Guest post: I was the perfect Catholic wife. It didn’t fix my abusive marriage.

[ADMIN: Today’s post is by a friend who wants to remain anonymous. I am grateful to her and to so many survivors of abuse who want to help protect others who are suffering and who feel so alone.]

“The first affairs were only about sex,” he said. “It was the last one, where he thought he was in love, that really caused him trouble.”
The man who said these words to me had been a confidant of my late husband. I had reached out to a number of his friends after my husband’s death to better understand what had happened to us, but I was stonewalled, and on this day I didn’t expect to learn what I did. I knew there was one affair, although I was still reeling from finding the hotel receipts as I tended his affairs (pardon the pun). He had admitted that his relationship with a coworker was “too close,” but denied, for years, repeatedly, that any sex had happened.
Things I found in my house indicated otherwise. This man I married in a Catholic Church 25 years earlier, who told me early in our marriage that he simply could not tolerate it if I ever broke our vows, who went to Mass and presented himself publicly as a good Catholic husband and father, was a serial adulterer.
An online support group for victims of adultery proposes that all adultery is abuse, because it requires lies, diversion of time, energy, funds, and devotion, and it exposes innocent spouses to potentially deadly diseases without their knowledge. In reading the shared stories, I saw wide patterns of abuse – ones that were more familiar to me than I had previously been brave enough to admit to myself.

I was a Catholic wife, you see – a good one, one with steely determination to stay married no matter what. I never missed Mass, prayed for my husband every day . . . I was pleasant, cooperative and loving to him, supportive of his career and never demanding or critical. I started buying “How to have a good Christian marriage” books before the ink was dry on our wedding license. If there was a “How to be a good wife” article, I had read it and tried to followed it. We had been through terrible times including him moving away for an extended time, but I thought we had weathered the storm. It wasn’t until I admitted to myself – in the surreal safety of new circumstances – that I had suffered abuse for years.
I am safe because I am writing anonymously and because my abusive marriage is unequivocally over, but I remember what life was like before. I was never physically beaten, although he said I deserved it. He told me that he (who was trained in hand to hand combat) could snap my neck in a second. The fact that he was holding my head in a wrestling lock at the time, and I saw nothing odd in that interaction, is eerily telling of how accustomed to abuse I was. There was rage and verbal abuse, rage driving, manipulation, and threats to abandon or divorce me. When I learned of the serial adultery, I had to reprocess twenty-five years of memories, realizing I was being lied to and betrayed the whole time.
Why write about this? Because I believe that Catholic culture creates a dangerously optimistic expectation for marriage, encouraging people to strive and not give up, as if their effort can make any marriage thrive. For many many people, that is the best advice; but some of us live (or lived) in situations where covert abuse masked the hidden truth that one of the spouses in the marriage is too disordered (by sin, mental illness, addiction or other issues) to function in a Sacramental Union. Very often the faithful spouse suffers in isolation, feeling compelled to endure more abuse to be faithful to their marriage, family, Church.
They need to hear that they aren’t alone, that they are loved and that they need to make hard decisions based on the situation they are actually living, not based on who they hope their spouse might turn into.
Do you have to leave, once you recognize that your partner is incapable of being in a Sacramental marriage? I don’t think so, but I believe you are in for the discernment task of your life. There were many reasons why I never left – some of them reasonable and some of them (namely my hope and optimism) were horribly misguided and not reality based. I go from being really proud of myself for doing exactly what I vowed to do (literally until death did us part) to being very angry with myself for not being brave enough to see what was right in front of me.
In some ways my now adult children benefitted from an intact family, but in other ways, my late husband’s negative influence on their adult personalities is much worse than I feared it might be.
What can the Church do to help people in this situation?
–Priests and deacons need to look for signs of adultery, abuse, mental illness and addictions when people come for counseling. A number of them missed huge red flags in our case.
–Folks with long, loving marriages could be humbly thankful, rather than prideful, almost shaming other people who you assume “give up so easily.” You might be surprised how much it hurts the widowed and abandoned to hear bragging about how long you have been married.
–Create safe places where your friends can share confidences about adultery. There is a lot of victim-blaming. Although forgiveness is a good goal, pressuring people to offer it up immediately allows adulterers to avoid the natural immediate consequences of their sin, and it doesn’t help real healing; and it burdens the victim more than it heals the situation.
–If you have any influence at all in media, Catholic or otherwise, please (and I beg you from the deepest depths of my broken heart) never ever again publish anything akin to “How to Affair-Proof your Marriage.” In reality, even the very best most faithful and loving person cannot remove from their spouse the free will that God gave them. You cannot control if your spouse breaks their vows. Only they control that. Articles like these imply that we have control that we simply don’t have. I know that is frightening, and I’m sorry for that, but it’s true.
–When people show you repeatedly who they are, believe them. The biggest long term mistake I made was believing if he fully understood how much he hurt me, then he would stop. We often think if people have the right data, they will make the right decisions. I wrote him letter after letter after letter, begging him to treat me with a baseline level of decency that he would not violate, and he simply refused.
So I gave my whole heart to a man who abused me, lied, cheated and manipulated me, and then he died and left me to finish raising our children.
Did I despair? Am I mad at God and resent the years I gave? No. God walked with me and guided me and helped me heal, and I have chosen to live the best life I can. In the depths, I felt great reassurance that God would bless my faithfulness. I remember saying “I wonder if God will restore my marriage or I will live as a contented single or if I will find love again.” Oddly enough, I actually received all three things (with the caveat that my “restored” marriage was lived without all the details I later learned, so it was not properly informed).
How could I ever trust again? I decided that a willingness to trust was not something I would let my abusive husband take from me.
For the suffering, please know that God hasn’t abandoned you, but ask Him His will and try to not be afraid of His answer. He might tell you to flee.
Protect yourself. Protect your children. I know the horror of realizing the one you trusted the very most is your greatest danger. Be strong even when you live awful moments when people blame you. Know that what you lived scares them, because they want to feel immune from it, and distancing themselves from you helps that process. Know your Father in Heaven treasures you and you can still be a good Catholic despite life not turning out as you had hoped.


