When Can I Leave My Marriage? How to Know if You’ve Done Enough

by | Mar 11, 2019 | Marriage | 29 comments

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When is it permissible to leave your marriage after your spouse has seriously broken the marriage covenant?

I’ve been talking all week about big marriage problems (Phew! It’s been a big week. Don’t worry; next week we’re moving on to how to love your husband and have fun with him!). And I thought I’d end the week with this question from a reader.

I have caught my husband (a part time pastor, full time soldier) in yet another affair. This has happened before and I found out many years later and most recently, they are emotional affairs, online sex chats, porn use, etc. He’s a textbook narcissist, and I just want a divorce at this point. He won’t grant me one without a fight and tries to justify everything he has done using “scriptural reference” and turning the situations back to being my fault. I finally told a trusted friend/counselor a few months ago. I’ve kept the secrets so long (16 years) out of fear and shame. Is it time to just call it done? Our son is 12 and I’m worried he will turn into his father from living with him for so long.

I am so sorry for this woman. I really am. It’s heartbreaking especially when the man is “in the ministry” and claims to be working for God. Here’s another question that’s similar (though without the pastoral aspect):

My wife has been varying in a double life for over a decade. When we married she was a Christian and I was not. About 4 years ago while my wife was acting out with an ex boyfriend I hit rock bottom and came to Christ. It changed my life. I became a better husband and father. Life went well with my wife for several years but her addiction came back again and a few months ago I caught her having an affair. She has since been diagnosed as a sex and romance addict. She is starting a treatment program but she is almost the only female addict in groups of male sex addicts. She knows what she needs to do and tells me she loves me more than anything and really wants her family. But she is continuing to see her affair partner but begging me to stay because she just knows that her affair will be over soon as she goes through recovery. Now that it is all out in the open she is communicating better than she ever has, but I still have next to zero trust. The bible says I can leave due to her infidelity. However I also understand the stores of Hosea. I do feel an overwhelming pressure to help her to recover. I love your blog and would love to hear what you have to say about this.

Let me share with you some wisdom that I learned from a man who had worked in marriage ministry his whole life.

He said, “when there is a marriage problem and both people are willing to work at it, then no matter how big the problem is, that marriage has a 95% chance of making it and turning out well. But if only one person is willing to work at it? Then that marriage only has a 50% chance of making it, no matter how small the problem is.”

The moral of the story?

You can’t fix a marriage on your own.

You just can’t.

Now, there is no formula for what you should do now. Sometimes God asks us to wait, because He is doing something incredible behind the scenes and it just will take more time. And sometimes God frees us to move on. I can’t tell you what to do, because I don’t know your situation. And that’s why we have to draw very close to God in these hard times so that we can hear His voice.

But I will point you to some posts on difficult marriages that can help you think through this issue right now.

Can I give up on my marriage?

You’ve done everything. You’ve bent over backwards. And still your spouse doesn’t seem to be changing. Should you give up and move on?

How to Be a Spouse, Not an Enabler

In many ways, this was the post that inspired my book 9 Thoughts that Can Change a Marriage. The day I wrote this was the day I started to think differently about marriage. Up until then I was really focused on how to show your husband love. On that day, I realized that being truly loving meant wanting the best for your spouse, and the best meant pointing them to God, not enabling sin. Sometimes we have to take a stance. And this may be the most important post these readers read!

But along with it, I challenge  you to read 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage. It gets to the heart of how we can act in marriage so that we point people to Jesus in our everyday life, rather than acting in such a way that we excuse sin. And it helps us reveal the dark sides of our own hearts, too. Plus it’s likely my most honest book–I share so many of my own personal struggles. So I encourage you to check it out!

When is it okay to give up trying to get my ex back?

If you’ve been separated for a time, is it okay to move on? What if you believe that marriage is for life? Is there a point where you can say, “I’m moving on, no matter what my ex does?”

I’m living in a loveless marriage. What do I do?

