Stopping Divorce Before It Happens
Experts say many divorces among Christians could be averted if the couple resolved to work through their problems, yet husbands and wives often are already thinking about dissolving the marriage before they reveal troubles to anyone else at church.
Sometimes couples are reluctant to share their struggles because so many around them are keeping up a façade of perfection, according to Donald A. Lichi, vice president of EMERGE Counseling Services in Akron, Ohio. Ministry leaders who admit that tensions are a normal part of marriage can facilitate congregants being transparent about their own difficulties, Lichi says.
A recent LifeWay Research study sponsored by Focus on the Family suggests that it’s tough to know who in the pews is headed for divorce court, because Christians tend to be so reticent.
In fact, church participation isn’t a determining factor in fending off a split, the research indicates. The study, which included interviews with 1,000 churchgoing people who divorced, showed that three months before separating, seven in 10 churchgoers attend services at least weekly. And nearly half — 46 percent — had been involved in a small group just before separating. Less than half (48 percent) discussed marital woes with the lead pastor, while only 11 percent confided in another member of their small group or Sunday School class.
Nearly one-third — 31 percent — said they didn’t mention the marital strife to anyone who attended the same church.
Accepting the traits and habits of a spouse rather than spending a lifetime trying to change behaviors also will improve a marriage, according to experts.
“Instead of trying to fix the other person, a husband or wife should ask, How do I love my spouse even when he or she is unlovable or unlovely?” asks Pam J. Johnson, Care Ministries pastor at River Valley Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota. “Going through a difficult time doesn’t mean you married the wrong person.”
Lichi advises young couples in the first year or two together to find an older couple who values marriage that can serve as mentors. Johnson says many young people don’t know how to be a good spouse because they didn’t grow up with healthy role models.
Even when couples are not getting along well, it’s valuable for them to vocalize what they see in their spouse that pleases God, Lichi says.
FAILURE TO CONNECT
The majority of breakups result not from domestic violence, psychological abuse, or adultery, but rather in what experts call “low-conflict” marriages. The husband and wife grow apart; he may be focused on his career, she on raising the children. When they reach their 50s, they may think they can find happiness only if they seek out another mate.
But Lichi says such a couple hasn’t properly knit their lives together.
“There is no emotional bond that they’ve nurtured,” Lichi says. “Nurturing must be active and intentional to keep the relationship alive. Lukewarm love will kill a marriage.”
Johnson says it’s a warning sign when couples are disengaged from each other and participating in activities separately. Other threats to stability are keeping phone records or computer passwords a secret, and lacking boundaries with friends of the opposite sex on social media or at work.
Mark Rhoades, who has been coordinating AG Marriage Encounter events with his wife, Becky, since 1981, says a man can grow attached to a “work wife” that he regularly eats lunch with and with whom he is absorbed in a job-related project.
“He may have a better relationship with this woman than his real wife because she isn’t telling him to take the kids to soccer practice or clean out the garage,” says the 63-year-old Rhoades, based in Springfield, Missouri.
The disconnect at home might manifest as spouses live as “married singles,” Rhoades says. The husband may be preoccupied playing video games and the wife may spend much of her day texting or on Facebook.
“To be successful in marriage, you must find a multitude of ways to bring pleasure to your mate,” says Lichi, who has been married to his wife, Marcie, for almost 45 years. “The divorce-proof marriage is one in which a couple prays together, lays together, and plays together. Then they stay together.”
Couples need to develop a healthy interdependence upon one another in which they join mind, heart, body, and soul, Lichi says. Healthy boundaries need to be erected even around family, friends, work, and ministry, he says.
The AG has a lengthy position paper on divorce. Yet a Harris Poll last year found that infidelity — the reason specified in Scripture as permissible for divorce — ranks seventh in a list of what Americans believe are justifiable motives for going separate ways. A 2015 Gallup Poll found that 71 percent of Americans believe divorce is “morally acceptable,” the highest rating among 16 behavioral issues that included abortion, gambling, and same-sex relations.
According to a Pew Research Center study last year, 28 percent of divorced or separated adults self-identified as evangelical Protestants.
Experts believe divorce can be “contagious” in the sense that those surrounding the couple might advocate for divorce.
“If friends are divorcing, there can be a domino effect,” Rhoades says.
Lichi, who has worked 37,000 clinical hours, says there are three likeliest stretches for couples to experience a split: at seven years, when they become agitated by behaviors that once attracted them; around 19 years, when children start heading to more independence; and about 30 years, when kids have left the nest.
“Marriage as an institution is being challenged at every point,” Lichi says. “In a culture that is instantaneous in its gratification and lacking in its durability, the notion of trying to make it work with someone else besides the current spouse is often seen as the thing to do.”
There are long-term, multistage consequences of divorce. Often those in the throes of a breakup are blind to the long-term fallout until the decree has been issued. These include the complications of family get-togethers and where the children will live as a primary residence.
“When a couple chooses to divorce they have no idea how it will affect their lives emotionally, financially, physically, and spiritually,” Johnson says.
“The economic status of the wife almost always deteriorates at divorce,” Becky Rhoades says. “The time the noncustodial dad spends with the kids decreases.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Staying in the covenant relationship is a choice both parties must make. More seminars and books are available than ever before on how to improve marriage.
Johnson says troubled couples don’t hear enough about hope for improving the relationship, but she has repeatedly seen God miraculously intervene. Couples who refuse to see a counselor are missing out on an opportunity to humble themselves and to surrender the marriage to God, she says.
“So often we have seen God take the pain and hurts of life and bring beauty,” Johnson says. “All marriages go through valleys, and struggles can either make us walk away from the Lord or draw closer to Him.”
Rhoades notes that he and his wife dealt with nine years of infertility at the beginning of their marriage and both have survived cancer.
“We’ve been married 38 years and 31 of them have been wonderful,” he jokes.
Johnson says the marriage relationship can be improved when husband and wife are willing to love the other as Christ does. She suggests couples connect by praying with each other daily, reviewing the highs and lows of their day, and having a weekly date night.
Just eating dinner together and affirming the information a spouse shares —such as working for a mean boss — can be a boost.
With Mark, her husband of over 35 years, Johnson helps River Valley Church couples strengthen their marriages. The church has marriage-focused life groups and quarterly marriage conferences — which engaged couples are required to attend. River Valley Church has more than 80 trained mentors.
The Rhoades provide administrative oversight as well as participate as two of the 100 trained presenting couples for Marriage Encounter weekend gatherings, which are held at 65 locations throughout the year. The retreats feature three couples as presenters. In its 35-year history, 51,000 couples have attended.
“There is vulnerability but also power in sharing,” Becky Rhoades says. “We need to communicate for closeness. Unity can be achieved by confiding in each other. Even reflecting on a tragedy can reveal feelings that have been hidden, and bring a couple together.”
“As opposed to just living aimlessly every day, a couple must continually invest in the marriage by asking, Why did God bring us together and what does He want to accomplish through us?” Johnson says.
Making a spouse a priority is a must, Mark Rhoades says.
“Most guys take better care of their truck — waxing it, checking the tires, getting the oil changed — than their marriage,” he says.
Above all, the Rhoades advise couples who are in a rocky marriage to seek counsel.
“There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma in getting help,” Mark says. “If I have a chronic cough, I don’t just keep coughing. I get medicine or go to a doctor.”