ADMIN NOTE: Here are some resources that might be helpful to you if you think you may be in an abusive marriage.  Not all abuse is physical. Please do not assume it’s “not really abuse” if it’s not physical.
When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women. An overview from the USCCB on the Church’s teaching about abuse within marriage, with some resources for what to do next.

What is domestic violence?

Catholic role models who escaped abusive marriages: Rose Hawthorne, founder of the hospice movement; Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House; St. Margaret of Cortona.

“Has he really changed?” (source unknown)

Image at top by Crosa via Flickr (Creative Commons)


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71 thoughts on “Guest post: I was the perfect Catholic wife. It didn’t fix my abusive marriage.”

  1. Thank you for this post. I have been in a twenty-nine year marriage with what I believe is a narcissist spouse. For years I tried to fix the marriage, thinking I needed to work harder, excusing his behaviors and giving him the benefit of the doubt. No more. My adult children are suffering now too, and I have been physically abused and the cruelty he dishes out is just so bizarre and evil. The amount of time and energy he has to come up with new and sick ways to hurt me is just unbelievable. I think he knows my eyes have been opened and he’s upped the ante to regain control. I’m leaving as soon as I’m in a financially better spot. My priest told me to call the police if he hits me again and then take steps to separate.

  2. Bai, you can’t assume that someone who cheated during courtship and after marriage lied about the intention to be faithful. That is the case in my marriage, but my husband repented, got help for sexual addiction and has been sober almost 10 years. He has said over and over that he did intend to be faithful, and I do believe we have a sacramental marriage. The graces in our lives after his repentance, healing and reversion have been tremendous. I could not list them all, there have been so many. I would be careful not to assume you know intent solely on the actions of the spouse.

    1. I agree with your point that one cannot assume about the intentions. Even for a person who did lie about the intention to be sexually faithful, he/she could want to do it right going forward. That would be an invalid marraige and the parties could convalidate. Especially after children were born, there would be less pain if Mom and Dad could agree to maintain an intact home.

      1. I think it is a dangerous to ASSUME that “there would be less pain if mom and dad could agree to maintain an intact home.” There is pain and negative consequences to a bad relationship either way, and the children suffer. The parents need to teach their children right values regardless of the outcome, and help them to have a healthy childhood by co-parenting with mutual respect regardless of the status of the marriage. Often times Catholic couples see divorce as the worse possible outcome when it may not be. You will teach your children, and they will learn. Teaching them to stay at all costs in a failed, or emotionally abusive relationship with infidelity or any manner of unhealthy interactions, is teaching them that one person needs to sacrifice their own stability and self respect for the sake of the abusive partner. That is not a lesson I wanted to teach my kids. I divorced and vowed to be the best parent I could be and my children are strong moral people, in the faith, and thank me for it.

        1. I was responding to anonymous. Her husband wanted to do it right going forward. In her situation, even if her husband had simulated (which she said he did not), they maintained an intact home.

  3. You may be the perfect forgiving loyal and supportive Catholic wife, but God never intends for anyone to live with abuse and infidelity. A marriage is meant to be a sacrament, which when truly lived as a sacrament between two people, it should bring grace. An abusive disloyal marriage is not a sacrament. This arrangement should be annulled. It does not mean any children were not conceived in love, just that the sacramental covenant was not kept. It does not make the children illegitimate. All children are God’s children and are legitimate. Yes some saints such as St. Monica lived in a bad marriage, but she CHOSE to offer it up and prayed everyday for her husband ‘s conversion and he did just before he died. But that is why she is a Saint. Everyone is not expected to do this. You can end a demoralizing marriage and have it annulled. God Bless.

    1. I’m commenting about this assertion “An abusive disloyal marriage is not a sacrament. This arrangement should be annulled.” If my son, at age 18 became abusive and disloyal, he would still be my son. He would be breaking the 4th and 7th commandment and maybe others. Abuse and disloyalty are not facts upon which one can base a finding of invalidity. Some spouses are sinning gravely enough to justify separation of spouses, but that is not proof of invalidity. Marriage involves loving one’s spouse as Christ loved. He did not deny that his people were still his people, even when his people rejected Him.

      If a disloyal person was having affairs during the courtship and engagement, and continued after the wedding, that person would have lied about the intention of sexual fidelity. That is a fact upon which one can base a finding of invalidity.

      1. Bai, under the new code, Jennifer has a point. Consent is to a “community of life and love.” Such a community requires perpetual consent to it. So if one spouse starts singing “where is the love” by Roberta Flack, then there is no consent, and no sacrament. Dig, baby?

    2. What if one to divorce ended up loosing something greater? These matters are very difficult to discern. I know of a man who divorced his wife not because of adultery but because she was a drinker. He ended up marrying another wife who wasn’t so much a drinker but was verbally and psychologically abusive. He gave up his marriage (his first cross) only to carry a heavy cross. Because of the mental and psychological anguish the man ended up with very bad bowels and eventually ulcers all over where he needed numerous operations to save his life. He now lives a very physical painful life. Did I mention his first wife was a great healthy cook? And the second one far from it. Sometimes we think we do better by leaving but we can’t know our future. I think we are free to leave our sufferings anytime ., but I believe God will help us if we endure our sufferings with Him. God will not abandon us, but I think if we fall for the devils traps to seek better life I think we can easily be mislead abd trapped. Even in the most dire cases God can step in through prayer. Like the wife that stays and becomes widowed, perhaps God stepped in and took the man from her life through the man’s death. Granted it took a number of years but God still stepped in and helped.

  4. I am writing this comment with tears of joy. My marriage fell apart after 6 months because my mother In-law asked my husband to divorce me and marriage the woman she betroth to him as his wife. All this drama started happening in our marriage and my husband left me and our one month baby just so he could do as his mom wants him to.

  5. I want to thank you to this wife, I had been physically, cheated, lied, and the last time I was hit very badly and my physical pain is horrible. Although I had been taking medication, but the medication is strong and not working anymore. I do much reflection, the support groups were not helpful for me, they were expecting me to call them.
    I believe that workplaces promote prostitution and they don’t care about it. I do pray for elimination, jail for those men/ women who are doing it, sanctions, and compensation.

