Note: When a Christian marriage unravels, many questions rise to the surface. In this four-part series, Elisabeth Corcoran attempts to provide answers from the inside of the unraveling.

“It is impossible for me to shake you from my mind.  Everywhere I turn, everything I see, everything I hear reminds me of you.  Who am I fooling?  I love you.  I need you.”

Cut to…

”Irreconcilable differences have caused the irretrievable breakdown of their marriage. Past attempts at reconciliation have failed, and future attempts at reconciliation would be impracticable and not in the best interests of the family.”

A lot can happen in twenty years between a man and a woman. 

My situation has left many scratching their heads, and from what I can tell, a few tongues wagging as well.  And I don’t blame them. Because I love Jesus with my whole heart and I am allowing my marriage to end.  And I am here to say that both can coincide within the same person. 

I’ve held my marriage problems so close to the chest for so long – too long perhaps -- except for my inner circle and the random counselor.  But I’m now at a fresh place of stripping off the layers for more of the world to see, I feel ready to answer questions that have been asked of me, and I’m willing to do so for a more public forum. 

Oswald Chambers said, “There is no such thing as a private life, or a place to hide in this world, for a man or woman who is intimately aware of and shares in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. God divides the private life of his saints and makes it a highway for the world on one hand and for himself on the other.” So since my life is apparently not my own as a follower of Christ, I am finding that the entire point of my struggles is to share with others how I made it through with the help of Jesus. 

One woman wanted to know why I stayed in my hard marriage so long, because she doesn’t understand why God wouldn’t want me to be happy, and why I didn’t just do what was “right for me” a long time ago.

One woman wanted to know how I stayed in my hard marriage for so long, because she’s in one too, and sometimes feels like she can barely make it another day, let alone the rest of her lifetime.

And one woman wanted to know why I’m not staying in my marriage forever no matter what, because she believes there are a select few biblical reasons for divorce and she thinks my circumstances don’t fit the profile.

I have a feeling that there aren’t only three women who might like to ask these questions of any woman who calls herself a Christ-follower and is at the same time ending her marriage. I know I would. For every Christian divorce I’ve known about in the past fifteen years, I would’ve given anything to corner the wife for an hour and hear her story.  How did they get from point A to point B?, does she feel she’s doing the right thing? Can she still look God in the eye? All of that and more.

These are fair questions. And they deserve thoughtful, authentic, in-depth answers. In this four-part series, I will put forth my most honest attempts at answering them. 

Please keep in mind before I begin that I can only speak for myself and not for anyone else.  And though I love God and treasure Scripture as my personal truth source, I am not claiming that what I am about to say is God’s holy word for everyone’s situation.  Only God can deem that for you, and my hope is that he does.

Before I jump in with answering those three questions though, I’m going to give some background on my marriage so you can see where I’m coming from.

My husband and I are both followers of Christ and have been since we were teenagers.  Our courtship was rocky, filled with a lot of arguments, tears and long-distance phone calls.  I had no less than a half-dozen dear friends suggest gently that he and I weren’t good together, but I was scared and needy and stubborn. 

I loved my husband but love was not the reason I married him.  I married my husband because I was afraid that God would not provide me with the life that I longed for – a husband, home and children – if I didn’t marry the man in front of me at that time.  I didn’t think anyone else would ever love me.  I also was under the impression, growing up as a child of divorce, that two other truths were foundational.  One, arguing is part of any relationship, and lots of it; and two, it is normal to have to beg for the affection of a man.  And our relationship fit the bill.  So I moved forward into marriage, even after giving myself the once-over in the mirror, wedding gown and all, and telling myself I could still walk away. 

But I stubbornly walked that aisle on October 15, 1993, in front of family and friends and told God and my husband that no matter what, I would stay married to him for the rest of our lives.  Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea what would fall under the heading of “no matter what”.

We had one good year, maybe.  I was happy.  I felt secure.  Our fighting had practically evaporated.  I even remember telling people that the problem must’ve been the distance, because now that we were married, we almost never argued.  But that couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t.  Our honeymoon phase lasted about nine months. Then arguing ensued. And I was a yeller. I would go into rages that would leave me lying on our bed until I would sob myself to sleep. I felt controlled. I felt trapped. 

I say this only to illustrate the depth of my pain, not to garner pity, but I began praying that God would kill me because I knew I could never leave my marriage. I knew I could not get a divorce. In my mind, it wasn’t that I was choosing not to, I literally felt it was not an option of mine. I prayed for my death. Daily. 

