no rights. You cannot claim to be a victim, because Christ was a greater victim. If you are angry or want restitution, you are in sin.”
- Telling you that you must ignore your own God-given instincts for self-preservation and instead that you must obey what the church or person in spiritual authority thinks you should do.
- Claiming to have special knowledge about what God’s will is for your life—knowledge that they say you can’t access by going to God directly. Claiming to have heard from God about what is right for you and what choice you need to make in a given situation.
- Threatening you with the wrath of God or with the loss of God’s favor if you don’t do as they say and make the choices they are telling you to make with regard to your marriage.
- Promising special, exclusive access to God (God’s power, God’s blessings, the knowledge of God) if you support their ministry and follow their marriage advice.
- Threatening you with separation from God and divine punishment if you try to leave their church or ministry. Telling you you’re not a real Christian if you don’t follow God the way they think you should.
- Telling you that leaving your marriage and/or leaving one specific church is the same thing as leaving Jesus (sinning, being disobedient to God, etc.).
- Using scriptures or church language to shame you for having feelings of anger, desperation, fear, or rage in response to abuse or betrayal.
- Telling you if you were a better Christian, loved God more, prayed or read your Bible the right amount, went to church more, or gave more money or time to church endeavors, that: you would have constantly positive emotions, your struggles would be resolved, the abuse would stop, and/or your marriage would be fully healed.
The Duluth Wheel of Power and Control
This helpful diagram, the Power & Control Wheel, (LINK to wheel GRAPHIC: www.theduluthmodel.org.) shows the tactics abusive husbands use to ensure power and control over their wives when they have already used physical violence.
On average, nearly half of the men who batter their wives do so three times a year.
Note: Though it is rarer for the female spouse to be the abuser, it does happen; this chart uses female pronouns for the victim, but anyone can be a victim of abuse, not just women.
A divorce attorney, whose practice includes a lot of people of faith, said, “My clients often describe abusive behaviors, but often don’t see themselves as abused. Then I show them the Duluth Wheel. I try to do it gently. They start to cry.”
The next wheel, the Duluth Wheel of Equality (LINK to wheel graphic: www.theduluthmodel.org.), is the counterpart of the Power and Control Wheel. It shows what a godly, loving, mutual marriage should look like.
(For some Christians, the word “equality” makes them skittish, because they think it is a liberal idea and therefore not biblical. If this is how you feel, you can replace the word “equality” with a word like “mutuality” or “godly love.” The concept is the same, regardless of what you choose to call it.)
The Abuse Cycle
I’ll never forget the day that one of our pastors came to my divorce recovery group and explained the abuse cycle. It was so powerful and eye-opening. Those of us in recovery finally had an explanation of how abuse works.
In this next section, we will address the Abuse Cycle and look at a few helpful systems that enable people to identify and recognize abusive behaviors.
The cycle of domestic violence includes three parts:
- Abuse/Violence – the abusive event itself.
- Honeymoon Phase – a deceptive period of calm, harmony, and even intimacy, following the abusive event; a dramatic, temporary display of remorse in which manipulation still continues. (These are the sweet times that keep many abused spouses in the relationship.)
- Building Tension or Agitation – the gradual increase in strain when you sense your spouse is getting upset; “walking on eggshells,” waiting for the inevitable explosion.
The Abuse Cycle helps victims understand why there are “good times” in their marriage. Experts now emphasize that the Honeymoon Phase is still abuse, but with different tactics. They argue that calling it a honeymoon makes it seem like a break from the abuse, a change in behavior, or a sign of true remorse and understanding of harm done—when in reality it is just as abusive, manipulative, and deceptive as the other phases. We can more accurately call it “Manipulative Kindness.”
This is important to understand, but I also see a lot of value in learning about the Honeymoon Phase. Why? Because after looking at the examples of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, spouses often say, “That’s not me. Life with my spouse is not filled with conflict every day. We’ve had good times, some good memories.”
The truth is, most abusive households do not appear abusive every day.
But sadly, abuse is often hidden and inflicted on the victim in covert ways. The abuser deliberately switches tactics, using gifts, tearful repentance, and promises to change. Behind the scenes, the manipulation, deceit, and control are the same.
The thing to recognize here is that abuse has nothing to do with the victim. It is the abusive person’s own problem—their inability to emotionally regulate themselves and respond safely, appropriately, and maturely to the many frustrations and difficulties of life.
In this world, each of us must learn (hopefully at a young age) how to manage our emotions and our behavior when we aren’t getting what we want.
Abusive people never learned how to do this well.
Instead, they attack, bully, intimidate, threaten, humiliate, shame, and in a whole host of ways try to force other people to do exactly what they want, whenever they want it.
Their temporary remorse and apologies right after the abusive event also have nothing to do with the victim, and their emotional display is not a sign that the abuse is going to stop. In fact, it’s just a part of the cycle, because the abuser has still not learned how to self-regulate in the face of frustration and to treat others with respect and consideration.
Even their show of remorse is still about them: they fear losing the benefits they are getting from their victim, and sometimes they also want to keep their image of themselves as a good person. So they buy gifts, make promises, and give speeches about how much they have changed.
None of this is evidence that the abuser is a sweet, loving person who just gets under stress from time to time; it is, instead, yet another tactic to make sure that they keep getting their own way and do not have to face any uncomfortable emotions—especially the discomfort of seeing how their actual behavior doesn’t line up at all with their image of themselves.
They want to feel instantly good again without doing any work to heal the damage they have done to their spouse and family and the people they have hurt.
And they want to make sure that they do not lose their spouse, whose labor, sacrifices, and enormous expenditure of energy to keep the marriage working is all making it possible for the abuser to get their own way without having to do their share of the work in the relationship.
The victim holds the relationship together at great personal cost;
the abuser gets all the benefits.
But life with other people is never going to be without difficulty, requiring no compromises or cooperation, and allowing us to always have things go our own way. And experiencing momentary remorse has not taught the abusive person how to self-regulate or how to properly respect the rights and wishes of others.
It is only a matter of time before their ingrained, established pattern of abusing others when they’re upset by something bursts onto the scene again. And the cycle continues.
