"But He Never Hit Me": Divorce for Neglect, or Emotional, Verbal, or Financial Abuse

As a lay divorce recovery leader in churches for the past 20 years, it's been my privilege to hear a lot of stories of committed Christians who had to leave their destructive marriages for the sake of their life or sanity. In this post, you'll meet Annette and hear her story.

But before we start into her story, I want you to know my view. My message is simple:

You Can Love God and Still Get a Divorce

And get this, God will still love you. Really. Are you in a destructive marriage? One of emotional, physical, or verbal abuse? Infidelity? Neglect?

If yes, you know you need to escape, but you’re probably worried about going against God’s will. I have good news for you. You might need to divorce to save your life and sanity. And God is right beside you...just as he was right beside Annette (not her real name).

Annette’s story

 My mom is my best friend. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother to be born to. I was raised by a loving single mother who had divorced my father because he was violently abusive and threatened to kill her. The police had told her to leave. And then when I was about nine, she met my stepdad, who she ended up marrying when I was twelve. And he is 100% my dad. You would not be able to tell that biologically we’re not related. We get along super well, and they have a tremendous marriage. They are an example that I look up to… a supportive husband, a supportive wife, just like harmony.

 

And I think when I was twelve, my thoughts about marriage were probably kind of like a Disney princess story. Like, you fell in love with a guy and he loves you back, and it’s all going to be wonderful. Very naïve. 

 

My family had just moved to Canada from Europe, and Canadian men were kind of exotic to begin with, like the rough cowboy type. I actually met the man I later married, through work. I was doing commercial real estate leasing.

 

Her friends were divided on him. She had a good education, but she liked that he was a driven entrepreneur and business owner.

I’d never had a serious relationship before—and I earnestly prayed to God… And then I felt this overwhelming sense to google this guy. I ended up on a photo page from one of his friends, and he had posted pictures of my husband’s baptism. It was like I was hit by lightning. I though, oh my goodness, I like this guy, and he’s a Christian. This is meant to be. I told myself that was God telling me that this was supposed to be my husband. And I completely ignored all the red flags after that.

 

I lived outside of downtown, so more in the suburbs. And he absolutely hated the suburbs and barely ever wanted to come to my place. I always had to travel. No matter what time of day, if I wanted to see him, I had to come to him.

 

There was one occasion where he finally came over to my place just to have dinner, and the next day I was going to participate in a 5-kilometer run; I’d never done that before. And if you know me, I hate working out, and I hate running.

 

So it was a big deal for me, because I had trained and was really excited to do this. And he left without saying anything about it, so I said, “Hey, my run is tomorrow. Don’t you want to wish me good luck?”

 

He just turned around and kind of scoffed at me. “What? For a 5K? That’s easy.” And then he just walked away. Instead of encouraging me or even showing up at the race… No, [he didn’t do anything] like that. That was the first moment where I thought, “Hm. That’s a little odd.”

 

But she justified it by thinking, “Oh, he’s a pro athlete, and he works out so much, he’s so fit; I’m probably just exaggerating. This isn’t a big deal.”

He has a pretty large group of guy friends, and they’ve grown up together and went to church as children and teenagers. They seemed like solid guys, and I was very impressed with the level of friendship that they had. I got along with [all of them]. And my ex-husband always seemed super-generous with everybody. [He was] always pulling out the wads of cash that he made with his businesses, and he just came across as a very genuine and friendly guy.

 

Having said that, though, even when we started dating, he was always quite cold to my parents, never engaging in real conversation with them, always talking about money and [about how] his main focus in life is to get out of the rat race. His conversations with my parents were always about money and success, never about emotional things or about our faith.

 

He fooled me and our friends. Nobody but my parents figured him out. His last girlfriend had stood him up at the altar… twice. He took no responsibility for it. I think the fact that he never took personal responsibility for any of that, was a red flag. It was always all her parents’ fault.

