In some Christian circles, divorce is expressly forbidden unless the parties are seeking divorce only for adultery or abandonment. The reason for this is because those two reasons are the only ones specifically mentioned in Scripture. Unfortunately, this is a very short-sighted and legalistic point of view. Jesus would have chastised the people who hold to this view in the same way He chastised the Pharisees throughout the Gospels.
So, in reality, is emotional abuse Biblical grounds for divorce? In cases of true emotional abuse, absolutely yes! If someone claims to be emotionally abused because they are distressed due to not getting along with their spouse, they would be hard pressed to prove emotional abuse. But if they are truly emotionally abused (publicly shamed or deceived, controlled, manipulated, punished, demeaned, gaslighted, threatened, or frightened on a regular basis over a significant period of time), then yes, you not only have biblical grounds for divorce, you should separate yourself for the sake of your own safety.
Let’s take a closer look at all of the details.
Table of Contents
When Emotional Abuse isn’t Abuse
There are times when emotionally abusive behavior isn’t really abusive in the sense of diagnosable or grounds for separation or divorce. The biggest reason for this would be the occasional bad behavior. We all do things wrong. We all do unkind things to our partners, children, siblings, parents, etc.
We are sinners. So, if someone sins against us on a particular occasion, it certainly needs to be addressed and dealt with. But it doesn’t cross the line into abusive behavior if it is not part of a pattern of cruel or bad behavior. This is especially true if the person who treated you poorly repents and does not do that particular or similar thing to you again.
Here are some examples of bad behavior that don’t constitute emotional abuse:
- When someone who is passionate about something that you countered momentarily loses control of their temper and argues in line with their passion. Was it wrong for them to lose their temper. Of course! But did they do it because they felt attacked with regard to the thing they felt deep feelings for? The difference between emotional abuse and not is what happens after the bad behavior. If the person apologizes, repents AND doesn’t do it again, then it is not emotional abuse. Just an imperfect person.
- Getting yourself to safety because you are being abused in any way (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially, sexually, or any other way) is not emotional abuse toward the person you are leaving. Them blaming you for getting to safety in emotionally abusive. It is gaslighting, blame shifting, and projecting all rolled up in one emotionally abusive package.
- It is not wrong for people to speak their mind to you, even if it offends you. They were speaking to you from their heart. Whether they were right or wrong, it is what they were legitimately feeling. And the ball then goes to your court to handle it as best you can. It is your responsibility to let them know you were offended. But neither side was abusive if both sides are speaking from their hearts.
- Raising your voice to someone is not emotionally abusive–if it is an isolated incident. We all lose our cool every once in a while. This goes back to the original emotional abuse criteria as being a pattern and not an isolated behavior.
By now, you are probably getting a pretty good idea of what constitutes emotional abuse and why the same behaviors can be considered abusive or not abusive depending on the circumstances surrounding them.
At What Point Emotional Abuse Becomes Biblical Grounds for Divorce
I have already briefly touched on what constitutes emotional abuse, but I would like to make sure there is as little doubt as possible regarding this point.
Emotional abuse that continues as a regular pattern of behavior and is not admitted to or repented of is an ongoing problem that makes it impossible to live in fellowship with your spouse. And it is biblical grounds for divorce because you cannot live under such oppression indefinitely with no resolution.
If you feel as though you, your children, or anyone else in the household or site of abuse is physically unsafe, remove yourself immediately. If this is the case, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Or you can visit online at thehotline.org.
Bad behavior will always exist in any and all relationships you have. But if it starts out being a rare occurrence and over time becomes more frequent until it is a regular occurrence, then you are at the point that the emotional abuse has become biblical grounds for divorce. This can happen as you react minimally to bad behavior and your partner mistakes this mercy for acceptance. In the best scenario, the offender will realize the error of their ways and truly repent, restoring the relationship. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Or even happen often.
*Here are a couple of related articles you may be interested in:
When Emotional Abuse is not Considered True Abuse by the Church
There are many churches that don’t understand emotional abuse for what it is. In spite of the information available today regarding different forms of abuse, there is still a school of thought that believes the only type of abuse that is considered legit is physical or sexual abuse, maybe because it is easier to see and prove.
What proponents of this view don’t realize is that emotional abuse often leaves worse and harder to heal scars than physical abuse. The reason for this is that the abuse can go on for years with no recognition or resolution. So much unseen damage can be done that healing will be a long, difficult road. And when the church refuses to recognize it and protect the victim, it further abuses and blames the victim.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of what emotional abuse actually is:
- Publicly shamed or ridiculed for things you said or did. (A covert abuser will not do this–that doesn’t mean they aren’t abusive because they are more careful about who sees the abuse; it just means they know what they are doing.)
- Deceived about things to make you look unintelligent or out of the loop (for example, erasing emails about upcoming events before you can see them, showing up to the event without you, then telling people there that they have no idea why you didn’t show up without saying anything).
- Controlling what you say and do, saying they can’t trust you to depend on your own judgment because you aren’t able to make good decisions on your own.
- Manipulated–forcing you to do things that you don’t want to do or aren’t comfortable doing.
- Punished when you don’t do what they want you to do.
- Demeaned and made to feel as though you are worthless and/or stupid.
- Gaslighted–saying and doing things to you to make you feel like something is wrong with you or you are crazy. The gaslighting can go so far as to convince others that you are mentally or physically ill, which gives more support to the abuser and encourages the abuser to continue to abuse and gaslight.
- Threatened when they realize you are no longer on board with what they want you to do. This is usually behind closed doors so you are unable to convince others of what is really going on.
- Frightened into compliance because you don’t know what they will do if you make them unhappy.