The violence may not be obvious before you marry. It may start after the abuser “has you.” Many people report abuse on the honeymoon, or within the first six months. Sometimes it starts when you’re vulnerable, perhaps pregnant or going through a health crisis.
|Abuse/Violence Phase – The Explosion
Explosive rage used to dominate through force, threats, violence, isolation, or intimidation.
|Abuser: Acts out aggressively through rage, sarcasm, physical violence, intimidation, locking spouse in a room, smashing things, rape, accusations, put-downs. May abuse children and pets, damage property, discard sentimental items of value to the spouse. May try to make them lose their job. The abuser’s goal is to show who is in charge. This is the bullying phase.|
|Victim: Fights back, argues, tries to get away, leaves, protects self and kids, calls the police. May try to reason with abuser, calm them down or pacify them.
One woman used sex to keep herself safe during the abuse phase—
I was scared of him. He was angry. He pushed me, but I couldn’t leave. If I left, I was afraid he would retaliate. So I snuggled with him that night. I told myself, “Keep your enemies close.” I didn’t want him to know I wanted to leave him. His family accused me of giving him mixed messages, but sometimes women have sex because they are scared of what will happen if they don’t.
|Honeymoon Phase – “Manipulative Kindness”
Manipulation continues in the form of repentance, confession, tears, apologies, promises, and sweetness. The abuser needs the victim, so abuser acts sweet to get them back. As the old saying goes: They are not sorry for trying to intimidate you; they are sorry for getting caught.
|Abuser: Shows remorse, acts repentant, apologizes, and gives gifts. Gifts are designed to bribe you to stay silent, or to coerce you to forget about the abusive treatment. Brings flowers, jewelry, promises of vacations, or other things you want. Claims that the gift erases all mistreatments of the past, therefore you must forgive and excuse all destructive behavior. Abuser wants you to stay silent by saying you can’t tell anyone now that you have accepted their gift. Explains away, denies, or minimizes behavior while apologizing. Promises of change: To do better, to go to counseling, to be kind and generous. Abuser calms down for a while. Acts sweet, apologetic, and attentive.
|Victim: Forgives, agrees to stay, tells the police there was no injury, stops legal proceedings, starts to hope again, sets up counseling appointments, tells themselves everything will be okay.
“What used to be called the honeymoon phase of the cycle is actually just more abuse—a very purposeful, deceitful, manipulation by the abuser to prevent the victim from leaving him, reporting him to the police, or doing anything else that might make things hard or result in consequences for him. It is not about his partner at all, and it is not about love. (Note: I use the terms him & her for simplicity, although that’s not always the case.) The so-called Honeymoon phase is much more appropriately referred to as a period of ‘manipulative kindness.’”
One wife shares her experience with an episode of “Manipulative Kindness”—
My husband and I had agreed to live separately so we could decide what to do. One day I got an eviction notice from my landlord. I called my husband. He said he had not paid my rent because he “wanted me to know how it feels to be a single mom.” He later denied having said it and bought me a $100 bracelet for Valentine’s Day (it had a bride and groom on it). It meant nothing to me. Now his family was upset at me because I wasn’t appreciating the efforts they could see him making.
Rather than requiring real, long-term proof that he had changed and sought to regain his wife’s trust, the husband’s family turned their anger at the wife for not being grateful for the gift or the effort.
Sometimes the abuser ropes in others to help them put pressure on the victim. In this instance, notice the husband’s gaslighting, saying he never said what he said.
The family in this story is out of line in being angry with the wife. It was her decision whether she could trust him, not theirs. She alone had the responsibility to keep herself and her children safe.
|Tension Phase – Criticism Starts Again
The rage is forgotten. Now the irritations increase. Tension builds. The victim does everything to avoid the next volcanic explosion.
|Abuser: Pretends nothing happened. Nit-picks, criticizes, excuses own behavior, withholds money, blames spouse for provoking them, uses name-calling or disrespect, comes home late without advanced notice, makes threats, stops being affectionate, uses hateful or mocking glances and gestures, says spouse isn’t perfect either, tells a wife she’s not submissive, breaks promises, makes suicide threats blaming the spouse, denies abuse, denies bad behavior, refuses counseling, humiliates spouse publicly or privately, coerces spouse or kids to do illegal things, makes accusations and looks for ways to justify hurting spouse again.
|Victim: Walks on eggshells, tries not to do anything that would upset abuser, tries to make themselves small and invisible to protect self and children, doesn’t stand up for themselves or children, avoids conflict, disappears emotionally, leaves the room or the house to avoid contact, keeps kids quiet, feels guilty and responsible, tries to please or distract attention in other ways.
After separating for a while, one wife tried again to make her marriage work and allowed her husband to move back in. He came back and started “love-bombing” her: the first part of the cycle of emotional abuse. She describes the tension—
He was acting very passionate. That evening his mom made a comment that she wished her husband would look at her like that. It made me afraid. He was idealizing me again, and I knew the abuse was about to follow. I could recognize the cycle by now.
After the cycle has occurred several times, you get beaten down. Negative messages such as “I can never make it on my own,” or “My children will be destroyed,” or “I don’t want to go through divorce,” put pressure on you to stay.
If you spend your life walking on eggshells,
you might be in an abusive relationship.
Over time, the honeymoon phase decreases and finally disappears. It is replaced by more agitation and more violence.
The person seeking control is very insecure. They squeeze the life out of the relationship. Abusers are very scared, because the faithful person is the anchor in the relationship. If they stop doing their part (of fixing everything and absorbing all bad treatment), the abuser falls apart.
When the victim establishes boundaries, the abuser gets angrier and attacks at any point of weakness. The abuser goes into shock.
In these situations, the best thing for the victim to do is refuse to work on the relationship and get to safety.
Don’t try to patch things up when the abusive spouse gives the silent treatment or plays the victim. Part of the manipulation cycle is going into a “puppy-dog mode” of intense remorse. The abuser begs and promises not to do it again.
But it’s like quicksand: the more you fight, the more you sink. Instead, find solid ground and stay there. Make it clear you’re not going to jump back into the quicksand. (For more on responding to abusive situations, see Chapter 9.)
Recognizing Abuse: The Stories of Victims
Sometimes, it takes hearing someone else’s story to finally recognize the truth about your own.
