Wrestling with Guilt when Drawing Boundaries with an Abusive Spouse

A man has removed his wedding ring, holding it up with one hand and covering his face with the other. His spouse was abusive and he has lost her by setting boundaries for his own safety. He wrestles with guilt over if he did the right thing.
When dealing with an abusive spouse, you need to be bold, take action, and draw clear boundaries for your own safety. God loves you. And He hates the abuse you endure.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

If you are in a bad situation with your spouse, and are on the receiving end of any kind of abuse, you’re going to need to draw some firm boundaries for your safety. But it’s not easy. When it comes to your spouse, standing up for yourself can leave you wracked with guilt. Drawing boundaries with an abusive spouse is crucial to your own safety even if it means wrestling with guilt.

Remember that God loves you. And He hates the abuse you endure. When dealing with an abusive spouse, you need to be bold, take action, and draw clear boundaries for your own safety.

The Mental Wreckage of Separation

Becky struggled to get out of bed. As a now single mother of three young children, she was overwhelmed. She wanted to ask God to give her strength for the day ahead. But then she had the same haunting thought that crept in every time she tried to pray, “How can I ask God for help? It’s my fault that my marriage is over. I would never have left my husband if I were a godly woman. I have made a mess of things!”

It had been three months since Becky left her home. She had hoped counseling would help the marriage, but things kept getting worse. The more they tried to work on their relationship, the angrier Tom became. But Becky wondered if she had overreacted by leaving to the ongoing threats and a recent incident of physical violence.

Her friends had encouraged her to intervene and draw boundaries with her abusive spouse for physical safety. They had reminded her of the countless fights where Tom would mercilessly criticize and control her. Her children had been frightened, but now they barely saw their dad.

Becky struggled to know what was worse, the abuse or the separation. She feared her children would suffer. She could not stop thinking that a “broken family” was terrible for children. Becky could not shake her guilt over leaving and wrestled with it constantly.

Feeling Crushed by Guilt

Becky’s sense of guilt tended to manifest as a stream of accusations. So many thoughts filled her mind and they may sound familiar to you too: 

  • I’m a disappointment to God.
  • I’m the one who broke my vows.
  • If only I could have been a better helpmate to my husband, he wouldn’t have been so angry all the time.

It wasn’t long before her guilt began to impact how she lived her life. It deterred her from talking to God. A once-vital relationship with Him was withering.

Becky even struggled to go to church. Everyone knew about their marital strain. It was just too embarrassing to walk into church alone. Some people even went out of their way to tell her that she was wrong to separate.

What bothered Becky the most was she was unsure what God thought about her actions.

Becky’s counselor and pastor thought it was a good decision at the time for her to leave their home. Still, no one anticipated Tom would remain unrepentant and be this furious with the church and her. Now her marriage seems irreparable.

So, Becky sits in the rubble of her marriage alone, feeling like her husband’s hardness of heart is somehow her fault. She wrestles with her guilt without rest. Do you blame yourself too?

True Guilt VS False Guilt

After taking necessary actions and drawing boundaries in response to an abusive spouse, many people wrestle with different aspects of guilt.

Wrestling with guilt can be confusing. And it can be hard to untangle. When we feel guilt, particularly false guilt, we experience a distance in our relationship with God. We wrongly believe we are unworthy of His love and care.

When we have done something wrong, we admit it, confess it to the Lord, and experience His forgiveness provided through Jesus. False guilt is trickier to combat because you cannot repent of something you did not do nor fix something that was not your responsibility.

God has gone to a tremendous expense to lift our burden of guilt. He does not want us to live under guilt and shame. Here are six common strands of guilt that oppressed spouses struggle with if their marriage eventually ends due to lack of change by an abuser, and ways to address them.

“I Ended My Abusive Marriage”

Becky felt that she was the one who was responsible for their situation since she was the one who had left home. But Tom’s pervasive, unrepentant, and destructive sin patterns ended the marriage.

A pattern of power, control, and abusive behavior is covenant-breaking behavior. Becky had several choices to make in response to Tom’s oppressive behavior:

  • She could seek help for the marriage, which she did, but the interventions were not just unfruitful; they made things worse.
  • She could continue to endure abuse. Becky did this for a season until it became unbearable for her and her children.
  • She could flee abuse seeking safety for herself and her children.

All three of these choices are valid responses to abuse. Becky, like most victims, tried all three and hoped and prayed for a different outcome. But ultimately, she realized she could not make her husband repent or change.

In the end, Tom decided he was more committed to being oppressive than he was committed to his marriage. With ample pastoral and local counsel, Becky regretfully released Tom to the hard-hearted path of his behaviors. And as heartbreaking as separation is, a divorce was the result.

“My Spouse Blames Me for the Divorce”

Sadly, your abuser will probably take every opportunity to remind you, your children, and others that you are the one who took steps that led to your current circumstances.

What do I do when my abusive spouse blames me for leaving?

