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Should I Marry (Or Stay Married To) An Abusive Person?

  • Joe Beam President, Marriage Helper
  • 2012 30 Nov
Should I Marry (Or Stay Married To) An Abusive Person?

It may be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Whatever the type of abuse, it eventually destroys the abused and, ultimately, the abuser.

The problem came to national attention again. ESPN reported, “U.S. women's soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo and former NFL tight end Jerramy Stevens were married Tuesday, according to reports, after an altercation that left Stevens in jail and their wedding plans up in the air…Stevens [had been] arrested early Monday for fourth-degree domestic violence assault [against Solo].” When police found Solo wounded and blood on Stevens’ shirt, they arrested him. The next day a judge released Stevens for lack of evidence connecting him with the assault. Apparently, Solo did not press charges. Later the same day, she married Stevens.

Only their athletic reputations made this event newsworthy. It certainly is not unique. Many marry a person who abuses them physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.

Why would a person marry someone who treats them badly?

Why would anyone stay married to a person who continues to hurt her or him?

Why Are They In The Relationship?

Providing all the potential answers to this question would take a book. Maybe volumes. However, among the more common reasons are:

Unrealistic Expectations Wrapped In Emotional Involvement

When a person feels loved by and feels love for another, logic often plays little to no role in their relationship.

The clearest example exists in love-struck teens. Try explaining the self-centeredness of your daughter’s current crush. She will perceive you as the enemy and romanticize him as her tragically misunderstood knight.

In similar fashion, even when an abused person cries out her pain, if she loves the abuser she likely will rush to his defense the moment you appear to say anything negative about him. Why? Typically because he does not always abuse. More often than not, she enjoys being with him and the way he makes her feel. Therefore, when he abuses her physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually, or any other way, she brushes her pain onto a mental painting of what she feels is his true self. Believing that at heart he is not a bad man, and bolstered by the times they spend together that fulfill her, she places her hope in a change that she trusts will come.

Some eventually realize their hope is only a wish that never reaches reality and remove themselves from the abusive relationship. Others remain for years, hoping against hope that eventually the change will occur. A few resign themselves to hopelessness and choose to live in their pain rather than take action against it.

The abuser commits his acts because of his own pain and confusion. The abused spouse cannot heal him. Loving and understanding him is admirable. Continuing to live in the abuse is emotional suicide. Allowing him to continue the abuse eventually destroys the good within him and the essence of life within her. Her best hope for saving them both is to remove herself from his presence and influence until he gets the help he needs and changes his behavior. If he does not, she at least can save herself – and her children, if there are any – even if he never makes the changes to save himself.

True love compels her to force him to change or admit he never will. A love that allows him to continue their mutual destruction may seem noble, but in reality lacks the most important element of true love, the courage to do what is best for all involved.

Difficulty of Termination

Michael Johnson, PhD, published insightful research into why people stay in a relationship. He divided reasons into want to stay, ought to stay, and have to stay. He called that last category a structural reason; a person feels he has to stay in a relationship for reasons other than feeling he wants to or ought to. Johnson describes four structural reasons that people stay. They include things a person invested in the relationship that will be lost if the relationship ends, anticipated negative reactions from people he cares about, and a lack of attractive alternatives to the current relationship. The other he calls difficulty of termination. The more difficult the termination is to accomplish, based on the resources available and the strength he has to approach the effort, the more likely the person will feel he has to stay in the current relationship.

As one man said to me, “I worked all my life to build up my net worth. She rips into me regularly, demeaning and embarrassing me, and seems to reserve her worst until we are in public. In private, she adds kicks, scratches, and punches. As much as I hate living with her, I give up half of everything I’ve ever worked for if I end this torment.”

Another fellow told me that he feared his wife might ambush him, maiming or killing him, if he were to leave her.

Yet another confessed that his wife had so isolated him from his family and others, and controlled every part of his life, to the point he feared he no longer knew how to make his own way if she were not directing him.

