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Question 30: How should a wife conduct a separation from her violent husband?

Fred and I are both Catholic. He was a college classmate; we married just after graduation two years ago. Now I am twenty-four. We have one child, a boy nine months. I have a decent job, and my mother cares for the baby while I work. Fred settled for a job doing technical support with a computer software company. The work is below his abilities and bores him, but he does not have enough ambition to look for something more challenging. He is very good at certain computer games in which two players compete; every weekend he plays these games with anyone willing to gamble. Even giving a handicap, he usually wins and his average weekend winnings are over a hundred dollars.

Fred does not drink much and never gets drunk, but he does have a terrible temper. I knew that when we married, because during our college days he often got into fights. Yet he has many good qualities, and he never turned his temper on me until after we married. Serious quarreling began while I was pregnant and has gotten steadily worse. During the last six months he has been hitting me; this usually happens on weekends, especially when he has not done well at his computer games. He comes home in a bad mood, has one drink, and gets very nasty. Afterwards, he is remorseful and promises never to do it again.

A deacon at our parish does marriage counseling, and I got Fred to go. But after going twice, he said it was a waste of time and would not continue. Two months ago he beat me severely, and I called the police. They arrested him and locked him up until I bailed him out. The judge ordered him into individual counseling, and he goes, but it does not seem to be helping. He has hit me twice in the past three weeks. Up to now, he has not hit the baby, but sometimes I can tell that he is barely restraining himself. That worries me, since it was like that before he first hit me.

I feel things cannot go on this way, and something must be done. I asked the deacon for advice, but he said he can only counsel couples. A friend of mine who was in one of your classes suggested I get in touch with you.

I could go back to the prosecutor, and the judge would send Fred to jail. But after talking it over with people I trust, I doubt that putting him in jail would do much good and am reluctant to do it. I could try to avoid trouble by taking the baby and going to my mother’s or a friend’s before Fred comes home from playing his games. Or I could demand that he move out and, if necessary, get a court order to put him out. But if I do, I am not sure whether to allow him to visit. Of course, cutting off marital relations might force Fred to get straightened out. But our sex life always has been good, and I would find it hard to give up that part of marriage. He never has mistreated me during sex; when he is angry, he is not even interested in it. Perhaps I could allow him to visit some weekday evenings but make him stay away entirely on weekends, when he usually loses his temper.

The only thing I am sure about is that I have to find some solution. If nothing else works, I suppose I will have to get a divorce, and I cannot see myself living alone for the rest of my life. What should I do?


The questioner is asking whether to separate and, if so, whether to continue marital relations during the separation; she also seems to desire support in considering divorce and remarriage as an option. The significant risk that the questioner’s husband will injure their baby demands that she separate at once. The marriage ought to be presumed valid, and the option of divorce and remarriage should be excluded. Since neither the magisterium nor traditional Catholic theology has addressed the question about continuing marital relations during a separation, the goods at stake must be considered and a suitable norm derived. Engaging in intercourse during the separation, in my opinion, would be inappropriate inasmuch as it would not correspond to the truth of the couple’s relationship.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In my judgment, you need more help than I, as a moral theologian, can give you. I think you need the pastoral guidance of a priest who has experience with troubled marriages, faithfully applies the Church’s teaching, and is equipped with some knowledge of psychology. He could help you identify your resources and options, so that you will be able to determine what God is calling you to do. He also could help you identify any moral shortcomings and use the sacrament of penance to deal with them. Then, by constant prayer and devout participation in the Eucharist you can obtain the grace you need to deal with your difficult situation, and even to grow spiritually by taking up your cross and following Jesus.

Still, I shall try to clarify the moral responsibilities to which your description of the situation points. Though you may well consider what I shall say unrealistic and more than you can deal with at this time, you might share this letter with the priest from whom you seek help, and discuss its bearing on your situation with him.

Your husband’s seriously abusive behavior is inconsistent with genuine marital love. Only God knows the extent to which Fred freely chooses to misbehave in each particular instance, and your account suggests that underlying psychological factors lead to his loss of control. But even with the motivation of the judge’s order, he seems to be failing to cooperate with the help he needs, just as he earlier refused to continue in marriage counseling—something he surely could have done. Now you have reason to fear he might injure the baby, and you have a grave obligation to prevent both the physical and the psychological trauma to which your nine-month-old child is vulnerable. Therefore, you have good reasons to separate and, in view of the risk to the child, you ought to do so at once (see CIC, c. 1153, §1; LCL, 725–29).

