Abusive Marriages & Divorce: What Does The Church Say?


Divorce is hard. No matter what the circumstances, there are always painful questions that accompany the situation and powerful emotions that are difficult to overcome, especially in cases of infidelity.

But not all marriages end because one spouse begins an adulterous relationship and abandons the other. Many people, including Catholics, are forced to separate from their spouses and eventually divorce due to abuse that takes place in the family.

Abuse comes in different forms: sexual, physical, emotional, psychological. There is a different kind of infidelity that takes place in this situation. It is the betrayal of a spouse who will not or cannot change behavior that gravely hurts the health and well-being of the rest of the family. Who ever goes into a marriage relationship with the express consent to being abused or having their children abused?

Yet, this sad scenario plays out every day and an even bigger problem is making the decision to leave or stay. The guilt alone can be overwhelming and the reasons to stay might seem to outweigh the abuse.

The most common reasons a spouse believes he or she can’t leave the situation are:

  • No one understands the situation the way I do.
  • I believe I can help/change my spouse.
  • I don’t want anyone to know what’s been going on.
  • Catholics are not allowed to divorce.

These are common scenarios unfortunately. I have heard many of them throughout the years – too many, and they don’t only happen to women and children. But one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this is that so many spouses and children remain in abusive marriages because they believe they are required to by the Catholic Church. But it’s important to understand that God does not want His children to remain in situations that threaten life and health.

This may sound like a pro-divorce stance, but it’s certainly not. I’ve always beat the drum for more ardent marriage preparation so situations such as these are less likely to happen. 

But consider this: If the perpetrator of the abuse is unwilling to change and does not respond to the pleas of family/friends to change, then the spouse has every right, and in my opinion, a moral obligation to change the dynamic of the situation. There must be some break in the behavior and this usually requires removing the family from danger, such as a separation. If this doesn’t happen then the other spouse becomes an enabler to the abuser through knowing the abuser’s behavior is wrong and allowing it to continue within the family.

But, these situations don’t always need to end in divorce. The divorce primarily happens when, after the separation and other consequences, the abuser remains unwilling to change. This can be an indication that there was an impediment to having a sacramental or valid marriage from the start, which would be a segway for the spouse who left to apply for the annulment process and have the marriage investigated for its validity.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement entitled, “When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women” that addresses this issue and offers answers to the questions surrounding abusive marriages. In the introduction to the document it states:
The Catholic Church teaches that violence against another person in any form fails to treat that person as someone worthy of love. Instead, it treats the person as an object to be used. When violence occurs within a sacramental marriage, the abused spouse may question, “How do these violent acts relate to my promise to take my spouse for better or for worse?” The person being assaulted needs to know that acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises. While violence can be directed towards men, it tends to harm women and children more.

It further states:

Finally, we emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage. Some abused women believe that church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship. They may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. They may fear that they cannot re-marry in the Church. Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage. We encourage abused persons who have divorced to investigate the possibility of seeking an annulment. An annulment, which determines that the marriage bond is not valid, can frequently open the door to healing. 
You can read this statement from the US Catholic bishops, visit the USCCB website where you will find the statement in it’s entirety. And of course, our prayers go out to all who have experienced a situation like this.



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  3. Kathryn-1142183 July 5, 2015 Reply

    I was married in December of ’70 and was physically attacked by my husband less than one month of marriage. I went to my church (saw the priest that married us) and he said he wanted to talk privately to my now ex-husband and then again with me. After talking to my ex, I went to see him as requested and priest told me if I didn’t go back to him I was “going to hell”. Stayed for almost 19yrs had 3 children and was abused both mentally, physically and emotionally for those 18yrs. Finally left, still praying to forgive him. He also abused my children for the most part emotionally. Today, my children blame me for divorce (they never saw him physically abuse me (he was very clever to only leave marks where no one could see them after my boss noticed my black eye.) . I am constantly trying and praying to forgive him and I don’t go to grandchildrens parties anymore because I still love this creep! I can’t bear to see him so happy (he remarried a millionaire lady) and so nice to my children. I had to work 3 jobs to take care of kids (he never paid more than $1500 child support ONLY because judge was mad he didn’t bring a lawyer to hearing) police never helped me but thank God for my family. I am the type of person who always gives in (just because you SPEAK NICELY TO ME). Please pray for me I need all the prayers I can get!! I can’t afford an annulment and really have no immediate plans to remarry. I always let people off the hook, have done so all my life. I am glad now church came out against abuse. I still have a resentment for what I was told by the church years ago that’s why I need prayers.

