My struggle with annulments

Remember back in 2014-2015 when the Synod on the Family overwhelmed Catholic media? (Aren’t you glad THAT’S over? I am.) I was in RCIA at that point, and I remember hoping that a certain topic would be addressed, but to the best of my knowledge, it really wasn’t. So here’s what I would have liked to have clarification on, as regards marriage and annulment.

I think the most important premise, when talking about annulments, is the concept that a “annulled” marriage had something wrong with it from the very beginning. At the time of “consent,” there existed factors that nullified whatever vows the spouses attempted to make. From what I understand, those are the factors for which the marriage tribunals are looking when they decide annulment cases. In other words, they are searching for known, visible factors to determine if there was a pre-existing problem.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, that is very concerning to me, because one of the defining features of domestic abuse is that it doesn’t show up at the beginning of a relationship. When you think about it, it’s just logical: no one’s going to show up on a first date and punch their date across the room; the victim has no attachment to the attacker at that point, and will immediately terminate the relationship, such as it is.

Abuse is a control mechanism, and treating someone badly early in a relationship ends the relationship, and the potential for control. So abusers play nice — sometimes for YEARS — until the victim is so attached to them, and entrenched in the relationship (financially, emotionally, socially), that they will tolerate all manner of mistreatment.

So when a victim of domestic abuse finally leaves (and abuse is one thing that most Christians will accept as justification for civil divorce), they are in a really bad situation when it comes to getting an annulment. They have clear evidence that living with their spouse is not currently tolerable, but it is unlikely that they have any such evidence from the beginning of the relationship. In fact, their abuser may have been unusually kind and admirable in the beginning, showing all the trademarks of being mature, well-balanced, and reasonable.

I guess my question is: what are victims of abuse supposed to do? Do they just get the short end of the stick? They are unable to get an annulment, but their relationship is the very definition of irreconcilable? I understand that in this world, sometimes innocent people just get the shaft. I guess I just would have liked that particular situation to have been addressed more explicitly in the document from the Synod.

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For example, if a person has been abused, yet there is no evidence for nullity, then what they’re being told is that their marriage is valid and sacramental — that God gave them and their spouse special grace to be able to live marriage out well — yet in their case, it seems to have had the opposite effect. How can they reconcile the validity of a marriage that seemed to destroy them, instead of build them up? If the sacramental grace of marriage allowed their spouse to tear them down, then of what good is it? Is there no way to take evidence from after the marriage was attempted, and to conclude that the current situation demonstrates a lack of sacramental grace from the very beginning, even if there were no explicit indications at the time?

I’m not saying the Church is wrong; I’m just struggling to understand her teaching in light of how my life has played out. As I’ve said before, it’s irrelevant to me because I plan on avoiding marriage like the plague for the rest of my life, so I shouldn’t find myself in a canonically-irregular situation regarding reception of the Eucharist, for example. But I nevertheless struggle to reconcile that my marriage is valid and sacramental with my husband’s abuse.

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