Should I Leave or Should I Stay?

Hi Friends,

I’m in sunny California helping my daughter with her new baby Natalia and the other two grandbabies, Amaya and Leilani. She has her hands full with three under three years old. It’s exhausting just to be there for a few hours, but so much fun. I’m especially enjoying Amaya as she remembers us from our last visit and so our bond is growing. Today I painted her toenails and fingernails hot pink and when I was finished she said she felt like a princess.

Thanks for your responses to last week’s question I posed. In my new book I’m writing a chapter for church leaders. Pray that I can write what I need to say so that churches will hear and validate women who come to them for help.

I’m on the home stretch of writing. I have two more chapters to go plus lots of edits and footnoting. Please pray that I have some concentrated time, even while here to write.

Today’s Question: I’ve been a Christian since I was a teen, I am now 52. When my husband is mean and upset, it feels so overwhelming, I feel I could have a breakdown. He scolds me and criticizes me constantly. I try to stay composed but it takes so much emotional energy to listen to him and take it again and again. I’ve told him numerous times in our 24 year marriage about how he’s hurting me but it keeps happening again and again.

I’m afraid of him. I wanted to leave him once, but he said he would kill himself, so I didn’t leave, but I’m getting to the breaking point. I’m exhausted from having to deal with his mean words. He swears at me and looks at me with hatred when he’s angry. We’ve tried counseling but he refused to continue.

I wonder if the only solution (besides praying and getting godly counsel) is to leave? I’ve talked with our Pastor numerous times. He believes me, but he doesn’t think I should leave. However, nothing changes.

My husband is always sorry later after he is mean and promises to be different, but it doesn’t’ last. I’m scared that leaving him will cause my family to fall apart, but maybe it has kind of fallen apart anyway. I’ve tried to be nice, but I just can’t accommodate my husband the way he wants me to. He wants me to pay lots of attention to him, but even when I do that, he still is mean if I made some kind of mistake like not having dinner ready on time when he gets home from work.

Its very hard to be affectionate with someone who’s been so harsh with home, and then he gets in a rage when I don’t want to be affectionate with him. People tried telling me before we got married that he was abusive but I just didn’t see it then.

I know God will help me, but if I stay with my husband, I’ll continue to be bullied. There is no way to escape. He doesn’t’ care even when I ask him to stop or when I tell him he’s being mean. It feels so painful, so sad and I feel ripped apart. I’m also tired of what I’m living with and I think I’m getting ready for some changes.

Do you think I can leave even when my pastor advises me against it?

Answer: This question is actually the blend of two different people’s questions. One has to do with the reality of the abusive situation this woman finds herself in and the second question is from a different reader who wonders why women allow their pastors to have the final word as to whether or not they should leave an abusive marriage.

I want to address both concerns because I think these dilemmas are so common for many women in abusive marriages.

First, should you leave your husband? From what you wrote, I think you are already leaning in that direction, for good reasons. However it is important for you to realize (as well as those of us who are concerned about you and others in your situation) that no one can tell you with absolute certainty that you must leave this situation or for that matter, that you should stay.

It’s tempting for those of us who are people helpers (pastors, professional and lay counselors and marriage mentors) to step in here and advise you what to do). We want to help, we care, we’re afraid for you, or want to remain true to the scriptures so we all have our opinion on what’s best for you.

However, only you can make that decision. In fact, in order for you to grow up and get healthy, you must make that decision for yourself. You’ve been used to having your husband make all the decisions and you doing what he wants (or suffer his wrath). If you just “do” what the pastor or counselor wants you to do, you are still not taking responsibility for your decision or taking the necessary steps to decide what God is saying to you about your particular situation.

I believe each person should pray, consult with others as well as consider the risks and the consequences of staying or leaving. In other words, what will it cost you and your children (emotionally, spiritually, relationally, mentally, and physically) to stay and what it will cost you to leave? Leaving may be warranted but it is not without perils and suffering. Staying has a high price too.

You are suffering. You see your children hurting and growing up under the mindset that men get to be mean and treat women disrespectfully and abusively if they are angry and don’t get their own way. Since you have sons, this is very worrisome indeed and you’re concerned even now how your oldest son is treating you. Research on abusive men show that many of them grew up in abusive households watching their father abuse their mother.  As little boys they didn’t like it. But as grown men they see it as normal.

It also sounds like you’ve tried talking and telling (your pastor) with no change or movement in your husband. You’re right to realize that leaving will create a crisis for your husband. He might wake up and realize that if he wants his family to stay, he will need to make some major changes. Or he might do something harmful to himself. You, your children, and your husband are the ones who will live out the consequences of your choices whether you stay or whether you leave. Therefore, I don’t think it’s wise to give another person the power to make that choice for you.

