Open Letter to a Trapped Wife

Dear Jill,

Thank you for your email. You describe a situation very similar to one that I recently addressed here. I am very sorry for your troubles, and hope that what I say here will be of some help.

Let me begin with the most difficult part and get that over with first. I want to start by assuming that I am missing an important part of the story, having only heard from you. But after that, I want to then go on to assume that you have given me an accurate account of verbal, emotional, and spiritual cruelty, and give you some counsel from that perspective.

You describe a situation where the elders of your church have felt sorry for you, but have been pretty passive when it comes to addressing your husband’s anger issues. There are two possibilities here. One is that they know your account is true, but they lack the requisite courage or wisdom to deal with a man like your husband is. Part of the solution for that will be addressed in the second half of this letter. The other possibility is that they are confronted with a did too/did not situation, and so they are constrained from acting by biblical limitations (Prov. 18:17). They are not permitted to simply believe a charge that you bring against your husband — any more than they would be allowed to believe a charge that he brought against you. When there are charges and counter charges, those hearing them have to be able to do better than to just flip a coin.

We unfortunately live in a time that allows a certain kind of accusation to serve as a simple conviction. If a man is accused, the accuser is automatically the victim, and anybody who insists on independent corroboration of any serious charge will be himself accused of bringing additional abuse to the victim. But the line between righteousness and unrighteousness does not run neatly between men and women. Some women are fearfully abused by their husbands, and some husbands are frightfully mistreated by their wives. A counselor or pastor does not know going in to a situation which one it might be. If he goes in with his mind made up already, he does a grave disservice to both people he is trying to help.

I have seen situations where everybody in the family claimed to be afraid of the angry bear with a temper problem, but nobody appeared to have the slightest concern about his views, opinions, decisions, or values. But this made me wonder — if everyone was so afraid of the angry bear — why they all kept poking him with their sticks. They claimed fear so that they could use it as another weapon against someone they did not like, and did not respect, but actual fear was absent. I have seen other situations where the family was genuinely paralyzed by actual fear, and spent all day every day walking on egg shells.

We live in a world where some husbands are just angry men. They are angry at the government, angry at their business partners, angry at their competitors, angry at their fellow motorists, and angry at everybody inside the car with them. Periodically they explode, and all the molten malice trapped inside them comes out. That is one problem. But there are also situations where husbands are simply beleaguered men, constantly and unrelentingly disrespected by everyone close to them. His periodic outbursts are the railings of an impotent castrato. Of course, men in the first category will claim to be in the second, but it is important to keep these two categories distinct.

Please do not take any of this as an accusation against you. Your letter certainly seemed genuine to me, although I do not know your situation. I do know that if you are the righteous women you appear to be, you will recognize the justice of acknowledging that sometimes women are the unrighteous ones and that your account is just one side of the story. In my mind, if you recognize the cautions above as fair-minded, then the likelihood that your account is accurate goes way up. But if you take offense at the mere suggestion that an unsubmissive wife could ever slander her hapless husband, then the likelihood that your account is accurate goes way down.

Like I said earlier, I write all this not knowing your actual situation at all. But let us say you have run these biblical diagnostics on your own heart, and you are confident before God, with the Spirit of God as your witness, that your husband is a straight-up bully, and that you and the kids feel trapped by his anger. Let us also give your pastor and elders the benefit of the doubt and say that they would be willing to act if they had a situation with actual handles on it. What is a biblical strategy for dealing with a situation like this? Now what do you do?

Your strategy should be to bring everything to a head. Abigail dealt with her blockhead husband with all wisdom, and everything consequently came to a head. She was submissive to him, up to a point, and went completely around him in another sense. In this way she was very much like her future husband David, who honored the Lord’s anointed, refusing to take Saul’s life when he had the opportunity, while at the same not cooperating with Saul at all. David honored Saul as his anointed king, even while disobeying him. David did not turn himself in. Abigail did the same kind of thing. She honored her husband as her husband, but also did what was necessary to save her household. This was not simply a discrete, stand-alone action, but was rather a step in the story that helped bring everything to a head.

Before getting into how to bring everything to a head, we need to get the lay of the land first. There are two biblical grounds for divorce. They are some form of significant sexual uncleanness on the part of your spouse (Matt. 19:9), and willful desertion of you by your spouse (1 Cor. 7:15). From what you described, neither of these conditions pertain your situation. My understanding is that when divorce occurs under these circumstances, the innocent party is free to remarry. You are not now in that circumstance.