Your intention in separating should be to promote the good of your family, not only by protecting your child and yourself, but by obtaining psychological space in which to work out a sounder relationship with your husband, and to encourage his repentance, healing, and growth toward holiness. To achieve these benefits, you should be prepared to make all necessary sacrifices, not for some limited time, but indefinitely. In marrying, you committed yourself to Fred “for better, for worse, . . . in sickness and in health, until death.” Remember how lovingly you made that commitment. As you surely know, marriage is indissoluble except by death, and a “remarriage” after divorce is an adulterous relationship. So, with mind and heart set on preserving your love, the only question for you should be what sort of marriage you and Fred will have. To think divorce and remarriage might serve as a last resort not only will undermine your resolve to make the best of your marriage but will violate marital love and be a first step toward infidelity. Put that thought aside, and renew your commitment to your husband even as you separate from him.112

Perhaps you should reconsider the possibility of putting Fred in jail. It would be a way of separating from him, and the shock might lead him to genuine repentance. He probably would not remain in jail long, but would be ordered to accept additional help and report regularly to a probation officer. The experience might encourage him to commit himself to do what he must to amend. Still, you need not choose this course. But if you do not, you must separate at least sufficiently to ensure the safety of your baby, and it hardly seems adequate to absent yourself only when Fred usually becomes violent. Therefore, either you should ask—and, if necessary, compel—Fred to move out or you and the baby should do so.

You ask about the possibility of one or another form of limited separation together with occasional marital intercourse. Of course, a married couple who separate do not lose their right to engage in intercourse by mutual consent. The question is whether it would be appropriate to separate as much as necessary to forestall abuse while also continuing to engage in intercourse. Since nothing in the Church’s teaching points clearly to an answer, I can offer only an opinion, together with reasons for it.

I believe that in separating you should entirely discontinue marital intercourse. Moreover, if you give up marital intercourse, you also should forgo all intimacies short of intercourse that tend to lead to it, since such intimacies will be occasions of sin for both of you—at least, the sin of engaging in the marital intercourse you ought to forgo. Therefore, you should limit expressions of affection to those appropriate for a chaste engaged couple (see LCL, 745–46, 749–50).

My main reason for this judgment is that marital intercourse should not be a mere means to pleasure or anything else. Rather, it should express the real unity of spouses and allow them to experience it, and this unity includes their mutual love. But Fred’s failure to curb his abusive behavior is gravely inconsistent with marital love, inasmuch as it requires that you no longer live in the same household. Continuing intercourse would provide both of you with an experience divergent from reality, which would be a falsification. Though not mutually deceptive, this falsification might well be self-deceptive, enabling you both to avoid confronting the truth about yourselves and your marital relationship as a whole, which involves far more than your sexual activity. Rather than working together to heal your wounded marriage, you probably would prolong the present bad situation. This abnormal relationship also would be detrimental to your child, since it would deprive him indefinitely of the stable, unified parental principle he needs as a solid basis for his personal development.

Another reason to abstain from marital intercourse during the separation is that having another baby would greatly complicate your problems. Both the pregnancy and caring for the infant would be more difficult without your husband’s full help and support; that might lead you to end the separation too soon and accept unreasonable risk of serious abuse to yourself and your children. At the same time, forgoing this part of your marriage will prevent Fred from using sexual activity to play on your emotions and manipulate your behavior, as, I suspect, he has been doing.113

Still, you should not proceed in a manipulative spirit, as if discontinuing marital intercourse were a way to “force Fred to get straightened out.” Regard it as an expression of the truth—your marriage is so badly crippled that you cannot function as a normal married couple. Since you will find it hard to give up this part of your marriage, your choice to abstain will be a significant sacrifice—an appropriate expression of the fact that your love sincerely seeks, not simply sexual satisfaction and other benefits for yourself, but the true good of your husband and mutual fulfillment in a happy marriage.

You should explain to Fred your intentions in separating; it probably would be best to write him a letter or talk in the presence of a third party who could prevent him from hurting you. First, make it clear why you are taking this difficult step. He does not seem to be making an honest effort to put an end to his abusive behavior, and, while he has never hit the baby, you fear he will. Explain that you are acting, not out of anger, but out of love, in the hope that the separation will provide an opportunity for him to develop the self-control he must have to be a good husband and father, not only for the sakes of your marriage and your child, but for his own sake. I think you also would do well to explain to him that you had considered the possibility of allowing marital intercourse during this necessary separation, and you expect to find it difficult to forgo this part of your marriage, but you have concluded that the sacrifice is necessary to express the truth about your relationship’s present condition. Make it clear that you still love him and will never be unfaithful to him. Recall his good qualities, tell him you believe he can change for the better, and express your hope for a happy marriage and good family life after he has done so.

In separating, do not set an arbitrary deadline for solving the problems and coming back together; remarriage being excluded, the only acceptable alternative to a prolonged separation is a change in the circumstances that require it. If the separation continues for a long time and the lack of resolution tries your patience, as it will, recognize that this abnormal condition of marriage may be the best you can achieve. Therefore, in separating you should commit yourself to living apart from your husband but with perfect fidelity to him for the rest of your life, if need be. Eventually a civil divorce might be warranted, but only if there remained no realistic prospect of reconciliation and the divorce was necessary to settle legal rights and responsibilities with respect to custody of your child, property, and so on (see CIC, cc. 1672 and 1692).