Friends, how have you handled that dilemma of not knowing whether to stay or to leave?


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  1. Pat on November 6, 2012 at 3:21 am

    Thank you for your book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship. I read it over and over for two years before finally leaving my emotionally abusive marriage.
    I knew I was allowing him to manipulate me through circumstances, lies and emotions. Broken promises were the rule not the exception. Our marriage was void of intimacy and relationship, but I found out he wanted it that way.
    As far as the church goes: I had no support from my pastor. I found out other women before me had the same experience with him. Our church had plenty of ex-husbands but no ex-wives.
    There was a cost involved in leaving him. It was a hard decision to make and I still struggle with many things, but God has shown me from the very beginning that He would be my Provider. One thing I know for sure: God will never treat me the way the men in my life have!

    • Leslie Vernick on November 6, 2012 at 4:41 am

      Your experience is not unique but makes me so sad. I hope that my new book will help women but also educate pastors and church leaders.

  2. Bec on November 8, 2012 at 1:33 am

    I’m so sorry for what you are going through. I’ll share how I came to my decision. My husband was not outwardly verbally abusive, but he was manipulative and was also living with secrets that effected me emotionally throughout our marriage. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.

    I have just recently separated from my husband. It took me several months to come to grips with the seriousness of the things my husband was involved in. After much reading and sharing with many counselors, I was able to accept and believe that what my body and my gut was telling me was the truth and what came out of my husband’s mouth was a lie. I read a book called, “An Affair of the Mind” by Laurie Hall, and it helped me know how to think properly and to find all I needed in the Lord. In her struggle, she dove into the Bible for hours daily, fasted and continued to yeild and trust in the Lord to reveal the secrets that were undermining her marriage. I started doing the same things that she shared.

    God was the one who knew the truth and He would reveal it to me on His time. So I started pursuing Him, what He wanted me to do. I begged Him every day to show me what to do. And every day He nudged me toward separation. I felt peace knowing that He wouldn’t let me make a choice He didn’t want me to if I was soft to His leading. It was unreal how many times while driving a radio program on Focus on the Family or some preaching would hit perfectly on one part of my struggle either solidifying what I was thinking and grappling with or hitting me between the eyes with something I didn’t want to hear.

    It soon became evident to me that if I stayed I was in disobedience to God after everything He showed me, the sleepless nights of gut wrenching realizations of my reality, the “coincidental” articles, books and sermons that came my way, and the host of counselors that did not contradict each other. etc.. I begged God to stop me if it wasn’t what He wanted. And He never did. I don’t know what the future holds, and I have a lot of pressure to go back, etc. I’m scared that my husband will fake repentance, I’m terrified of going back and then finding out more lies in 10 years. But I have to constantly lean on God knowing that He will help me and guide me. I am reading Leslie’s book now and I see more clearly the level of manipulation that I endured and still fight in my mind.

    Digging into the Word, telling myself the Truth, continually drawing on Him for strength, praying Colossians 1:9-12 for myself daily and desiring above all to please the Lord with my life, etc. He will show you, He will be clear. And He will help you do what He asks you to do.

    You will find your strength to stand up from Him! He is faithful!!

    • Heila on November 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm

      Oh my goodness, this is so, so good. It describes so well the “struggle that is freedom!” It’s as simple and complex as described — clinging with all our might-and-main to *what is good*. Asking, seeking, knocking, reading (the Bible), with open (but wise) hearts and minds. Relying only and ALL on God – who is the only One ultimately completely trustworthy and loving and will never leave us or forsake us. Ever! This is TRUE. Step. by step.

    • Kase on November 1, 2022 at 12:01 am

      I know this answer was 10 years ago, but what you said really spoke to me because it’s where I am currently. Trying desperately to hear from God so that I know leaving is okay. 😭 I went into the wilderness where I was alone and I started praying and crying. I cried out “Lord speak to me!” And the instant the words left my mouth, a strong and very loud wind picked up and roared around me! It shook the trees and moved the water and it was so loud! And then it stopped! I continued praying and eventually said it again- and the exact same thing happened! I cried more, in awe of His presence. Later I cried out again and the instant the words left my mouth the same thing happened!!!! This time I threw myself on the ground, just in wonder and awe that God would speak (in His way, not mine) so clearly! It changed my life. I wanted him to speak with words, but he showed me He loves me and listens. 🤍