In the following true stories given by some of the people I interviewed who suffered in dangerous marriages and at last sought out a life-saving divorce, we can see many of the abusive behaviors we have been discussing—in action, and in the real lives of real people.
As you read, see if you can identify those behaviors. See if you can identify the “not okay” things that were done or said to these victims of abuse.
- What was wrong about it?
- Why was it wrong?
- How should that person have been treated instead?
Can you see what abuse looks like, and the effect it has on the victim, to keep them questioning themselves and stuck in the dangerous marriage?
I was a nice Christian girl from a good home. My parents were married, and we had a big, happy family. So my expectation of marriage was that I would marry someone kind, loving, and understanding. If you’re going to live with someone the rest of your life, you want a love as described in the Bible: Love is patient, love is kind, it is not self-seeking, not easily angered, and so on.
When I was introduced to John, I really liked him. But after we married, he became controlling. Financially, we were both working and had good jobs. But he doled out money only when he thought I needed it. Just enough for groceries. Anything I bought for myself, even if it was small, would make him irate.
Yet he would buy anything he wanted. One day he brought home a boat. He never asked me if I wanted one or if we could afford it. The first time we used it, I spent two hours cleaning the boat seats using a toothbrush. He told me, “If you don’t finish the job, you aren’t riding in the boat.” It was a humiliating to be treated like a child.
And he liked to show contempt. On a family vacation, we drove across the country. At one stop, we switched places. John went to sleep, and I continued driving for about 40 minutes. When he woke up, he said, “Why aren’t we in Knoxville yet?” He took the wheel, did a U-turn, and drove all the way back to the place we had switched. At every exit along the route, he pulled over and took a photo of the highway signs. He had to “teach me a lesson.” He wanted to humiliate me and have proof. I thought it was my fault and thought I deserved this kind of embarrassment. He manipulated it so I accepted that everything was my fault.
It was like the movie, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” I did the yard work, groceries, everything. Yet he criticized me constantly. There were so many picky rules. I wasn’t even allowed to put any decorations or hang any picture on our walls. All he did was eat, run, work, and sleep.
One evening, just after our daughter was born, he came home, and the dog’s water bowl was low. “How do you think you can take care of a child, if you can’t take care of a dog?” he said.
I was not treated with love and kindness. I did everything I could to be loving and kind and not fight. But he told me everything was my fault—and I believed him. He talked down to me constantly. He insisted I cater to him in every way. But in return, he was mean and hateful.
You might wonder why I accepted this. Down deep inside, I told myself I deserved to suffer. I believed God was punishing me for sleeping with my college boyfriend.
Our daughter would shut the door when we fought. It was too traumatizing to her. So I promised myself I would not fight with John anymore. I didn’t believe in divorce, but I couldn’t watch my daughter go through this.
My husband attended the Promise Keepers conferences. This was a Christian ministry that focused on being a man of integrity. I told John we had to work on our marriage. And I went to our pastor to ask for help.
John was part of a church men’s group, and part of their homework was putting together a Manhood Plan. It was supposed to be a reckoning of his own successes and shortcomings, and a list of his personal goals. In it, he blamed me for everything. He stated that one of his life goals was to be able to forgive me. He wrote: “I’m praying God will help me forgive you.”
It was the 25th year of marriage. Our daughter had just gone to a nearby college. John was trying to control her, too. She didn’t want to come home and be around him. He humiliated her, too.
Finally, I was desperate. I could survive John’s meanness, but I didn’t want my daughter treated that way. I wanted John to be a good Christian husband.
I put together a three-page list of problems and ugly incidents and went to my pastor. He asked me to read it aloud in his office. Calmly I read line after line. To hear it, in my own voice, was eye-opening. I realized I had allowed myself to be abused for 25 years.
My pastor met with us and asked John to move out for a while, but John refused. John threatened me: “If you divorce me, I’ll keep our daughter, and you won’t get anything.”
I called out to God. I felt God’s presence like I’d never felt it before. I had this calming peace about me: “I know what I’m going to do.” I felt God’s hand on me. “John has to go. It’s over.” From that moment, I became a different person.
I didn’t believe in divorce, but I needed to be away from him. I filed for legal separation, hoping for him to change. He filed for divorce in response.
As I look back, I am grateful to God for helping me and giving me peace in the decision.
And my life now? It is so amazing, it’s hard to believe. Now I know what happiness is! I have no regrets.
Listen to Priscilla’s words—
- He never hit her. It was all words, actions, and demands. It was still abuse.
- She felt hated, disrespected, unimportant, humiliated, and embarrassed.
- She felt like she was being controlled (“you can’t go in the boat if you don’t finish the job”) and treated like a child.
- She was desperate and wanted to protect her daughter.
- She looked inward and doubted herself: Was she really being loving enough?
- She believed his criticism.
The Wake-Up Call
She read her list aloud and—for the first time—realized she was being abused. Her pastor was just the audience in this story. After 25 years, Priscilla was the one who saw her husband’s behavior and identified it as abuse.
Now she had clarity, so she put up boundaries. Her pastor supported her decision and was with her when she told her husband to leave and get help for his abusive attitudes and behaviors.
Her husband refused to comply and responded with threats. Priscilla didn’t feel comfortable filing for divorce due to her Christian beliefs, so she filed for separation, and he responded by filing for divorce.
Priscilla was in her fifties, and she decided to start over and embrace a new life. She had not worked much outside the home during her marriage, but she jumped into a new career. When we discussed including her story in this book, she wanted me to add: “I have a wonderful life now!”
Thank you for asking about my life experiences. Somehow, they don’t seem so remarkable to me… I suppose my culture shaped some of that perception. We often tend to use the phrase, “That’s okay,” to deflect and bury painful moments.
I have now retrained myself to say the words, “No. That’s not okay with me.” It was the hardest lesson of my life. But that comes much later in the story.
Before I share much about my marriage and divorce, I would like to introduce myself and tell you a little bit about my childhood. I want to ask a favor, though. Please don’t allow yourself to feel sorry for me. You’ll be tempted, I know. I just want you to know beforehand that this more than difficult beginning has a wonderful outcome. You may come away with more faith and hope than you ever thought possible.
