Sunday, May 14, 2006

Is Domestic Violence Grounds for Divorce?

Recently I came across a post from a woman who is contemplating divorce. She writes:

I have struggled with depression, anxiety and stress-related problems since I was a teenager. I was abused as a child by my father (including the most intimate kind of abuse between father and daughter). My mother left when I was little and my stepmom was abusive physically, verbally, emotionally and intimately as well. For the last year I have been in therapy on and off.
I've been learning to set boundaries and learning that I am indeed a person with worth, a person that God created, loves and considers precious. My whole life's paradigm has changed. I deserve to be safe, happy and taken care of. Realizing these things about myself has helped me distance myself from people who abuse me.... I've actually started making friends with people who are kind, who make me feel good about myself. My friends are people I look forward to spending time with. I didn't know that life could be this beautiful.

At face value, this woman's story is bound to cause a rise of sympathy -- what could be more beautiful than a woman who had experienced this kind of lostness to find herself restored to wholeness? If her husband of fifteen years is abusing her (verbally or in any other way), she is right to expect that she need not endure the assault without making any effort to shield herself and her children from the effects. However, the question of divorce is premature at best.

I'm more familiar than I care to be with the dynamics of domestic violence and spousal abuse (though, for the record, my husband is a prince). I wrote to this woman, "My heart goes out to you for all the violence you have experienced in your lifetime, and the ongoing struggle you face to reconciling yourself to your past. Frankly, the road ahead of you may well be as difficult at times as the piece you have already traveled.One of the most difficult challenges for you will be learning the difference between that which is safe and that which is gratifying. While the Church does not expect you to submit to abuse, there is a big difference between securing safety and obtaining a divorce. The first is important -- the second should be sought only after every other course has been tried without success."

In the August issue of Canticle magazine, I wrote an article entitled, "When Abuse Strikes Home: How to Respond to a Victim of Domestic Violence." It lists the three messages every victim of violence needs to hear, and quotes from the USCCB document ( that acknowledges the responsibilities of faith communities to do their part to wipe out this social cancer.

Concentrate on Issues of Safety

The fact remains, however, that the solution to domestic violence is not necessarily divorce, at least not immediately. Especially for women with children, divorce very often produces new problems as often as it resolves old ones. Nevertheless, the victim of domestic violence can and should take steps to create a safety plan for herself and her children that will shield them from the affects of the abuse as much as possible.

Because of the trauma associated with abuse, which can cloud the thinking of the most level-headed woman, she may need help to form a plan that will work for her situation. Yes, she needs sympathy and concern -- but most of all she needs the loving insight of someone who is looking out for her spiritual welfare as much as her physical wellbeing.

If she is being verbally or emotionally abused, for example, encourage her to remove herself and her children from the situation. Leave the room -- and even the house, if necessary. If it is more serious -- including the threat of violence -- help her to create a "safety kit" of clothes, medicines, and important papers that can be stored away in case of emergency. Encourage her to remove herself when she sees the pattern of violence escalating, taking the kids and giving her husband time to cool off.

If the woman is uncomfortable with his sexual advances (particularly if she has a history of sexual abuse), it may help for her to make an appointment with a Catholic marriage counselor, either on her own or with her husband. She should also seek out the counsel of a faithful Catholic confessor who can help her discern the right course of action.

What Should Friends and Family Do?

Friends -- especially women friends -- can be a source of comfort and support. However, a victim of abuse must ultimately choose her course for herself since she is the one who will have to live with the consequences of those choices. Friends wanting to be supportive need to exercise caution, compassion -- and a measure of detachment, recognizing that the victim needs to be confident in her own ability to care for herself and her family.

For a victim of domestic violence, this can be a scary place. She may instinctively look for someone to "rescue" her because of her lack of confidence in her ability to help herself. She may be particularly vulnerable to inappropriate emotional attachments with men, even married men, looking to them as substitute caregivers for herself or her children. For this reason, if a married couple is helping a victim of abuse, the primary friendship should be with the woman, leaving the husband to interact with the children, who may well be in need of a stable and safe male presence in their troubled lives.

Should She Leave Him for Good?

The time may come when a permanent separation is in order, and even (with the help of a pastor) she may decide to seek an annulment (which of course is preceded by a civil divorce). However, this is an issue that is separate from the issue of safety. Family and friends of a domestic abuse victim do well to encourage the woman to separate the two issues, dealing with the more immediate crisis (the abuse) first.

Perpetrators of domestic violence are creatures of control and entitlement. The woman should be prepared for the fact that whatever abuse she endured within the marriage may well escalate in the event that she decides to divorce her husband. He may seek out retribution financially, familially (suing for custody of the children), and even physically. This is all the more reason that the victim of abuse needs to reach a place where she is confident in her ability to care for herself and her children, first, and plan carefully for whatever may be ahead.

God bless you!

1 comment:

mama said...

I appreciate your suggestion that domestic violence victims try everything they can to make the marriage "work" before leaving--yet emphasize safety while doing so. Not only does that offer the abuser a chance to improve and give the marriage a chance--it also helps the victim have strength in her conviction to seek divorce knowing she has tried everything within her power to salvage the marriage and give it opportunity to prosper. Sadly, abusers are extremely hard to rehabilitate due to their own resistance and often an underlying psychiatric condition (such as bi-polar, depression, a personality disorder, or addiction).
After 14 years of marriage, I had exhausted my resources and in the process had become stronger and more independent--which led to my spouse feeling more insecure and escalating the abuse into physical violence. My priest had warned me years before, that although I was obligated (and felt that heavily) to do all I could to preserve my marriage, if my spouse chose to not seek help I would have to pray with an open heart to know at what point my obligation to continue the marriage ended and my obligation to protect my children (and myself) was greater.
Through prayer, one thing I realized was that in my attempts to shield the children as much as possible (provide them with stability/safety by covering up and minimizing the abuse) I wound up facilitating the abuse by shielding my spouse from natural consequences.
Two months ago I left, and it has been hell. Although I understand I am well within my rights (according to the priests/therapists/friends) the decision was still incredibly painful and sad. It is the loss of a dream.
My spouse has loudly and publicly proclaimed he is rehabilitated YET still speaks cruelly to me in private and has changed control tactics by seeking full custody of our children and withholding financial support. It's a mess, and it will be for a while.
The upside? I am stronger: spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. I am doing all I can to protect my children. The support I am receiving from my church, family, friends, and strangers has been stunning, humbling, and fortifying. The best way to end this is simply by saying that in the midst of this upheaval, I am grateful for and held up by the mercy of our Lord.