  6. I have become convinced that the woman with whom I attempted to contract marriage 25 years ago is a narcissist who has induced depression in both me and my children, especially my daughters (I say “attempted to contract” bc I do not think this woman has the capacity to be married and that canon 1095.3 is applied most commonly in cases of NPD). There is not a lot of conversation about male victims of narcissistic abuse, let alone of fathers of Catholic families who are desperate to protect their children.

    1. Thomas, your description reminds me of my father. I would love to learn more. I am very worried for him. I am one of two adult daughters, and recently moved back home due to forced unemployment and I suffer daily with our NPD mother. Unable to even have a conversation, no matter what I do, and I am struggling to keep the faith. Thank you for opening up. I want to learn how you stay strong, because of my father, whom I do not want to lose. (I found this article only now because I am keen to work through my situation).

      1. Hi Melissa:
        I’m glad you found your way here. I myself have been very grateful for the support I’ve found on this thread. Simply finding that other Catholics recognize NPD and how it makes marriage impossible (not merely to live out, but even to contract in the first place), and in particular that men suffer from it as well as women, has been a life-saver for me.
        Staying strong has not been easy. I am alone; my supposed-wife has (since my last contribution here) gone on to leave the house, accuse me of threatening her, and then (despite my pleas) taken her false accusations to court in order to get full custody and placement of the children, and has lied to the children and to others in our community (including members of our parish) about me in order to defend her actions. All as punishment for my refusal to accept her abusive behavior any longer (I started insisting on respect, and this was the reply I received).
        My children, because they are emotionally dominated by their mother, are not free to speak against her or even express disappointment in her behavior (I don’t suppose even children who are not manipulated by their mothers feel all that free to do so). Not that I expect my little ones to be emotionally supportive of me; they are the ones who look to me for such support, and when I can (i.e., when they are visiting with me), I give it to them, I am there for them, I am all about them. But, Melissa, if my adult children were to give me even a hint of understanding regarding my exhaustion over their mother and her universally controlling and self-justifying behavior, it would mean the world to me.
        If you’ll permit me, I’d like to propose that you speak to your father what might at this moment be considered the unspeakable, and let your father know, if he doesn’t already, that the abuse really is abuse, and that you know it. That you see it too. That black really is black, and not white. Even worse than the abuse the narcissist dishes out is the gaslighting that makes you feel that you’re the problem. That’s what makes for crazy, that’s what makes for the deepest despair. If you can keep your father from the edge of that cliff, I think (though I know I am only speaking from within my own subjectivity) that it will help him. Maybe it will help you too.
        If I’m way off base here (and I’m sorry if I am), feel free to say so .

        1. Thomas- sorry it has been a while since I have responded. Thank you very much for your message and taking the time to write it. I hope you’re doing better. Every day is so hard at home, and seeing my father be so alone in it (my sister is off at college and I will be away at a new job soon too)- and I completely understand what you mean when you say that the local Catholic population is very judgemental and illiterate about these types of emotional abuse.

          I use quotes from JPII, read about gentle parenting from Salesian/Don Bosco ideals, and have joined a Facebook group for Catholic women with mom issues- a lot of people there are survivors of NPD. As in the issues at home, have caused them to have poor mental health, and be less confident mothers (my fears as well).

          Will keep you- and your family in my prayers always, on this side of the internet and I mean it. Jezu Ufam tobie

  7. I know this is an old article, but I see the link pop up often enough I’m guessing a fair amount of people still read it…

    You’ve got some spammers in the comments you might want to delete. Just wanted to point it out.

  8. Glad this topic is being discussed! I want to make one comment that sexual addiction is very real. Just like any addiction, it’s progressive. Not all cheaters are sex addicts but they may be. My husband cheated before and after marriage. I didn’t find out until 10 years into marriage. He was also addicted to marijuana, alcohol and pornography. His breakthrough came when a therapist identified his adultery as sex addiction and he started attending Sexaholics Anonymous daily for many months and then had a radical reversion to the Catholic faith and began attending daily mass and frequent confession. Additionally, we both went through multiple healing and deliverance prayers with our priest who was also an exorcist. Today, he has been set free from all of his addictions by the grace of God. We both came back to the faith during this time and became open to life for the first time in our marriage, conceiving three more children since our marriage was restored 5 years ago. I share this as an encouragement to those in the middle of the darkness. It is still one day at a time for me and there are still wounds, but I have seen God do profound healing in this area. It is possible to restore a marriage, though not always. The adulterous spouse must change but also, if there is true addiction present, he/she must also get the right type of help. God bless!

  9. Unilateral no-fault divorce makes it more difficult to protect one’s self and one’s children from the inappropriate treatment of an unrepentant adulterer.

    Unrepentant adulterers who “blame-shift,” exhibit unacceptable verbal berating, and threaten physical abuse, are not held accountable in the no-fault divorce system. Many states have legislation that forbids a court from considering marital misconduct in decisions of child custody, property division, and support. Therefore, a woman who needs to protect herself is worse off after separation/divorce than she was before. If, for example, her husband was the primary income earner, she could lose her home, and lose every-day access to her children. The civil court has no interest in protecting children from the scandal given by a spouse who is philanderer, who shows children by example that adultery, or fornication, are acceptable.

    With the non-profit organization Mary’s Advocates, I work to reduce unilateral no-fault divorce and support those who are unjustly abandoned. We show petitioners how to ask the Church to issue separation decrees that are in accord with Divine Law.

  10. Unilateral no-fault divorce makes it more difficult to protect one’s self and one’s children from the inappropriate treatment of an unrepentant adulterer.

    Unrepentant adulterers who “blame-shift,” exhibit unacceptable verbal berating, and threaten physical abuse are not held accountable in the no-fault divorce system. Many states have legislation that forbids a court from considering marital misconduct in child custody, property division, and support. Therefore, a woman who needs to protect herself is worse of after separation/divorce than she was before. If, for example, her husband was the primary income earner, she could lose her home, and lose every-day access to her children. The civil court has no interest in protecting children from the scandal given by a spouse who is philanderer, who shows children by example that adultery, or fornication are acceptable.

