God, Scripture, Sacrament and Annulment

Christians see marriage as permanent and irrevocable. Our vows include promises "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part."

The wife of a sex addict may be told to forgive him. To pray for him. 

At what point does his sexual betrayal and abuse become intolerable, and grounds for divorce?

I personally wrestled with this for a long time. I meant what I said in my vows, but how long could I continue to accept the situation when my husband was unwilling or unable to stop his sexual acting-out or his pathological lying? If you are wrestling with this question, here are some things to consider.

What the Bible says

Looking to the Bible didn't give me much comfort. The Bible talks about the permanence of marriage.

Matthew 19:4-6
"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh' ? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." See also Mark 10:6-9

 The Bible does specify that the marriage bed should be kept pure.

Hebrews 13:4-7 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

When it speaks of divorce, the Bible mentions only that a man (not a woman) can do the divorcing, and then if either of them remarry, they commit adultery. One exception is "sexual immorality."

Matthew 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. See also Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18

So what is one to do when a husband becomes unrepentantly unfaithful, abusive or addicted? Are we forced to continue to "submit" to this unloving husband? (See Ephesians 5:22-33)

Abusive Spouse: First Seek Counseling

Here's what one Christian website said:

What are biblical reasons that are acceptable for divorce? Some may reason that if there is violence in the family it is at least time to move out. One reason to have a person separate themselves would be when a husband or wife is abusive to their spouse and also to their children. There is no reason that a person should put up with this. The first thing might be to move from that location and separate and hope that the abuser gets some counseling and help. It is not lawful to abuse another person. Sexual abuse of children is also against the law and should be reason to relocate immediately and the one doing the sexual abusing should be turned into the law. No one should endure such abuse – God would not look down or think it sin if a person or a spouse’s children are being abused and they are removed from whoever is molesting the child. They have every legal right to defend their children from this and to protect themselves and their children from this.

Marital infidelity, drug abuse, and non-support are also seriously considered for separating but since we know that God hates divorce, the person or couple should seek marital counseling (Malachi 2:16).

Are There Biblical Grounds For Divorce?

Here's what one Christian website said:

There are biblical grounds for getting a divorce and it is ongoing, unrepentant adultery. Some believe if there is physical abuse against a spouse and physical or sexual abuse of the spouse’s children that is never resolved, they may divorce. That is a person’s decision after they counsel with a pastor or Christian marriage counselor. At the least they should move out immediately and report this to the police.

Sexual immorality or adultery that is unrepentant and ongoing is reasonable before God’s eyes for permitting a divorce. Jesus said that, “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife [and husband of course], except for sexual immorality, makes her [or him] the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:37. 19:9). Adultery is breaking a serious commandment (Ex 20:14). But if the adultery and sexual immorality committed by the sinning spouse stops and they repent, then there should be every chance given to the person to forgive them (Mark 11:25, Luke 6:27-28). God is all about forgiveness and we are told to forgive our brother or sister when they fall and want to be restored.

Sacramental Marriage Can Be Annulled

Oddly enough, it is through Annulment in the Catholic Church that an abused wife finds recourse.

It's NOT that the Church sees abuse as grounds for divorce, but if you can show proof of existing mental illness or addiction prior to the marriage, you've got grounds for annulment.

What's the difference between divorce and annulment? Divorce is an ending of a legal relationship. In a legal sense, annulment is a formal invalidation of the legal marriage. In the Church, annulment says that the sacramental marriage is invalid; that though a legal marriage may have existed, the marriage was never "sacramental."

The Catholic Church teaches that marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament. In a sacramental marriage, God’s love becomes present to the spouses in their total union and also flows through them to their family and community. By their permanent, faithful and exclusive giving to each other, symbolized in sexual intercourse, the couple reveals something of God’s unconditional love. The sacrament of Christian marriage involves their entire life as they journey together through the ups and downs of marriage and become more able to give to and receive from each other. Their life becomes sacramental to the extent that the couple cooperates with God’s action in their life and sees themselves as living “in Christ” and Christ living and acting in their relationship, attitudes and actions.

Getting an Annulment

Getting an annulment in the Catholic Church is a process that involves paperwork. It also usually involves a fee, although exceptions may be made.

In the paperwork, you must establish the grounds for nullity. There is a list of grounds, and you choose the ones that may apply. You will explain in written statements why you believe those grounds apply.

After both you and your ex have had the opportunity to do this, the Judges will set the actual ground or grounds for the case.  The parties will be notified of the grounds.  They may express their objections to the grounds if they so choose and the Judges may then reconsider. The Judges decide each case solely on the basis of whether the grounds are proven by the testimony submitted by the parties, their witnesses, and expert consultants. The Judges may select several grounds at the beginning of the case; the testimony of the parties and witnesses will determine which is the best ground on which to judge the case in the end.  The parties and witnesses will give testimony regarding the specific grounds in the case.

Note: You cannot seek an annulment of your sacramental marriage until the legal marriage has been dissolved.

