More and more marriages are terminating in divorce. In every case, one or both parties believes that divorce is preferable to staying together in an unhappy marriage. The pain of living together is so great that permanent separation seems to be the only choice. With the support of family, friends, the media, even church leaders, couples decide that it would be better to sever the marriage bond. No one – and certainly not those who are married! – disagrees that marriage is difficult, and that building a relatively happy marriage takes years of hard work. Nor does anyone deny that marital pain cuts to the heart and leaves painful inner wounds. What most people don’t know, however, is that a strong case can be made against divorce. I am not talking only about the teaching of the Bible. That is clear enough, despite the confusion reigning in the church on this issue nowadays. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Jesus commanded, “What God has joined together, let not man separate (Matthew 19:6). When the Pharisees said that Moses had allowed divorce, Jesus reminded them that God joins man and woman together as one flesh. Moses gave a commandment about divorce and remarriage (Deuteronomy 24) in order to limit the sin that formerly married people could commit against each, but Jesus clearly attributed this to man’s hardness of heart. “Hardness of heart” in the Bible almost always describes a condition of those who do not believe in God, do not obey God, and are destined for eternal wrath. Christians differ over whether divorced persons may remarry. That is another subject. What we must see now is that God never divorced Israel, though she was frequently unfaithful to Him and never loved Him as He loved her. He remained faithful to a wicked wife. Likewise, Jesus has bound Himself forever to a church that constantly wanders away into sin. But that is the Bible, and most people don’t accept the Bible as their authority for making decisions. Are there any other reasons why divorce is not wise or beneficial, why it is actually harmful for those who choose that way? Yes. Diane Medved, a psychologist, once set out to write a book defending divorce as the lesser of two evils for many married people. When she had completed her research, however, she published an entirely different work, The Case Against Divorce (New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc, 1989). I briefly summarize some of her points below. Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in her book. As she did her research, she discovered that “divorce was catastrophic – but not in the commonly accepted terms of a simple year or two thrown away… The physical act of packing a bad and moving out is traumatic. And from there on the trauma escalates.” “People could be spared enormous suffering if they scotched their permissive acceptance of divorce and viewed marriage as a serious, lifelong commitment” (4) She learned about “the permanent distrust, anguish, and bitterness divorce brings” (4) and discovered the “lingering emotional and psychological effects.” “Women’s standard of living declines by… 73 percent in the first year after divorce.” Most women who get divorces are still clinically depressed ten years after the divorce, and all “were moderately or severely lonely.” The chances of divorced women finding another husband are less than those of “being struck by a terrorist!” (6). “The effects of divorce last a lifetime. And they are in actuality far worse than we care to confront” (7). She herself is divorced and, though happily remarried, writes poignantly of the “enormous loss” of her divorce. Her second marriage is an exception, for only one half of those she interviewed who remarried stayed with the second spouse or found themselves happy in their new marriage (actually, the percentage nationwide is much lower). “No one ever emerges from a divorce unscathed – he or she is inevitably permanently harmed” (10). She reviews the usual reasons for divorce and agrees that “after divorce women especially, and men to some extent, report emotional growth. But won’t admit that they might have blossomed even more had they gathered the gumption to stick with and heal the marriage” (12). In brief, her “case against divorce” includes four elements, which I quote in full:
- Divorce hurts you. Divorce brings out selfishness, hostility, and vindictiveness. It ruins your idealism about marriage. It leaves emotional scars from which you can never be free. It costs a bunch of money – and significantly reduces your standard of living.
- Divorce hurts those around you. It devastates your children for at least two years and probably for life. It hurts your family by splitting it in two; both family and friends are compelled to take sides. It forces you to be hardened against people you once loved. It rips the fabric of our society, each divorce providing another example of marriage devalued.
- The single life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Ask anyone – the “swinging singles” life is full of frustration, rejection, and disappointment. The Mr. or Ms. Right you assume waits for you may be only a futile fantasy. Even a successful affair that bridges you from one marriage to another often becomes merely a second failure.