  3. Wendy on November 8, 2012 at 2:10 am

    I found this to be true for my situation.I strugled with the thought that It would distroy my family if I left and I stayed way to long.I believe that God can heal but I was thinking only of my husband. When i came to my breaking point emotionaly and chose to ask my husband to leave I then looked in the mirrior.I realized I was the one in need of healing.When I began taking one day at a time and begging God to show me what I needed to see, my heart and mind began to come alive.I felt so guilty for asking my husbannd to leave that I now was somehow the wrong one. But God in his most beautiful way began to ask me to trust him. This as you know is very hard when you feel you can trust no one.Every day he would whisper to me in his way wendy you are so loved and one day at a time turned into months and months into a heart that knows she is so loved by her savior. If we choose to leave but we also choose to heal and give God our heats he will help us see what we should do next.Our children will also see mom choosing to become christ like and joyfull once again and this IS what they need.Every day I doubt myself but every single day God has been there to show me that he sees it all he knows how much I loved my husband and how hurt and broken I have become because the man that was to cleave to me in love Beat me down with lies. God can heal us but I think trusting him to be our husbands if we choose to leave is hard. I pray for my husband every day to heal but I wait for God to give him back to me or not. We dont like to be stuck in the gray area thats how it feels to me, but God truly asked me to lay down in his arms and trust he is faithful.He has not revield to me what I should do for sure but he has filled my heart with forgivness and hope. It was hard to trust and scary but o so worth the faith it took to run to him.

  4. Wendy on November 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Your testimony is so beautiful.Thank you for sharing you have encouraged my heart today.

    • Heila on November 10, 2012 at 6:49 pm

      Yes, wonderful! And something else that might be encouraging: I took similar steps with my husband, and eventually he did turn hard to God himself. He was angry, hurt and confused at first; we went through a hard, cold, painful-at-times (but hopeful & empowering actually, for me) gray, grey area — he got some good counseling, we had many tough but growing conversations. It’s now been about a year and a half and we still have moments when we have to go through “how it used to be, and how it’s now (for the better) not.” But. I love him more than ever — Ever! And he, me. Healing is possible in both parties. I’m not saying this is how the exact end result should or will look for everybody — just that it IS possible for the men to have realizations and change too. Which I wasn’t sure of at all, at one point. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. God IS faithful and loves us and will not leave us miserable.

  5. Amy on November 11, 2012 at 12:23 am

    Very well said, Bec.
    I was in an emotionally destructive marriage for twenty years. My ex-husband left me and our two sons four years ago and although he initially left, he did try to come back home a few months later. But I soon discovered his wanting to come home was because of a few men from the church we had attended at that time telling him that the husband’s place was head of his home and he needed to go back.
    He did end up living back in our home for almost two months and during that time slept on the couch and basically stepped up his verbal and mental abuse to me and our sons. My sons and I pretty lived in our bedrooms as we did not want to be around my ex.

    A couple years before my ex walked out I felt a strong leading from the Lord to leave my marriage. The message was always very clear, yet I remained frightened and unsure of myself so I stayed. I did seek counseling, read numerous marriage books and tried all that I could think of to change myself, so hopefully he would change.
    That was the message I heard over and over from other Christians when I sought help, but the first person to help me see that him changing was his responsibility was my Christian counselor.

    When my ex-husband initially left I placed my focus solely on the Lord and His Word and tried to tune out the advice from those around me. And for once in my life there was a tremendous burden lifted off of my shoulders and I felt like a prisoner who had been set free.

    It took me weeks to get my ex to leave once he came back and he became even more verbally abusive towards me at that time. I knew that he had no intentions of changing and only wanted to blame me, so with much prayer and the support of my counselor and couple close friends and family, I firmly said it was over and I would not go back to a marriage like that ever again. He packed up and left the home for good, although he stayed in the area.

    I filed for divorce almost a year later…why not sooner? Again because of fear that I would not be able to stand up to him through that process, but step by step with the Lord’s help I gained courage and a feeling of self worth which had been slowly eroding over the years, and stood firm in what I knew to be true…he was abusive and not showing a real change, if any.

    I am now remarried and have a healthy marriage. I do believe that God can change any person, but I also know that the person has to be willing to go through the change. My ex wasn’t and I finally had to stop living the lie I had been fed, that if I changed enough than so would he. Until a person takes responsibility for themselves and their actions and is willing to be held accountable, there cannot be a true lasting change.

    Heila, yours is an encouraging story and I pray that more troubled marriages find the happy ending that yours did.

  6. Ellen on November 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    I would like to share with everyone how I have handled the situation.  My husband and I have been married for 34 years, most of them very rocky.  We have 5 children, two of them from his previous marriage.  Twice we have parted ways both times with disastrous consequences.  