Also Note: If your marriage is annulled, there will be no written confirmation of the Grounds under which the nullity is declared. Although you have the ability to read a summary of the testimony at one point, you are not allowed to keep a copy, nor are you allowed to tell anyone about what you read because it is considered Confidential. So, while the Church may grant an annulment on the behaviors that point to Personality Disorder (and therefore Incapacity to Assume the Essential Obligations of Marriage), the Church will never acknowledge this publicly.

Why I Pursued Annulment

I wanted an annulment because I felt it was morally and ethically the right thing to do. Not because I wanted to get remarried in the Church. Not because I needed the Church to affirm what I already knew. I wanted the Annulment because as a faithful person, I wanted the Church to acknowledge the truth: my ex-husband had never been capable of making a sacramental commitment (and never will be in the future.)

My sacramental marriage was indeed declared null by the Tribunal. I feel good about that.

Grounds for Nullity that may apply specifically to Sexual Addiction

Incapacity to Assume the Essential Obligations of Marriage (Canon 1095 3º) 

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have the psychological ability to take on and to live out the lifetime obligations of marriage.  A person cannot consent to something that is beyond their psychological capacity to fulfill.  Even if the condition became known or diagnosed only after marriage, if a person was afflicted at the time of marriage with a serious psychological or psychiatric condition that prevented him or her from assuming the obligations of marriage, the marriage was invalid.  Proof of the condition must be provided, however, and often the Tribunal will require a current evaluation by a mental health professional. Because the ground requires incapacity and not merely diminished capacity, it may be difficult to prove.

Were either you or your former spouse diagnosed with a serious psychological illness?  Even without a specific diagnosis, did either of you suffer from a serious mental illness at the time of your marriage?  Did either of you have any addictions at the time of the wedding (alcohol, drugs, prescription drugs, etc.)? If yes to any of these questions, did the illness or addiction prevent either of you from living out the commitment you made to each other or to your children?  At the time of your marriage, did either of you have any serious sexual disorder, serious questions about your sexual identity, or homosexuality? If so, did this affect the ability to live out the commitment to marriage?

Insufficient Use of Reason (Canon 1095 1º)

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have the degree of reasoning ability sufficient to know and understand what marriage is and what he or she is doing at the time of marriage.  Serious conditions, such as profound mental retardation, certain personality disorders or black-out states (caused by alcoholic intoxication, drug use, or seizure disorder), might prevent a person from possessing or using reasoning ability during the marriage ceremony. If one or both spouses lacked the use of reason during the wedding ceremony itself, this ground can be considered.

Did either you or your former spouse abuse drugs or alcohol to the extent of suffering from blackout periods? If so, did either of you use drugs or alcohol before the wedding ceremony? Were either of you intoxicated, “stoned,” or “high” during the ceremony?  Were either you or your former spouse ever diagnosed with a very low intelligence or with a serious learning disability, or serious difficulty with the ability to reason?  Were either of you ever diagnosed with a mental disability or a mental illness that caused blackout or delusional episodes?  If so, did such an episode occur at the time of the wedding ceremony? Did either you or your former spouse suffer from epilepsy and grand mal seizures? If so, did a seizure occur just before or during the wedding ceremony?

Grave Lack of Discretion of Judgment (Canon 1095 2º)

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have use of sound reason and mature judgment. This means that the person is making a prudent and free decision, after careful judgment, to enter marriage with a particular person, and that the decision is not impulsive or without forethought.  If one or both spouses either lacked sufficient knowledge of marriage or failed to exercise mature judgment in choosing to marry, this ground can be considered.  Because it requires a grave lack of discretion of judgment, this ground may be difficult to prove.

Did either you or your former spouse have extremely little or no dating experience before becoming engaged? Were either of you on the “rebound” from a broken engagement or previous marriage when you decided to enter this marriage? Did you see marriage as simply “the next step” without much consideration? Did the two of you date for only a brief time? Was the decision to marry made impulsively, or without much thought? Did either of you make immature and impulsive decisions in other areas of life (career, finances, etc.)? Would you say you really did not know one another well enough to marry when you did? Was your decision to marry based on some pressing issue or circumstance (for example, a pre-marital pregnancy, difficult home situation, peer pressure, escape from another relationship)? Did family or friends express serious concerns about this marriage and did you choose to ignore them?

Error of Person (Canon 1097 §1)

To enter a valid marriage, one must know the person he or she is marrying.  In other words, marital consent is exchanged with a specific man or woman and it is essential to have true knowledge of who that person is.  If one spouse made a substantial error in judgment concerning the true identity of the intended spouse, or in other words married the wrong person, this ground could be considered.  The error in question is not about details of personality or behavior, but a serious error about the identity of the other spouse.

Did you and your former spouse know one another for only a very short time before marriage? Was your courtship at a distance? Did you actually spend very little time together, alone, before marriage? Was your intended spouse not the person you thought you were marrying? Did you discover after marriage that the person you married was not, in fact, the person you intended to marry? Did you react with shock or surprise when the error was discovered? Did you separate immediately afterward, or did your marital relationship change immediately afterward? 