  4. Lisa-727959 February 1, 2014 Reply

    Hi, Judy,

    If what you’ve disclosed in your comment is true, you should begin by writing a letter to your pastor, explaining the circumstances and stating your complaint. If nothing happens, you should write a letter to the bishops office, doing the same. The issue will most likely be addressed by this point.

    The Catholic Church does not want her members to be in abusive situations. If this parish representative you speak of won’t be sensitive to your circumstances, you have the right to bring this to the attention of the people in charge.

    I will pray for you and this matter that it will be resolved quickly.

    Sincerely – Lisa

  5. Judy W. January 31, 2014 Reply

    Can someone answer this? I’ve talked to my family life person at the Parish and she refuses to even give me the paperwork to start an annulment. She said she will be contacting my ex-husband for an interview even if there is a danger to me. We’ve been divorced for approximately 20 years, but I endured several more years of stalking, harrassment and vandalism to my property. He was EXTREMELY violent, and if he receives any kind of correspondence connected to me, it will just set him off all over again, and I’ll have to endure a few more years of the abuse. Why would a church that believes in pro-life want to put my life in danger?

  6. Mary-784275 September 6, 2012 Reply

    Thank you Lisa, this is a topic that needs to be talked about more. In 1997 I did a documentary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Domestic Violence that aired on ABC TV & have done several public speaking engagements. There is so much that needs to be said!

  7. Cheryl-409772 August 26, 2012 Reply

    I might add one more thing….I think the number one reason women don’t leave is because they fear losing there children…abusers are twice as likely to fight for custody and 70% successful and they often threaten to take the children legally or illegally. The justice system doesn’t help because it won’t even look at the violence after the divorce….which is why it is soooo important for women to make those arrest while in the marriage and stick to those charges…don’t drop them as so many do when the abuser cries about how sorry he is because truly, he is never sorry but only trying to get out of trouble….if you know anyone in this situation, you have to stress this to them.

  8. Marirose-887295 August 26, 2012 Reply

    A priest was the first person to ever tell me that Jesus didn’t want me to be abused. I am so thankful for him.

  9. Laura-56149 August 25, 2012 Reply

    Thank you for this article. It is so very important to know that our church stands behind us in this very horrible situation. I had so much support from priests and friends in the church. I couldn’t have survived without them. Thank you God for your love! If you don’t find this type of support in your own parish. Don’t be afraid to go to another priest.

    • Stephen-725391 August 26, 2012 Reply

      Laura, This statement of yours is exactly the thing I was pointing my comment above to – ” If you don’t find this type of support in your own parish. Don’t be afraid to go to another priest.”

      Until no one – man or woman – can no longer make the statement – GO FIND A PRIEST THAT WILL HELP – the Church is ALL TALK and NO ACT!

      You and other may find that harsh – but would you rather look into the face looking up from the COFFIN!

      • Laura-56149 August 26, 2012 Reply

        Guess what? As long as we are on this earth none of us are perfect…Wouldn’t it be better to support the positive than point out the negative? You sound very bitter. Maybe talking with a priest might help?

        • Stephen-725391 August 27, 2012 Reply

          I would suggest that before you condemn anyone as BITTER, you walk a couple miles in their moccasins! Just sayin’.

          • Laura-56149 August 27, 2012 Reply

            Stephen, I’m sorry that you took what I said as condemnation. Of course it wasn’t. I said you sounded bitter. Actually, you are condemning of the church. This article was a positive action taken by the church about domestic violence and you have turned it around to throw stones at the church. You seem angry at the church and that is why I thought maybe speaking with a priest might help you.

