Start a dialogue with your spouse about your marriage by asking three key questions. During a time when you and your spouse can relax and focus on a good conversation, ask: “Are you happy?” “What do you see as our most important goal or challenge as a couple if we’re going to improve our relationship?” and “What kind of spouse and parent do you most desire to be?” Then listen without criticizing, to encourage your spouse to think more deeply about these issues.

Prepare yourself to confront your spouse. Before you confront your spouse about abusive or neglectful behavior in your marriage, prepare wisely. Develop a safety plan that details how you’ll escape and where you’ll stay if your spouse tries to hurt you. Document when, where, and how your spouse says or does something emotionally destructive to you. Copy financial records, phone records, and other documentation that proves your spouse has engaged in deceitful or illegal behaviors. If your spouse physically harms or you or your children, file a record with the police, get medical attention right away, and make sure that official photos are taken of the injuries. If your spouse damages your property, take photos to show the damage. Tell some wise and trustworthy friends or family members what has been going on in your marriage and ask them to support you when you confront your spouse. Consult with a lawyer to learn about your legal rights and liabilities should you decide to leave your spouse. Open your own bank account and credit card without your spouse, so you’ll have to access to money that your spouse can’t take away.

Confront your spouse about specific destructive behaviors you want stopped. Travel separately to meet your spouse in a public place (so you can escape to a safe place if your spouse becomes destructively angry) and clearly spell out the changes you’d like to see happen in your marriage. Don’t allow your spouse to distract you from what you’ve planned to say by pulling you into an argument. Simply tell your spouse what specific changes you want to see, as well as what specific consequences you will enforce if he or she refuses to make those changes.

Ask God to guide you as you decide whether to stay or leave. After you determine whether or not your spouse is willing to make the changes you’ve requested, stay in close contact with God through prayer as you figure out how to proceed. If your spouse is abusive and simply will not repent and change, you should leave your marriage in order to protect yourself and your children. Holding onto your marriage at all costs is dangerous and not God’s will for you; while God does hate divorce, He also hates seeing one of his beloved children (you) be destroyed by abuse. If your spouse is willing to do the hard work of making genuine changes to his or her attitudes and actions (backed up by solid evidence), pursuing healing and growth, and being accountable to others (such as a counselor and a support group), then reconciliation is possible at the right time, as God leads you.

Adapted from The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope, copyright 2013 by Leslie Vernick. Published by WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, Co.,      

Leslie Vernick is a licensed clinical social worker and relationship coach. For more than 30 years, she has helped individuals, couples, and families heal, rebuild, or grow their relationships. A popular author and speaker, she has written several books, including How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong and the bestseller The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.

Whitney Hopler, who has served as a contributing writer for many years, is author of the new Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Visit her website at: 

Publication date: September 13, 2013