Around the five-year mark, I began meeting with two women from church to go through a book on marriage.  It was during this time with them that I shared not only the depth of my marriage pain and the frequency of our arguments, but the knowledge that alcohol was becoming the third party in our relationship.  I thought they would be able to help me. I thought this was my answer. But as it turns out, people – through no fault of their own – do not always know how to handle this kind of thing. So I was given, repeatedly, a list of things to do to be a better wife. Pray more. Serve more. Have sex more. Cook more. Praise more. Respect more. Keep my mouth shut more. I felt patted on the head and sent back into the room after being told to try harder and keep taking on the chin whatever was being dished out, because I probably deserved it.

Maybe if I did all these things I’d become the kind of wife he wanted and needed and he’d stop drinking. That was my hope. Be the good wife, and he’ll choose me eventually. And if he doesn’t, it’s because I’m not a good enough wife. I felt that deep down for years.

More years passed of the same. Our two children grew. We were in and out of counseling (nine counselors all together). We were in and out of couples’ groups. I read practically every book on marriage ever written. I tried to do all the things I was told to do.  But the arguing continued. The drinking would stop and start. The lies would sustain me for awhile. I would cry myself to sleep more nights than I can remember.  And I died a little more each day.

This cannot possibly be what God had in mind for a Christian marriage, I would write in my journal time and again. 

I filled in the gaping holes of my emotional life by pouring myself out into raising my children, writing books, starting a speaking ministry, and beginning the women’s ministry at my church, which I would go on to lead for ten years feeling like a hypocrite all the while. My life was full. I looked the part of the fulfilled (read: busy) Christian woman, wife, mother and servant, except for my dirty little secret… that my marriage was disintegrating. I was desperately sad and lonely almost all the time, and nothing I did to fix it was working. 

Add to that, I felt trapped by my faith. I would beg God to help me and heal us, and it would feel like he wasn’t. And yet, in my heart I felt that to walk away from my marriage would be to disobey him, to fail him, to be in sin. 

A fairly standard belief in Christian circles is that there are only two biblical reasons for divorce: if your spouse is unfaithful and if your spouse is not a believer and he abandons you.

My situation did not fit those criteria. I was stuck. So I resigned myself to make the best of the next fifty years. I would stay married for the rest of my life, and I would simply try to fill up my life the best I could and serve others and change the world and raise my kids and write some books and having a good marriage is overrated anyway.

In January of 2010, I took the bull by the horns, finally tired of my own pity party, and visited a new counselor with the express purpose of working on my anger. I don’t want my children to think of me as an angry woman, I told her. I explained my life circumstances, told her they wouldn’t be changing, so I needed her to teach me to not be angry all the time. 

But that next month something changed in me through two pivotal conversations. 

The first was with that counselor who introduced me to the Power & Control Wheel, and I quickly discovered that our relationship had been largely tainted by many forms of emotional abuse. This was brand new information for me. I felt like a fool, and yet I felt free all at the same time, watching pieces fall together in a way that finally made sense to me.

The second conversation was made up of one sentence that sealed my heart’s door firmly shut, even if I didn’t notice the depth of its impact at the time. I had felt it was time to tell our pre-teen children about their father’s drinking. One, I felt they needed to know it was genetic and they should stay away from alcohol; two, they were at the age that Alateen would be available to them if they wanted to try it; and three, they needed the tools to know they could choose not to get into a car with their father if he had been drinking. When I told my husband it was time, he said that if I told the kids about his drinking, going against his wishes, he threatened me. Though he was not threatening me physically, he broke me that day.  He broke us.

If I have given the impression for even one moment that my husband was one hundred percent at fault for the brokenness we endured, I apologize. I was a broken little girl who more than likely had no business getting married in the first place and I hurt him in myriad ways every day of our marriage. I was not empathetic, I was not a support. I did not call out his dreams. I sat on the sidelines and cried and whined and criticized, more than I want to admit. Our marriage broke because we were both broken, bottomline.

In part two of this four-part series, I answer the question, “As a Christian, why did you stay so long?”

In part three I answer, "As a Christian, how did you stay in your hard marriage so long?"

In the final installment of this four-part series, I answer the question, “As a Christian, why aren’t you staying forever?”

(c) Copyright Elisabeth K. Corcoran, 2011

Elisabeth is the author of At the Corner of Broken & Love: Where God Meets Us in the Everyday; One Girl, Third World: One Woman’s Journey into Social Justice (Kindle); He Is Just That Into You: Stories of a Faithful God who Pursues, Engages, and Has No Fear of Commitment (WinePress), In Search of Calm: Renewal for a Mother’s Heart (Xulon), and Calm in My Chaos: Encouragement for a Mom’s Weary Soul (Kregel).

Visit her blog here or watch Elisabeth and her friends spread hope through Africa with Samaritan’s Purse.

Elisabeth is a proud member of the Redbud Writers’ Guild.