Ed and Sue were the perfect couple, or so their friends thought. They were raised in stable homes and shared similar values. They met on an Adventist college campus and were both successful achievers. At their wedding, everyone was convinced it was a marriage made in heaven. But as unresolved problems grew and differences became more difficult to manage or deny, their conflicts eventually escalated into bitter arguments and hostile outbursts. Over time, walls of resentment replaced intimacy. Ed and Sue filed for divorce.
Marriages may be made in heaven, but they are lived on earth. The truth is, there are no perfect marriages. Marriages must be grown over time, as two different personalities discover their common ground. Every married couple eventually discovers disruptive elements in their relationship that need modifying. Yet, the presence of problems is not an indicator that the marriage has failed. Problems can be resolved. It is when problems are not resolved, but allowed to grow over time, that divorce can become an attractive option.
But is divorce ever a reasonable response for the Christian in a troubled marriage? While we may expect two mature Christians to find an acceptable solution to their problems, reality reminds us that one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. As a church, should we accept this reality or insist on the ideal of a lifetime marriage, no matter what the circumstances?
A plea for understanding
As pastors, we have experienced the plea for understanding from a spouse who is receiving serious emotional or physical injury in a destructive marriage or when in one way or another the emotional and physical abuse spills over into the lives of the children in the marriage. Most likely, our first inclination is to encourage such a person to hold on to the fragments of the marriage. And why not? With effort and guidance, the majority of marital problems can be resolved. Being patient and exerting the extra effort is supported by the biblical mandate of lifetime marriages. "What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6).
But what are one's options when marital difficulties are not resolved? Rather than harmony, the couple experiences disharmony that undermines love and trust. This can occur when one ignores the concerns of the other, choosing instead to be concerned only with one's own needs and desires. Under these circumstances, the walls of separation grow until they become well fortified barriers of isolation, self-protection, and even hostile aggression. Why should anyone be forced to spend the rest of their life in this marriage, especially if one believes there is no possible resolution or conciliation to the problems? And in all honesty, if either partner is unwilling to work on improving the relationship, the problems may never be resolved.
God understands the devastation of being caught in such a relationship. He personally experienced this in His intimate association with Israel. What did God do when He found Himself in a situation in which Israel refused His appeals? He attempted to restore the relationship by sending His prophets to call Israel back. The message of Hosea's prophecy is a powerful example of God's pursuit of Israel. But over time God's messengers were repeatedly rejected and even killed. Finally, in the light of Israel's unfaithfulness, and with a sadness that only one who has loved so deeply and yet been spurned so completely can feel, God speaks of ending His relationship with Israel with a "decree of divorce" (see Jer. 3:6-8, RSV).
This response on the part of God may conflict with our understanding of divorce. But we must be careful not to define the marriage relationship in terms inconsistent with our relationship to God. This is especially true in light of the fact that the marriage relationship is the most frequently used biblical illustration of our relationship to God. Are the circumstances under which God divorced Israel valid for the Christian couple when confronted with similar circumstances? I think so.
Marriage is definitely a commitment for life. While this is true and unquestionably desirable, it does not take into account the fact that marriage commitments can be and are broken. Once broken, trust is seriously impaired and the essential relationship is often permanently disrupted. In short, if a marriage does not function as a marriage, then why should it be considered a marriage?
Evidence for a marriage's viability
What then is the necessary evidence for determining a marriage's viability? As a church, we have historically used the landmark of sexual infidelity as the sole justification for divorce. But is this the only appropriate indicator of a broken marriage? Would you consider any of the following destructive behaviors and attitudes indicators of a broken marriage?
- hostile unresolved arguments
- physical abuse of spouse and/or children
- significant financial irresponsibility alcoholism and/or drug abuse
- chronic depression and withdrawal pornographic or sexual deviations
- long-term psychiatric disturbances
- addictive gambling or credit-card abuse
I am not talking about moderate problems in these areas but extreme difficulties where there is no hope for, or desire to make real and lasting change. While some can only imagine what this would be like, others live in such marriages on a daily basis.