- Staying married is better for you. You don’t have to disrupt your life for two to seven years; instead, solving marital problems provides a sense of teamwork and stands as a concrete accomplishment that enhances problem-solving skills in the larger world. Marriage is statistically proven to be the best status for your health, divorce the worst. Marriage gives you something to show for your time on earth – children (usually) and a bond built on continuity and history (13).
Dr. Medved spends the rest of her book substantiating and illustrating her thesis with countless statistics and personal stories. She surveys the usual reasons for seeking divorce and finds them insufficient grounds for inflicting such permanent damage on yourself and your family. She then gives seven reasons for staying together, including
- The welfare of the children (recent studies have added more weight to her argument that divorce devastates children).
- The power of perseverance.
- The value of keeping a long-term relationship together.
- The damage done to family and friends by divorce.
- The consequences of divorce are too awful.
- The desire not to hurt one’s spouse.
- The fear of being alone.
Then she mentions the “costs of divorce.” Here are some of the section headings:
- “The emotional impact of divorce : Much Pain, No Gain
- “A very Special Private Hell
- “Hurting the One you Love
- “Becoming a lesser Person
- Being “Crazy in Our Midst
- “The Alluring Vitality of Anger
- “Divorce Won’t Solve Your Problems
- “Doomed to Repeat the Past
- “A Blow to Self-Esteem”
In her last section, Medved surveys a few of “The Benefits of Staying Married:
- “Only Marriage Brings True Romance
- “Marriage Is Good for Your Character
- “Marriage Meets Our Need for Attachment
- “Marriage is a Safe Haven
- “Strength Comes Through Crisis”
- Marriage is “The Only True Commitment”
- Marriage is “The Ultimate Setting for Fulfilling Life’s Purpose” (The above are all from the Table of Contents”)
Medved is not a professing Christian so she writes from a secular standpoint. As a Christian, I would add that we can find the power to stay married and to overcome marital difficulties through faith in God. He gives us grace to forgive each other, accept each other, and to be changed ourselves.
So, What Should We Do?
If you or your friends are contemplating divorce, I urge you to reconsider. Ask yourself, “What is God trying to teach me through my conflicts with my spouse?” Almost surely, He is giving you an opportunity to grow - in faith, hope, and love. Ask friends to pray for you – but don’t criticize your spouse in the process! I said, “Ask them to pray for YOU.” Admit that your love and patience are running out, and beg them to call upon God to give you His strength. Confess your own faults and ask His forgiveness. Plead with Him to change you (and your spouse). Go to church. Get into a small group Bible study. Seek out a marriage counselor and keep going until you can communicate with each other without fighting. Read, ponder, memorize, believe, and obey the Bible. And keep your marriage vows! As we turn to Him, God will grant us all the grace we need to do His will, which is to stay together.
Brief Replies To Some Common Reasons For Wanting A Divorce
At the risk of seeming cold and hard-hearted, I would like to give very brief responses to some of the reasons for initiating divorce that people have expressed to me. I do this as a sort of reality check, to challenge some assumptions and hopefully to encourage people to re-think their views of marriage. - “My marriage is dead. My spouse’s behavior killed it.” You often hear this statement in Evangelical circles, where it is usually combined with the idea that “ the marriage bond has been broken” by adultery or desertion or some chronic behavior indicating low commitment to the marriage. The major problem with this concept is that you can’t find it in the Bible. The relationship surely suffers terrible damage by adultery, drug abuse, addiction to pornography, hateful words, and other signs of lack of love, but does it “die”? In the Bible, this metaphor is not used. God, as we have seen, remained faithful to His spouse, Israel, even when she had “broken” the “covenant.” He would not give up until, like Hosea, He had won her back. The relationship may be damaged and filled with excruciating pain, but it is not “dead.” - “There is no hope of reconciliation.” How do you know? As long as you persist in seeking God’s grace in your life, there is hope that He will change you enough to forgive your spouse, ask forgiveness from your spouse, and even for both of you to come to a new place of mutual respect and acceptance. Even if your spouse has remarried, you don’t have to; your faithfulness to your original marriage vow can stand as a sign of God’s faithfulness to us, His erring children. - “My spouse has no intention of preserving this marriage.” That may be the case, but do you then have to make sure that it ends in divorce? Perhaps if you showed more humility and patience, your spouse would come around. Perhaps not; maybe your