I certainly did.
I am the oldest of three children. I really functioned as the mom to my siblings for most of our childhood. Our father was married to someone else when we were all conceived, so he was never around us. We didn’t really “belong” to him, so there seemed to be no need for a relationship.
We lived a very rough life. My mom was single and had a hard time finding work. And because my mom worked, we stayed with other family members. We were always running and moving around. I was in fifteen schools before I was a teenager. It was very hard for young children, and there was no chance for a normal life. I lived with a lot of fear and depression during my life.
[When I was fifteen, my mother] left us with her sister, who was married to the man who sexually abused me. My uncle was a mean person. He would come to my bed at night and kiss me, touch me, and do other things. He would tell me he knew I needed to have food and clothes, and he would give me money if I would let him do whatever he wanted. My bed was by a window, so I just looked up at the sky to see the stars. I would be very still and think about the day I would be able to get away from him.
When I was 18, I met my husband, Mateo, through people who were friends of one of my aunts. He was 26. We begin to date and quickly developed a relationship. I was so shy and untrusting. He had already been married and had a child. So there I was, eighteen years old, and I didn’t know anything. About anything!
I don’t know why, but from the way I grew up and what I saw with my mom, I just learned that no matter what happened to you, [you have to shrug it off and say,] “It’s OK. Everything is OK.”
Someone hurts you? “It’s OK; I can take it.”
People can hurt you like that, and “it’s ok.”
In my eighteen years, that was my experience, and it was normal. Experience is truly a teacher—even when the lessons are wrong.
Mateo was very immature—and I wasn’t like that. I’d seen too much of life already. But honestly, I thought this could be how people have a stable and happy home. With nothing to use as a comparison, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
It was totally my choice to stay, and I was beginning to think my dream was coming true. Mateo was going to be my husband; we were going to have a wonderful marriage; and we were going to have a beautiful home together. That life and dream had never been within my grasp, so I was clutching at it and holding on tight.
Consequences never crossed my mind—not one time. In my mind, this was going to be the way to my happiness. I was determined to do everything possible to make this relationship work and to finally have a happy family.
During the summer, I became pregnant, and I was starting to like him more. About three months after we discovered we were having a baby, he lost his job… no job, and I had no job: what were we going to do?
Truly, for about two years, everything was okay. At least, I thought it was okay. He would leave the house and not come home until very late. Okay. He would come home drunk. Okay. Doing very bad things. Okay.
It was okay because I had a home and a baby. When I looked at baby Virginia, I would talk to her and promise that she would have a future. I told her, “You are not going to be like me. You won’t have the kind of life I had. I will make sure of it.”
I thought we would always be a family. No matter what it took.
And for two years, we were okay. Then things started going wrong.
The beginning of the end started after we returned home from a trip. We had gone to Mateo’s daughter’s (my step-daughter’s) birthday party. I bought a little necklace, a small cross, to give to her. I wanted her to be happy, and I understood what it meant to not have a father around.
After the party, we came back home. He left that night, a Thursday, and didn’t come back home until Saturday. The next day, he told me, “I don’t love you; I’m with someone else. I’m out of here.” A meltdown happened as I completely freaked out and told him, “You can’t do this—you can’t leave—it isn’t right!”
Up to this point in my life, nothing could be allowed to impact my emotions, because I had learned not to acknowledge them. Everything was going to be okay. But this time, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe he would do this to me or to our daughter, Virginia. I begged him to stay and assured him that things would be better.
He had another job and became friends with a lot of the people in his office. He started having parties at our house with guys and girls. I was so incredibly naïve and so desperate to keep my family together.
He began having an affair with an eighteen-year-old girl, who became his girlfriend. He would bring her to our home and, while I was asleep, they would have sex in our house. Then, she would be at our house as a guest. I’m still saying, “It’s okay.”
We had a Christmas party at our home for his friends in the office. Some people drank too much; [there were] a couple of fights. After everyone left, he blamed me and said those fights were my fault. He hit me and told me he was leaving. This time, he really did it.
When I found myself in that situation, the bottom fell out of my world. I couldn’t recognize myself. I was lost. I couldn’t think, couldn’t feel, and my life was spinning out of control. Only one thing was operating at full capacity: survival.
My dream family is shattered; I have a baby daughter; an eighteen-year-old girl has entered my life as my husband’s girlfriend, and her picture is on our dresser. Now, he’s made good on his threat to leave, and I am left holding all the broken pieces.
Somehow, I kept convincing myself it would be better at some point (I have no idea why we truly think that sometimes). My self-talk was about how I could handle this—I could take anything—it’s going to be okay.
It wasn’t. Not for a long time.
I let him come back three or four times during those years. It was the biggest mistake but the only thing I knew to do. I was determined to keep the cleanest house, have the prettiest hair, be the thinnest and best-dressed woman he knew… it was a never-ending performance cycle. Cleaning the house at 3 am still resulted in being hit multiple times and verbally abused. It wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. I was completely obsessed with making him stay.
My depression was in full swing. The voices of all the past kept crashing into my mind. I just wanted to talk with someone who would be kind and listen to me. I called 911 in a panic and talked about suicide. A Christian police officer answered my call that night. He was so compassionate and gave the information for a hospital that had people who could help me and where I could have time to think.
I was having a breakdown of some sort… I knew God had me there to bring me back to myself. This was the experience that caused me to know that my marriage, the life we had been living, and all the drama had to stop. I had to make the decision to stop it for me and my children.
Things were now crystal clear. It was at that point when I decided I would no longer live in this manner. I didn’t have a plan but was trusting God to direct me.
For the first time in my life, I said, “This is not okay.”
[It still took a while for me to finally leave.] Several months later, my second baby was born. My husband came to the hospital for the birth after my cousin phoned him. When I came home from the hospital, it was Halloween.
All my family knows that I have a recipe for a great salad with apples and a lot of special things. Everyone loves this salad! Halloween Day, I came home with our baby, and my husband asked me if I would make the salad for him to take to the party with his new girlfriend. Now, I had just gotten out of the hospital that day after giving birth to his son.
Make a salad for the party? Really? I cried my heart out—it was so very painful. It hurt me so much. The realization finally set in that he loved his girlfriends more than his wife.