But what about separation? Is there any circumstance that could justify that? The answer is yes, but when that happens, the innocent party is free to separate, but is not free to remarry. Here it is:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10–11, ESV).

There are certain hard situations in the church that Paul is willing to live with. He says that his default assumption is that a wife should not separate from her husband. He tries to keep them together. But when she can’t take it anymore and gets the heck out of there, notice how Paul limits her action. Taking the sum of his teaching, he says that the fact that her husband is not an adulterer and has not deserted her means that she must not get married to anyone else. A woman who leaves under these circumstances must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband. At the same time, the church must not force her to return.

When should a wife consider this? There are two basic scenarios. The first is when she has good reason to believe that she and/or the kids are in physical danger. If he is in the grip of anger and strikes her, or chokes her, or is waving a gun around, or anything like that, she needs to look for the first opportunity to get safely away. A husband should protect his family, not be the principal threat his family needs protection from. If he won’t protect them, then she, like Abigail, must take up the duty of protection.

When a wife separates from her husband because she is unsafe, the church should not lean on her to go back apart from the problem being actively addressed through pastoral counsel, and to her satisfaction. If she separates too quickly, and is not following the apostle’s advice perfectly, let her. If Paul would let her, then so should we. The church should simply say in this situation that unless something changes (e.g. her husband gets a live-in girl friend) she must not marry someone else in the meantime.

The second scenario is when a situation has gotten bad enough that a wife decides to force the issue, and give the church a situation that they have to deal with. This is an Abigail move. She moves out, and her husband complains to the elders. The elders ask her what is going on, and she says that their marriage and family are in a desperate way, and that she would be delighted to receive marriage counseling. She yearns for reconciliation. She has been asking her husband to arrange for counseling for years, and he has always refused. Now she has created a situation where the needed counseling must occur. Such a woman is not necessarily being unsubmissive at all.

In the run up to this, she should have been applying the wisdom of the apostle Peter.

“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear” (1 Pet. 3:1–2).

If a godly wife is dealing with an ungodly and disobedient husband, and she is submissive in the way that Peter describes, then she is actively bringing everything to a head. Either he will be shamed by her courtesy, and submit to the Word, becoming obedient to it, or he will leave, or make the situation intolerable. Notice that the verb used here is that of the wife winning her husband. She is not a doormat here — she wins him.

She, by her reverent and chaste behavior, wins through. Either he submits to Christ, in which case she has won her husband, or he reacts violently to her reverent and chaste behavior. When this latter situation is unfolding, many wives believe that they are doing something wrong because the anger of their husband is apparently getting worse. But a fish being hauled in does most of its thrashing right beside the boat. The husband’s increased anger is a sign that he is getting to a break point. He is converted, or he ditches, or he makes home an impossible place to be. If the former, the problem is solved. If he leaves, the problem is solved. If he makes life in the home unlivable because of her reverent and chaste behavior, then she can leave with a clean conscience. Having left, she is prepared to cooperate fully with the elders when they seek to bring about a real reconciliation.

But that reconciliation will not occur unless there is repentance. Reconciliation is to be on God’s terms, not hers, and certainly not his. Reconciliation is not the same thing as the fight blowing over, or the husband calming down just a bit.

Well, that was a lot. In my experience, letters like this answer some questions, but also generate a lot more. If this has been of any help to you, please write again with any follow-up questions you might have.

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Jill Smith
Member

I wish it were possible to diagnose and define unrepentant abuse as easily as we can define adultery. Unless we are talking about physical abuse, aren’t we opening the floodgates even wider? I don’t understand how we can assume Jesus meant that to be grounds for divorce yet did not say so.
I wondered what is the position if an unrepentant adulterous husband wants to return home yet continue the adultery. It has been suggested to me that the Christian wife must comply and resume normal relations. Is there doctrine about this?

James Claypool
Guest
James Claypool

If the adulterous husband is wanting to come home and continue the adultery then the wife is under no obligation to continue the relationship: he has broken covenant, is unrepentant, and continuing to break covenant. The wife is not to overlook, condone, and facilitate the adultery. This is more than the marital relationship: the husband is imaging Christ–Christ forsaking the church. Seriously blasphemous.

