Editor’s note: While an abuser can be either male or female, more than 90% are male and approximately 85% of victims are female1. For the purposes of this article, we are speaking primarily to women. If there is any form of abuse in your marriage, separation is a necessary first step to protect the life of the abused and get both the abused and the abuser the help he or she needs. If you are in an abusive situation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help making a plan. Call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or visit https://www.thehotline.org/.
Back in the ‘80s, a popular song hit the charts entitled, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” The insightful lyrics described the angst of making a decision regarding a difficult relationship: “If I go, there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double.”
This is the same between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place decision a woman in an abusive marriage faces.
A decision of this importance should be made with as much information as possible, not in a vacuum. So if you’re the one facing such a life-altering decision, take the following information into consideration.
What if I stay?
If you stay in an abusive relationship, you can expect the following:
1. The abuse will escalate.
If the victim is still there willing to take it, the abuser will breach boundary after boundary. What may start out as mild manipulation will escalate to name-calling and often physical abuse and stalking. Stalking is a leading indicator of sexual assault, as the abuser feels more and more that he “owns” his victim.
2. The abuser will not change with counseling.
The vast majority of abusers have undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder (think sociopaths and psychopaths). Even if an abuser is not a narcissist, sociopath, or psychopath, most abusers have no interest in changing—even if that means they will lose their marriage, family, career, and finances. They believe everyone else is to blame for the negative consequences of their bad behavior and will not take responsibility for themselves.
In order for a person to change and become emotionally healthy, he must want to change, and he needs to make Herculean efforts to change lifelong ways of thinking and behaving. If an abuser changes enough to become emotionally healthy, it is nothing short of a miracle from God.
3. God will not zap the abuser into being good.
Often, a Christian woman will beg and plead with her husband to “just be nice.” She will pray for years for God to wave His magic wand and zap her husband into being a good guy. This isn’t the way God usually works.
Throughout the Bible, we do see evil people miraculously changed by God: Paul, but only after God blinded him for three days and put him in a three-year timeout (see Acts 9 and Galatians 1); King Nebuchadnezzar, but only after God turned him insane, took away his kingdom, and let him eat grass for seven years (see Daniel 4); and King Manasseh, after God dragged him from his kingdom to the enemy in chains and a nose ring (see 2 Chronicles 33).
Evil people rarely change. And, if an abuser does change, it’s typically only due to severe negative consequences. God allows people to reject Him and dive into self-destruction (Romans 1:18-21). Jesus never begged and groveled for people to accept Him. Rather, He spoke the truth about the condition of the hearts of those who rejected Him. A wise woman will follow God’s example.
Although He is not in the habit of making superheroes out of monsters, He does equip His people to stand up against evil. The redemption story of a victim of abuse is much like the story of the exodus from Egypt. God did not change Pharaoh’s heart, but He did give Moses and His people the strength to leave and journey to the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. Likewise, God typically does not change the heart of an abuser, but He gives the victim the courage to leave, prepares a place of peace and rest for her, and if she does not have a “Moses” in her life, God Himself will lead her.
4. You will become unhealthy.
People are designed to be in life-giving, uplifting, healthy relationships with each other. When people live in abuse, they develop a plethora of physical, emotional, and mental ailments. The longer and more severe the abuse, the more severe the illnesses. One hundred percent of women in abuse develop PTSD, with 87% having moderate to severe PTSD. People who choose to stay in abuse will need professional counseling from a therapist specializing in domestic abuse to learn appropriate techniques to help them navigate life in an abusive atmosphere.
What if I leave?
Once a woman decides to leave, the abuser will recognize he has lost control over his spouse. This is the most dangerous time for the spouse, as the abuser will often retaliate. She likely needs an order of protection. She may need to go into hiding. But she needs to be mindful of the danger and take precautions.
Abusers are predictable. When a woman decides to leave an abuser, she can expect the following seven behaviors from her abuser.
1. The abuser will become vindictive.
Often, a woman naively assumes her abuser will be civil and fair because either they have children together, they had a long-term marriage, she put him through graduate school, she took care of his aging mother, or some other act of sacrifice on her part that has bettered his life. But to the abuser, a spouse who is no longer willing to put up with his abuse is guilty of high treason, and he will make it his life’s goal to destroy her.
2. The abuser will play the pity card.
One of the surest signs of a narcissist, sociopath, or psychopath is that he plays the victim after years of bullying. Crocodile tears and false apologies are to be expected. He will claim innocence and assert that his spouse left him for no reason.
3. The abuser will engage in a smear campaign to alienate the victim from her support network.
In fact, he will accuse her of the things he is most guilty of: affairs, abandonment, abuse, mental illness, swindling others out of money, and the like. He knows women value their relationships and that turning her friends and family against her will leave her devastated, alone, and unsupported.
4. The abuser will attempt to turn her children against her.
Just like with her friends and family, the abuser will circle the wagons and attempt to get her children to side with him against their own mother. He knows nothing hurts a mother more than rejection by her own children, and he will use them as pawns in his chess game against her.