What if you’re in a loveless marriage and your spouse doesn’t seem to care about you at all. How do you move forward? Do you have to stay?

Why I’m Anti-Divorce, but Pro-Remarriage

If you’re wondering if divorce is ever okay, and if you’re permitted to leave, here are my thoughts on the issue.

Discovering Your Spouse is Having an Affair

You’ve discovered the affair. Now what’s your next step? What do you do? Here are some thoughts (and some book suggestions) that help you make wise decisions at these difficult moments.

I hope those will help. And please know–we pray for all of you everyday. We get so many emails like this into the inbox each and every day of the year, and we can’t answer them all personally. But I know so many of you reading this blog are dealing with this. Just know that we care. We feel overwhelmed sometimes, but we care.

And if you’re a regular reader, but you AREN’T dealing with this right now, could you say a prayer, too? Just for all the hurting people who are reading this blog? And then maybe leave a comment, to let people know that they are being prayed for?

I know it’s a lonely road. I wish there were more I could do. This is so, so hard. But we do care. And God sees. And He cares deeply, too. Never doubt that.

When Can I Leave My Marriage?

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Carrie

    Difficult marriages are so hard. Prayers for anyone dealing with them.
    Also, if your spouse is abusive, leave! It takes a lot of strength, but you can do it!

  2. Cara

    Marriage can just be plain hard. I feel like overall I am in a good marriage but even we are having our struggles and issues.
    I know personally of at least 2 marriages that are horrible-one involving all kinds of unfaithfulness including porn, texting and at least actual flirting (my guess would be more).
    Another that is spiritually abusive to the effect that it has caused the children great emotional harm.
    It’s so disheartening to see these things.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It is disheartening, Cara! I always think, “what a waste.” Do people not realize what they are doing, and what they are missing out on?

  3. Leslie Hinson

    Please know that I am praying today for couples who are struggling in marriage. God healed my marriage and He will heal yours too!

    • Tandi

      So glad to hear that Leslie, I’m praying for healing and full restoration in my marriage as well. I cannot confirm if he is still cheating and therefore find that I still suffer trust issues. I am sometimes sure that God wants me to stay and work it out but other times I get soo tired of waiting and trying, it feels like I am working on this alone. I’m praying for wisdom too.
      Best wishes

      • Tami

        Do you have articles on what to do when your spouse is involved in an emotional affair? This is the third time (that I know of) that my husband has been connecting with a woman other than myself. This time. He won’t end it. He is going to counseling, but still refuses to stop talking to her. He said he has never loved me, so I feel like he’s just going through the motions.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, Tami, I’m so sorry. If he is refusing to end it, though, the counseling isn’t going to do any good. I think what you need to do is to put your foot down and say that you won’t stand for it. Leslie Vernick has a great book called How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong, and it may help!

  4. Sarah O

    Father in heaven, please have compassion and mercy on my brothers and sisters who are faced with struggling, and sometimes dying marriages. Assure them that you are not like humans, and that you see and understand their pain fully. Teach your church how to love them without condemnation, give us discernment to hold each other accountable where appropriate, and remind them of Your promises and Your presence.

    Most of us have had seasons of “reckoning” in our marriages – events or seasons we thought we may not survive. May we remember those times so we can show empathy to those stuck in them now.

    When our marriage got its first torpedo from the enemy, it was devastating in ways I truly had not imagined.

    I cannot imagine how hard it must be when a marriage ends. It destroys your present sense of normalcy and identity, all your precious past memories of special moments: your wedding day, your anniversaries, births of children, etc., and all your future hopes and dreams of growing old and doing life together in one blow.

    It just should not be so, and I am so so sorry. I hope and pray constantly that my marriage will be one of those that holds out, but I know how easily human beings fall to all kinds of temptation. One little compromise after another.

    I hope these stories can keep us on our guard and help us be better fighters when it comes to our families.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you, Sarah!

  5. Kathryn

    Praying for all the marriages who are in difficult situations. May God lead you to do the right thing!!