The problem with these behaviors is that the abuser often builds a reputation in the church as a wonderful pillar of society. You don’t have a chance against the sparkling clean reputation they have built. They know the lingo of the church and use it well. They volunteer at everything they can so they look like the perfect servant, willing to give the shirt off their back. They speak with such empathy and love to the people at church they need to impress. And they will tell people behind your back that they are so concerned about your wellbeing and plead for prayer for you as they do their best to care for you.
The church can be so blinded by the public acts of a private abuser that they end up encouraging the abuse instead of helping the victim. For more on this, click on my article here.
Hear From a Man Who Used to Belief Abuse did not Have Biblical Grounds for Divorce
You have to check out this video I found while researching for my website. Dr. David Clarke, after extensive study, changed his mind from saying a woman or man who is being abused had a Biblical right to separate to saying that they actually had the right to get a divorce in the case of chronic abuse. It is encouraging to me as I see more and more churches begin to see things more clearly.
I love how he acknowledges that the people telling you that you don’t have biblical grounds to divorce because of emotional abuse have never experienced emotional abuse themselves and cannot understand the destruction that it causes. And I love the biblical examples he gave where God protected people that were abused in various ways.
Know That the Bible Speaks Extensively About Emotional Abuse, its Effects, and Who Abuses Others
The Bible doesn’t speak directly about details of emotional abuse in marriage. But it does talk about abandonment. And it talks about various types of abuse and people to avoid at all costs when they treat you in evil ways. That would include the person you are married to or in relationship with if they fit the description of an abuser. Let’s take a closer look so it makes more sense.
What the Bible Says About Divorce in Cases of Abandonment
1 Corinthians 7:14-15 says, “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”
While this passage speaks to the unbeliever, it does not eliminate the fact that someone can profess to be a believer and then abandon their family. This would negate the profession of faith when someone behaves as an unbeliever. There are tons of Scriptures that confirm this. Let’s take a look at a couple of them:
- 1 John 3:8-10 “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
- 1 John 1:8-10 “ If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
- Romans 16:17-18 “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites,[a] and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
Romans 16:17 says to avoid these types of people. And 2 Timothy 3:1-5 gets even more specific about the evil behaviors of professing Christians and what to do about it. It says, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
If you are to avoid professing believers who are behaving in non-believing ways, how would it be different for a victim of an abusive spouse? They may profess to be a Christian in public while they are anything but Christian behind closed doors.
I know that there are many people out there that believe God hates divorce. But the truth is God hates abuse more than He hates divorce. He does indeed hate that marriages get to the point that divorce becomes necessary. But He would never expect someone to live in an abusive or dangerous situation for the sake of keeping a marriage that is no longer a marriage from moving into divorce.
Emotional Abuse is Often Worse Than Physical Abuse, Making Biblical Grounds for Divorce Justified
I am pretty sure that people who refuse to see emotional abuse as just as significant as physical or sexual abuse do so because they don’t understand the severity of emotional abuse. Unfortunately, while they mean well, they are in reality re-abusing the victim by refusing to acknowledge their reality or do anything to help stop the abuse. As the abuser sees they can get away with it, the church’s reaction actually validates the abuser’s continued abuse.
Here are some of the things that are said when an abuse victim begins to ask for help:
- If you work to improve your part of the marriage, he will follow your lead.
- It cannot be as bad as you’re making it sound.
- Divorce is not an option. You are called to suffer for Jesus.
- God hates divorce.
- I can’t believe that ____ could do such things to you. They have always been so nice and kind around me.
- You have to stay together for the sake of your children.
- You have to submit to your husband (or on the flip side, you have to please your wife).
This is exactly why victims of emotional abuse stay silent for so long. First, it takes them a long time, sometimes decades, to figure out the subtleties of the abuse they suffer. Then, they fear going public because they see the public persona their abuser has created and they know it will be an uphill battle getting others to see the truth to help them out of the abuse.
I have a few articles that may help you further process this issue. Check them out by clicking on the ones relevant to your situation:
If you are someone who is experiencing this and getting little to no support from people you have sought help from, find another church, another counselor, new friends, a support group, or whatever you need to get someone to believe you. Do not try to force people to believe you. It won’t be worth it. But do know that you cannot stay in a severely emotional abusive situation and be an emotionally healthy person.
The very first book my counselor recommended to me when I first went to counseling was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to be Spiritually Mature While Remaining Emotionally Immature by Peter Scazzaro. At the time, I thought I was fine emotionally. I felt fine! I had no idea that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And this book changed my emotional life and strength forever and for every relationship! This is my third highest recommended book because of the positive impact it had on my life. You need to check it out here:
The mere thought of divorce is a scary and terrible thing. When thinking about divorce because of emotional abuse is scary on steroids. As trapped as most victims feel, it can feel impossible to be able to emerge and become a whole person. Adding the thought that maybe God won’t approve makes the whole process even more intolerable. But God does not disapprove of a divorce when abuse of any kind is involved. And for those who argue that God didn’t specifically say emotionally abused people (or physically abused people for that matter) have grounds for divorce, I would say two things: first, maybe He didn’t say it specifically because it was so obvious it didn’t need to be said, and second, He also didn’t specifically say attempted murder is grounds for divorce. Would God have someone stay “happily married and serving” the person that tried to kill them?
Have you experienced severe emotional abuse and didn’t know where to turn or who to trust? Or maybe you found great support? I would love to hear your story, and I know my other readers would like to hear your experience as they are trying to make sense of their own experiences. Please feel free to comment in the space below! If you are not safe to comment, change your user name to prevent being identified! Or contact me privately here.
Hugs and love to you,