Is It Okay To Divorce If I'm Not Sure It's Abuse?
Is It Okay To Divorce If I’m Not Sure It’s Abuse?

You do not need definitive proof or physical violence to justify ending your marriage. Women can trust THEMSELVES on the journey to safety.

Have you found yourself wishing that your husband would just hit you so that you had “enough” justification to leave?

Many women in the BTR.ORG Community have asked: Is it okay to divorce if I’m not sure it’s abuse?

Sarah McDugal is back on the BTR.ORG Podcast answering this question – and – short answer – definitive proof and physical violence are NOT necessary for women to seek safety. Women can trust themselves and move toward safety regardless of society’s misogynistic standards. Read the full transcript below and listen to the BTR.ORG Podcast for more.

“I’m Not Sure If It’s Abuse – Can I Still Leave?”

“You actually don’t have to assess, ‘Is it abuse?’ Even if it’s not abuse, you could still say, ‘This isn’t for me.'”

Anne Blythe, BTR.ORG Founder

Many women find themselves stuck in a space where they have difficulty defining their relationship as “abusive” because the abuser is covert, and careful to use gaslighting and other manipulative tactics to cause the victim to doubt herself.

And in a society where women have to defend their choices to separate in order to receive the support of family, friends, clergy, and community, many women want the clarity of knowing for sure if the relationship was actually abusive.

Anne’s advice? Worry less about defining the relationship as abusive, and simply move toward safety. As you gain proximity from the abuser, you’ll be able to see the relationship and the abuser more clearly – and more easily understand the abuse.

“Is It Abuse if My Husband Doesn’t Know He’s Doing It?”

Many women who are on their journeys to safety find difficulty letting go of the worry that their abuser is unaware or somehow not responsible for his abusive behavior.

Many abusers blame their abusiveness on:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Their parents
  • Past girlfriends/wives
  • Mental illness
  • Alcohol addiction

Rather than taking responsibility for their actions and holding themselves accountable, abusers choose to assign the accountability to others. Many people experience childhood trauma, poor parenting, harmful relationships, mental illness, and alcoholism – and don’t abuse others. 

As to the abuser not being aware? Sarah explains:

“It doesn’t have to be identified as overtly intentional to be abuse.”

Sarah McDugal, author

The abuser may not be calculating every abusive maneuver he takes – but your safety, rather than his level of intention, needs to be the priority.

BTR.ORG Is Here For You

At BTR.ORG, we understand how difficult it is to let go of the hope that he may change and move toward safety without definitive proof. Wherever you are in your healing journey, we are here for you. Attend a BTR.ORG Group Session today.

Full Transcript:

Anne (00:00):
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne. I have Sarah McDugal back on today’s episode. We ended last week with her talking about how it would be great for men to be able to have a good relationship with their children. Of course, abusive men do not have that ability and later she’s gonna go over all of the flags of abuse. You can go to her website, it’s called Is This Abuse? And it’s an awesome chart and it has tons of information, videos and stuff, to help you understand what is abuse. So Sarah’s gonna talk about that today. We’re gonna just jump right in with her talking about how it would be healthy for children and healthy men to be more involved with childcare.

Start With the Ideal Partnership as a Baseline

Sarah (03:45):
In a healthy environment, both parents are gently, kindly, deeply engaged in the well being of their children. And I do not mean one parent comes home, riles them up just before bedtime, and then goes to watch a football game while exhausted Mom puts them to bed and Dad says, “Hey, I did my good dad deed for the day.” I’m not talking about one parent undermining the healthy parenting of the other one. I’m talking about that ideal.
So sometimes we can recognize the things that are wrong when we look at a checklist of what abuse looks like, but sometimes also it’s really helpful to look at what the standard should be and then note what is missing. That’s kind of the perspective I’ve been taking until now in what we’ve been just talking about: that equitable distribution of labor. When we’re talking about using your power for good, we’re talking about a set of partners, a husband and wife who are both committed to living and treating each other and their children with love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and faithfulness and self-control, the fruit of the spirit in that kind of relationship. If that’s our baseline, then we look at what is missing, and that shows us where those things of coercive control and abusive entitlement are staring with really ugly eyes at us. Those are the things that are taking over our homes.

No Amount of Discussion Can Change an Abuser into a Healthy Man

Anne (05:44):
And in that case, no amount of, “Hey, can you please do this or please do that?” discussions are going to magically turn him into an appropriate partner or an appropriate father.

Sarah (06:01):
Absolutely not.

Anne (06:01):
It’s not not gonna happen.