    With the non-profit organization Mary’s Advocates, I work to reduce unilateral no-fault divorce and support those who are unjustly abandoned. We show petitioners how to ask the Church to issue separation decrees that are in accord with Divine Law.

  11. Also, a good marriage book that actually offers decent advice for people in abusive situations is ‘Boundries in Marriage’ by Drs. Cloud and Townsend. It talks about how to protect yourself and set boundaries against abusive behavior. It acknowledges you can’t change someone’s behavior, just your response to it, but you can make sure your response isn’t enabling their behavior.

    Might be a useful resource for some. It isn’t expressly Catholic, but it is written from a Christian perspective and the advice is all pretty sound.

  12. What part of Catholc culture encouraged you just to stay and pray? I ask because honestly, I never hear a single thing about marriage and how to persevere in it. I know some of the influence is indirect, such as the story of St. Rita. Maybe somebody needs to write a book about those people who left Catholic marriages because certainly there are situations where it is necessary. My mother was one, and I know how much she suffered because her marriage failed despite her best efforts. It is a terrible cross for the spouse who has tried and is trying.
    I do believe, however, that the issue of discernment you mention is terribly important on both a spiritual and secular level. It has to include honest questions of ourself such as, why should I believe x when he has lied to or betrayed me before? Why am I letting him say these things to me? ” Issues in my own marriage almost seemed insurmountable at many times, to the point where I looked like a fool for staying. The one discernment prayer I used then was “Lord, please let me see what I should see.” That included the need to look out for myself in an appropriate fashion. For example, faults of my husband could create legal and moral liability for me. Wouldn’t I feel terrible if my spouse’s spending habits, for example, made us both bankrupt, even though I was being thrifty. Or if I caught a disease because my spouse was unfaithful. So in addition to praying, we have to be more hard-headed.

    The good news for all of us, though, is the good news (Gospel). You stayed for 25 years and did your best. God will bless you and honour you for that even though you feel pain now. What sadness you must feel to discover so much now when you can’t work on it with him any longer. But you and your children can, with the grace of God, begin to rebuild with healthier habits. God can heal us from anything. His instruments are not only prayer, but counselling. God bless.

  13. It sounds like God walked with you everyday and you did exactly what He called you to do. I wonder how many souls were saved by the suffering you offered up to our Lord? Probably many! Keep fighting the fight mama!

  14. I just wanted to say thanks for putting an example of a saint that left a bad situation, seems like most married saints are the ‘long suffering’ type.

    1. I wont presume to call myself a Saint now, but I hope at the end of my life, God tells me I made it.

      Please know that I had saved money to facilitate my departure and I was ready to go at the start of the next rage….I had PROMISED myself that I had experienced my last rage with him. He kept all the cars in his name, so I would have had to buy a car, get an apartment and figure out how to best walk my kids through the difficulty we were about to endure. There is a cheap apt complex near my work that I had scoped out so that I could walk to work if the car thing became a problem. He was a professional and we lived in comfy middle class, but I was ready to give it up for peace and calm.

      My life now is very good…much better than living under the tyranny of his demons. I never wanted him to doe though, I wanted him to be the man I thought he could be. I didnt know then that he had created such a terrible private hell for himself with a closet so full of stinky skeletons that opening it a crack would cause it all to tumble out. Keeping those skeletons hidden must have been exhausting. I feel bad for him, he had a wonderful life and he ruined it. It is nothing short of tragic.

      1. I was referring to the links at the bottom of the post.

        I’m so sorry you went through what you did, and I’m glad you’re not in that situation anymore.

        1. I know what you mean about skeletons. Haven’t really had to deal with abuse in my immediate family, but there’s lots of skeletons in part of my extended family…And anyone who points them out is ostracized.

      2. I am living this hell of emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse now for 22 years. I have tried to be a perfect wife and mother throughout it all and have prayed and offered up my sufferings. However, I am becoming more and more discouraged and despairing as I have begged God for some resolution but instead I see the traits of verbal abuse manifesting in my older children. I have pleaded and implored God…I am faithful in prayer, the sacraments, etc. I have no marketable skills after being out of the workforce for so long, I KNOW he will become even more destructively cruel and nasty if I try to leave, I still have relatively young children, no place to go, etc. I am beginning to doubt that God even cares…and that is the worst of all…to begin to doubt what I have faithfully held on to, to see the bad effects in my kids despite my best efforts to inform them of what abuse is and how destructive it is to healthy relationships, and to always feel I am in sin because he will bait me for as long as it takes till I cave and lose my temper so he can say I “just love to fight”. This last weekend was crushing with abuse…I am so exhausted I cannot fully function to do my duties and homeschool..and I am still subjected to abuse that I moping and feeling sorry for myself, a baby, when I seriously feel as if I am losing my grip on life and it is a terrifying feeling. I have no where to go and God is silent. When you vowed to yourself that you would leave at the next rage…was there never another one? Because I have promised myself that this or that time would be the last, but I really have no option to leave and he knows it.

        1. Bethany, I am very sorry for your suffering, and have been praying for you. You can call a women’s shelter just to talk. You don’t have to be making plans to leave. They may be able to help you, or at least to reassure you that what you are experiencing is, indeed, abuse, and you are not exaggerating or imagining it or bringing it on yourself or being a baby for feeling the way you do.

  15. I guess this is a reply for anyone who is beginning to wonder if the marriage they are living is actually a valid one. That’s a really big deal, and a terrible doubt to have to add to everything else that is difficult about trying to raise a family.

    One of the best things that has ever happened to my family has been having priests that befriended us.

    If you don’t have a good priest-friend, be on the look out for one that is bright, young at heart and has a sense of humor. I’ve found that the ones from big, (not uptight) families are the most realistic/balanced. In my case, Latins give the best advice, (the Latin one understands my Latin husband) but one of the best priests that helped us was a white, Midwestern, former lawyer.

    It’s not like a priest friendship is a buddy/buddy thing-there’s always a kind of formality there, but you start to get to know each other. Going to the same priest for confession is a natural way to help the process along. I like to go to the ones who think that frequent confession is normal. Inviting a priest over to your house at least a couple of times takes some effort, and can feel a little embarrassing, but who cares? It’s worth the effort on many levels. It’s really good for the children, and good for the priest too.

