Elaine,* a stay-at-home mother, recently left her spouse after years of single-handedly trying to repair their marriage.
Her husband Rick* was a successful businessman and an acolyte in their parish. But at home he was very controlling and harshly critical, and belittled Elaine’s efforts to be a better wife and mother.
Over the years, Elaine reached out to her Catholic friends for help. They encouraged her to try marriage counselling, offer up her sufferings, change her own behaviour, and pray for her “difficult” husband.
She did this—but Rick’s behaviour became more violent. He refused to go to marriage counselling and told Elaine that he was planning to leave her when the children were older.
Elaine became more frightened. She knew she could not survive with her children on her part-time income. Rick knew this too, which is why he cut off her access to their joint bank account.
But Elaine was able to document his behaviour and get a family violence restraining order. Rick had to leave the family home, and he and Elaine are now divorced.
Family violence, including coercive control, is a real issue in our Catholic communities.
However, it’s kept secret by spouses and families who are too ashamed or frightened to ask for help.
Its effects on a family—and especially on children—are devastating. Research shows that children who have grown up in a home where there is coercive controlling family violence are much more likely to have short and long-term mental health problems.
This includes depression, anxiety, and self-harm like cutting, or abuse of drugs and alcohol. Family violence also impacts children who watch the victim—usually their mother—struggle with her day-to-day functioning.
Mothers in this situation cannot parent as well as they want to. They are constantly on edge, exhausted and frightened, and cannot always give their children the attention they need.
Sydney couples and family therapist Bernadette Devine has worked closely with Catholics who have been either victims or perpetrators of family violence.
“Being on staff at a Catholic agency, many of my clients were people of faith who valued their marriage vows and tried everything that they could to placate their violent, coercive spouse, often leading to a significant deterioration in their own mental health over time,” she said.
Devine says that while some men are victims of coercive control from their wives, research shows that it is mostly women who are victimised by their husbands. Stay-at-home mothers can be at greater risk because they depend totally on their husband’s income.
The decision to leave an abusive marriage is difficult and painful—and not one that is made in a hurry.
“My experience of these women is they often experienced great spiritual turmoil about the decision to live separately from their spouse and so they only did so when they discerned there was no other alternative,” Devine said.
Canon law allows for separation “if either of the spouses causes grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or the offspring or otherwise renders common life too difficult” (canon 1153, 1).
In Australia, separation is usually followed by a legal divorce to ensure that both spouses and any minor children are provided for financially.
But it’s often difficult for a local church community to believe that family violence was taking place, or that separation and divorce is sometimes the safest solution for everyone.
Devine says that many of her clients “reported feeling judged by their family and friends, and sometimes members of their local church communities, for making the decision to live separately from their spouse.”
“In my clinical experience, perpetrators are often preoccupied with their image in the community and work hard to look virtuous.
“To others in their family and community they can appear friendly and helpful, whilst behaving like tyrants to their wife and children behind closed doors.”
Many Catholic women have also been told that saints like St Rita and St Monica remained in difficult marriages and did good there. But because of the times they lived in, these saints had no other options.
Today we know that staying in a coercive controlling relationship “for the sake of the children” will usually harm both spouses and the children further.
Catholic counsellor Lucy O’Connell, who works at Rough Patch Counselling in Leichhardt, points out that, “Divorce after abuse is not a rejection of the church’s teaching about marriage but of the abuser’s teaching about marriage.”
“The church teaches that the wife is the one woman that the man should die to protect.
The abuser teaches that the wife is the one woman you can hurt as much as you like, with no consequences.”
“But the survivor sees a difference between being faithful to her marriage and being faithful to a false public image of her husband.”
Gina*, a Catholic woman who left a coercive and abusive marriage six years ago, agrees. “I knew that by leaving, I stopped my husband abusing me—but it also made him face real consequences of his behaviour,” she said.
“He can now decide whether he wants to be a better man or not. And it also saved our children, so they have a chance to grow up differently.”
What helped Gina greatly was finding a priest who understood what she was going through.
“I went to confession, and he told me I had good grounds for separating from my husband. I was so grateful,” she said.
For clergy, it’s often hard to tell the difference between a marriage that’s simply struggling and a marriage where coercive control is taking place.
The Catholic Weekly spoke to a priest of the archdiocese who has ministered extensively in this area, but who wished to remain anonymous because of ongoing cases.
“The first a priest usually knows is when someone—usually a woman—comes to him in desperation for help,” he said.
“Some crisis point has often triggered it. Something serious has to have gone wrong for them to say, ‘I really need to deal with this.’”
The husband is also the priest’s pastoral responsibility, which can be challenging.
“They’re often in other respects highly successful men, well thought of in the community, get on well with others, even appear devout,” he said.
“And yet they have got the most basic lesson of our religion completely wrong: they don’t understand what love is, at all.”
In his experience, husbands who abuse their wives in this way have a distorted idea of family leadership.
“I think they see it as ‘I’m in charge, I’m the head of the family—for the good of the family I need to rule the roost,’ and it’s all for the family’s good.”
“I’ve learnt to try to support the woman to understand that she needs to get out of the situation, and she needs to access the help that will get her out of it.”
But what about praying for the abusive spouse so that they will be converted? Prayer is always good, but Devine has a warning.
“The most damaging thing reported to me by clients was when they were chided by well-meaning Catholic friends or members of their prayer groups for failing to pray and sacrifice enough to bring about a miraculous change in their coercive controlling spouse,” she said.
“We know from research that perpetrators are highly resistant to treatment, and when change does occur, it is often minimal or superficial.
“Many women reported finding great support and care from their local church communities, and from the services available to them through the church’s welfare agencies, such as women’s refuges and St Vincent De Paul,” she added.
When separation happens, it impacts children’s schooling. Devine says, “Many mothers spoke about how helpful their children’s Catholic school had been in taking into account the changed financial circumstances of the family and doing all they could to retain the children’s placement in their school, while also providing additional pastoral care to the children.”
“This eased the burden of the decision to leave the marriage for those mothers and made them feel they were still part of the school community.”
*Names have been changed, and individuals represent case histories of several different persons.