All things culminated that night. This, after this, after this, after this… it was too much for me to handle anymore.
With two babies and a full-time job at Chick-Fil-A, I had more than my share of things to manage. I had become two people: The work person who was happy and competent, and the home person who was fearful, still dealing with all the pain in my life, and trying to determine next steps.
One afternoon, I came home from work, and my husband began yelling, “Why did you call her?” He accused me of calling his girlfriend (I didn’t know who she was) and revealing to her that he had a wife and two children. His big question was, “How could you do that to me?”
[When I finally left,] it was a Monday night. I went to the bedroom and began packing all my clothes. I told him I was filing for a divorce on grounds of abandonment and for child support. He continued to tell me I was weak, that I wasn’t going anywhere… He threatened to call my mother and tell her I needed to go back into the hospital for crazy people where I belonged.
“You will come back. You can’t survive without me. You are too ugly,” he said. On and on and on with the belittling, the criticism, the verbal assault.
I kept packing.
This time, I got my things together, and I finally walked out the door. A decision had been made, and I was not going to do this anymore.
It was not okay anymore.
There was a history with him of getting girls pregnant. The first girl got pregnant twice and had two abortions. My husband took my credit card from my purse and paid for both abortions. I had no idea of what he had done until the bill came.
Now, one last time, he tells me he needs my help. The girl he has been with is now pregnant, and she is only seventeen.
I can’t help you.
His life was so very sad. I wanted him to be the right kind of husband, a father to his children, and for us to have a happy and stable home. But it wasn’t possible. It was too much. The impact on the children was awful. My daughter cried each time he left, and it would break my heart. She was lonely for her father.
But finally, it was not OK. None of this was OK.
My children and I were settled in our home. I began to see a counselor and started rebuilding my emotional and spiritual life. I learned to feel, to think, to know what is right, and to be respected in my own eyes. I began to grow as a woman… as a person. I now believe in myself and that everything has a purpose.
People can take things from you if you let them. They can take your dignity and security.
They can make you feel unworthy and at fault for everything.
Everything becomes about survival, so you can’t focus on loving. Not yourself or others. You just focus on breathing and taking the next step.
But there comes a time where you must stop scrambling and start loving—focus—decide you can do it. And then go do it. You may be hurting, and you may be suffering, but there really is a good tomorrow. It’s all about you what you decide—not what others tell you. Learn to understand yourself, [and then you will be able to] to understand others.
If you really believe in God and believe there is a better tomorrow, a better tomorrow will come. I try to find the best in every situation and learn any lesson that is contained. We work hard as a family to be positive and supportive of one another. I’m very happy today with my life and with myself.
Both of my children are happy and successful. They love each other, and they know how to share love with others. They are not selfish or self-centered. I am never afraid of them making bad choices, because we walked together through difficulties. We know each other and are committed to each other.
There have been many tears in my life. But my family is good; we are stable; we make memories and traditions together. I’m very peaceful about my life now. It has only come from God. He has given me everything I have always wanted.
Listen to Martina’s words—
- She saw herself as a survivor: No matter what life handed her, she said “It’s okay”—until it wasn’t okay any longer.
- She felt belittled, used, unworthy, uncared for, neglected, unimportant, ugly, inadequate, unappreciated, controlled, and unfairly accused.
- She said when you focus on survival, you can’t love yourself or others.
- There were two Martinas: Work Martina was happy and confident; Home Martina lived in fear.
- She wanted Mateo to be a good husband and father, but she recognized it wasn’t possible.
- She didn’t know how she would get free, but she knew God had a plan.
The Wake-Up Call
Her depression and suicidal 911 call led to a hospitalization that gave her time away from the home, and time to think. She saw God’s hand in this: helping her get clarity and bringing the drama to an end.
She realized she had to stop the nightmare for her and her children.
Now she had clarity. She wanted love in her family, not just survival. When her husband didn’t care for her during the labor and delivery of her second child, and then asked her to make a special salad for him and his girlfriend, it was the last domino to fall.
So many of my interviewees were saved from severe depression by going into a hospital or psychiatric facility. Up until then, they live in a fog of making it through each day, which means they are so focused on surviving, walking on eggshells, they have no mental energy to plan a path out of the turmoil. They are emotionally exhausted and often suicidal. They don’t feel safe until they enter the hospital and get help.
In many cases, getting professional help means the difference between life and death.
Living on “Planet Me” or “Planet We”?
Living on “Planet Me”
Martina told her story about coming home from the hospital with a newborn baby, and her husband demanding she prepare food for a party with his new girlfriend.
In spite of ourselves, we can’t help but laugh at the absurd self-centeredness of her husband. But his unrealistic expectations didn’t develop overnight. Like many chronic abusers, he had a pattern of wearing Martina down by his selfishness. His background told him that he was the center of the universe, not God.
When one spouse points out your shortcomings and rarely admit theirs, they are living on “Planet Me.” On Planet Me, most of their actions are okay. Everything you do that they don’t approve of, is not okay.
The rules never apply equally.
There’s always a reason why the same rule doesn’t apply to them. When you live on Planet Me, the abuser gets to define reality.
They have their own standard of justice, and that standard favors them at all times. They make the laws. They are the umpire. They are the referee. They are the judge and jury, and they are always right.
On Planet Me, they make the rules.
It makes no sense. You won’t be able to convince them of the double standard. Often the abuser brainwashes the victim to living by the rules of Planet Me, too. You start to wonder about your own observations:
- Did he really leave this bruise, or did I fall?
- Did he really lie, or did I mishear him?
- Did he disappear without telling anyone, or did he leave a note that somehow got lost? He says that never happened or that I just misunderstood it.
After a while, you’ve been gaslighted so long, the feeling that you are always wrong becomes the new normal.
On Planet Me, you will feel that you haven’t given enough or been a good enough spouse, even though you know you have sacrificed your safety and your health to follow these lopsided rules.
Living on “Planet We”
We know what a good marriage looks like:
- The spouses are friends who are also lovers, companions, and partners who build their own shared life together.
- They both need, and both get, safety and love from each other.
- They have a Oneness, as the Bible says; they are on a journey together.