    My husband and I have a priest-friend that we have known for over 25 years. He probably sighs and groans when he sees my phone number light up his cell phone, (he doesn’t live close by anymore) but he has faithfully given my husband and I good advice. He has by no means been lavish with his time, but he makes a bit of time for us. He has a lot of *common sense*, and is never quick on the trigger. Sometimes I can be driven by emotion, but he sees through it. Sometimes he’s blunt, sometimes gentle, sometimes a bit salty. He has given me huge doses of courage at times when I most needed it,
    –and especially at a critical time when I was ready to “throw the baby with the bath water”…

    A priest can’t stop a violent man from being violent, so I’m not talking about life threatening situations, but a good, balanced, seasoned priest has seen a lot from both sides of the confessional, and can have a perspective that we could never have ourselves.

    I think it’s worth going to great lengths to save a real marriage, (finally form a real one ??)–even if that marriage is passing through a really rocky time. I don’t know, maybe it’s like childbirth, and we have to suffer it into existence…All I know is that it requires that both spouses are willing to humble themselves, soul search honestly, and forgive for past mistakes. A good priest can act like a doctor/coach in that process.

    A few of the most dysfunctional people I have ever known were raised in families where the parents stayed together for economic situations. As far as I know there wasn’t physical violence but the abuse was constant. “Marriages” like that are a sham. The enmity was like a cancer, and horrendous for the children. They are the walking wounded, and worse off than if their parents had stopped living a lie.

    Being broken is not the worst thing. Sometimes that’s the only thing that can make us malleable enough to finally be melded together with our spouse in the radical way God envisioned–or strong enough to say “no” once and for all, to what is toxic. Some men and women have been so wounded by life (perhaps the “marriage” that brought *them* into this world?) that they are incapable of being a Christian spouse. Luckily “success”in the eyes of the world is not what is required by God…

  16. Thank you and God Bless you for sharing. As a survivor of domestic violence and a devout Catholic, I appreciate your voicing concerns over the “sacramental” aspect of a marriage not really being sacramental in an abusive marriage. My Ex used my Catholic faith to trap me in the abusive relationship. There was physical and mental abuse. The physical abuse was easier to get over, the mental abuse still haunts me, and it’s been over 20 years since I freed myself from that relationship.

    When I tried to reach out to my parish priest for help my Ex intervened. Then I tried to reach out to Sisters I did volunteer work with and they wouldn’t believe that I was frightened and tried to tell me how “nice” he was. When I was pregnant, I went to confession and the priest in the confessional lectured me about how awful it is to have all the single parents in the community, because it isn’t good for the children. Of course, he couldn’t know that I was pregnant, or see through the dark screen that I was crying the more he went on about the importance of marriage and how being a single parent was not in God’s design. I feel there needs to be training for clergy and religious about domestic violence, how to spot it and how to react without putting any guilt on the victims.

    I think Pope Francis understands that when many people today say “I do” and “‘til death do us part” they really don’t understand the sacramental aspect of the marriage they are entering into. The sacrament is made between the husband and wife and God, not inferred by the priest. It seems some people have the selfish tendency to treat their marriage like they would a cell phone, “Oh, a better model is available now, I need to upgrade.” They only know how to commit during the moment of the ceremony, but later that “commitment” wanes. Why should the Church trap people in marriages where there is no real commitment or inkling of a sacrament? With God’s infinite love and mercy, I don’t believe God would want anyone to stay in an abusive relationship. We have our own guilt to trap us, we don’t need to project supposed guilt from God.

    It feels like our society is still backwards when we are still treating domestic violence victims as if they are criminals, and never shame people for cheating on their spouses. I pray we all find the courage to speak up for what is right.

  17. Golly…really good question and I don’t pretend to have the whole answer, as I speak from a sample of one, but I will share a few ideas…maybe a real expert could chime in.

    I have many times heard that if you are in actual physical danger, you should leave. He told me he wanted to beat me, he told me I deserved to be beaten and the story above where he told me that he cold snap my neck…that happened more than once and yet I never actually felt in imminent danger face to face. He was, however, a HUGE danger to me, himself an others when he drove while raging…he did monumentally dangerous things in those moments that could have easily killed us all and anyone we might have crashed into. There were times I REALLY, SERIOUSLY did not think I would get out of the car alive. It wasn’t once, it was probably a few times a year. If I knew another woman or family in the same danger I would tell them to leave. I didn’t and it was part of my optimism…I just kept thinking he would get better. I probably failed my children by not leaving after one of these episodes (they are all alive though) but he would never ever have admitted it was dangerous and he would have made me out to look like a lunatic. This behavior was not sane nor decent nor respectful.

    I think that my case was a little odd in that I asked God for guidance and He gave me strength to stay but I really wouldn’t advise someone else to do what I did. God knew (when I surely didnt) that husband would die young. I think if God knew that he would live to be old, He would have lead me to discern to leave. My situation was really specific and I would not want anyone to stay in an abusive situation trying to emulate me. You can emulate my commitment to pray for him (I went to Daily Mass for 7 years for him) but you can pray from a distance.

    I would encourage a woman to look at her husbands core definitions of marriage… if he acts as if he does not hold the Catholic definition of marriage then there isn’t much to work with. Mine told me clearly that he didn’t even consider us married (despite Catholic church wedding with all the bells and whistles) and refused to change it. In the 2 or so years before he died, he twice mentioned he was seriously considering moving away (without me) and about 6 months before he died, he told me that when I aged to the point of (insert normal sign of middle age here) he was leaving me. I had virtually nothing to work with.

    Please know that some people can have education and responsibility and present themselves well in public but still have very poor coping skills. He kept himself together at work and in the world but came UNGLUED at home…any stress would send him into violent rages where he screamed and cursed (and sometimes blasphemed in vulgar ways). Something in life had informed him that one of the main purposes of a wife was to have someone to blame things on (he told me that 3 weeks into our marriage) . It oddly worked for him and I couldnt MAKE him stop, but during all the years he did that, he didnt grow up and develop the wisdom and coping that a person needs to take into life. I couldnt make him cope and I couldnt make him not blame me and the blame was soul crushing.

