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 (http://www.usccb.org/laity/help.shtml) 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!

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About hsaxton

Heidi Hess Saxton is an adoptive parent of two children, and converted to Catholicism in 1994. She is adoptive parent columnist at CatholicMom.com and CatholicExchange.com. She also writes for the Parenting Channel at AnnArbor.com. In her spare time, she is finishing up her Master's thesis at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

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