Committed abusers are masters at blame-shifting, so it is vital to frame what occurred accurately. Write out the objective facts and events and the many steps you took to address the harm they perpetrated against you. If you left, remind yourself why you left. What behaviors were you responding to?

What if my children blame me for leaving my abusive spouse and breaking up the family?

One day it will be essential to find a way to talk to your children about what happened. But seek help to sort out what you might say. It’s crucial to honor your former spouse as an image bearer and support your children’s relationship with their other parent while also realistically providing for their safety.

What do I do when others blame me for leaving my abusive marriage?

Do not try to correct others who judge you. What’s important is you know that you had to draw boundaries with your abusive spouse. You do not need to defend your decision to people who pass judgment without seeking understanding.

Remember, the abuse was not your fault. Scripture condemns abuse in all forms. It’s good to flee what the Lord hates (Proverbs 6:16-19). You don’t need to wrestle with that guilt.

“Divorce Is Sinful”

Divorce is often, but not always sinful.

Many well-meaning Christians fail to nuance that difference. God allows for the provision of divorce in certain circumstances to protect the harmed party in a marriage. This is clear in cases of adultery (Matthew 5:32; 19:9), but God is also firmly against abuse. Malachi 2:16 states that God hates “him who covers his garment with violence.”

We must look carefully at the occasion of divorce to determine if divorce is permitted. To be fair, there are varied theological views, but simply doing nothing in the face of abuse is not a healthy option.

Jesus, in His conversation with the Pharisees in Matthew 19, condemns divorce based on trivial grounds. However, there are occasions when divorce becomes necessary. In these cases, one party responds to the covenant-breaking behavior of their spouse by withdrawing from the marriage while, when possible and safe, seeking an extended opportunity for redemptive change. Sometimes, sadly, this change never occurs.

To receive the assurance that getting away from an abusive situation is not sinful, many people find it helpful to talk to their church leadership and seek wise, professional counseling as they are wrestling with how to respond to their spouse’s behavior. 

Close up of a young, pensive Asian woman listening to someone talking to her on her phone

Talk to a Counselor

If you need further guidance and encouragement, we have a staff of licensed, professional counselors who offer a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. They can also refer you to counselors in your area for ongoing assistance.
Reach a counselor toll-free at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).

“Divorce Is Bad for My Children”

A healthy, two-parent family is ideal for children. However, children who witness one parent perpetrate abuse by the other are negatively impacted. Even if you do not think your child is aware of the abuse, research has found that most children are aware of it.

Sadly, children often believe the abuse is their fault and will wrestle with that guilt for years.

Further, children of domestic abuse often suffer from anxiety, depression, and other issues including behavioral, relational, and health issues. Worse, they have a distorted picture of what love looks like and are at a higher risk of perpetrating abuse or being oppressed. While repentance, change, and restoration is God’s desire, sometimes human choices foreclose those possibilities.

When you take steps to protect yourself, not only do your children learn not to tolerate abuse they no longer have to worry about you.

Take time to read about the impacts of domestic abuse on children, then talk to your children about how they are coping and help them to heal. (For more on the impacts of domestic abuse on children and how to care for them, see chapter 11 of Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims.)

“I Gave Up Too Soon”

Many spouses worry that if they had just hung in there a little longer, their spouse might have changed. Be comforted by knowing that God does not need you to change your spouse. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. Your spouse can still choose to repent at any time.

Secondly, you have presumably invited your spouse to live in a way honoring the Lord countless times. You do not need to suffer abuse while you wait for your spouse to repent.

Remember, the Bible says to reject sin everywhere it is found and to “abhor what is evil” (Romans 12:9). By drawing clear boundaries, you have actually helped your abusive spouse see the seriousness of their sin. So now is a good time to pray yet again that the Lord would lift their blindness and soften their heart.

“But I Sinned in My Marriage Too”

Even after repentance, lingering guilt can make us feel unworthy and distant from God. But remember, our God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to die for our sins. God has not just dealt with our guilt, but He also provides a way for us always to be close to Him (Romans 3:19-29).

I’m sure you can remember times when you sinned against your spouse. We all do. But God does not want His children to live perpetually wrestling with guilt, so by His initiative, He sent Jesus to redeem us.

In establishing a new covenant with us, God promises, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). If you have repented and have the assurance that God does not remember our sins, why should you focus on them?

So how should you think about your failings? Acknowledge them, bring them before your Heavenly Father, and then move on. You do not need to ruminate on where you failed. Ask God to help you believe that He has forgiven you and dearly loves you.

God knows what this journey has cost everyone involved. No one gets married expecting their marriage to end. There is so much loss and pain. But God promises to heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). He does not want you to be paralyzed by guilt, but He does want you to come to Him lamenting your sorrows.

While your spouse may have failed to live up to their covenant with you, God will never do anything but seek your ultimate good, even when you sin. Rest in knowing that nothing can separate you from God’s love.

For more information on abuse in marriage, check out these links:

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