Error About a Quality of a Person (Canon 1097 §2)

To enter a valid marriage, one must know the essential qualities of the person he or she is marrying.  If, at the time of marriage, one spouse was mistaken about a quality directly and principally intended in the other spouse (almost as a condition for marriage) then this ground could be considered.  This ground might apply if you or your former spouse intended to marry someone who possessed a certain quality (perhaps of a moral, social, physical, religious, psychological, or legal nature) and the primary reason for entering this marriage was the belief that the intended spouse possessed that quality.  The intended quality must be of such a magnitude that without it, the person would not have married the other.

Was there a certain quality or trait that either you or your former spouse were looking for in a prospective husband or wife (for example, a certain social status, marital status, education, a certain profession, religious conviction, freedom from addiction or disease, freedom from an arrest record)? Did you or your former spouse consider that trait so important in a prospective spouse that you would marry only someone who possessed that trait? Would this marriage have been called off if the other person did not possess that quality? When it was learned that you or your former spouse did not possess that quality, did the other spouse react with shock or surprise? Did you separate immediately afterward, or did your marital relationship change immediately afterward?

Fraud or Deceit (Canon 1098)

A person who enters marriage deceived by fraud, which is perpetrated to obtain the marital consent of the other person, marries invalidly.  Fraud is the intentional act of deception. It can be perpetrated by the other spouse or by a third party, but the end result is the same: one of the contracting parties consents because he/she was deceived into doing so.  If fraud or deceit took place in order to make marriage happen, this ground can be considered.

Did you or your former spouse intentionally misrepresent or conceal information necessary for the other person to make a well-informed marital decision? Did someone else (a parent, for example) misrepresent or conceal information necessary for a well-informed marital decision? Was the deception intentionally done in order to get the other person’s agreement to marry? If the truth had been known, and the deception not carried out, would the marriage not have occurred? If the deceit was later discovered, did it have an immediate effect on the marriage? Did the separation or divorce occur because of this?

Error Concerning the Unity of Marriage (Canon 1099)

For marriage to be valid, both spouses must intend to be absolutely faithful to one another.  If one or both spouses entered marriage with an erroneous belief that infidelity, polygamy, or polyandry was possible, this ground could be considered.  This belief must have been firmly held, or in other words, marriage could not be conceived of in any other way than allowing for infidelity or multiple spouses or sexual partners.

Did either you or your former spouse believe that it was acceptable to have other sexual partners after marriage?  Was there anything in the family background to explain the belief that marriage was not an exclusive (totally faithful) relationship? Were you or your former spouse reared in a home environment where there was sexual infidelity, or cohabitation, or several sexual partners? Did either family consider infidelity or living together acceptable or desirable? Had either you or your former spouse been unfaithful in previous relationships? Were either of you reared in a home in which no religion was practiced, or a religion that accepted polygamy? At the time you married, did you or your former spouse accept the notion of an “open” marriage? Did either of you accept the idea of multiple sexual partners, or “exchanging” partners with others? Were either of you unfaithful during your courtship or engagement? Did either of you consider cohabitation or living together to be acceptable or desirable? Were either or both of you sexually unfaithful during the marriage?

Steps in the Annulment Process

Petition for Annulment through Pastor, Annulment Sponsor, or the Marriage Tribunal

  • You, the petitioner, fill out basic paperwork with information about yourself, your ex, and your marriage. You will need to include copy of marriage license, copy of the divorce decree and baptismal certificates. You need to provide contact information for your ex-spouse. 
  • You will include Grounds (formal reasons) why you believe the sacramental marriage is invalid. 
  • You will provide a list of "witnesses" along with their contact information. Witnesses are people who know you well and can give testimony regarding your courtship, your marriage, and in particular the situation at the time of the wedding.

Petition is forwarded to Tribunal

The Petition is submitted to the Tribunal, and is either accepted or rejected. If accepted, the Tribunal decides whether a formal or a shorter process is necessary, and a judge and an assessor are assigned.

Respondent is Contacted

The respondent (ex-spouse) has a right to participate. He may read testimony, provide testimony, and provide witnesses.
At this stage, you will receive a detailed questionnaire to fill out.

Evidence Gathering

After potential Grounds are established, detailed questionnaires are sent to each of the witnesses. Your witnesses should be in a position to corroborate your testimony. The goal of an annulment is to discover the truth about the motives and intentions of the parties at the time of their wedding. Make sure your witnesses will be able to answer those questions.

Publication of the Acts

When all of the testimony has been collected, the acts (evidence) may be published. The names of witnesses are removed, and only pertinent information is included. The petitioner and the respondent have the right to read the acts, but may have to sign a Statement of Confidentiality in order to read these documents.

Affirmative or Negative Decision

The Judge examines the evidence. The Judge must reach moral certitude (a high burden of proof) to justify that the sacramental marriage was, in fact, invalid. The parties are informed in writing of the decision. An affirmative decision means the sacramental marriage was invalid. A negative decision means the sacramental marriage is valid.

The Grounds for the Annulment are not specified. So if you're looking for some vindication after your ex-spouse had dragged your name through the mud for breaking up a "sacramental marriage," be aware that you will have nothing to prove any of the testimony that was gathered.

Second Court and Appeals

Either a negative or affirmative decision may be appealed.