    Lastly, I would be very wary of sparkly promises to de better…I called them “Sparkily Spurts” where he seemed to realize that he didnt do well and needed to improve but they lasted for hours, not days or weeks…the first moment of stress brought the sparkily promise crashing to the ground. I could tell from everything he did that I, personally, really didnt MATTER to him. I was a means to an end, like owning a toilet. You dont think about your toilet or treasure toilet but its handy to have around when you need it. I was very much a toilet to him. If that is the case, again, you dont have anything to work with.

    1. What do you think his fate now is? Do you think such people can be saved? I am wondering what to do for a narcissist (with whom I have parted ways) at a spiritual level and wonder whether there is even any meaning to praying for them… I do not want to give up but wonder if there is any hope…

      1. I too wonder about this. About hope. About what it all means. I feel like I’m looking at someone completely broken and stuck. She has many capabilities; it just seems that being married isn’t one of them (I don’t think being a good mom is one of them either, which is destroying me, I feel so awful for the children, to have doomed them like this). All because of what she suffered from her own father. And both of us from faithful Catholic families (though her mother divorced her father, pretty sure she was also a narc and an alcoholic and he co-dependent with at least narc tendencies if not a full-blown narc himself). I think she actually will be OK even after the annulment; I think she will actually be relieved. It’s the kids that are breaking my heart. It’s hope for them that I am having trouble with. Even as I am never going to stop being totally for them.

  18. I would just like to chime in on this topic… As a man who stayed much longer than he should have because of his Catholic environment, abuse can be from the woman as well. I and four teens all left and the grief from parish friends was beyond tough. I sought and was granted an annulment fairly quickly. When I read “The Emotionally Abusive Relationship” by Beverly Engel, I discovered the negative future affects that living in an abusive home has on the kids, and that was when the decision was made. I never thought I would be in that situation but, looking back, it was a decision well made. The kids are all healthy and happy Catholic adults who know how to recognize emotional abuse and what to do about it!

    1. Wish I had seen this comment of yours when I posted in April of this year, just over a year after you shared your extremely encouraging perspective. Our situations are quite similar: The trigger is the kids and concerns for their future mental health, the local Catholic environment is not supportive (even alarmingly judgmental and illiterate). Thank you for sharing. And thanks to John for his reply to the OP yesterday; if not for him and his highly apropos question about hope for the narcissist, I would not have gotten the email notification that led me to see your comment here. A critical support at a critical point in my own journey in leading my family forward in truth and health. Helps me believe there might actually be a God watching over all this and taking it forward. Even as why it happened at all is completely enshrouded in darkness at the moment.

  19. Oh dear Tabitha, God bless you. Can you give some guidelines on how women can decide whether difficulties in a marriage are something they should just bear? And when do you decide to get out?

  20. Sister (if I may be so bold), I thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. You articulated the cry of my heart, in so many facets of this article. So many of the people I know are living out these picture-perfect marriages and I know they think I’m not being faithful to my marriage vows by divorcing my adulterous husband and seeking an annulment. I learned he was unfaithful while we were engaged, and the pattern repeated itself over and over through 7 years of marriage. I would not return a single day of that marriage. I found God. I have my daughter and my wonderful in-laws and, in fact, many good times with my ex-husband. But thank you for giving me the chance to articulate the pain AND to speak up. To say to other women “I will be that safe space for you if you need it, you are not alone and you are not wrong”. I also hope that by opening this topic up for discussion, men (or whoever) who are stuck in a cycle of perpetrating abuse or adultery can find some small bit of hope that all is not lost, that they have a place they can go for help.

    Again, thank you sister.

    1. Oh you are so welcome. Please stay strong and know you are not destroying your marriage, you are simply verifying what is. I wish I could get a post death annulment, I wish I had a document that validated what I lived.

      I really believed that he was faithful until he fell into a certain relationship but once I learned that there were others before, it was like a key to a hundred locks…so many odd, ill fitting, seemingly innocent things happened that when I look back on, I realize were classic cheater behavior.

      He used to go into wildy abusive rages whenever we drove to social events for his work…I think he was trying to throw me so off balance (it worked) so that I wouldnt notice odd things between him and coworkers. I look back on our 5th anniversary…we packed up a whole house cross / country move that day. I had kids underfoot and was cleaning the whole house…I sent him off on an errand and he was gone like 4 hours with no explanation where he was and the errand was still unfinished (classic cheater move) …memory after memory trickle back in. Once he came home with a bizarre injury and a crazy wild story as to how he got it…I think now some jealous boyfriend/husband hit him with a baseball bat.

      Yes, please be the safe place for others, so many blame the wife assuming that some failure on our part forced him into another woman’s bed…but that is not the case

      And yet, I became Catholic in the marriage and I have my kids. In the big big picture, I see Gods wisdom and I respect it.

      I also wish they would have sessions on adultery recovery at Catholic Women’s conferences, that will never happen, we will be giving all our bandwidth to the “Affair Proof your marriage” gals who can infer that I missed steps 2 & 7.

  21. Yes, yes to everything.

    I was raised Evangelical, so I can tell you that the shame for even considering abandoning a marriage can be just as bad in that culture as it can in Catholicism.

    And it is not said enough that it takes two to tango: a complicated dance (marriage) can only be performed if both partners are concentrating and contributing. It doesn’t matter how well one partner dances if the other refuses to participate, or is deliberately sabotaging the other.

    And regardless of the relationship, it is never okay to treat another person like garbage. Never, never, and never, amen. As a correlation to that please teach your kids that they don’t have to LET another person treat them like garbage, even if they’re married to them! The person you’re married to should be treating you better than everyone else you know, not worse by a significant margin!

    That kinda turned into a rant; it’s okay, I’ve started therapy! 🙂

    Please keep speaking, the problem will never get better if we survivors keep it to ourselves!

  22. Wow.


    You don’t know me, but I’m you in the alternate universe where you left your husband about 2 years in to the marriage. Things were really REALLY messy for a handful of years while you got your life together, but now you’ve been remarried for almost 10 years, you have 3 children, you have a nice house and a career, and your kids go to school in a great district.