Sarah (06:03):
If you’re saying, “Oh wow, okay, so that’s what it’s supposed to look like. My home life looks nothing like that”, and you’re looking at that and going, “Wow, there are glaring gaps in my home, in my marriage”, Then you have to assess: “Okay, is this abuse?”

You Are Allowed to Say, “This Isn’t For Me.”

Anne (06:29):
I agree with you. And then I want to say, you actually don’t have to assess, “Is it abuse?” Even if it’s not abuse, you could still say, “This isn’t for me.” You don’t always have to determine the cause of the behavior. What if it’s a brain lesion? It could be whatever, but you don’t always have to assess the cause to say to yourself, I don’t want this. I’m going to move towards something more peaceful. It is helpful to know it’s abuse. That’s my whole job. That’s Sarah’s whole job. We educate people about abuse, so I’m not opposed to people like finding out it’s abuse, that’s not what I’m saying.
But I also think that so many women have this thing in their head: “If it’s abuse, then I can move towards safety.” or, “If it’s abuse, then I could separate and I really wanna separate. But if it’s not ‘abuse’ and my pastor’s saying it’s not that bad and my therapist is saying I just need to communicate better and this other thing and I just read this book and in this book it says that it’s not [abuse] if it’s due to his childhood trauma, I’m going to try to work this out longer even though I really feel unsafe.” Spending any more time trying to determine the cause is not the best use of our time when we could just start making our way to safety.

“It Doesn’t Have to be Identified as Overtly Intentional to be Abuse”

Sarah (07:53):
But see, this is where I wanna point out a really crucial thing, and that is it doesn’t have to be identified as overtly intentional to be abuse.

Anne (08:04):

Sarah (08:06):
You don’t have to know why with complete clarity in order to say it’s happening, it’s wrong and it’s unsafe. You can spin your wheels forever trying to figure out which thing made someone be this way.

Anne (08:27):
With so many of these guys, they are so good at manipulation and storytelling, even if they knew exactly what they were doing, putting on some kind of show or giving reasons for it like, “Oh, I was just so damaged as a child”, or “I must have something wrong with me; I need help.” That type of thing is just so in their wheelhouse.

Sarah (08:51):
You should go get that help. If your childhood trauma was intense, then you absolutely need to be in therapy. But also, I would like to know why if your childhood trauma was so intense, why would you repeat that onto anyone else, because you would know how it feels.

Having Childhood Trauma is NOT a Justification to Abuse Others

Anne (09:11):
Well, totally. And also, I wish you the best of luck.

Sarah (09:15):
Yes. And you should absolutely be getting help for that. You may not put me or the children in danger and passing on that generational trauma while you deal with your stuff.

Anne (09:29):
Yeah. I wish you well. I am so sorry that that happened to you. The result is that you’re unhealthy now, which means that I am going to separate myself from your harm.

Sarah (09:42):
Yeah. And you have the right to be safe from harm. Your children have the right to be safe from harm. Occasionally there will be someone who says, “Wow, you do have the right to be safe from harm. I’m gonna go work on me.” Once in a while there is a family or a relationship where the abusive partner goes and does that work, but you still have the right to be elsewhere and to be safe while they’re doing it.

“Safety” Also Means Emotional Safety

Anne (10:15):
Now, while we’re talking about this, I really wanna hit home that when we say “safe”, we mean emotionally safe: someone who’s not lying to you, someone who’s not deceiving you, someone who’s not gaslighting you. We’re not talking about that they’re not hitting you. Obviously if they’re hitting you, we don’t want them to hit you. That’s not what I’m saying, but safety is emotional safety; it’s psychological safety that the reality that they are presenting to you IS reality. They’re not always trying to undermine your reality. That is safety.
So many women who listen to this podcast, when we say safety, I think they think, “Okay, well I think I’m safe cause he is not hitting me.”, rather than thinking, wait a minute, what is safety? Safety is being with someone who is honest; safety is being someone who cares enough about me that they’re able to say, “Hey, do you wanna go ice skating?” And then I’m like, “No, I don’t like going ice skating.” And then they say, “Okay, no problem. I’ll go ice skating and we’ll meet back up later.” That’s safety. Not, “Why you don’t wanna be together as a family? What’s wrong with you?” You know, that kind of thing. No, that’s not safe. So we’re talking emotional and psychological safety.

What Is Sexual Safety?

