Diminishing the Sting of Divorce
Christian marriage counselor Linda Miller-deBerard of Colleyville, Texas, never advocates that couples, including Assemblies of God adherents, divorce. Yet, in her more than 25 years of practice, Miller-deBerard has witnessed many husbands and wives who are unable to resolve their differences hire attorneys to initiate proceedings.
And when that happens, Miller-deBerard says, partners who might have been able to settle matters amicably often turn nasty. The bitter sentiments can last a lifetime, and when children are involved, Miller-deBerard says families can be damaged beyond the already turbulent upheaval of divorce itself.
The traditional route of hiring a lawyer to develop a legal case against a spouse can quickly turn antagonistic, according to Miller-deBerard, especially once the attorney files temporary divorce orders. These legally binding decrees typically invoke terms ranging from forbidding the other partner from moving funds in joint bank accounts to not associating with child sex abusers.
“It looks as though the spouse is being accused of stealing money and child molestation,” says Miller-deBerard, who has been married for three decades. Customarily attorneys charge $3,000 to $6,000 to file such orders, but Miller-deBerard contends such an expense is unnecessary in most cases.
Certainly when spousal abuse, neglect, or drug addiction is involved, a judge needs to make decisions for the safety of the victim. But those constitute a minority of cases, and in the past decade various therapists and attorneys have noticed that the litigation system can be unhealthy for families. Besides the cost, Miller-deBerard says unexpectedly being served with legal documents can wound and offend the other party — and start a mudslinging exchange as a husband and wife become entrenched in trying to finagle a better financial settlement from courts.
Miller-deBerard believes she and her peacemaking attorney friend, Stacey H. Langenbahn, have devised a better path. Under their Détente Family Mediation plan, couples are invited to sit down together and discuss what their lives — and the lives of their children — will look like after the split. What will be the related expenses for the spouse who retains ownership of the home? How will the daughter’s braces be paid? Who will keep attending the home church? Will the family still be able to gather for holidays?
“Our goal is to get a couple who is considering the end of a marriage to continue talking in ways where they can co-parent and the child doesn’t have to choose sides,” Miller-deBerard says.
Langenbahn, newly elected president of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators, cites the apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 as a reason for believers to use neutral mediators rather than the government judges in an effort to work out marital strife.
“It’s important to go to another Christian to try to resolve differences instead of the court system,” says Langenbahn, who has been married 27 years.
Since the early model settlement service started 6½ years ago, 95 percent of the 236 couples involved have reached agreements in mediation and avoided court. The process leaves the door open for a future reconciliation much more than an expensive court battle does, Miller-deBerard says.
“If a couple keeps fighting through attorneys, children will suffer the consequences,” Miller-deBerard says. “Divorce is a horrible thing that I don’t advocate as a Christian, but this way families can live peacefully in the aftermath.”
The Assemblies of God has a lengthy position paper about the damage caused by divorce.
In recent years, various ministries in the Fellowship have started efforts to strengthen marriage before relationships reach the breaking point. And many couples who have gone their separate ways later regret the decision.
The divorce rate in the U.S. peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, falling gradually but significantly since then. However, that is partly because more couples are now cohabitating rather than marrying. The number of weddings in this nation topped out at 2,482,137 in 1984. Although there now are 75 million more Americans compared to 30 years ago, the number of annual weddings is down by 341,865.
Miller-deBerard says husbands and wives who divorce don’t need an attorney to facilitate how to treat each other worse.
“I’m not for divorce any more than I am for cancer,” Miller-deBerard says. “But they both happen and people still need to be treated with kindness, caring, and respect. In divorce, they sometimes need to learn to treat each other better.”