  6. Sleepy

    My heart hurts so much for these marriages and the spouses that are hurting. Today I answered a woman’s comment on a forum and her story made me so sad. Her husband was cheating. He abused her physically and she still thought that the best was to stay because he had threated to kill himself. Praying for her and others that are in such terrible situations.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that is so sad! There’s so much bondage out there.

  7. Phil

    God. Thank you for the beautiful gift of marriage. Please be with those who are struggling in their marriage. May you give them strength and hope. Help those who want to be helped and give courage to those who are not sure or just plain can’t. For the spouse who has an unwilling partner: Espeicialy be with them and help and guide them through their pain and suffering and agony and help them to make the next right choice whatever that may be. God, we ask you to heal and protect all marriages. Be with us all as we work in our marriages and help those who are in need. We ask all this in your son’s name Jesus. AMEN

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you, Phil.

  8. Ashley

    It appears that my comment will be the first from the perspective of someone who has “been there, done that.” First I want to say thank you for addressing this, and thank you to those who are leaving such wonderful comments.

    I know every situation is different, but I knew it was time to leave when two things happened:
    1. My ex-husband’s behavior escalated. He went from porn to placing and answering personal ads online. He starting calling those women and had phone sex, that type of thing.
    2. When I found the messages he had been sending those women, I immediately knew DEEP inside that it was time. I was 100% sure it was the right decision and the right time to go. Before that I had felt like we would separate at some time, but I didn’t have that soul-deep certainty that it was the right thing to do until that night. I have never second-guessed my decision; God has moved for me in so many ways since that night, confirming the path I am on. And the healing has been immense.

    One thing I would add. Narcissists don’t change. So unless the first letter writer is prone to exaggerating things, she should come up with a plan to get out.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I agree, Ashley. Thank you! And I’m glad you’re in a better place now.

  9. Jane Eyre

    Prayers for your readers in these situations.

    (I have a new commenting name – anonymous was getting a bit, well, anonymous.)

    “He’s a textbook narcissist, and I just want a divorce at this point. He won’t grant me one without a fight and tries to justify everything he has done using “scriptural reference” and turning the situations back to being my fault. ”

    First, you don’t need his permission to divorce him. If/when you hire an attorney, he is obligated to communicate through the attorney. While he may use the divorce process to attempt to punish you one last time, he will use your marriage to do the same thing if you choose to remain married.

    Second, he is only able to turn it around if you let him. You do not need his permission or his agreement that his behaviour is appalling. You can actually not put this up for debate. Your short and sweet line is: “Adultery is always wrong. You are sinning and killing our marriage. It is 100% unacceptable. It’s YOUR problem that you don’t understand this.” Do not argue beyond that, and just repeat. He will argue and try to get you to discuss nuances or will play victim or try to mess with your mind. Just repeat. If he tries to equiovate between adultery and your minor flaws, just say “Adultery is 100% unacceptable” and ignore the comparisons to you.

    It’s hard for empathetic, caring people to do this. But a textbook narcissist is not using conversation to draw closer or to resolve a deep-seated conflict; s/he uses it to use your best qualities (peace-keeping, caring about other people’s opinions and feelings) against you.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true, “Jane”!

    • Sarah

      Thank you Jane, well said. Those equivalencies to minor flaws are hard to get past. My husband is very good at getting me off-track and defending my choice of which day to iron when the issue at hand is him spending weekends on an affair.

  10. Kate

    I can’t wait for the positive posts starting tomorrow. Sheila, let me ask you, other than by the grace of Christ how do you deal with all these painful letters you get being a marriage blogger? How do you emotional handle it? Because if it were me, i would lose it. I know everyone human is able to tolerate different levels of trauma, it seems like you’re able to tolerate a lot more than me, if i were in your shoes. This is why i dread when i get my annual jury duty notice. I hate being in toxic environments, he said she said. I hate misery or the company of it, i despise drama, etc. I applaud you, i seriously applaud what you do. Unbelievable! When people love their sin more than righteousness they will fail in every area of life not just marriage. Proverbs is my favorite book in the Bible, i have daily reminder of a verse on my phone and it has filled my brain with wisdom and saved me from a lot of problems. Meditate on the word of God!