 

That’s the red flag that I completely ignored. He claimed it was because her parents hated him because he wasn’t educated and he was just a snowboarder. Looking back, I think that she had come to her senses early enough and dodged a bullet twice. But I felt really sorry for him, and I think that’s one of the reasons why, when I, too, before the wedding [asked myself], “Is this really what I want?” I [immediately] told myself, “No, I can’t do that to him because somebody else already stood him up twice. I can’t do that.”

 

 And there were other indications:

For example, despite being an outdoorsman and an extreme athlete, he refused to drive over to my place or to come pick me up, not even during winter snowstorms.

 

I wish I could say that I pushed back in those years, but I can’t recall a single moment when I did. Before I met him, I was very independent. I had my masters’ degree; I bought my own condo; my career was going really well. I was in a really good place in my life. You know how they always talk about your love tank, and your self-esteem tank and everything? I felt like all my tanks were pretty much overflowing. And I think that’s why I was able to take so many of these blows.

 

I was so focused on giving to him that I don’t think I even realized in a lot of cases that what he was doing was not right. I just tried to talk it away. Like, “Oh, he’s very busy, so I should [be the one to] drive downtown,” not realizing I work 8:00-5:00 every day and have a demanding career. But I figured, he’s a business owner, and I should feel sorry for him; it’s my responsibility to accommodate his schedule. So in retrospect, I think I was kind of a pushover.

 

He basically told my parents, “I’m going to propose to her, and once we’re married, I want you guys to [get out of our lives] financially and not interfere with anything.” To which my mom said, “If you hurt her, I will kill you.” My parents were very hesitant about him and tried to warn me, but I just didn’t listen. And I think a big reason for that was because I was convinced that God wanted us together. He pretended to be quite spiritual. He was always reading Christian men’s books and talking about them.

 

I told myself we were going to be opposed so much by evil and Satan because we were this amazing, godly couple doing wonderful things for God’s kingdom. I didn’t know if he was just blowing hot air or not. I don’t think he was truly ever repentant, but if he was, he definitely didn’t put his life in God’s hands or take any kind of spiritual responsibility. But in that year, especially after we got engaged, I was just so blinded by everything he said that I stopped noticing everything he did or didn’t do.

 

Our wedding rehearsal was a turning point. Friend after friend made heartfelt, touching speeches about us as couple. His friends, my friends… It was magical and beautiful, until it was his turn. He stood up, thanked everyone for coming, thanked his parents for staying married, and sat down. That was it. It was like a slap in the face. Nothing about being excited to get married or about me as his wife. Nothing about us joining together the next day.

 

Starting then, I slowly got the message: I didn’t matter. At the wedding, we acted like event planners, not a loving team. There was no connection. On our honeymoon, he got a rental car that was breaking down, and for the first time in my life I felt a panic that I’d never felt before. I knew deep down that he wouldn’t look after me or care for my safety whatsoever. This was my first taste, my first realization, that this person is not interested in my best interests at all. In fact, he told me directly: “Nothing, not even you, is going to stand between me and my success.”

 

He would pick fights in restaurants and at holiday events and blame me. He would say it was all my fault. I had ruined the night or the weekend. I would beg him to make up and talk things out, and he would flat-out refuse and go to sleep. He wouldn’t even want to talk to me. The message was, “You’re so disgusting, and it’s all your fault.” He wanted me to apologize, so I did. I would immediately—even if I thought I was right—I would apologize. But then he would still say, “No, I’m too mad, I can’t even look at you or touch you.” And then he would just roll over and go to sleep, and I would cry the whole night. [He was always giving me] the silent treatment, the cold shoulder.

 

I actually quit my corporate career and joined his company to work for him. Big mistake. He would yell at me and make me work till 11:00 pm if there was a deadline, and he would not care whether I had eaten or if I was exhausted. I actually moved in with him because he hated the suburbs so much, even though my condo was brand new and he lived in this simple, decrepit house. He had fixed it up a little bit before I moved in, but he was always very, very cheap with money. I felt like as soon as I said, “I do,” all the money always went back to his businesses. And he actually started two new businesses during the course of our marriage. He reinvested all that money back, never invested in us or our house.