While separated, you need not, and should not, try to avoid all contact with your husband. Your parental responsibilities will call for continuing cooperation, and, no doubt, Fred will wish to spend some time with the baby. Given your well-grounded fears, however, try to avoid leaving him alone with the child. Try to arrange to do some things as a family, but always either in public or with others, and at times when Fred is least likely to become violent. If the conditions for visitation are not mutually agreed upon but imposed by the court, comply only if that involves no risk for the baby, or Fred insists and the judge leaves you no choice.

Once separated, be on guard against allowing your sexual desire or other need for Fred to generate in you an unreasonable urgency about reconciling. While understandable, such an emotional desire is likely to lead you to end the separation before changes have occurred that warrant doing so. For your own good and Fred’s, make a check list of indications of change in him that would provide a reasonable assurance of safety for you and the baby and a well-grounded hope that you can live together in harmony. Remember, too, that no one is perfect, so that, while no defect of yours could justify Fred’s abusive behavior, nevertheless you should examine yourself and try to discover anything that needs changing in your attitudes, expectations, habits, and behavior. In thinking about what must change in both of you, it probably will be helpful, as I suggested at the outset, to talk with a pastoral counselor who is faithful to the Church’s teaching and has some training in psychology.

Besides the pastoral guidance the priest can give you, he also may be able to introduce you to one or more women who have undergone abuse, separated, faithfully fulfilled their marital and maternal responsibilities, and achieved a more serene life, whether separated or reconciled in a healed marriage. The friendly advice and encouragement of such women, I believe, would help you calm your anxieties, nurture your self-confidence, and gain insight into your relationship with Fred and your life as a whole. Of course, you probably could easily find a support group of battered women, but be on your guard against false ideologies, bitterness, and selfish attitudes at odds with Christian faith and values.

In your self-examination, consider whatever criticisms or accusations Fred may have made against you. Though many no doubt would reflect his bias and be exaggerated, at least some almost certainly would contain important elements of truth. Ask yourself, too, whether your work outside the home is necessary and compatible with fulfilling your responsibilities as mother and homemaker. Also, in leaving your baby in your mother’s care, are you imposing unfairly on her? Of course, during the separation, it probably will be necessary for you to continue working and relying on your mother’s help in caring for the baby. Then too, if Fred gives up his gambling, he also will forgo that source of income. Still, you should consider all of your responsibilities, and be prepared to meet them as perfectly as possible in cooperation with your husband.

In asking how Fred must change, consider several things. His gambling is morally questionable, since the fact that he regularly wins suggests that he is taking unfair advantage of less skillful opponents, at least some of whom probably are gambling money they ought to be using to meet their responsibilities. It also is questionable for him to spend time on this form of play, especially since it must reduce the time he devotes to you and your baby. Moreover, while his drinking apparently is not in itself excessive, both it and his gambling seem to have been proximate occasions of his gravely abusive behavior, and for that reason he almost certainly should have given up both. His anger when he has not done well at his computer games suggests that winning those games has an undue psychological significance for him. Whatever is behind that might also explain why he stays in a job that bores him instead of seeking more challenging work. Probably he needs insight into the psychological causes of his terrible temper, but it is certain that he needs to organize his life better: in view of his faith, his commitments to marriage and fatherhood, and his talents. He ought to regard his talents as gifts to be used as fully as possible in service to others, as means to support his family, and as opportunities for genuine self-fulfillment in worthwhile work.

Even if the conditions for you to reconcile are met, you will continue to encounter marital difficulties. Both of you should do all you can to overcome them (see LCL, 721–25). The regular use of spiritual means—prayer and the reception of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist—will be essential. And so will be unquestioning determination by both of you faithfully to fulfill your mutual responsibilities, so that you will be good spouses and parents who may hope to live together forever in heaven.

112. At present, a moral and pastoral adviser should presume this marriage valid and try to help the couple overcome their difficulties: see CIC, cc. 1060; 1063, 4°; 1695. However, if the questioner eventually were civilly divorced, it might be appropriate to suggest to her that she look into the possibility of asking a tribunal to consider the case. Her narrative suggests several possible grounds on which the marriage might be judged null.

113. Even when couples live apart for reasons other than marital discord, they are much more likely to divorce than cohabiting couples; see Ronald R. Rindfuss and Elizabeth Hervey Stephen, “Marital Noncohabitation: Separation Does Not Make the Heart Grow Fonder,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52 (1990): 259–70. Thus, I recognize that excluding sexual intercourse during the separation risks alienating the husband and leading to infidelity by both spouses. Still, the reasons given seem to me sufficient to rule out the questioner’s proposal to separate from board but not bed.