In the presence of such marital difficulties, it is important to distinguish between "the problems" or behaviors that disrupt a marriage and the "choice" one makes or fails to make to be committed. We should not assume a broken commitment because of the presence of disruptive behaviors. For while behaviors may be fairly reliable indicators of commitment or lack of it, they are not the same thing.
In evaluating such difficult marriages, the real issue to be understood and clarified is not only whether divorce is justified but whether the marriage is justifiable. Rather than focusing on blame, we would be better off focusing on solutions whenever a commitment remains in both members of the couple to resolve problems. The marriage vow implies a mutual commitment to resolve problems. The Bible refers to this as the work of "two" becoming "one."
Clarifying the commitment
The starting place, therefore, is not in the documentation of problems but in clarifying the commitment each person brings to the relationship. We should not seek justifications for leaving a marriage but rather seek clarification about the functionality of the marriage. So, what defines a functional marriage? A successful marriage is ultimately defined by shared commitment. It begins with the wedding vows and is maintained through the continual expressions of commitment. Shortcomings can be corrected if one is willing to grow.
While intervention in troubled marriages needs to begin by clarifying current commitments, it should also assess the reliable sustainability of that commitment into the future. In my counseling I have helped more than one couple work through their problems even when the problem was an affair. But it takes two committed people to make a marriage work. One committed individual cannot bind the marriage together without commitment from the other.
When Paul faced the issue of abandoned marriages (withdrawn commitment), he left it open for the abandoned spouse, in at least one set of circumstances, to leave the disrupted marriage (see 1 Cor. 7:10-16). While Christians should never abandon their marriage, they have the right to recognize that choices made by the other can disrupt the marriage. In short, while you are held fully accountable for your commitment to your spouse, you cannot be responsible for your spouse's commitment to you. So if you are the one who is abandoned, you are not bound to the marriage indefinitely. This makes sense, for there is no longer a reciprocated commitment to hold the marriage together.
We should not take lightly the importance of commitment. After all, is it not the question of broken commitment that underlies Jesus' permission to divorce in the case of adultery? Breaking one's commitment to one's marital partner is a reflection of breaking one's commitment to Christ. Our marriage commitment should never be taken with any less consideration than our commitment to God.
The presence of a commitment
So, what is commitment, and how do we know if it is present? The dictionary defines commitment as: "an agreement or pledge to do something in the future." The emphasis is not so much on the past promise as it is on the future implications of that promise. Past commitments function through daily recommitment. The following guidelines may prove helpful in determining the presence of marriage commitment:
1. Choosing not to divorce is not the same as choosing to be committed. If a marriage is in trouble, the couple should begin by clarifying their commitments to one another.
2. Assuming a lack of commitment in the presence of problems does not provide the necessary clarification for making a decision to divorce. If problems are present, necessary help should be obtained to better understand the problem in order to correct it.
3. Commitment is demonstrated when no decision is made that provides an advantage to one member of a couple at the expense of the other. To understand each other's needs, both must express themselves.
4. Broken commitments are identified when the other is unwilling to work toward a mutually satisfying resolution to the problem that honors the shared values of the relationship.
5. If commitment is not offered by one or both parties, it will be almost impossible to resolve the problems and sustain the marriage.
Problems need to be viewed as opportunities for growth. Marriage is not about power or control; it is about partnership. I define commitment as "one's promise to one's spouse to love, honor, and cherish till death do us part." To love, I must become "other-centered" by learning to overcome my "self-centeredness." Yet to love another, I must be capable of loving myself. To honor, I must respect the other's aspirations and values with the goal of building the other's dignity and worth. Yet to honor another, I must act with integrity based on my own values and beliefs. To cherish is to "appreciate" what I have above anything or anyone else. Yet in cherishing another, I am not to give up my purpose in life.