Though all those situations involve fear of negative consequences, I urged each to consider that facing short, intense pain is far better than living in long and enduring pain. Those who stay in an abusive relationship because of the difficulty of resolving or leaving will one day realize that they could have rescued their lives if only they had summoned the courage to act.

Religious Beliefs

Several years ago, I listened to a sad woman’s story of terrible physical abuse by her husband. She said that every time he became intoxicated he tried to kill her.

He became intoxicated every weekend.

She said that the previous Friday her drunken husband tried to force her face into a lit burner on their gas stove. Her teenaged son stumbled onto the scene and would have beaten his father to death had she not dragged him away.

When I asked her why she continued to live with him, she replied that the elders of her church insisted that she must. They believed that because he had not committed adultery, she had no right to leave him. I suggested that she insist they live with him for a few weeks to see if that might change their view.

On another occasion, a young man who suffered emotional abuse from his fiancé felt that he had to marry her because they had already been together sexually. He informed me that they justified their premarital lovemaking with their Christian beliefs by saying to each other that they were already married in the eyes of God. As their engagement proceeded, she gradually became verbally contemptuous and emotionally controlling. Privately, her friends informed him that he now witnessed her true nature that she hid in their earlier courtship.

I informed him that the best time to get a divorce is before they get married. He said that because of his religious beliefs his sexual interactions with her required him to marry her.

God hates divorce. He wants marriages to succeed. However, God called us to life, not death – emotional, physical, or spiritual – at the hands of a person who is supposed to love us. Dying for one’s faith makes him a martyr. Dying to make one’s fellow church members happy is a sad case of the blind following the blind.


During a call-in radio program, a woman told me that because her boyfriend was too good to her she did not know if she could continue in a relationship with him. I asked if she felt she did not deserve noble treatment. Slowly, she revealed her feelings about herself. His attention and care bothered her because she believed herself unworthy of that kind of love.

The fast pace of radio precludes in-depth probing. Therefore, I could not ask the questions that she needed to answer for herself. Instead, I solicited her promise that she would make an appointment with a therapist. If we had been in a different setting, I would have explored the cause of her feelings of unworthiness with several questions.

Did those who should have given her love as a child instead lead her to believe herself unlovable? For example, had she suffered sexual or physical abuse? Had she been emotionally abused, either by the things said to her, or by neglect and disrespect?

Did early boyfriends control or dominate her? Did she learn to believe she should be submissive and allow him to dominate?

Had she done things for which she now felt guilt and shame? Did she feel she deserved punishment?

I hope her therapist helped her discover the origins of her misguided view of self, and then assisted her correcting such terribly destructive thinking. She would protest humiliating or painful physical or emotional treatment of the most reprehensible criminal. Why, then, should she think that she deserves such behavior, no matter what she has done, or because of what others have done to her?

What Should They Do?

A person in relationship with an abusive person should NOT marry her unless she first gets the right help and overcomes her unacceptable behaviors. It is foolish to marry a person with the thought that she will change later. If she will not change before the marriage, she will not change after the marriage. Those who think differently learn a hard lesson of life. Their dreams eventually evolve into nightmares.

A person married to an abuser should muster the courage to demand that she change. If she refuses to get the right help and completely cease the unacceptable behaviors, he should no longer live with her. Continuing in the marriage under the current conditions destroys both the abuser and the abused. True love demands action to rescue all involved from the abusive behavior.

Sometimes the abusive person fails to understand the inappropriateness of her behavior. She perceives the protests of her spouse as invalid and overreaction. When that occurs, the spouse who feels abused should involve others who can help open the abuser’s eyes to the consequences of her behavior. Seeking the services of a good counselor, wise friends, or truly spiritual pastors can assist tremendously. If that fails, or for more intense and focused help, enroll in an intensive marriage weekend that includes a strong component on control and domination. In our intense three-day marriage workshop, we focus on several key areas, including helping controlling and dominating people recognize their behaviors, realize the consequences, and change their actions.

Joe Beam founded Marriage Helper, an organization that provides marriage help to hurting couples. For more information on getting help for your marriage, click here.

Publication date: November 30, 2012