5. The abuser will hide assets and lie about finances.
Whether a marriage lasts 40 weeks or 40 years, he views everything as his. Whether he is a millionaire or a pauper, an abuser will go to great lengths to hide assets and lie about his income and net worth to avoid a fair division of assets, child support, and alimony.
6. The abuser will drag out a divorce and abuse the court system.
As a means of inflicting further financial and emotional abuse, most abusers will refuse any reasonable settlement agreements, file frivolous motions, take unmerited positions, violate court orders, and drag out litigation. Even after a divorce is final, an abuser will usually refuse to honor court orders, marital and parenting agreements, and judgments, thereby forcing the former spouse back to court, time and time again.
7. The church-going abuser will get more involved in church.
Abusers love to look good in front of others while carrying out their evil plans behind closed doors. If the church does not instill church discipline (and most don’t), church-going abusers will become the star volunteer and the pastor’s best pal to look respectable and lure in their next victim.
Before you leave an abuser, have a plan in place
Leaving an abusive spouse leads to a tsunami of life changes. To navigate the stormy waters, you will need a plan in each of the following areas.
- A safety plan. You and your children need a plan to keep you physically safe from a vindictive abuser. This will likely include an order of protection if his actions qualify, a plan to escape the house if needed, and a safe house.
- A legal plan. Consult an attorney to determine available legal protections, rights, and requirements of the court.
- A financial plan. Budget and plan for financial independence. This may include obtaining employment, going back to school, downsizing, etc. It’s wise not to depend on court-ordered maintenance or child support—abusers are notorious for refusing to pay.
- A communication plan. As stated above, your abuser will launch a smear campaign. Consult a domestic violence counselor and devise a communication plan outlining how to best address this assault on your character.
- An emotional support plan. A divorce from an abuser is emotionally destructive and will likely be the most difficult thing you ever go through. Surround yourself with safe, supportive people, join a domestic abuse support group, attend counseling with a therapist specifically trained in domestic abuse, read inspirational books, and practice self-care techniques.
- A spiritual support plan. This will be a spiritual battle. Dive deep into God’s word, spend time with Him, spend time with other godly women, and seek the counsel of godly people who understand domestic abuse. Unfortunately, most pastors have not received adequate training to properly deal with narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, and domestic abusers. If your pastor is supportive of domestic abuse victims, this is wonderful! If not, you may need to find a safe, new church.
God has an amazing life planned for you
God designed marriage to be a beautiful reflection of God’s amazing love for us to our spouse, our family, and our community (Ephesians 5:21-33), to raise godly children (Malachi 2:15), for a husband to protect his wife and family (Malachi 2:16), for emotional and physical support (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12), for romantic love (Song of Solomon), and for oneness of spirit (Psalm 133:1; Genesis 2:24).
But a marriage to an abuser cannot serve any of God’s purposes.
Throughout the Bible, God warns his people to run from evil for our own protection. Paul warns about abusive people and describes them to a T in 2 Timothy 3:2-5:
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.
He then gives us a powerful command: “Avoid such people” (verse 5b). God knows any contact or relationship with these types of people is harmful. They will inflict damage.
It is impossible for a person of faith to lead the life God has planned when that person is held captive. Like the children of Israel, God has a place of peace and rest already prepared for you, but it requires you to step forward in faith and leave the shackles of Egypt, knowing God will go with you.
Without exception, when the people I counsel or represent come out from under the dark evil cloud of domestic abuse for good, they thrive. They are more able to see God’s blessings in their lives. They may find jobs even after being out of the job market for 25 years, they can develop healthy relationships with good people or regain their relationships with their children or other family, and they can rebuild a home filled with peace and God’s presence.
But most of all, they are now free to have an unprecedented time of spiritual growth, and they can come to know God in a very real way as their Rescuer, Redeemer, Warrior, Teacher, Healer, Refuge, Provider, Deliverer, Righteous Avenger, and Mighty to Save.
Gentle reader, if you need to remove yourself from an abusive relationship, please know God never intended for you to stay in abuse. He loves you far too much. He goes with you. Please contact your local domestic violence organization, who can help you through the process and support you with professional counseling by those who understand abuse.
1. M. Kimmel,“Gender Symmetry in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review,” Violence Against Women, 8, no. 1 (Nov. 2002): ; 1332-1363
Copyright ©2022 by Charlene Quint. All Rights Reserved.
Charlene Quint is a family law attorney in the Chicago area who focuses her practice on helping women overcome domestic abuse, and she is the author of the award-winning book, Overcoming the Narcissist, Sociopath, Psychopath, and Other Domestic Abusers (Redemption Press). Charlene is the founder of AbuseCare.org, a nondenominational, faith-based organization designed to provide hope and healing to women on their journey from victim to victorious, as well as to educate and equip church leaders. She is also a certified domestic violence professional, an advocate for victims of abuse, a facilitator of multiple support groups, and a domestic abuse survivor.