Sarah (11:32):
I’ll take it a step further. And that is within marriage, not just outside of marriage. You also have the right to sexual safety. And that is the freedom to say, “No, I don’t feel like it.”, “No, I’m exhausted.”, “No, I just had a baby.”, “No, for whatever reason, I’m simply not in the mood.” To be able to say no and not be punished for declining, not get the silent treatment, not having someone beg and plead and coerce and persuade or bribe: “Well if you’ll do this with me, I’ll get you that,” or “I’ll be nice for a few days.” …any of those things. That’s actually sexual coercion and depending on exactly how it’s playing out, it can even be rape inside a marriage.

For that matter, you have the right to sexual safety in that when you stood at the altar and vowed to whatever variation of vows, that you would be faithful to this person with your body. You have the right to live the rest of your marriage in sexual safety knowing that they are not breaking that vow on a screen with their eyes, with their mind, or with their body. So that includes porn, webcams, extracurricular content of kind, all the things.
When we are living in abuse, we generally have brain fog. Very often you just don’t know. Maybe you grew up watching your dad treat your mom this way, so you think it’s normal. Maybe your pastor has preached so many sermons about how this is just your role or it’s your job to make sure you’re sexually available as often as he wants it so that he doesn’t stray or whatever.

The Abuse Cycle is a Vortex

Maybe it just started off where it seems really nice and then it has just increasingly gotten more confusing. And then sometimes he’s very “nice.” We know that’s manipulative, “niceness” manipulation. Sometimes he’s really awful, but then he is really nice again. And it’s just super confusing in that vortex.
You and I have done a whole episode about the vortex before, but it can be so helpful to have kind of a checklist of things to look for: weaponizing your belief systems, cyber abuse (because using technology to to monitor and to surveil and abuse is more common now than it ever has been), and then there’s emotional and financial and intellectual. But then we also have legal abuse, post-separation and litigation abuse and medical [abuse] and then pet [abuse] and property and physical abuse.

What is Psychological Reproductive Coercion?

Psychological reproductive coercion is things like pressuring her to conceive, or if she is pregnant, forcing her to have an abortion or forcing her to remain childless because he doesn’t want the responsibility of kids, stealing motherhood from her. That’s reproductive coercion. The the flip side of reproductive coercion is things like stealthing. Stealthing is where a guy either sabotages or removes his condom in the middle of sex and he’s not doing it with her consent. And he may do it even without her knowledge. It’s actually a sexual assault crime in Canada.
Using religious beliefs to forbid prevention of pregnancy or any prenatal care is a form of reproductive coercion. Coercing or manipulating sex when you know that she’s fertile is reproductive coercion, especially when you’re dealing with someone who’s not ready to become pregnant or maybe her health isn’t great.
Then another aspect of reproductive coercion is prioritizing her recovery after childbirth as a lower need or a lesser need than him getting sex when he wants it instead of waiting for her to heal. So all of those related to pregnancy and conception, any form of trickery or coercion related to pregnancy and conception. Some of those are actual crimes depending on your area, and it’s a bit separate from just the straight mainstream sexual abuse inside marriage.
And then we also have social abuse, spiritual abuse and verbal abuse, and all of those boomerang around this center axis of the abuse of power. We really believe that women need to be able to know what they’re dealing with. You can’t make a safe decision if you’re not making a fully informed decision.

“You Can Make Safety Decisions Without Knowing Everything”

Anne (17:00):
You can make safety decisions not knowing everything. You can move towards safety. I think the problem is the opposite, that women feel like they can’t move towards safety unless they have a reason. I’ve met so many brave women, and so I’m in awe of them, who didn’t maybe really understand abuse or they didn’t understand things and they just were like, “You know what? I don’t want this. This is not what I want.” And then after divorce they’re like, “Whoa, that was abuse. Check it out.” And I’m like, “Good for you.”, cause they weren’t waiting around for someone to give them permission to say, “You know what? It doesn’t really matter what this is. I’m going to separate myself from these behaviors no matter what they’re called because I’m not a fan.”

You Don’t Need a “Reason” to Move Toward Safety

I do not have mixed feelings. I am an educator as you are. We educate women about what is abuse so that they know. But there’s this part of me that’s so sad that women need a reason to do the thing that they want to do anyway, that they didn’t know that they could do. Do you know what I’m saying? There’s just this part of me that’s like, “Uh. I feel bad that women aren’t like, ‘You know what? This isn’t for me and it doesn’t matter what it is.'” Am I making sense?

Why Does Society Hide Abuse So Well?

