My heart is heavy today, because I have just learned of another couple that I love very much who have separated. I don’t believe the separation is necessarily permanent, but I still mourn for the pain that is involved, and for the children, and for the chance that it may not work.
When we see a friend’s marriage go down the drain, the first question that pops into our minds is often: “what can our church do”? And we tend to think in terms of pastors, or elders, or small group leaders. We don’t tend to think of us as Christians. So let’s rephrase the question, and ask today, “what can Christians do to prevent divorce”?
Now, I think there are two main strategies we need to employ: prevention and crisis management. I’m going to focus more on crisis management in this blog post, but let me deal with prevention first.
How can Christians help prevent divorce–like what should we do before the crisis hits? These would be my key points:
1. Emphasize that the purpose of marriage is not happiness; it’s holiness.
Often people split because “they’re not happy”, or they’re not in love anymore. But the reason they’re not happy is often because they are expecting the other person to meet all their needs, rather than focusing on what they can do to meet their mate’s needs. We’re missing the boat.
We think that life should be about fulfillment, and that’s not the point of life. And ironically, we tend to feel more fulfilled when we submit to God, live out our commitments, and find His peace and joy. When our focus of life becomes finding our own happiness, we drift horribly.
2. Encourage family time.
Couples don’t wake up one day and decide to split. It comes usually after years of drifting. The natural course of family life is to drift apart. It is the drifting that causes bad feelings, affairs, workaholism, etc. So we need to create a community where families are encouraged to do things together; not to have tons of meetings away from each other, or tons of small groups where the women are away from the men and everyone is away from the kids.
I’m not saying there’s not a space for that, but often in our Christian lives we put people in the position of spending time not as a family but as individuals within the wider community. It’s time to get back to family. Encourage family game nights instead of all kinds of small groups. Encourage family hikes or outings instead of church picnics. Have the youth baby-sit the kids so that parents can take a date night. Let’s make the church a place where families are together, and as Christians, let’s talk to our friends if they’re spending too much time in extracurricular activities and not enough time as a family.
3. Offer marriage support groups.
Make sure that all couples who are in their first two years of marriage have a mentor. Marriage counselling is almost more important after the wedding than before, because before everyone thinks, “that will never happen to us! We really love each other!” It’s only after the wedding that you find out you’re human. Make marriage support a regular part of what you do as a church.
4. Have messages (sermons) that clearly tell why marriage is important—
–not just because God ordained it, but because society and children rely on it.
Now, those are my prevention points. But what happens when a couple comes to you and says, “I moved out yesterday, and I’m staying on my brother’s couch while we figure out what to do next.” All too often, that’s the scenario we find ourselves in. We don’t tend to know that couples are having problems until they’ve already made the split.
Crisis Management Strategies when a Friend Wants a Divorce
But what do we do? We tend to react in panic, and then we tend to use the tools that we’re used to–namely our prevention techniques. We start talking to them about the importance of commitment. We talk about how it’s not about your happiness, it’s about holiness. And this does absolutely nothing to help.
Let me try to diagnose the problem for us, and then maybe see it in a different light.
In my experience teaching at marriage conferences, if one person wants to work on a marriage, but the other doesn’t, the chance of the marriage working is probably just under 50%, no matter how small the issues are.
If one person really doesn’t want to work, there’s not a lot you can do.
On the other hand, if both people want to make it work, I would put the chance closer to 90% that the couple can work it out–no matter how big the problem.
Even if it’s multiple affairs, or workaholism, or jail, or whatever, if both are committed, it can work. And in fact, often these relationships that are terrible are the best demonstration of God’s grace and power.
The key, then, is to get both people wanting to work it out. It is not to get both people to agree on what the problem is; it is not to get both people to agree on who is to blame; it is not to actually even solve the problem. The key is simply to get both to agree that what they want is to work it out.
In other words, the problem that caused the break is not the issue; the commitment to the marriage is the issue.
Too often, when couples arrive in a pastor’s office or in a sibling’s home or on the friend’s phone and announce that they have split, our first instinct is to talk about the problem. Why?, we ask. And when we get the details, we then try to analyze and solve the problem. Are your grounds for divorce biblical? If there is an affair involved, it very well may be biblical. Then we start arguing that even if it is biblical, it doesn’t mean you HAVE to divorce. And we go back and forth and we don’t really get anywhere.
The reason we don’t get anywhere is that we’re misunderstanding where the person is coming from. We don’t want to see the marriage end, and we’re desperately trying to get them to see what is so obvious to us. But that’s being very condescending. Most people, when they split, didn’t begin the process wanting to get out. They wanted to make the marriage work. They have cried rivers of tears. Their heart has been broken–even if they’re the one who had the affair. They have been torn apart by this. By arguing whether or not they’re in the right we seem to be dismissing all their feelings and their turmoil. We’re treating it logically, rather than emotionally. And we’re trying to insert ourselves into the problems that this couple has had–problems that we can never fully understand because we weren’t there.
Let me suggest another road.
At this point, once a couple has separated or are preparing to separate, they already believe that the issue is big enough that a breach is imperative. To argue about the cause of that breach, the legitimacy of that breach, or the solution to that breach is counterproductive. They are in pain. Instead, we need to appeal to the two solid things in their lives–the two things where love is still present. Let’s not focus on hurt; let’s focus on love. There is so much negativity when it comes to the marriage right now that you don’t want to feed into that by focusing on the cause of the negativity. Instead, you want to focus on the two things that, hopefully, still give them strength and joy.
