In my practice, I have had the honor of representing victims of domestic violence while they leave terrible relationships in which their physical, psychological, and emotional safety was threatened or demolished. I have also had the gut-wrenching experience of watching some of these victims later reconcile with the very spouses who threatened their safety. Some of these people have been assured by family, friends, imams, and other community members that the previously violent spouse has learned a lesson through the separation, and will henceforward be forced to behave by said community pressure, advice, and friendship.
These well-intentioned advisors do not understand how domestic violence works. They do not appreciate the seriousness of the problem, the depth of the habit of resorting to violence, what is at stake when a victim returns to an abuser, or the cycle of violence in abusive relationships. Promises to stop are part of the cycle.
When we, as a community, counsel a woman (or a man) that she (he) is now safe with a person who has previously threatened her (his) safety, we are not betting ourselves in the process. The survivor is. This disparity, and the caution that should be taken in light of it, is lost on the people who counsel reconciliation with a known abuser. Who is responsible for the survivor’s safety once she returns? Is anyone checking in on her to make sure she is okay one month, two months, six months, a year, ten years later? Do the people who promise her that her abuser will behave understand that they are promising before God to ensure her safety? Are they willing to take responsibility for any injury she suffers as though they caused it themselves? And further, and this is the thorniest question of all, when a survivor reconciles with an abuser, is it, in fact, a spiritual good? Did a good thing happen?
I know something of the Muslim mindset towards marriage, being Muslim myself. Two of the most often repeated phrases regarding marriage are that it is “half of one’s religion” and “divorce is the halal [permissible] thing that God hates the most.” Marriage is held in high regard, and as a veteran of the institution I understand why: absent neglect, addiction, personality disorders and abuse, marriage serves as an iterative path towards greater patience, capacity for forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, and generosity. “Compete with one another in good deeds,” the Quran exhorts Muslims [2: 148]. And if both spouses are engaged in this competition, well, marriage is a beautiful thing and an institution that ought to be preserved.
But what if only one of the spouses is competing with the other in good deeds? What if the other spouse is competing in a different arena entirely: one in which the only language of winning is the accumulation of control and power? Is divorce hateful to God under these circumstances?
I come down firmly on the side of no. No, absolutely not. We have other duties beyond our duties as spouses, and some of them are more sacred. Our duty as parents, for example, to provide safe and loving environments for our children and examples of decency in the adults who claim to love them. Our duty as human beings to live good lives and reach our full potential. There is nothing honorable about placing oneself in danger in order to stay married. It is not necessary to be in danger in order to be married. Danger is not advertised as part of the package. It’s not part of the package. And yet some people are willing to let marriage have a pass, as though it retains some sacred value after having violated the very foundation upon which it is built: mutual protection and safety.
I am extremely comfortable in my principles as a divorce attorney. Some relationships need to end. Period. Some marriages are beautiful expressions of love. Some are torture chambers. Some are cold rooms in which one cannot find a winter coat. I don’t believe that anyone living in agony, who has the resources to end it, does the world, or God, or his or her children, any favors by living a life of misery and torture. In fact I believe the reverse: by exiting abusive relationships, we give ourselves the freedom to thrive, be our authentic selves, practice excellence instead of perfectionism, and share our unique gifts with the world.
We need to make sure, as a community, that where God has not made marriage an inescapable prison, we don’t step in and do that on God’s behalf. What do we stand for? Not all marriages are good. When a marriage is not a marriage, but a weapon of oppression, what does the Muslim community stand for? If we counsel reconciliation, we have to go home and take a hard look in the mirror. Does the Muslim community believe that God stands for oppression? I don’t. I am clear on that. I believe with all my heart that a spiritual good occurs when a victim leaves an abuser. For them both. For the victim, freedom is a sacred right. And for the abuser, accountability is the only path towards betterment. And the children? They see a victimized parent laying boundaries. And this will help them to lay healthy boundaries themselves.
I applaud every person who has the courage to leave an abusive marriage. God no more wants us to remain in an abusive relationships than God wants us to stand in the way of oncoming traffic. Placing oneself in danger serves no purpose. Divorce is a light-filled window into the darkness of an abusive marriage. For survivors, it is the gift of freedom. The community needs to stand in full support of survivors ending their abusive marriages, for in doing so, survivors declare the principled truth we should all hold dear.
You are entitled to feel, and be, safe in your own home. For God intends ease for you, and does not intend for you hardship. [Quran 2: 185]
About the Author: Elizabeth Dann, Esq. is a family law attorney practicing in Natick, Massachusetts. She is a divorced, single mother of three children who loves soy cappuccinos, plant-based food, and karaoke.