    “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.” – Proverbs 11:3

  11. Sheep

    A couple of thoughts to both of these question writers from someone that spent a long time where you are at.

    1. Your husband has absolutely no business being a part-time pastor. No matter what happens in your marriage, this is a matter for church discipline and he should not be a pastor.
    2. It sounds like your marriage is already nothing but a fight and like someone else said, he has no say in “granting” you a divorce. If you file for divorce, it really doesn’t matter what he says. He may make it difficult, but some of that will depend on his financial ability to do so. His “scriptural references” might go out the window when he is paying a lawyer $500 per hour.
    3. I got soooo tired of hearing (and for a long time believing) that everything was my fault. Why was it that she had to “win” every conversation” That she takes no responsibility for anything? Why do we feel shame for their actions, sin, and attitudes? Because that is what we have been trained to do. It is one of the main weapons of the Narcissist. When everything is your fault for long enough, we begin to believe it. And it is really hard to break away from that. And I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but he is going to continue to believe it is all your fault even after you are divorced. Why? because he can’t believe that he is at fault, it would destroy everything he has built himself up to be.
    4. Is it time to call it done? I’m sorry to say that you are really the only one that can answer that question. I will ask you this, Is he repentant for his sin? Has he taken full responsibility for his sin? Has he worked his tail off to show you he is repentant and this isn’t going to happen again? I’m thinking no. The question I had to answer was, “Am I loving her as Christ loved the church, by allowing unrepentant sin to continue without consequences?” As hard as it is to say, the most loving thing I did for my wife was to say that I will no longer continue to pretend that everything is fine just so she doesn’t have to face the natural consequences of her sin.

    Next Letter:
    5. It seems to me that your wife is using her “addiction” like a get out of jail free card.
    6. She is lying to you. Her actions show that she does not love you more than anything. Her actions say that she loves herself more than anything. And she does not know that once she goes through recovery the affair will be over. She is seeing right now that the affair doesn’t have to be over because she can have both.
    7. There is no reason that you should have ANY trust right now. Forgiveness is given, but trust is earned. She will have to earn that trust, and the first step is ending the adulterous relationship now. There can be absolutely no relationship with that person ever again.
    8. I’m sorry, but you don’t understand the story of Hosea. The book of Hosea was not written as a marriage advice book. It was written for the specific purpose of showing a faithful God and an adulterous nation (Israel) If the book was supposed to be taken as marriage advice then every man should be choosing a wife that is a harlot, Because that is the first command of the book, right there in verse 2.
    9. I totally get it. I wanted to help my wife “recover” too. So do a lot of other people that love her. But at some point you have to realize that they have to want to recover more than they want their sin. You say you feel an “overwhelming pressure” to help her recover. I’m curious, is that pressure from others, or is it coming from within you? Pressure is something I generally think of as coming from without. Just remember that other people put pressure on us because of their beliefs or what they think is right, or best for us. But this doesn’t mean that they have really delved deeply into the issues involved. It doesn’t mean that they have truly searched the scriptures to find out what God really says about the subject.

  12. Rebecca

    Praying for these marriages and these individuals in Jesus’ holy name. I pray they seek Him for wisdom, discernment, courage, strength and peace for the challenges to come. Satan wants to break up and divide families and marriages and we are under attack more than ever. We CAN’T stop praying; for others and our own.

  13. El Fury

    Difficult topic, thanks for tackling it.

  14. Lindsay S

    Just another reader lifting up prayers for those of you going through difficult times in your marriages. May God give you strength, wisdom, and grace.