 

We had a furnace that was so old and broken that during the winter, I would come home from work had to keep my parka on so I could stoke an actual fire in the fireplace to warm up the house. And I had to sit there in my parka for a half an hour until it was warm enough to take it off. Every single time I wanted to buy something to make it a bit nicer, he would argue with me over it. It was never allowed.

 

His lack of concern for her and his fixation on his business continued. He would scream at customer service reps on the phone, but when they would go to a restaurant, he would make an elaborate over-the-top scene, demanding that she thank and say goodbye to the waiter. Then they would go out to the car, and he would scream at her. Her wellbeing didn’t matter. Though there was plenty of money to invest in the businesses, she was driving an old car long distance in the below-freezing Canadian snowstorms.

 

He always ruined my birthday and either gave me no gift or a crappy gift. Where I am from, birthdays are a big deal. One birthday, when there was no gift at all, he just delivered a speech to me over dinner. I was so disappointed, I said something. He just ripped into me for the entire night. How ungrateful and selfish I was! How materialistic!

 

Before I got married, I was a pretty chill person, But I turned into anxiety-ridden person. I developed a form of OCD where I would constantly check everything. Years later, I’m still trying to understand how this could have happened. I’m starting to get a bit more clarity on narcissistic abuse and how it changes your brain. From time to time, I would get sick, and he would make me go sleep out on the couch. If we fought, I had to go sleep on the couch. He never once slept there.

 

I would see other couples at the supermarket having a good time together shopping, and I would just say to myself, “I guess that’s not for me. Maybe I don’t deserve it, or maybe it’s not in the cards for me.” You start making all these agreements with yourself where you tell yourself this story: “This will not be my life. This will not be my marriage.” [Common kindness is such a normal thing], and I think you lose track of what’s normal and what isn’t.

 

I think back on his overall obsession with money and success. The businesses were always number one; making money was always number one. Like I said, he would keep the money tabbed very, very tight. We were not allowed much. But he would take exorbitant trips, like with this Entrepreneurs’ Organization. There was always a forum retreat, as it was called. And he went to several different international locations. Then he joined a Christian entrepreneurs’ organization, and they would go on weekends away. He was always quite well off in the “vacation department,” but I was not allowed to come, because it was just for him and his fellow members.

 

She developed an intense fear of cancer and developed orthorexia, an obsession about having a healthy diet. She changed her diet dramatically in an effort to avoid cancer. Then one day she found a mole…

About that time I had a mole removed, and my doctor was concerned. “You have to come in.” Of course, my husband is not available, so my dad goes with me. And this is the story of my marriage: my husband is not available, and my parents step in to either build me back up emotionally, support me, or (in this case) go to the doctor with me.

 

And it turned out to be a melanoma. Which is funny, because my biggest fear just came true, and God used it to do the biggest work in my life. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me.

 

But at the time, I didn’t know what stage it was. It was Thanksgiving, and we were at my parents’ [house]. I was crying pretty much the whole day, because my worst nightmare had just come true, and I just didn’t believe it.

 

At night, my husband came over and said, “Don’t you think you’re being a bit selfish by ruining Thanksgiving with all your crying?”

 

That was the trigger when I finally… when the scales just lifted off my eyes. And that’s when I left.

 

She had enough and separated from him for a year, but she came back and tried again after reading Eggerichs’s Love and Respect book.  

[I told myself] I’m just going to go harder and pray to God that he gives me the wisdom to deal with this. [I decided] I should cut my husband some slack because he’s working so hard. But then, if you hear the same thing year-in, year-out and you’re treated like garbage on a day-to-day basis, that just gets really old really quick. You actually lose respect for someone.

 

We separated again for a year, and when I finally felt things were good enough, I moved back in with him. We actually moved into a rental property together for five days. As soon as my parents drove away after dropping me and my stuff off, I had this overwhelming urge to lock myself in the bedroom with my cat and not come out. He immediately became haughty and arrogant again.