- They each can come to each other for comfort and support.
- They go through ups and downs together.
- They brush off slights, forgive one another, and figure out how to solve their problems with understanding. It’s not a one-way street.
- They each bring precious assets into the union: their time, energy, skill, intellect, valuables, and their loyalty.
- They are a team.
- Each one of them matters, and each has choices, a say in how the marriage and family work, and responsibilities that they faithfully uphold.
Sure, there is sacrifice, but it is due to circumstances beyond their control: health problems, accidents, or job losses—not due to a pattern of selfishness, disrespect, or betrayals by the other.
An abuser can be either spouse, although most abuse is men on women. There is, however, plenty of evidence that wives can be physical batterers or emotional abusers who exert control and power over their husbands and children.
Anyone who doubts this should to look at the many books written by psychologists and adult children of narcissistic mothers. Many adults raised in these families say they wish their father had divorced early and taken them away to safety.
In Andrew’s story, we see exactly that: a daughter’s comment is indelibly imprinted in his mind.
One of my best memories as a kid was when I walked into the kitchen one day, and I saw my parents kissing. And I was thinking, Yes, Dad, kiss Mom more. She needs that. I want her to feel that she’s loved and she’s special.
And that was right before their divorce. Even as an eight-year-old, I knew it was coming.
I’ve always been a hopeless romantic. And when you think about marriage… you hear all the love songs on the radio. This is gonna be great. I’m gonna find my soul mate, and everything’s just gonna be awesome.
It was a real shock when I didn’t get that.
I’m a very affectionate person, but it’s taken me a long time to know how to act in a relationship. I’m kind of like a puppy dog. I was a nerd in elementary school and high school, and I was the chubby kid. But then when it came time for me to go to college, I dropped a lot of weight. And when you didn’t have all that extra weight to look through, a lot of girls were like, this guy’s really sweet.
When I met my ex, she was just so together. She was so organized. She was fun, but I knew by looking at her I could learn so much from her about how to get through college, about how to be a better person, about how to be a more respectful partner, and everything. I just felt that from her.
I was so taken by this woman. We met at a Halloween party; I walked her home that night, and I got the guts up to kiss her goodnight right there on the front step of her dorm. And I was hooked.
I did the gentleman thing, and I tried to do everything right: brought the flowers, the presents, and everything. But even in the beginning she was really picky about my appearance, because I was the hippie kid.
I was just so crazy about her. Within six months after we met, I asked her to marry me. It just kinda fell out of my mouth.
Early in the relationship, she got in a huge fight with her mother while I was visiting, and her mother said to her face, with me there in the house, “He’s too good for you. You don’t deserve him.” She was upset with me because I didn’t defend her.
I remember when we were still engaged, I had a few twinges of, “Get out now!” But, at that point, you don’t know it’s a disorder. You think, it’s just my imagination, right? [B]ecause of all the “love bombing,” [the feeling I had that] there’s so much good, [I told myself that] she can’t be that crazy, right? All relationships have their down sides. This is just one of them. We’ll be fine.
But I stayed because I didn’t know how I was going to get out of my lease. (We had just signed a lease together.)
[Our first Christmas as a married couple,] I got her a Christmas present that was very special to me. It was a nice clock, and every time I looked at it, I thought of home… and of family. It was a new tradition I wanted us to start.
She opened the present and started screaming at me. “You bought this for you. You did not buy this for me. You got this for you.” Her explosion of temper was so quick, I didn’t get the chance to explain it. And I started bawling because I felt I had hurt her that deeply… We went out and exchanged it for a jewelry box, and I felt totally humiliated.
I reminded her of that several times during our marriage and how much that hurt me. And I remember one time she gave me the stereotypical narcissist response and yelled, “Well I said I’m sorry, what more do you want?” No, if you’re still yelling at me, you’re not sorry. That was a big red flag.
It was just like everything else you read from everyone else who deals with narcissism. It was almost [as though she was saying], “I’m sorry you feel that way. It’s not about my actions. It’s about your overreaction. I’m gonna gaslight you. I’m gonna pin it on you.”
I had a good foundation in faith. We both did. But her family was a lot more conservative than mine. One thing she really didn’t like was that I wasn’t a virgin when we met. That was pushed in my face several times. It was one of the worst things she ever said to me. “I saved myself for the person I was going to marry, but you can’t say that. And I know you can’t change that now, but I remember that every time you lay down next to me.” I just felt so filthy.
The next big red flags didn’t come until our kids were born.
When our daughter came along, things got really rough. Another part of her controlling was homeschooling. We were both public school teachers. I still am a middle-school teacher.
In the beginning, homeschooling was great, because I thought, “I’ll know everything that’s happening with my kids, because my wife’s doing it.” So, she said, let’s homeschool them, and I was like, of course, that’s wonderful.
And it was wonderful until my daughter started catching on to how controlling her mother was. My daughter wanted to come to middle school with me. My wife said, no way. My daughter got really angry.
My wife also controlled our diet. She insisted on us being vegan, even though we didn’t want to be vegan, and she inflicted that lifestyle on us through shopping. I was a vegetarian for twenty years. I have no problem with changing your diet, but when someone says, “I don’t want to do this,” and the other person says, “Forget you, you’re going to do it anyway,” that’s when it becomes abusive.
They had to move to another state for work, and they got involved in a church that had multiple sexual and staff scandals. They had been team-teaching Sunday school and kids’ club, but they got burned out and walked away. Finally, a job opened up in their home state.
So, after we moved back to our home state, she started going to church again. And I went too because she wanted it. I didn’t want to go, but I’m like, “She’s going. The kids are going. I should do this just to make her happy.” But, at that point, I knew what narcissism was. I had been telling her for a couple of years, “You’re abusing me. You have to stop.” But I went back to church because I just wanted to give her something, because moving was tough.
We’d had so many face-to-face conversations that I started to write her letters instead. I wasn’t interested in having face-to-faces anymore, because I was just going to be shut down. My wife accused me of being the troublemaker when I told her how she hurt me and our daughter.