It is almost too obvious to say but so important that it must be said; if each commits to the other in marriage, there will be no divorce.
The key principle
The key principle for a couple to keep in focus in the face of marital difficulties is to correct disruptive actions rather than to justify their presence. No one makes people act the way they do. The secret to a successful marriage is not in gaining compliance to our demands but in finding solutions to our problems that are acceptable and fair. The goal of commitment is not "my way" or "your way" but to discover "our way" through open sharing.
I encourage couples to grow their marital commitment by developing the skills of communication, conflict resolution, and positive expressions of love. These skills can be learned with counseling and support.
I believe marriage counseling is worth the effort. I am convinced that a restored marriage is stronger than a second marriage, and it is definitely better than the old marriage with all its unresolvable problems. Christians should always attempt to restore and renew their marriage whenever options exist or issues remain unclear. We must be careful of the allure of a fresh start. In almost every instance, the same problems that eroded the first marriage will reappear in the second. A person was once attracted to his or her spouse, and for a reason. Chances are those same reasons, needs, and desires will cause a person to select a similar partner. A couple must take the necessary time to understand themselves and the problems in their marriage before considering divorce.
Role of the church
What is the role of the church in relating to couples who are experiencing troubled marriages? The tragedy of a broken marriage can be made even more tragic by a broken relationship with the church. Rather than receiving the necessary support in their time of need, too many experience the pain of rejection from the fellowship of the church. If we walk away from the divorced, what are we simply teaching about compassion, care, forgiveness, grace, and redemption?
The problem this poses for the church and its concerned members is a serious one. Do we capitulate to the growing ease with which divorce is accepted today and allow for easy divorce? Or do we stand up to divorce with discipline to the offenders? I believe we should discipline with a desire to "disciple." By that I mean the church's main purpose, when intervening in a struggling marriage, should be to help the couple come closer to Christ.
Often, our traditional disciplinary approach to divorce creates some awkward moments and unique complications. It is often impossible to determine who did what and when in a dying marriage without initiating intrusive detective work. Should this be the work of the church, especially in light of the fact that the Bible places no significance on who had sex first outside the marriage in order to create the categories of "innocent" and "guilty." Nor will you find in the Bible anyone being required to play a "waiting game" to see who will have sex first outside the marriage in order to legitimize divorce. After all, how can the sin of one person's infidelity be used to justify the innocence or guilt of another? The problem with this behaviorally based approach is that it fails to recognize that relationships cannot be legislated.
The real issue is not blame but responsibility. What must be sorted is the willingness each brings to live by their full marriage commitment. Who is committed and who is not! The answer to this will determine if there is a viable relationship upon which to build a secure marriage. If there is commitment, there is hope. But in the absence of commitment, there is little or no hope for building a successful marriage.
In my interventions with troubled marriages, I am guided by the following principles:
1. The Bible presents a consistent and clear position against divorce.
2. In Scripture there is only one basis upon which to build a secure relationship, and that is commitment (covenant).
3. Commitment must always precede behaviors or one is left with a works-based relationship.
4. The primary goal of marriage is to become "one" with one's spouse.
5. Rather than declaring every marriage for life, no matter what the circumstances, there must be a realistic view of sin and its destructiveness to mutual commitment within the marriage relationship.
6. A determination needs to be made about the levels of commitment each brings to the marriage.
7. An effort should be demonstrated by both in the marriage to understand and utilize the tools needed to strengthen the relationship.
8. If one chooses not to be committed, that individual needs to be counseled about the spiritual dangers associated with such a choice.
9. Church policy must attempt to mediate God's redemptive grace and healing in situations where God's ideal is not met.
Such an approach will, while maintaining the sanctity of marriage, create a congregation of "wounded healers" who are understanding of the struggles of life and thus capable of ministering to the wounds of others. The church, through its ministry to its members is to become a living witness of Christ's healing ministry in the world. This is the kind of church that will attract the lost and the struggling to find their strength in Christ to carry on.