    To be clear, I’m not trying to say that I’m better than you in any way. In fact, in many ways you are better than me. I fought back, which only made him more angry. When he unplugged the phone so I couldn’t call the police I screamed so that the neighbors would call. In the moment he would stop but because I “embarrassed” him, it only entrenched his sense of entitlement to treat me however he wanted.

    But with all of that, in my tunnel-vision all I could see was that marriage is supposed to be permanent and that divorce wasn’t an option. The only reason I did it anyway was because he deployed to Iraq with the Army for a year. That distance, and the fact that he literally could not get to me, gave me the clarity of perspective I needed to divorce him: when he was gone I felt safe, at peace, and in control of my life. When he came back, I knew I had it in me to try one more time. But if that failed, it would destroy me. Since I had two little girls depending on me, I knew I couldn’t take that chance.

    Anyway, sending love and prayers.

    1. I grew up as an army brat, and your story is pretty common; abusive men go off to war and the wives escape…Then are villanized. I wish FRG groups would offer help for those wives, or at least avoid mudslinging.

      1. It is pretty appalling. Once word started to get around that “SSG X and his wife are having problems,” I started to hear everyone’s stories.

        To me, everyone would have been justified in getting a divorce, but to my knowledge I am the only one that went through with it. Reasons range from being a “good” Christian, to financial dependence, to many other things. So every time I read or hear someone talk about how divorce is a bad thing, all I can think about his how much worse marriage can be.

  23. Thank you for your bravery in writing this. I can see where this honest view of your marriage may be life giving to others who have not been able to name what is happening in their own relationships. The church teaches that the world is a broken place. We should not fall victim to seeing one state or vocation as free from the effects of sin.

  24. I have a lot of evangelical friends, and I want to add that this is not just a Catholic problem. I think “culture that values marriage as a vocation from God” plus modern American “you-can-control-everything-about-your-life” pop psychology equals something that can be quite toxic.

  25. And it’s not just wives who suffer – there is the wife raised almost totally lacking in self esteem and who reacts by attempting to drag all those around down to their level so they can be “lorded” over and ridiculed (privately) but publicly present themselves as one half of the perfect couple.

    1. Steve, you are right. What you describe sounds a bit like Borderline Personality Disorder. The person in this situation might want to read up on it.

    2. Yes! And I think wife abuse of a husband is even more ignored because people assume it doesn’t happen. Just because it isn’t physical doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
      I’ve watched friends (of both genders) get divorced who had no desire to be, but for their own mental/emotional safety and that of their children they felt they had no choice. And the one who leaves is definitely lorded over by the former spouse and the community as the bad person for quitting the marriage. Meanwhile the abuser is viewed as the victim, the “perfect” one who is the good Catholic.

  26. “Because I believe that Catholic culture creates a dangerously optimistic expectation for marriage,”
    Amen. Completely agree. Especially in more traditional Catholic circles. That’s why I like reading this blog. What does attempting to live as a Catholic in the real world look like? There’s not many places that are willing to honestly tell you. I think before the sexual revolution, Catholics saw marriage as more of a cross, and if you had a spouse like this author there was more sympathy. Now, it is somehow seen as the victims fault, that you should offer it up, that you should fix him, that you should get out – because now we are somehow supposed to be more enlightened and more free.
    “Did I despair? Am I mad at God and resent the years I gave? No. ”
    Wow! I find this inspiring. I am full of resentment at God because of my difficult marriage and I have endured much less.

  27. I hope I can say this the right way, since I think if I say it the right way it will be helpful, possibly. I understand that you want to tell women who are suffering from adulterous husbands that they could not prevent the husbands misuse of his fee will, but the reference to articles about how to affair proof your marriage might be off the mark. There must be some that are different, but the ones I have seen are directed to BOTH spouses, not just one. In fact those articles might be useful in assessing where you are in a marriage. If he absolutely does not want to do his part, you can’t do it alone, any more than a great violinist can play a duet alone, no matter how good the violinist is. A duet is for two. So we don’t want to do away with those articles, we want to understand them properly. Does that make sense?

    1. I get your point, but I think the author was saying that terms like “affair-proof” are misleading and can cause pain. I don’t have to suffer the pain of a marriage that’s any more difficult than usual, but I know articles about “sure-fire ways to pass on the faith to your children” give me a stab in the heart every time. There’s little in life I wanted more than to pass on my faith to my children, and my oldest couldn’t discard her faith fast enough. She’s young yet, and I know she may change, but boy does it HURT. And those breezy titles that make it sound so easy for faithful parents to have faithful children don’t help.

      1. Leah Joy is right…when you are suffering from a specific cross…reading things where people flippantly write “10 steps to ____” are really painful. The only people we control is ourselves. God gives everyone free will including our kids and our spouses. I think that edifying respectful suggestions about how we can do our best in life, marriage, childrearing are helpful but the idea that you can “affair proof” your marriage has no basis.

      2. My daughter tried to give me a “fireproof” book. She just does not understand. Her dad treats her better than he does me, even my dad noticed that and thought it was strange. One cannot convince those who are blind…even in the same household. The tips in such books are so trite when one is living with a narcissist.

  28. This woman has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, not even of the innocence that wouldn’t allow her to begin to imagine what her “husband” did to her. Saints like Maria Goretti earned the red crown quickly, but this faithful soul earned a kind of martyr’s laurel that nobody can wrap their heads around. I hope she realizes how powerful her wounds are, united to the wounds of Christ.

    When the Pope said that many marriages are not authentic, “faithful” (magical thinking) Catholics rained down anger and ire upon him. They can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to spend decades sitting in a confessional. When this Pope is no longer with us he will be remembered for being the Pope who went out into the most hidden ditches, even when it earned the ire of those who don’t want those ditches to be acknowledged much less found.

    The devil loves caricatures. He wants to coax even the innocent to hide behind them, because the alternative seems worse. But it’s not. It’s time to say No! to the crippling stigma of false catholic marriages.

    The beautiful reality is that someone as faithful as the woman who wrote this couldn’t be caught, twisted or dragged down because Jesus was at her side in the valley of the shadow of death. He fulfills his promises.