It was as if she was saying, “Please stop saying these true things about me because they make me feel guilty.” (She would just explode.) It would be the equivalent of the husband that says to his wife, “Don’t tell me how much it hurts when I beat you, because that makes me feel guilty, and that’s mean.” Or like the husband who stands over his kid with the belt in his hand and says, “This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.” [Nonsense,] it’s not. The abuser’s the problem, period.
And at least with a letter you can take two days to write it, you can edit, you can say exactly what your emotions are, and you know you won’t be interrupted.
We had another baby, a son. I was totally putting myself into work, because I work in a field where they expect you to give a bajillion hours. And the biggest mistake I made was working sixty hours a week, and not spending enough time at home…
She said something that was absolutely true: “I have been a single parent for the first year of our son’s life. I’m not going to leave you. I’m not going to divorce you. But I need you to divorce your job and come back to me.”
And of course, when she said that, I wept tears all over again. I couldn’t believe I’d hurt her so much. So I changed my work hours, because if I hadn’t, I might not have known my son until after it was too late.
The thing that really led up to me knowing that it was time to get out of the marriage was when I continually told her, “You’re abusing our daughter. You have to stop.” And her saying, “No, no, no.” I remember the year before, my daughter would pull me aside and say, “Hey, we have to talk about Mom. She’s driving me crazy. I can’t stand her. I do not want to be homeschooled. I need to go to public school. Get me out of here.”
My wife said, “Okay, we’ll do that.” But she met with the guidance counselor in secret. She didn’t tell us about any of those meetings, and she only set my daughter up for a half day so she could still be homeschooled for a half day.
I threw an absolute fit, and so did my daughter. I told my wife, “You are doing this totally all on your own, and you’re telling two of the three people involved that what we think doesn’t matter at all.”
I wanted to stay married until my daughter graduated. But that spring I started looking for a divorce attorney… I’ve never been cheated on. I’ve never been beaten. I’ve never been sexually assaulted. I’ve never dealt with so many of the things that so many of my friends have. I just had the weird emotional stuff.
One of my turning points?
When my daughter said to me: “I love you, Dad. I wish your wife did.”
I was afraid that I would lose my kids. I was worried she and her mother would start a smear campaign. And that was her first counter to me filing for divorce. She threatened me: “You’re going to lose all parental rights.”
My attorney said, “No way. This guy has been a schoolteacher for twenty years. He’s loved. He has a tight relationship with his kids. There’s no way that his kids should be totally taken away from him.” She had to bring that up once, and it was never mentioned again.
I asked this man if he had any words for men in his situation, and he said:
Take care of your kids. Don’t fear that a broken home is going to break your kids. Because keeping your kids in an abusive relationship will break them more.
You’re still a man. You are in no way less masculine because this is what’s being done to you. As a matter of fact, in my case, this was being done to me because I was trying to follow what the Bible said. I mean, I’m big into “Love your wife as Christ loved the church, laying down his life for her.” That was a big passage for me because we love to talk about the women submitting, but we never talk about how the men are supposed to do it.
And I’ve changed so much because I loved her so deeply. I changed the way I groomed. I changed the way I walked in the house. I changed the way I went to the bathroom. I mean, there was so much.
But just because you’re being attacked by someone who can’t feel, you are no less of a man. As a matter of fact, I think you’re more because of it. Because you have enough tenderness to listen [to your wife] instead of just saying, “Shut up, woman, we’re gonna do it my way.” Because that’s not what masculinity looks like.
I’m so grateful now. I mean, it’s only been a year. It’s so much different, and it’s so much better.
Listen to Andrew’s words—
- He saw himself as needing help in life. He was attracted to her abilities.
- He felt manipulated, misunderstood, unheard, dismissed, filthy, controlled, deceived, and attacked.
- He set boundaries, and his wife was defensive and went on the attack. To protect himself from face-to-face anger, he wrote detailed letters instead.
- He felt ignored and controlled about food, grooming, and education choices.
- After 29 years, he filed for divorce.
Is There a Test I Can Take—For Myself, or for Someone Else’s Situation?
MOSIAC is a 30-minute online test. You’ll need to give a valid email address, because they send an access code to that email. (You might want to do the test at someone else’s computer or at a library.)
It asks more than 40 questions. Most are very quick and easy: age, marital status, child custody status, etc. It gives you very clear instructions. In case you cannot decide between the multiple-choice answers, you can add explanations to your answers if you wish. At the end it gives a full written report and a score of 1 to 10 on your situation.
Conclusion: Am I Being Abused or Controlled?
Are you being controlled? Do you feel your choices have to meet your spouse’s approval? Can that person pull a trump card and overrule your clothes, your hair, your work, your time, your food choices, or your looks? Have you been coerced to do something you would rather not do?
The Bible says that even leaders shouldn’t be controlling. They should set an example, “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3, NIV).
People fall prey to the control of others through physical, mental, verbal, financial, or spiritual methods—or a combination of several of them. Usually it happens slowly over time.
It makes sense, right? Because if you’re in a painful marriage, it usually didn’t start that way. You gradually put up with more control, more disrespect, and more conflict over time. You stayed because you were committed, because you believed in the sanctity of marriage, because you were going to solve this, and because you wanted your marriage to work. Your marriage became the most important thing in your life. Your desires—to be safe, loved, treated with respect, heard, etc.—were gradually worn down.
Abusers secretly want a one-way street
where only their desires and emotions matter.
They might talk about their love for the family or for God—they may even tell you they love you—but it’s a smokescreen. Everyone else must give up what they want to meet the abuser’s demands. There is no mutuality, no caring for the other spouse at the same level that they care for themselves.
As the Abuse Cycle shows us, one very common tactic of abusers is to cycle between hot and cold: explosive and vindictive at one point, and full of remorse and loving attention later, over and over. This is what therapists believe causes trauma bonds that keep you in the relationship, that feeling of love for a spouse who has a pattern of hurting you.
In a nutshell: an abuser’s goal is to keep you captive in the relationship and to wear you down to go along with their view of life. To do this, they must get you to believe you are no longer important, sensible, intelligent, or worthy of decent treatment, and they must ensure that you don’t tell others about what’s really going on, get support for yourself, or make it possible for you to get out from under their control and live a stable, fulfilling life without them.