Laura
Guest
Laura

I have a distant family member who overlooked her husband’s serial affairs (well, they grieved her, but she tolerated them,) until the health department called and told her to get tested for HIV. She had at that time a toddler to raise. That was the last straw. There were those in her immediate family who deplored her divorce.

JudoJedi
Guest
JudoJedi

Pastor Doug, this letter couldn’t have come at a more comforting time for me as the last paragraphs of your letter describe me (as a husband rather) perfectly.

To complicate matters tragically, we have three children. Young impressionable ones who I am determined to raise them with a biblical understanding of the world, much to the nauseated revulsion of my wife. She is threatening divorce if I don’t stop “brainwashing and distorting” the kids. I stand firm that stifling the truth is a distortion I will not rob our children of.

Please pray for me!

– Chris

timothy
Guest
timothy

Prayers offered.

David Abu-Sara
Guest

It seems like you’re equating separation with getting divorced and remaining single. Is that what you’re saying? Thanks.

bethyada
Member

There are 2 issues here: Is this advice in general sound and helpful; and what are the criteria for divorce and separation? The principles here seem Scriptural and helpful. Don’t prejudge the issue. Disobey respectfully and appropriately. Desire repentance and reconciliation. I don’t think the divorce issue can be easily solved. It is notoriously difficult and many godly men have subtle and not so subtle differences of opinion. The church has a long history of interpretive positions. And Catholics are (possibly) likely to side with the official position, even if it proves to be mistaken in minor ways. The second… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member

I believe the Catholic position is that the abused spouse could take the children and live separately, being open to resuming the marriage if the abuser becomes penitent and takes steps to prevent any recurrence. But, in no circumstance–desertion, adultery or abuse–may even the innocent partner remarry after divorce. I think as Catholics we interpret the words of Jesus differently–that He said divorce was permissible under the old covenant because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but that this is no longer the case. In any event, one must obtain an annulment in order to remarry after divorce, and I… Read more »

Laura
Guest
Laura

Not a Catholic so no dog in that hunt. I wonder what would happen if one party was sterile – vasectomy or tubal ligation for example, and those aren’t always reversible – and withheld this information from the other, knowing that the other wanted and expected children.

Jill Smith
Member

Classic grounds for a Catholic annulment! Even if one spouse is not sterile but absolutely intends, at the time of the wedding, never to have children and does not share that information, the marriage is held to be non-canonical. This is where some people get annulments through engaging in a little revisionist history.

Laura
Guest
Laura

I thought I had read something like that, but it’s been a while.

How about if one party had been married and divorced, and never told the other about the previous marriage but they found out after? Starting out a marriage with a big lie can’t be good even if it’s not grounds for annulment.

Jill Smith
Member

Yes, of course, it would be grounds for annulment. Unless the first husband or wife has died, the person is already married in the eyes of the Catholic church. So any subsequent “marriage” is null and void.
However, I am not sure what the position would be if the first husband or wife is dead. I am not sure if concealing a material fact such as a prior marriage is grounds for annulment but I kind of doubt it. These situations are bread and butter for canon lawyers!

Laura
Guest
Laura

I bet they are.

And then, if there are children and the lie about the previous marriage is the only problem, that should give one pause, except that somebody who would lie about such a thing may have serious issues as far as being trustworthy.

Laura
Guest
Laura

This whole conversation reminds me of a dream I had many, many years ago. I dreamed that I was having an affair – and that man never entered the dream b/c it wasn’t really about me having an affair – and leaving my husband, and my plan was to divorce him and marry that person. And then I thought, no, if i’m going to walk away from my marriage, then the honest thing to do would be to own it, and just live with that person, embarrassing though that would be. Because how many times can you promise the rest… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member

I know, and I am really sympathetic to people caught in this position–especially since I am one! It is much easier for me because I was in my late 50’s when my husband left me for someone else. I still had a teenaged daughter at the time, and all my energy for the next few years was devoted to helping her through it. It had been a complete shock and surprise. I was still recovering from cancer, and a new relationship was the furthest thing from my mind. I can only imagine how much harder this position would be if… Read more »

Laura
Guest
Laura

Wow, I am so sorry you went through all that. And your daughter – that has to have been really tough for her.