 

I was really done. I was ready to file for divorce. I contacted a lawyer. [When he realized this, suddenly] he claimed he had this big repentance and come-to-Christ moment, and he wrote me a letter where he listed every single thing and every comment he had ever made to me. Which, looking back, is kind of creepy. Who would even remember everything? I didn’t even remember everything that was in that letter. 

 

[He] really made it seem like he had true repentance. I felt like it was the Holy Ghost convincing him of every single thing he had done. And he joined a church.

 

And then, all of a sudden, he came up with the story that he was an addict. He was addicted to work, and that was the root cause of all of our problems. He claimed he was going to support meetings for addiction, and I figured it was going to be like AA. But a month later, I found out it was just him and a few entrepreneur buddies meeting once a week, lamenting about their sorrows. So it wasn’t even properly facilitated or anything. [I wish that] was the last deceptive thing he did to me.

 

I truly believe his whole repentance schtick was just a fraud, and now I’d been duped once again. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the term “love bombing,” but he did that the first year after I left. [He] would leave notes under my office door when he would travel out. And I would find little cards and treats on my car: things he’d never done before. And every time—as soon as I kind of gave in a little bit—it would all disappear again. It was just a game to him.

 

This was the first time I feel like the mask dropped since the separation, and I could just see that he was ticked off. I think he saw it as winning and losing. I think to the outside world and his family, and everybody that’s holier-than-thou in his life, it’s deemed a failure that he is now going to divorce. I think he was just mad that he couldn’t keep up with the façade and get me back.

 

I don’t think it’s ever been about me with him. I think he just wanted—and he said this, too—he wanted a European wife. I was just like a trophy wife to him. But he never looked beyond skin deep. I think it never really occurred to him that I have deep feelings and needs and ambitions and hopes; it was just about him, how he could be as successful as possible, and how other people could see him being successful in marriage and business and everything else. But looking back, I don’t think he ever truly cared about who I am as a person.

❖ ❖ ❖

Annette's story doesn’t involve infidelity, sexual immorality, or physical abuse, yet it’s just as painful as stories that do.  Cruelty and betrayal don’t have to be physical or sexual. They can be emotional, and often people who are victims of emotional abuse or neglect will say they’d rather be hit so there are bruises to show to others. Sadly, some churches don’t always accept emotional or verbal abuse as “real abuse,” and often won’t condone a divorce filed by a victimized spouse.

SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION

  1. Why was this abuse, even though she was never hit?
  2. What types of abuse did her husband inflict on her?
  3. What factors that caused her to stay. (There are many.)
  4. What factors that enabled her to leave. (There are many.)

 

What is the minimum requirement for marriage?

 

One Christian therapist, Michael Alvarez MFT, said:

A marriage must be safe and loving (or at least respectful),
where both people are grateful for the other’s capabilities.
Otherwise it is not marriage.
It could be kidnapping or incarceration or servitude,
but it isn’t a marriage.”

 

The apostle Paul said men and women must be concerned for the interests of their spouse, and must consider how to please them. There’s no option for one spouse to do all the giving and the other one do all the taking.

"An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—  and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband." —1 Corinthians 7:32-34

About half of divorces are for very serious marriage-endangering reasons, such as infidelity, sexual immorality, pedophilia, child porn, physical abuse, verbal/emotional abuse, neglect, and not supporting the family due to severe addictions. Many people get out because their marriage doesn’t meet God’s minimum standards. http://lifesavingdivorce.com/what-is-a-life-saving-divorce/

 

The Abuse Cycle — See diagram

  • Abuse/Violence – the abusive event itself. Or the discovery of infidelity or sexual immorality
  • 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. Some experts call it “manipulative kindness.”)
  • 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.”[1]

There is a lot of value in learning about the Abuse Cycle. 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.[2]  (For a more detailed explanation of each phase of the abuse cycle, plus examples, see p. 144-151 in The Life-Saving Divorce.)

