When you married, you pledged that. But so often, five, ten, fifteen years down the road you decide you’ve had enough. I know so many women who are in just awful relationships. He pays no attention to her, he’s never home, he speaks in condescending tones, he’s lazy. I know other men who are control freaks, who nitpick about their wife’s weight, or her clothes, or her housekeeping. And they’re horrible to live with. And I find myself thinking, “she’s not honestly expected to stay in that, is she?” She’s miserable in her marriage.
Now please, I know many of you completely believe “Til Death Do Us Part”, and your inclination is to make a snap judgment. But think of some of the women who are likely reading this. They’re extremely lonely. They cry almost everyday. They’ve sought out counseling because the marriage is so difficult. They’re worried about their kids. If you haven’t walked through that, please don’t just assume that you know the answer. Just bear with me for a minute.
I speak at marriage conferences with my husband, and my passion is to see marriages restored, strengthened, and thriving. I have seen relationships go from a place where he is bordering on cruel to where he has become tender, at least around the edges. God can do anything. But for most women who are in the midst of that heartache, it isn’t so easy. Nothing is changing.
They desperately want to leave. They want a new start at life, where no one is telling them what to do, criticizing them, or perhaps worse, ignoring them. I know some women who have prayed for their husbands to have affairs so that they would have biblical justification in leaving him. And I have talked to other women who have said that they find the whole affair justification strange, because having a one night stand is not nearly as bad as what her husband does to her on a daily basis, but her friend with a husband who had a fling can leave, and she can’t. It doesn’t seem fair.
No, it doesn’t. But here’s the thing: God never promised it would be. And He never promised that any of us would have easy lives. I really struggle with the idea that divorce is off limits when I talk to some of these women, because I truly feel for them, and I truly do think their husbands are horrible. But we have to go back to Scripture. Can Christians divorce?
My reading is this: if he has a one night stand, you probably shouldn’t leave, but if he has cheated on your continuously, he has been the one to end the marriage, not you, and if you leave now, you are perfectly justified. I also believe, though this one isn’t as Scriptural, that if you are being physically abused, or if your children are being abused, you are justified in leaving. We are not asked to sacrifice our lives, or our children’s lives, on the marriage altar. And as for addictions, sometimes we have no choice to protect the family than to leave.
That doesn’t mean that in all these cases we need to divorce. I know one woman who left her husband a decade ago because he was addicted to gambling. She is still single, and they have never divorced. She just felt she needed to get her kids out of the situation.
Often, though, when we are trying to justify leaving, we will build up our husband’s sins, and say that they encompass abuse or addictions. And since nobody actually sees what goes on inside your house, I don’t think anybody is really in the position to challenge this that much. I certainly wouldn’t, because I don’t think we can really judge others when it comes to this. So I am not trying to judge anybody, but I would say that you need to be very careful if you’re going down this road.
Marriage, you see, was not meant to be fair. One Christian writer I know well told me that she left her husband because he had violated his marriage vows to love her. He had an anger problem, and even though he wasn’t abusive, he was often angry and sullen, and he criticized her, and demanded sex all the time. She felt that the Christian view of marriage was “oneness”. We have been made one, we treat each other with respect and love, and God intended for us to be connected. When that hasn’t happened, as in her case, then you’re justified in leaving.
I don’t believe this. Yes, God intended marriage ideally to be a certain way, but He never says anywhere in Scripture that if the ideal is not met we are welcome to violate our vows. When you marry, you make a vow before God. God takes that seriously. I don’t think we understand that because we live in a society where fulfillment and happiness are the prime goals. To continue in a relationship which drains your spirit rather than fills it seems like a sin in and of itself.
But for whatever reason, God made marriage this way. He gave only a very narrow excuse for leaving, and even then, He doesn’t command us to leave. He just leaves the door open, should we choose to do so. And He says, very clearly, “God hates divorce”. We need to get that in our heads. God wanted relationships to be permanent, even if they are far from perfect. Commitment matters. Stability matters.
Why? Because when we commit, we teach our children to commit. We create a society that is based on grace rather than performance. We leave room for God to work. We learn to rely on God in our hard times, rather than thinking another person can fill our voids. We learn to compromise, to accommodate, to give. We become less selfish.
And perhaps there’s a bigger reason. How about, quite simply, because God said so. That is what I am teaching my kids about their future marriages: you stay married because God said so. You don’t look for a way out. Divorce is so hard on kids, even when that divorce is justified. It usually leaves one or the other of you down the wrong path. I have seen divorces occur in my family where one of them became promiscuous and alcoholic after the divorce, which likely would not have happened had they stayed together, because they had stability. Take that stability away and everything falls apart. Marriage increases holiness, even if the husband appears petty, mean, or clueless.
The question becomes, then, “If God wants me to stay, then how am I going to manage it? What can I do to make my life bearable?” And that’s a good question to ask, because it forces us to go to God. It forces us to ask Him to be our peace. It also forces us to confront the real issues in our marriage and make an honest stab at fixing them, whether it means counseling, or a lot of prayer, or persistence.
I don’t think it’s easy. When these women in hard situations come to me and say, “I hate my marriage” and explain why, I want to say, “You’re right. You should leave.” Their husbands don’t deserve them. But I can’t say that, because I just don’t think it’s true biblically. I may think it should be true, but it isn’t. And at some point we have to submit.
Some people in this life will have much more difficulty than others. It seems unfair to stay in a rotten marriage when those around you have great ones. But things happen. Some people have children born with disabilities. Some people have health issues in their 30s. Some people are born into violent societies. Life is not fair. You can’t make it fair by doing something that God explicitly said not to do.
That, then, is my philosophy. When we vow Til Death Do Us Part, we mean it. God means it. And there is no Get out of Jail card. At the same time, I would never tell a woman that what she did was wrong, because like I said, I can’t see into your particular home. I don’t think we are to judge others in this regard. But I do think we need to preach this louder: no divorce. Absolutely no divorce. And if people realized that, perhaps they’d be more careful about who they married.
Here’s a bit of encouragement, though. In large scale studies of marriages, they have found that couples who split were less likely to be happy five years later than people who stayed together, even if their marriages were equally miserable. And even better, 78% of couples who had miserable marriages rated their marriages as wonderful five years later. The act of committing to riding it out made them happy. So if you’re going through a rough time, it likely will not always be like this. And no matter what, God is there to help you, to heal you, to comfort you, and to change you (and minister to him). If you’re miserable, throw yourself on Him. Wrestle with Him. He can take it. And ask Him to provide you with an escape from your misery–even if that escape is actually within your marriage!