Yes, somehow we have the expectation nowadays that life is supposed to be a bed of roses and we have been cheated if it is not.

StephC
Guest
StephC

Thanks so much for this.

Barnabas
Guest
Barnabas
Greg Lawhorn
Guest
Greg Lawhorn

Wow, very sound. With your permission I’ll save this and use it as a resource, fully cited, of course.

holmegm
Guest
holmegm

Oh, now you’re going to get it. Being reasonable is some kind of hate crime, I think.

bethyada
Member

I have been meaning to write on this difficult topic since yesterday. What follows is quite long, I haven’t referenced Scripture yet, and I hope to post a modified version on my blog at some stage. I haven’t discussed what is adultery or when remarriage is acceptable though these are also important. We have 3 situations which seem to imply divorce is either allowed or the right response: Jesus mentions adultery, Paul mentions unbelivers desiring to leave, and Ezra mentions marriage to idolaters. From what I have read from Doug previously it seems that the wives in Ezra were idolaters… Read more »

valerieab
Member

But Paul doesn’t just say that “marriage to an unbeliever did not need to be dissolved,” he forbade the believing spouse to dissolve it. The believer had to be passive and let the unbeliever’s course of action — stay or leave — decide his or her fate. In which case, we’re back to abandonment and adultery being the only clearly allowed lawful reasons for a believer to initiate divorce. Idolatry and apostasy aren’t sufficient cause. Comparing with the standard in Ezra is interesting, though. In the Old Covenant, marriage to a nonmember defiles the member; in the New Covenant it… Read more »

bethyada
Member

I did think about that while writing Valerie. I am still trying to gain clarity on the issue (I don’t think it prudent to firm one’s views prematurely). The concern may have been that marriage to an unbeliever made one unclean–not certain about your interpretation of Ezra, Ruth, Rahab and Tamar were all non-members; but they weren’t idolaters–Paul assures them no. He says if they consent to stay let them stay. Thus divorce is not mandatory. To push that to say they were not allowed to divorce their husband who was beating them up I think is taking the verse… Read more »

valerieab
Member

Violence doesn’t come into Paul’s equation at all. He simply doesn’t address it. He’s dealing with the big picture issue of new believers who find themselves married to unbelievers and wondering whether they should stay. Paul says yes, unless they leave you.

Ruth, Rahab, and Tamar aren’t in the same position as the divorceable foreign wives in Ezra’s day, because they joined the covenant.

bethyada
Member

Hi Valerie. Exactly. In the Mosaic Law the Israelites were forbidden to marry foreign women because they would draw them away from the Lord. Yet Rahab was a God-fearer so joined the covenant. The Ezra wives remained idolaters. Perhaps idolatry alone is a reason to divorce in the old covenant (though Paul tells us not in the new). But I also note that idolatry was punishable by death in the Mosaic Law. Allowing divorce for capital offenses seems more encompassing than for idolatry alone. Else we are left with women having to stay with murderers but not with idolaters which… Read more »

bethyada
Member

Nothing I have written should suggest people have to leave. Forgiving adultery and rebuilding your marriage is commendable. And there is more than the data mentioned thus far. Doug quotes the a woman may leave based on 2 Cor 7 but it says To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. Doug’s argument treats this like separation (without divorce) but the text says stay unmarried… Read more »

Jason Pearson
Guest
Jason Pearson

Lol, so very clueless. Doug, Jill, etc. Best of luck!

Sarah
Guest
Sarah

Have you written on how to endure, as you’re saying a wife should, the verbal abuse or neglect that you’re saying is not reason enough for divorce? In this post you said to…but you’ve also told me something about an overloaded f150 trying to get up a hill. doesn’t matter how much you want/need it to or how much it should…

Rachel Shubin
Guest
Rachel Shubin

Hi Doug, Couple comments/questions for you. After re-reading both your Open Letters – “Dear Kevin” and “Dear Jill,” I realized that the two letters are not two sides of the same coin. Jill is not Kevin’s wife. Your opening to Kevin implies that his wife has been complaining to you about his behavior for years and that now that you’ve seen it yourself, you can finally take her seriously. Yet your letter to Jill puts her back at the beginning of the process, and you acknowledge that you don’t know her situation at all. The entire first half of your… Read more »