  15. Lisa

    I don’t know if the person writing letter #2 will ever see this. And I know it sounds a little crazy but there is research and some clinical evidence to support this. A romance addict (as well as opiate addicts) can get tremendous help during recovery by taking an amino acid supplement known as DLPA. The typical dose would be 1,500 mg 3-4 times a day, preferably on an empty stomach. Check for any contraindications but it can be a huge help. Addictive behavior is almost always caused by problems with brain chemistry. People who don’t have those problems cannot fathom what it is like to live without the necessary neurotransmitters and often think addicts are just too weak-willed when the reality is that anyone deprived of certain neurotransmitters would find themselves in a downward spiral very quickly. Supplementing with amino acids can be life changing. Julia Ross has some books on this topic. She’s been helping addicts recover for over 30 years with great success. DLPA is safe, fairly inexpensive, and available without a prescription.

  16. Wendy

    Firstly I want to say how kind all you people are for praying for people like me who have stood for our marriages but with no way forward but to divorce. I prayed for ten years for my marriage but five years ago he started getting caught by the kids and myself on the computer with porn and then two years ago he was exposed as having an affair. He divorced me straight away so that one year ago I found myself alone and with five hurting teenagers. The thing is, I did stand for my marriage for so many years but one day I just found I was falling apart with the stress of it. My sister prayed for me that night and the next morning when I was teaching at school I took at call at our break to find out he was having an affair. I don’t understand why and how everything happened because he refused point blank to talk to me at all but I do believe that God made it very evident to me at the time that he didn’t want me in that marriage any more. I just pray for other women in bad situations like mine that God will place his beautiful kind strong arms around them and protect them and guide them through the horrible days ahead as he protected me. Love, hugs and all the blessings in the world to you. Wendy

  17. Tiffany Nicholas

    My friend needs to get out of her marriage. She can’t see the mess she is in. Her husband is a lying cheating porn addicted pervert.. I dont like him in my home because he is always looking at me and do this flirty eye thing. Hes creepy. I dont know if she does care anymore or what. But she is pretty much raising her children on her own she needs help to see what she is stuck in. He doesn’t treat her good at all. There are alot of people in the community that can see what he is doing and how she needs to leave him. I hope she doesn’t get upset by me writing this but she needs someone help seeing what is happening..

  18. Anne

    I can’t find an article on your site that I saw in the past. My husband is still not working, after being furloughed last March (covid lockdowns). I homeschool and now work full time (I cared for his mom till her death, then my husband said I had to pay her mortgage on her house where we now live). My husband filed for bankruptcy (our teens said to avoid getting a job). My husband has no interest in sex (he had sex with many women before we were married. He wanted six kids and I gave him six kids. The oldest is now 19, the youngest is 6. He will not go to a counselor to deal with his hatred of his mom, his grandmothers, his female boss, the women he worked with, and me. I have gone to the church, and they are paying for counseling for me, but it seems no one cares to actually get involved. My husband spends money on his hobbies and shops a lot. Covid lockdowns have made everything worse. The kids are at home all day with dad not working, and he brings a similarly unemployed older male friend into the house (not my friend, I wouldn’t know him if I saw him on the street, and my husband wants this man to move into the house with us). Please, I need help on having a right attitude about all this mess that I can’t change.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Anne, I’m so, so sorry. But I don’t know if it’s a right attitude that you need. It sounds like what you need to do is set boundaries so that his behaviour is not tolerated anymore, and you definitely don’t want that man in your house. What kind of counselor are you going to? Are you going to one who understands about abusive behaviours? (And refusing to work is a form of emotional abuse, putting all responsibility on you and not doing any). You need a licensed counselor who can show you how to draw boundaries so that your husband bears the cost of not working, rather than you bearing the cost of it. And you need to learn how to put your foot down and say, “no more.” If your church isn’t providing that help, then perhaps you also need to find some different friends who understand. I’d suggest seeking out Natalie Hoffman on Flying Free or Sarah McDugal on Facebook or Leslie Vernick (you can google them all) for help on what to do next, because they’re great!


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