    The first time I filed a restraining order on him and we were separated for about 9 months.  During that time he worked very hard to turn the children against me and he also got tangled up in a bad business partnership of which we are still paying the price for to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Somehow we got back together and decided to work things out but the cycles of misery continued.  The physical violence stopped but the verbal and emotional was still there and very confusing and hard to figure out (for me).  The church counseling was a complete disaster.  My husband used any advice that was given to me against me.  The pastor once confided in a friend the he “just didn’t see it” (meaning the abuse).  My husband can be very charming to those outside the marriage… As Leslie explains in her book, marriage counseling with abusive partners is not a good idea.  Unfortunately,  our church didn’t get that and the premise underneath the counseling was that if I would just not do this than he will not do that…  I felt SO betrayed by my church and the Lord that I regrettably turned my back on all of it.  After many years, God in his tender mercy drew me back to him and the church, I am happy to report.

    The second time we parted ways I told him to leave when I found out that he was Internet dating.  When I found out and questioned him he would not admit to anything until I presented him with the truth.  In the typical fashion of destructive relationships, he begged me to forgive him and sent me flowers.  This time I resisted and told him to go get help and counseling.  My husband and the Christian counselor wanted for us to all meet together.  I refused knowing how that would all turn out.  I met with the counselor privately and reported the long list of troubles and behaviors that I couldn’t live with any longer.  I was betrayed AGAIN by a “Christian” who was ignorant.  The counselor proceeded to read to my husband verbatim everything I told him when my husband came in for his session.  TMI :). My husband flipped out and never went back for more counseling.   He dated and had an affair!   

    During this time I stumbled upon some material from I read all their material and learned how I could reverse my own codependent ways.  I learned about attachment theory.  I learned about the destructive dance that narcissists and codependants engage in.  Sadly the church is lagging behind in helping couples trapped in this generational cycle of abuse.  I would love to see someone transfer the work that this couple at narcissism cured have put together to make it more palatable To the Christian community.  It’s too much to continue the story here but we are back together to the surprise of all our friends and family.  Now when the patterns of disfunction start in our relationship, I know how to break them and stop it dead in its tracks.  We are doing well for the first time in 34 years!  

    Yes, leaving your partner has its consequences.  I know that very well.  Staying and continuing the destructive dance is also hard.  There are no easy answers for anybody.  All I can say is I am very thankful for where we are today and what I learned about myself in the process.  
    Thank you Leslie for speaking up and speaking out about the work that needs to be done in our Christian community to help women (and some men) trapped in abusive relationships.  You are a gift.  

  7. Wendy on November 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    This is in response to your question leslie about what church leadership can do to help. I would say to you first thank you for asking!
    I have been a member of a baptist church all my life so I do understand that some issues are very hard to address, however, they must be. As i wright this I am reminded that it took me 20 years before i could addmit the truth of what was happening to my own family so I must be careful as I judge.I believe that we as abused women know that we just cant trust our hearts to any one. i belived that my pastor did not have the wisdom I needed and I was right.I believe that sin in Marriage is just not addressed. There are work shops on how to have a great marriage and people will show up. If you say we are going to deal with abuse in marriage I dont think you will have a great turn out. The church does not allow us to say the word sexual addiction or physical and emotional abuse.So we commply and sit quietly so all can feel safe and happy.
    For me if just one woman in leadership would have been willing to stand up and say, If there is a woman dealing with sin in her marraige please come and talk with me we will find you help it would have maybe saved my marraige.
    I am fouty five year old woman and i lived with a hurtful man who took me to church and sat next to me to worship the Lord. I covered it up so I would be excepted.How sad it is that the place God created for me to bring my sin to heal and get streangth from my Sisters in christ was the one place I had to pretend the most.
    This issue is very close to my heart, I have watched my best freind suffer for years because the church would not let her leave! her friend took her own life because she was asked to not divorce a very ugly man. My heart is just breaking as I wright this. At her funeral the pastor addmited to me that he felt he let her down in counseling.
    I believe that pastors are fearful to speek of seperation or divorce as well they should be. There are many who are leaving marriages for stupid selfish reasons they are not willing to work and give of themselves or try to be Godly. BUT there are those of us who are willing to do whatever God would have us do to save the marriage and that may mean seperation for a time or divorce.
    We need leadership that is not afraid of the truth. men who will stand up for what is Godly and call it what it is.
    If the church would prepare to help women in abusive situations like helping them find a counsler and not making us feel that counsling outside the church is bad. They could call and check on us or pray with us. But most of all support us and help us see it is not our fault.Are we so prideful to think that this could not happen in my church, or if I let one woman leave they all might ha ha sorry I just had to say it. Its like there is this unsaid rule in church, as long as your sin does not make me feel uncomfortable lets get together and talk. The truth is for some of us its not just uncomfortable it leaves marks.
    Thank you again leslie you may be saving a life today.
    P.S I now attend a great church that loves me and will help me through anything it is truly the most beautiful thing i have ever seen.

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