    1. Im her and thank you so much for your kinds words. I listened to the Popes words keenly and I agree with him. At some point, my late husband retroactively decided that he didnt want to get married when we did (trust me, he was not forced or coerced at all) thus he decided that he never gave full consent so in his mind the marriage wasnt valid and if we were never married then he wasnt really cheating. I know…completely flawed thinking, but it worked for him on business trips.

      Of course we were legally married and living as husband and wife with kids, dog, minivan. He said it so many times that he convinced me that our union wasnt sacramental and I wanted it to be so I asked him if we could have our marriage blessed and he said no, but he still made no overtures to divorce me. I made his life very comfortable and divorce would disrupt that and he knew it. Telling me that our marriage was invalid, refusing to make it valid but knowing the only way to prove its invalidity was to divorce him was a terrible spiritual abuse.

      God really was with me and He really did fulfill His promises…even learning the full ugly truth was a promise fulfilled…I begged God for the truth and when I was in a safe place to learn it, it was revealed to me. I will admit that there were times when I got grumpy with God because it was just SO HARD, but I could still see His bigger Wisdom in all of it.

      1. I am so, so sorry you were abused like that.

        Now he can see reality in the light of divine truth. What agony. May God have mercy on his poor soul.

        1. You are very right. He told himself so many lies to convince himself that I deserved everything he ever dished out. It must have been horrible when Truth was revealed to him.

          Catholic teaching has been a huge consolation to me – if I were still Evangelical and believed that because he had once ever accepted Jesus that he was instantly in Heaven with everything instantaneously forgiven or if I were Mormon and believed that we were still married – neither of those ideas would have been very comforting.

          What a gift Catholicism has been to me in this trial…I knew that God would deal with him in just the right way – with the perfect balance of justice, mercy, truth and love. In moments when I have been on my way to panic over it, I realize that it isn’t even my business any more, he belongs to God and God will handle it.

          He was bitterly cruel to me for a long long time, but I do have compassion that Evil tricked him and he took the bait hook, line and sinker…the Bible is replete with warnings about this stuff from 4000 years ago and he pridefully ignored it figuring he could game the system. I feel bad for him and I wish him healing and wholeness when he and God are done with his purgation.

          1. I have endured verbal and emotional abuse. So many others saw it before I did. There were good years, but once he went to work for himself his ego took over. I was suffering for years and did not know what was wrong, until a friend revealed it…He tried to keep her away from me. She would not listen. Then he moved us far away from her. Others in our new church saw the truth right away. my best friend and I are still friends, in spite of the distance,

            My eyes are open to the deep abuse now. I am not the same as I used to be; he does not like the new me who stands up for myself when he tears me down. I think he is trying to be better, but he has never apologized, and he has a way of making me look like “the bad spouse” to my kids- except for the one who ruined his marriage being like his dad. He sees. I get personal counseling. Can’t get couples therapy with a narcissist. I pray. I find my own happiness. I am safe…..but still grieve, wondering if I will ever know true love.

  29. YES to this all!!!!

    Thank you for posting. I had to leave a marriage where I abused verbally and sexually, seven months after marriage I found out he was a sex addict. Tried any and everything…
    Appreciate you sharing this story because in my experience I’ve come to see there are many married women who are suffering silently, feel trapped, and need resources/help.
    Thanks for this!

    1. This is the woman who wrote the post and you are welcome. My name isnt Tabitha but I really do want to stay anonymous. I am so sorry for your experience. I dont believe that sex addiction is real, I think that they are simply very very weak cheaters. I believed the stories he told me before he died, that he had a single “emotional affair” …I found photos and gifts from her he had hidden and I knew it was deeper than he admitted. I found the hotel reciepts about a year later and about a year after that I learned that he cheated all along. I say this to share that I had heard the phrase “cheaters cheat” and I didn’t believe it, I thought a person could have one affair, but since them I learned that for the most part, unrepentant cheaters cheat. I have wondered a thousand times how I would have reacted if he had told me the whole truth and asked for forgiveness. There were times in my journey when I wanted the marriage so badly, if he had seemed genuine and contrite, I would have stayed, but there were other times in the experience when I would have simply thrown him out and dumped his stuff in the yard. I believe that you did try everything and again, I believe that God blesses our efforts and faithfulness.

      1. I hope I didnt sound dismissive saying I dont believe in sex addiction…I know some people swear by the idea. I am so sorry for the pain you suffered.

  30. Thank you, sister, for posting this. There is a lot of wisdom here.

    I do not have an abusive marriage, but I grew up with parents who did. My father had a short temper. I grew up believing that 3 or 4 beers after work every night was normal. And my mother was manipulative and dishonest. My sister, brother, and I learned never to discuss our family problems with anyone so we didn’t blow the cover of our “ideal” Catholic family. We learned to lie low, keep our mouths shut, and stay out of the way. I walked on eggshells every day hoping for a quiet, peaceful day. Angry voices, nasty “conversations”, and physical abuse on both sides entered into it and was often directed to us kids. Each of my parents enabled the other’s abuse.

    You were noble to have put up with so much for so long. I think Catholics do emphasize happy, healthy marriages and families, and there is nothing wrong with trying to strive for that.

    But it might be good for anyone who finds themselves in an abusive relationship to remember that perhaps their marriage might need to be annulled. The priests who counsel such people ought to know this and recognize the symptoms, although they do not always see these things. There is no shame in an annullment. From what I understand, an annullment means the proper circumstances for the marriage never existed. I would think that someone who was so mentally and/or physically abusive such as your husband would create the possibility of an annullment situation. I will not believe that God wants us to suffer mental and physical torture with no hope of escape, especially thinking of it as a Sacrament, when a true marriage never exists.

    If not annullment, there is the alternative of leaving for the spouse’s own protection and that of any children. And perhaps a court order for protection.

    It is an absolutely dreadful situation for anyone, especially if there are children involved. Please take comfort and courage from the Catholic role models cited by the Administrator at the end of the article. I would add St. Monica, whose husband and in-laws were certainly not ideal. God bless you and anyone who has to life with an abusive home life.

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