  10. DorothyJean-861157 August 25, 2012 Reply

    i am new member to the catholic church and when i went to see about the annulment from the church for my divorce from so years ago , it sounded like it is impossable… i was married 3 months and he was beating up my kids and i left him,,,, after i was married to a man for 15 years who died who beat me up all the time… at least i did not stay in the second marriage…. i say dont put up with it get out one way or another look what it does to your children and YOU……

    • Laura-56149 August 25, 2012 Reply

      Dorothy, please don’t give up. It is not impossible. God bless you and I am so sorry for what you have suffered.

  11. Barb Tess
    Barb Tess August 25, 2012 Reply

    Twelve years ago this October my sister-in-law Kristy was murdered by her husband in an act of domestic violence. Since the beginning of their marriage, Kristy’s husband repeatedly beat and assaulted her and one day we found cigarette burns up and down the back of her tiny son when we were babysitting him. Kristy repeatedly left her husband to seek shelter with family and friends, but as so many women do, she returned to him when he threatened her yet again. When she finally left him for good she was able to build a life for herself and her son. But her husband could not forgive her and ultimately found and killed her in front of her young son. My point here is that just as Lisa says, “acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises”. I cannot stress stongly enough, if you or anyone you know is in an abusive relationship get out now! God loves all of his children and he has not forgotten you.

  12. Stephen-725391 August 24, 2012 Reply

    What really bothers me is not what the Church says – it is this:

    What actions are taken by the Church, for as the saying goes, talk is cheap!

    • Laura-56149 August 25, 2012 Reply

      Stephen, I am not quite sure what you mean? The fact that the Church has come out with these statements is in itself taking action. Assuring people suffering that they are and will be acknowledged. Over twenty years ago, I didn’t believe I could leave. That I needed to make my marriage work no matter the consequences to myself. It was a priest who convinced me that God didn’t want me to suffer and to divorce and apply for an annullment. I would definitely be dead if I hadn’t taken his advice. My annullment was actually based on the fact that my husband was incapable of making a committment to a sacramental marriage. I am so glad the church is now coming right out and saying that a person can annull because of abuse.

  13. Alice-788574 August 24, 2012 Reply

    Lisa, thank you for posting this article and the link to the Bishop’s statement. I was trapped in such a relationship for nearly 18 years. I was confounded by misrepresentations of the Church’s teachings, thinking – a wife should be submissive, meek, etc…if only I changed for him, did what he wanted, then things would get better. If only I became Catholic, then divine grace would flow into our marriage and fix everything. Actually, when I converted and started truly studying Theology, things grew tremendously worse.

    You see, the Holy Spirit began to work inside me. Through His grace, I discovered I was His child, His beloved, His pearl of great price. Through frequent prayer and reception of the Sacraments, He directed me out of an incredibly dicey situation. And now I have learned to trust Him in all things.

    And btw, in my most bitter moment, I was desperately seeking some official teaching on domestic violence because what the priests were saying just didn’t make sense. There it was – “When I Call for Help”. That document may have saved my life.

    Thanks, Lisa.

  14. Stephen-725391 August 23, 2012 Reply

    The use of the term “violence” is a misnomer in my view. As I read the USCCB statement – abuse can be – FAILURE to adhere to the marriage vows over a period of time and refusal to disavow that failure and return to their commands. That wold seem to say (it is hedged at) that there was failure of discretion of judgment at the time of the contract which makes the contract a nullity, in other words – NO SACRAMENTAL BOND was formed

    The word VIOLENCE causes the violence to continue and for men (bishops) to use such a word KNOWING it will be understood in it’s common meaning is to do violence also!

  15. Elizabeth-753085 August 23, 2012 Reply

    This is why I hold my Catholic Faith dear to me! I am thankful for our annulment process. It helps us put certain things in place. I have found myself suprised at the many people that donot understand the reasons for divorce and annulment. Each person’s dignityis God given and God does not want our dignity abused or for us to allow that to happen to someone.

    Thank you to my Catholic faith that teaches marriage is a sacrament. Sacraments
    bring us closer to God when it is valid. God bless.

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