I hold both of these truths to be self-evident: sometimes women can be verbally and emotionally abused without other people understanding the extent of it, and need to get out of that marriage; and sometimes women claim that they are verbally and emotionally abused when they simply want to leave the marriage.
I have been quite passionate about the first group of women on this blog this year, writing about what submission really means; how to deal with a controlling husband; how we should never make women powerless in the name of God.
But today I am angry about the second group.
I know I’m just back from family vacation, but I thought I’d jump back into it with a bang today and write about something serious–namely women who may have divorced for the wrong reason.
In my personal circles, I know four women who would fall in the first category of having endured verbal and emotional abuse and had to get out of their marriage; and I know four women in the second category who told everyone that their husbands were abusive when all evidence pointed to the contrary, and then left the marriage and pretty much immediately started another relationship.
My heart goes out to the women in the first category. But even more, today, my heart is currently breaking for the children of the women in the second category.
I am thinking of two particular kids right now. These were the most amazing kids I had ever known when they were preteens. They were kind, generous, loved God, had plans for their lives, were hard workers–everything you would want. They impressed the socks off of me.
Then their moms up and left their dads, and their whole world fell apart. And I have watched them slide into alcoholism as teens, and drop out of school, and become so lost.
Research has consistently shown that children do better when parents stay married, even if that marriage is unhappy, than if parents get divorced, UNLESS there is also abuse involved. In that case, the children do better after the divorce.
I have watched moms ruin their kids’ lives, and I am watching another mom do it right this very minute.
And so I would like to start a two part series today to challenge us to see the difference between abusive situations and simply bad marriages. And, especially, I’d like to speak to the women in the second category, many of whom believe that they were justified in leaving, because they have justified it to themselves.
I’m going to compare and contrast the two types of divorces today, and then tomorrow I’m going to offer a radical suggestion to those who believe that they may be in the second camp–that they divorced prematurely, and that their current relationship (or marriage) may not actually be right.
So let’s start and look at the difference between truly abusive marriages and marriages that may not be happy, but that women are trying to justify leaving.
Difference #1: In abusive situations, divorce is often not a huge shock to the kids. In non-abusive situations, it rocks everyone.
Usually when verbal or emotional abuse is present in a relationship, the wife has been trying to hold it together for years. But there have been cracks. The kids have been scared. Everybody has walked on eggshells. The kids’ relationship with their dad has not been close, even if they have had times when everybody is laughing or enjoying themselves (especially on vacations).
They may have spent some time away from home, with aunts or uncles, while Mom “thought about things”, off and on, for years.
While divorce is always a huge change, it isn’t always unexpected.
On the other hand, where there really is no abuse but simply a strained relationship, the kids may know that Dad and Mom aren’t happy, but that’s not the same as feeling unsafe. Divorce often comes straight out of left field.
Let me reiterate this especially, because ALL of the women who claimed emotional abuse where the relationship was simply a bad marriage would see themselves in the first category. The difference is your kids’ perception of their own physical and emotional safety. Just because you felt like your husband was mean to you or that he didn’t understand you does not mean that your kids did not feel safe. Just because your husband may have yelled at you (and you may have yelled back) does not mean that your children felt that their security was threatened.
There is a huge difference between not getting along with someone and having your kids have to walk on eggshells so as not to set them off. And here’s a hint: if your kids really were unsafe, then you would not trust those same kids to live with their dad now (in the one case I’m thinking of in particular, she is leaving because of “emotional abuse” but she is also giving him main custody).
Difference #2: In abusive situations, the primary caregiver doesn’t change. In non-abusive situations it often does.
In most marriages, Mom is the main source of emotional support for the kids, especially if Dad is gone a lot for work and Mom stays at home, or if there’s a lot of tension in the marriage. Whether the marriage is abusive or not, kids often feel closest to Mom and spend the most time with Mom.
But once the divorce happens, the trajectory looks very different between the two types of divorces.
In abusive situations, Dad often doesn’t see the kids very much after the divorce. Either this is because of a court order, or, more likely, because he doesn’t really want to. Also, older kids often refuse to see him.
In non-abusive situations, on the other hand, Dad is usually totally taken by surprise by the divorce, and desperately wants to keep his family. Courts will usually award him joint custody. The kids have to get used to not always being with their mom. In fact, now Mom has a life outside of the kids that they know nothing about, and they have lives away from Mom that she knows nothing about. No longer is Mom the one person that can be the main emotional support, because she no longer is there for all the emotions. Siblings start to lean on each other rather than parents.
And Mom is often so excited by her new freedom (and often her new relationship) that she becomes a totally different person. She is pursuing her own happiness and contentment away from the kids, where her primary identity, before the divorce, would likely have been her children. This really is a shock to their emotional system.
Difference #3: In most abusive situations during a divorce, Mom’s main focus is the kids. In most non-abusive situations during a divorce, Mom’s main focus is her own happiness.
The reason that Mom in an abusive marriage stayed for years was likely the kids. She was so worried about what would happen if she left. How would they handle finances? Would the kids be safer away from Dad?
She’s torn about leaving, and feels guilty.
Therefore, her main concern after the divorce is to make sure her kids are okay. She’ll encourage them to talk about their feelings. She’ll often set up counselling for them where appropriate. She’ll encourage them to spend time with trusted aunts or uncles to have safe people to vent to. She will try to do special things with them, and try to keep routines the same. She will spend most of her emotional energy in creating a new, safe life for her children while also working on her own emotional issues (often with counsellors). She isn’t interested in a romantic relationship with anyone else right now; she just wants everyone to get healthy.
On the other hand, every single one of the women from non-abusive relationships dismissed the kids’ concerns to me. “They’ll be fine,” they’d say. “Kids are resilient.” When the kids start going downhill or acting out, they have no insight that it could be because of what they’ve done. They’ll blame it on dad: “He’s being just like his father,” or “he learned that at his Dad’s house.”
She is often unwilling to talk to the kids about their emotions around the divorce because she feels guilty about it. And so she pretends that everything is fine, and gives the kids the impression that this is what they should believe, too. And so they now cannot talk to their mom about the most important thing in their lives, and thus they lose the most important relationship they’ve ever had.
When she gets a boyfriend (or even a new husband), she expects the kids to embrace him without question. She wants them to be excited about it, and rarely invites honest conversations about it.
In abusive situations or other sorts of divorces that were justified (like repeated infidelity, for instance), when I have seen moms get into new relationships, they have done so slowly. The kids were a big part of the relationship from the start, because the kids and the mom were still a unit. I even knew one couple that was together for six years before they married (and stayed totally celibate during that time) because they didn’t want to force the kids to combine two families. The adults’ main concern was for the children’s well-being, not their own happiness.
What if I’ve really messed up?
Tomorrow I want to talk about what I would advise women who have left non-abusive marriages to do now. If you weren’t justified in divorcing, then what is the next move? Especially if you’re not remarried? What I’m going to say may be radical to some, but I hope that you will all listen.
Next in the Series: To the Woman Who Divorced for the Wrong Reasons: Now What?
Please note: NONE of what I said here was meant to denigrate women in abusive marriages. In fact, I believe totally the opposite: abuse is real, and the more that women claim abuse when it really isn’t abuse the more we make it more difficult for those in truly toxic marriages to deal with them appropriately (because we call every instance of disagreement or personality clashes abuse). I am very passionate about the fact that in many Christian circles women in abusive marriages are not given the resources they need. At the same time, though, I am watching too many marriages around me disintegrate because the women have justified it to themselves, and I just thought that side needed to be addressed too.