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 and self-focused 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.

What does the Bible say about people who try to use or overpower others?

You are free to end your association with a sexually immoral, drunk, emotionally or financially abusive person.

But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.

—1 Corinthians 5:11 (CSB, emphasis mine)

 

You are free to throw off a yoke of slavery.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

—Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

You are free to walk away from selfish, mean, out-of-control, abusive people. 

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

—2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NIV, emphasis mine)

God hates violent people.

The Lord examines the righteous,
but the wicked, those who love violence,
he hates with a passion.

—Psalm 11:5 (NIV, emphasis mine)

 

 For more on biblical passages allowing divorce for abuse, infidelity, sexual immorality and abandonment (neglect of duty), download this free chapter: https://is.gd/9vUYMT

 

SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION

  1. Why do people stay in abusive relationships? What happens to a victim when they’ve been through the abuse cycle dozens of times?
  2. If the Bible says we shouldn’t have violent, treacherous Christians in our church, what implications does that have for marriage?

 

How Can We Help People Who Are Going Through Divorce

  • Sitting down and listening to a person’s story for an hour will enlighten you, and show respect and kindness to them. Let them know you want the hour-long version of their story. Many people have never told their story from start to finish to anyone, often because they don’t want to burden their friends, and sometimes because they are afraid of criticism.

 

  • Express shock where appropriate. As you’re listening to the story, it’s often best to express empathy by giving a gasp here and there. That’s enough to tell the person you’re horrified at what they’ve gone through, without interrupting the flow of the story. Save your questions for the end.

 

  • Pick up cues. Despair, fear, anxiety, confusion, exhaustion, depression, and walking on eggshells are often signs this person is going through a destructive marriage.

 

  • Don’t give platitudes, such as “God will heal your marriage if you just submit more or try harder.” You don’t know if this is true. Nearly half of women who die of homicide are killed by husbands or boyfriends (intimate partners). https://is.gd/27MyXz Instead, give your support. How can I help you?

 

 

  • They may not know they are being abused. Many people think that “this is what all marriages are like.” They think intimidation, unfairness, controlling behavior, selfishness, and having no say in decisions is normal in marriage.

 

  • Don’t demand they leave now. When friends (and even trained counselors) get panicked by the horrific story they are hearing, sometimes they overreact, become demanding, and pressure their friend, “You’ve got to get out now. You’re being abused.” This often backfires and the abused person gets frightened, shuts their mind, and actually draws closer to their abuser. They double-down and go back to the familiar pattern of “trying harder” and “being more agreeable.”

 

  • It is their choice. Only they know what’s going on behind closed doors. Only they know how much they can take. Only they know when enough is enough. Only they know when they will be emotionally ready to leave. Express that though you don’t like divorce in general, but in their case, and in other life-saving cases, you would be supportive of their decision.

 

  • Allow them to use your phone or computer if they are being stalked, tracked, or controlled. If their passwords and logins are monitored by their spouse, they may need to get help through an unmonitored phone or computer. Offer it for their use.

 

  • Help them make a safety plan. Focus Ministries’ nine-page safety plan is a good place to start: https://www.focusministries1.org/SafetyPlan.pdf Focus Ministries has curriculum for adults and teens, training events for licensed counselors, tools for pastors, books and training manuals, groups for pastors’ wives, domestic violence support groups. Their primary focus is women.

CLOSING EXERCISE

What can you do, and not do, when faced with a friend who is going through divorce?


Annette's story is on page 66, and a full explanation of the Abuse Cycle, with examples of each part of the diagram is on page 144 of the Life-Saving Divorce.

Footnotes:

[1] 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.

[2] For more on this, see Julie Owens’ book listed above.


Do You Need Support?  I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." 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. Just click the link above and ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS.


 

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The book, "The Life-Saving Divorce" discusses divorces that are for very serious reasons. Gretchen Baskerville will give you hope for your future, and optimism about your children.

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