spouse is so hard-hearted that reconciliation will never take place. But you don’t have to be the one who shuts the door. - “My marriage is a sham.” What do you mean? That your marriage appears better than it is? Most marriages do. We don’t – and shouldn’t – share all our secrets with others. On the other hand, perhaps someone needs to know about your troubles in order to help you. Find a marriage counselor; get into a couples group where you can express some of your difficulties; find one person of the same sex with whom you can admit your lack of love for your spouse and pray about it. - “God does not want me to live forever in an unhappy marriage.” There are several possible responses to this assertion: God DOES promise that certain people will be “happy” (usually translated as “blessed”) in this life. Notice to whom those promises are given: Those who turn away from sin, follow God’s law, and live out the Beatitudes (re-read Matthew 5:3-12 to refresh your memory if necessary). To the degree that we violate God’s will, to that degree this “happiness” will not be ours. Divorce violates His will. Jesus promised, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Paul tells us in Romans 8 that this whole universe groans in pain, awaiting the return of Christ and the redemption of our bodies form sin. Until then, there is no undiluted “happiness” for anyone on this earth. Those who set their hopes on earthly happiness will suffer sharp disappointment. True happiness comes from holiness. God wants us to be holy. He often uses “unhappiness” – illness, poverty, rejection, sorrow – to refine us and make us more like His Son Jesus. Our marital struggles – and all married people have them - are a part of His gracious work to reveal your sin and His forgiveness and demonstrate His transforming power. That will produce Christian joy, which much deeper and more lasting than worldly “happiness.” - “I can’t stand the pain any more.” The agony of marital strife is truly awful, but how do you know you have reached your limit? People can take far more than they realize. Perhaps God can use your pain to drive you closer to Himself, so that you see your sin and His grace, and begin to experience His transforming power. Remember the words of Paul, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (spoken to a different situation, but applicable to all believers). - “I can’t take the uncertainty of not knowing whether we’ll ever be reconciled; I would prefer the certainty of divorce.” That is understandable, but remember that uncertainty is a sign of life. The certitude of divorce is the certitude of death. It is final, irreversible, and far worse than you imagine. - “I made a mistake when I married this person. Now I want to correct that error and get on with life.” You may have made an unwise, immature, uninformed, even foolish decision, but God makes no mistakes. Your decision was part of His plan for your life. He works “all things” together for your good, if you love Him. Your past folly does not frustrate His design to conform you to Christ, mostly through suffering. - “Why should I have to live forever with the consequences of a poor choice?” Because that is the way God has constituted this moral universe: Actions have consequences. On the other hand, if we will repent of our sins, including the sin of a hasty marriage choice, then we can experience God’s renewing, redeeming, abundant mercy and power in our lives. He brings good out of evil – witness the Cross, for example. If we turn to Him in constant faith, He will grant us such a relationship with himself that we shall know His love and power more and more each day. Who knows? Perhaps your spouse will see a change in you and want to have what you have. - “I’ve learned from my mistake. When I marry the next time, I’ll do things better.” You should rather say, “IF” I marry again – the odds are not as great as you imagine. Then, you should say, “I HOPE I’ll do better,” for if you failed one time, you will most likely fail again. Further: Have you really learned from your mistake? What have you learned? To persevere under trials, confessing your sin and asking God’s love to fill your heart and overflow to those around you, or to cut and run when the going gets too tough? The bottom line is that God seeks our holiness. Given our fallen nature, He usually employs pain as His primary means of changing us. We can either cooperate with His chastening of us and learn what He seeks to teach us, or turn from His loving discipline and seek to go our own, pain-free, way. If we do refuse His chastening in our lives, we shall merely meet His loving resistance again and again, until we finally bow before Him in humble faith and submission to His will. God sends difficult people into our lives to uncover our hidden idols and then to deliver us from them through reliance on His grace in Christ. If we work with Him, we shall find increasing liberation from sin and freedom in His love. If we turn from Him, we shall continue in bondage to gods that are not gods, especially the elusive idol of “happiness.”