Now I am talking primarily about Christian couples here, so if you’re dealing with couples who are not Christian, you’ll have to modify this approach a bit. But for a couple who is a Christian, I would focus on two truths:
1. Your children will be hurt by this divorce, even if the divorce is biblical.
On the whole, children do not fare well when their parents split. What is it that you want for your children? Presumably, they want their children to grow up with the best possible start in life, feeling loved and safe and secure. The best route to that is to be raised in a home by biological parents who love each other.
Even if you don’t love each other now, and even if you don’t see a way to love each other, do you agree that parents being married is best for your children? Can you give us two or three months to fight for this marriage for the sake of the children–not to stay so that you’re fighting all the time, but to stay to rebuild a marriage so that the children will be safe and secure. We aren’t talking about staying married but hating each other, because that isn’t necessarily good for the children (though studies have shown that even that situation is often better for kids than living through a divorce). But let’s agree that what’s best for the kids is two parents together.
Don’t discuss the issue that is tearing apart the marriage. Don’t discuss how you get to the point that you love each other. Don’t discuss who is right or who is wrong. Simply talk about what is best for the kids. Arm yourselves with the statistics (and if people want I can publish another post about all these stats; just let me know in the comments if you’d like that). Tell people what happens to the children after a divorce. Right now a split looks like a relief for the parent who has lived through something horrible. Let them know that it is the exact opposite for the children.
Most people, even if they are exhausted themselves, can agree to fight for their kids. Focus on that, not on the spouse.
2. God is big enough to see you through.
Now here’s the next point: Can you trust God to see you through? Can you trust God to restore your joy in life? Can you trust God to transform you and your marriage? You don’t have to know HOW God will do this, and likely the person will start talking about the issue and how it’s impossible.
Here’s the key talking point: you do not have to understand how God will do anything. You do not have to understand what it is that God will do. The only relevant question is: can you trust God to get you through this? Because if you can’t trust God to transform you and give you joy inside your marriage, how can you trust Him to outside?
God wants marriages to thrive. He doesn’t yearn for marriages where people just stick it out and are miserable. He wants people to have abundant marriages. He will still be there for people if they split; absolutely. But that is not what He wants. He hates divorce. He permits it in some cases, but that does not mean that He likes it, even then. And if He hates it, wouldn’t He prefer to transform your marriage? Wouldn’t He like it better if your marriage worked, rather than seeing you divorce and having to deal with all of that?
Again, the question is not believing whether or not the spouse will change or whether or not the issue will be resolved, and if people start trying to talk about this, stop them. Change the subject. Come back to the main point: It’s not about the issue, it’s about God. It’s not about how bad the issue is; it’s about how big God is.
I believe every marriage counselling session should focus on these two points: Can you fight for your kids, and do you believe that God is big enough to restore joy and fight for you? These are the heart issues, and neither of them has anything to do with the issue that has caused the marital split.
It’s dangerous to start marriage counseling by trying to talk about the issue, because you’re trying to apply logic to a subject that is inherently fraught with emotion. And by starting to analyze whether or not the grounds for divorce are biblical, or whether the issue is enough to cause a split, you are, in effect, insulting the person who has struggled with this for months if not years. Instead, get to the real point: you have a responsibility to your kids, and God has a responsibility to you. Do you trust God to live out His responsibility? Because if you don’t, your life is not going to be any better if you split.
Christians, when they are considering leaving a marriage, are often quite close to God, because it’s in those times of great pain that we cry out to Him the most. We often assume that they are far from God, because they are choosing a path we disagree with. But that’s often not the case. Many have been praying. Many have been pleading with Him. They often do love Him very much. Talk about this love. If you love God, can you trust Him? What they are often looking for from God is approval to break up the marriage. Change the direction into not one of approval, but one of trust. Can you trust God?
And then, in that first counselling session, ask the two people to pray for their kids and pray that they will trust God. Maybe it’s only a sentence prayer (and it probably should be only a sentence prayer), but pray it with each other present. There is something very powerful about praying together when you are in such turmoil. Even if the prayer is simply, “God, please help us to do what is best for our children, and help us to trust you,” with both of them saying it, God can do an amazing thing.
Remember this: no amount of arguing or logic can save a marriage when people want to leave. What you need is God. You need them to turn back to God, and you need them to turn back to their kids. That is hard when they are so burdened personally, but that is the road to recovery: get your eyes off of yourself, and get them on to the Lord.
Once they are both committed to working for the kids and to trusting God, you can then start to talk about the issue–perhaps after three or four more counselling sessions when the main focus is trusting in God to deal with their emotional turmoil and to deal with the kids. Don’t jump into the issues right away. No issues can really be solved until the person decides to yield to Jesus anyway. Yield to God, and God has power to work miracles. Appeal to logic, and you’ll hit your head against a wall.
Friends, I can’t tell you enough how important I think this is. I believe that we do marriage wrong in the church for all kinds of reasons–busy-ness, a refusal to admit our problems, overscheduling, an emphasis on happiness rather than holiness. And I believe that when people have problems, we start the blame game, or we try to talk them out of it. All of it will fail, and you can tell that we’re not doing a good job just from the stats of divorce among Christians–30% in Canada and 50% in the United States. Something has to change.
I believe it comes to this. Let’s stop relying on our own power to solve marriage problems. You can’t use logic to fix things. All you can do is help encourage people to move to a deeper level of submission to God. Do this, and things have a chance. Fail to do this, and you’ll likely do little good.
More people need to hear this, so please comment, tell me what you think, and share this on Facebook below! Or perhaps forward it to your pastor. We need to get a real discussion going on how to rescue couples who are in crisis.