Sarah (18:26):
What I see as kind of a balancing thing to that is there’s two sides, and this is the same kind of thing that we were talking about earlier. There’s the reality that is, and there’s the reality that we wish would be. So what I hear you saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that in the reality that you wish for, women could simply feel free to say, “This is not right, it’s not healthy and I’m not putting up with it.”

Anne (18:59):
Yeah. I wish the reality was that society and religion and everything did not hide abuse so well, and that also says to a woman, “It doesn’t really matter what you think and how you feel. Unless you have a really good reason and you can define it (as in, you have a black eye), then you are just complaining. Stop it.”

Sarah (19:29):
Do you think a lot of that might just center back on that baseline of gender-based control?

Anne (19:40):
Yeah, I do.

“You Are Functioning, Autonomous Adults”

Sarah (19:42):
It makes space for gender-based violence. It makes an excuse in the framework for gender-based violence. So when we step back and we start saying to women, “Hey women across the board, you are functioning, autonomous adults. There is literally nothing in a healthy belief system that says you can’t or shouldn’t or are not allowed to operate as a fully-functioning, autonomous adult. You have an equal right to safety, to protection, to provision and to thriving in whatever capacity you have been created to be, as any man. And that is your God-given right.
Now certainly this is not all women (I think you and I both see it, especially in certain aspects of faith community), but we see a higher than average proportion of women who have been raised to believe that they don’t actually have a God-given right to operate as and to function as independent, individual, autonomous adults. They have to ask their dad or ask their brother or ask their husband.

Anne (21:19):
Yep. And the other thing I’m thinking is it can’t just be because they don’t like it. It can’t just be like, “I feel uncomfortable, I do not like this situation.” They have to have a “really good reason.” And so because misogyny says you have to have a really good reason and then you say, “Well, this is a good reason. I feel uncomfortable, I feel unsafe” (you might not use the word abuse), but then they can always say, “Well, that reason’s not good enough.”

Sarah (21:48):
<laugh>. Right? “That’s not my reason, so it doesn’t count”

“I Don’t Like This” Is A Good Enough Reason

Anne (21:51):
Exactly. So it doesn’t count. And even if we’re like, “Hey, I got this chart from Sarah, she’s amazing! And look! It’s abuse on all these different things!”, we still get from clergy, perhaps therapists, “Oh. Well, you know, that chart doesn’t really take into account his childhood, and look how amazing he is when he does this.” And so just, “I don’t like this.”, for some reason is not good enough in today’s society. I think that’s what’s making me sad today. I want the listeners to think that’s good enough for us. If you were just talking to Sarah and me, and even if it wasn’t “abuse”, (let’s pretend like we don’t know what it is- we do, it’s abuse. Let’s just pretend like we didn’t know.) I want you to know that Sarah and I would say that’s good enough, that you “don’t like it” is a good enough reason.

Sarah (22:49):
Yeah. And I think that for me, one of the biggest goals that I have for every woman that I work with is to encourage her to recognize that she has a divinely bestowed God-given right to live her life in power and in love and with a clear mind. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind. And the more that we can give women these tools to recognize that you have the right to use your sound mind to decide what is right and best and safe and enjoyable for yourself and your children, we have done our job. So I just want to throw it out there. We have this chart if you are sitting and questioning and asking, “I don’t know if it’s abuse.” If you feel emotionally or spiritually or morally obligated to go ahead and have that validated reason, I understand that. I was the same way. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve got this free chart, and you can get that for yourself. You can check it out and download it at

Anne (24:19):
Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts today and thank you for going down my little rabbit hole <laugh> that I was obsessed with today. You’re amazing. I’m so grateful that Sarah could come on today and share her knowledge with us. She’s a wonderful advocate to victims everywhere. If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. And until next week, stay safe out there.



  1. Ruth Jackson

    The Holy Spirit works always. He will send his Angels of Protection around you. My husband of 15 years was verbally, physically and emotionally abusive. The Lord showed me a way to get out and it happened so swiftly I couldn’t imagine. Prayer is so powerful. If you have friends who can pray for you it will go out in the universe. I am healing from trauma 2 years later and the divorce is not even final. He wants to keep dragging it out to keep control over me. I thought of ending my life from all the abuse, but the Holy Spirit came to me and gave me comfort. I stay prayed up all the time. I have seen the miracles and now I attempt everyday to walk by faith not by sight. I hope this will give you comfort wherever you are in your journey. God Bless.

  2. Christine Liberatore

    This was key for me. Recognizing my wanting to leave was enough. I did not have to justify or explain or provide a reason to ANYONE. My feelings are important, valid, and reason enough. Period. End of discussion


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