As you look back at Priscilla, Martina, and Andrew’s stories, you see how their spouses applied pressure to get what they wanted, using a variety of tools: lies, humiliation, disrespect, and bribes.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to persuade your spouse to do something or to change their mind, but the methods cannot be demeaning or coercive. Marriage was meant to be caring, loving, and lifelong, but instead of being treated as full partners in the marriage, where two adults mutually agree to major life decisions, one spouse was pushed aside.
Instead of two people supporting each other in their goals in life, being honest with each other, and taking the other person’s desires into consideration, one person lied to get their way, regardless of the other’s wishes.
Instead of having a marriage based on trust and love, where each had the ability to have their own feelings, friends, and activities, one spouse indulged their whims, while the other stayed at home and held everything together.
This is not fair, right, or godly.
In Scripture, we see that God desires for men and women to be loving partners, who treat one another with consideration, respect, and affection. In a loving, godly marriage, we would expect:
- a willingness to cooperate and compromise
- speech and actions that help everyone feel safe
- openness about finances, making financial decisions together, and making sure each spouse has access to the family’s financial resources
- listening, showing respect, and valuing the opinions and feelings of the other
- an honoring of the other person’s say over their own body and their right to say no to sex
- mutual agreement on how to divide up the work that goes into running a household
- making big decisions together
- honesty, reliability, and healthy boundaries
- support for each spouse’s goals in life
- room for both spouses to have their own feelings, opinions, interests, friends, and beliefs, and respect when these are different
- respecting the other spouse’s privacy, history, and dignity
- accepting responsibility for one’s own actions, admitting personal fault, and committing to make amends and change behaviors that are hurting the other spouse
In your own marriage, you alone know what’s happening behind closed doors. Only you can determine if this is a loving, mutual relationship or a lopsided one. Only you can decide if you are an anchor person, the one who fixes everything and holds it all together.
It’s not easy to admit to your friends and family that you are being abused. Those who are being abused often keep it secret for years, if not decades. You are not alone in feeling scared of the consequences of standing up for yourself, or doubting yourself and your abilities, or feeling convinced that you are to blame for what is happening.
But the abuser’s sin is not the victim’s fault,
and the best way of ending it is to get out.
Only you can decide if it is time to put up boundaries and say, “No more. I want to be treated with respect, as a full partner in this marriage.”
About the Author
Gretchen Baskerville is a divorce recovery leader and researcher. For more than 20 years, she has worked with Christian women and men going through difficult, life-saving divorces, listening with compassion to those who have suffered from domestic violence, betrayal, infidelity, and emotional abuse. She helps heartbroken people find strength and courage and healing.
Herself the survivor of a toxic marriage, she walked through her own life-saving divorce and lived as a single mother for many years. Today she is happily remarried and writes about divorce recovery. She is a graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in Bible and Christian Education, and she regularly gives interviews on podcasts, blogs, and radio programs on the topic of Christianity and divorce.
 Michael Alvarez, MFT, personal conversation.
 “Elder or Dependent Adult Abuse,” Psychology Today (4/2/19), accessed 6/29/19, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/elder-or-dependent-adult-abuse. The first four types of abuse are adapted from this article.
 “Domestic Violence,” The United States Department of Justice (6/16/17), accessed 4/9/18, https://web.archive.org/web/20180409111243/https:/www.justice.gov/ovw/domestic-violence. The Department of Justice definition of domestic violence includes physical, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions. “We define domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.”
 Julie Anne, “The Christian Patriarchy Movement’s Dark Secret of Wife Spanking,” Spiritual Sounding Board (1/3/14), accessed 1/3/20, https://spiritualsoundingboard.com/2014/01/03/the-christian-patriarchy-movements-dark-secret-of-wife-spanking/. For more on the topic of wife spanking, see the article above, or go to thelifesavingdivorce.com/links.
 “The Duluth Wheel of Power and Control,” and “The Duluth Wheel of Equality,” The Duluth Model, Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (Duluth, MN, © 1982, 2019). Used by permission. Retrieved 1/7/19. For more information, including FAQs and gender-specific wording, go to www.theduluthmodel.org.
 Anne H. Flitcraft and Susan M. Hadley, et al., “Diagnostic and Treatment Guidelines on Domestic Violence,” American Medical Association 6 (1992): 6, accessed 1/3/20, http://www.ncdsv.org/images/AMA_Diag&TreatGuideDV_3-1992.pdf.
 This divorce attorney gave me a private phone interview, under condition of anonymity.
 Julie Owens, “The Myth of the ‘Cycle of Abuse,’” Julie Owens: Violence Against Women Consultant (5/9/18), accessed 9/19/19, https://www.domesticviolenceexpert.org/newsletter/2018/5/9/newsletter-may-2018. Julie Owens does church training programs on domestic violence.
 For more on this, see Julie Owens’ book.
 Owens, “The Myth.”
 I first heard the concept of an anchor spouse in a talk by Pastor Nate Aanderud.
 “Statistics,” National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, accessed 1/3/20, https://ncadv.org/statistics . It should be noted that “domestic violence” technically includes a wide range of abuse, including physical, emotional, and verbal. This site gives information on all types of abuse.
 “MOSAIC Frequently Asked Questions,” MOSAIC Threat Assessment Systems, accessed 8/26/19, https://www.mosaicmethod.com/?page=faq. I have no affiliation with MOSAIC. MOSAIC Threat Assessment is free. The company that created it specializes in workplace violence, school/university harassment, and threats to public officials or judicial officers. There is a free version for people who wish to evaluate their own (or someone else’s) personal situation. The organization claims: “Everything you enter is completely private. This online system allows you to answer questions and enter information, then print a report. When you delete the assessments you do, they are gone. Nobody other than you ever has access to the information you enter.”
Do You Need Support? I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." (ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS.) This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it. Allies and people helpers are also welcome.
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- Examples of 150 examples of types of abuse (physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, financial, and neglect) and explaining the term "gaslighting," along with many first-person stories, read Chapter 4 in TheLife-Saving Divorce.
GET THE BOOK! The Life-Saving Divorce is about divorces for very serious reasons: a pattern of sexual immorality, physical abuse, chronic emotional abuse, life-altering addictions, abandonment, or severe neglect. This book will give you hope for your future, and optimism about your children. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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