How “no divorce ever” hurts people

Chained couple © Nikolai Sorokin |

Speaking of divorce (and because it’s been awhile since I got any good hate email):

If marriage is something you do for as long as you like it (a view I don’t agree with) then marriage seems like no big deal: try it, and if you fail, you bail, and try again. Of course, the research shows that this does not work – even if a person sees divorce as no big deal, the results are devastating, and each divorce reduces the odds of a good marriage in the future. In reality, divorce is more like cutting off a gangrene arm or leg – even if it’s the best choice it’s a horrible thing to do, and you carry the scars, limitations, and regret of the action for the rest of your life.

That said, a “no divorce, ever, no matter what” mentality can also causes problems. If both husband and wife feel this way, and both are committed to doing whatever it takes to make it work, then it’s okay. However, if only one person is willing to work on it, they are at the mercy – or lack of mercy – of their spouse who is not willing to do what is needed. If you look at subcultures that “don’t allow” divorce (including some churches) you don’t find as many great marriages you would expect. Sure, some are great, some good, some not so good, and so on; but you also find a higher rate of very bad marriages than in other groups. You find women dying at a younger age, more depression in women, and far more women who are deeply hurt and feeling trapped in their marriages. You also see more women who “leave the faith” so they can divorce and not become an outcast.

I am not arguing for divorce here, or for churches to be less concerned about divorce. What I am arguing for is being far more concerned about marriages being good and healthy for every husband and wife. If a man or woman is abusive, addicted, involved in adultery, or abusing their children, and the churches only (or primary) response is to tell that person’s spouse that they “are not allowed to divorce” then the church is enabling the wrong behaviour, and tacitly approving of more of the same.

How can a church (or denomination) preach passages against divorce while failing to preach passages that tell husbands and wives what they should be doing? How does an individual or church have the moral authority to tell someone to not divorce when they refuse to tell the clearly wrong spouse they need to change? Don’t hide behind “privacy” or “not getting involved” – neither of these are concepts you can support biblically.

If we want to reduce divorce in the church, we need to do it by working to strengthen and heal marriages. We need to do it by trying to delay marriages when couples are not ready, and by stopping engagments that are clearly train wrecks in the making. We need to support newly-weds, and come alongside any marriage in trouble. We need to tell folks that failing to be a loving spouse is a sin. We need to call folks on marital sin and short fallings. If we did more of this, we would not need to do nearly as much telling folks they should not divorce, and we would not become jailers for folks in abusive, destructive, and toxic marriages.

Bottom line: Trying to keep folks where they don’t want to be is far more difficult and far less successful than trying to make where they are a place they want to be.

The personal implication: If you are relying on “she knows she can’t leave me” to keep your marriage, you are in a very bad place.

Image Credit: © Nikolai Sorokin |

26 Comments on “How “no divorce ever” hurts people

  1. Would you please provide the references for the assertions you made in the second half of the second paragraph? I am interested in reviewing the studies or research. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the challenging post – I think your “gangrene” metaphor may be pretty accurate. Let’s not forget, too, that Jesus himself gives pretty specific allowances for divorce (albeit with confusing variety between the different gospels).

    Have you (or anyone) had positive experiences confronting fellow husbands on their behavior? Sometimes I feel it’s in the wife’s best interest for me to (graciously, patiently, humbly) challenge the husband’s behavior for her sake, but there’s little to no cultural precedent. Any advice?

    • @Chris Tolles – I’ve seen a couple first hand, and had more reported to me by folks I trust. The majority do not go as one would like, but some do bring positive results. Also a couple that did not save the marriage, but saved the wife and kids a lot of trouble by backing the husband off – basically bully protection. Usually this is a last ditch effort, and that means there is a lot against it.

      What is far more effective is coming along side before it gets critical.

  3. This is something I started thinking about and getting on the soapbox about more than 4 years ago. I maintain that if a church concentrates on building good, no make that great marriages, they would not be able to build a church big enough to hold all the people who would want to come.
    The church is the only organization that has both the opportunity and the responsibility to do this job. And this from someone who is not a Christian.

  4. I totally agree. I hold on to this premise: Non-Christians (at times) seem to work on their marriages more BECAUSE divorce is an option. When divorce ISN’T an option (in theory), what is the incentive to work on things? I.E. “I don’t need to change because he/she would never leave me, it isn’t biblical. Neither of us have cheated, so I’m/we’re good.” Both are still sinners needing to “examine oneself”.

    • @lookin2Him -Sadly some do act only when they think they have something to lose. Give them a reason to think they can’t lost something, and they have no reason to work on it.

  5. Ya bro, I am not in complete agreement here. The church often shoots their wounded and divorced believers seem to be the first ones fired upon. We all “fall short” and there is no excuse for the church to do anything other than surround all wounded believers with unconditional love and support. That being said, consider this. Jesus is radical, following Jesus is a radical action and rarely makes sense to a lost world. Marriage is by far the number one radical opportunity to live out the unconditional love scenario in a visible, amazing, tireless, sacrificial, deliberate, stubborn, “crazy beyond all reason” , radical manner that will make the world pause and take notice. God wants to take us to a place He knows is best for His purpose (…and we believe His purpose is best for us, right?…) and He will use whatever radical means it takes to get us there. (…usually pain…) My wife and I went through a period of almost 7 years where 1 of us was alternately trying and the other was on the way out. Thankfully, in spite of the immense pain, discontent, depression, discouragement and threats, we both believed that marriage is forever and that divorce is not an option. (…radical…) And ya, we worried about the effect on our kids and ya, we had plenty of people telling us we deserved better and that we would be happier and it would be easier on the kids if we just got out. Thankfully, instead of buying into that load of crap, we determined to endure and to be obedient to the radical covenant, one flesh marriage that is clearly portrayed in scripture which in turn allowed us to recieve what God wanted to teach us and be receptive to how He wanted to mold us and, above all, to experience how only He can love us. (…Radical…) If we had given up when our relationship was in the darkest, most painful, hopeless place we wouldn`t be in this incredible, amazing place we are in now. Many people, most of whom we had no idea were watching, have expressed to us the hope and renewed commitment our healed marriage has brought to their marriage. And who knows how this will play out in the lives of our children and grandchildren for generations to come. I know there are extremes and if a life is in danger from abuse, get out now, get help now but don`t give up now. God is a God of miracles and is the master potter and can heal & restore even the most extreme situations and break the hearts of even the harshest abusers and heal the hearts of the most abused. God wants the best for His children. Give Him the chance to show that. (…radical…)

    • @tracy – I don’t disagree with you – and treating your marriage as “yeah, whatever” is hardly radical.

      As I said, I am not for divorce. My point is that the church’s current strategy is NOT working. When we limit our marriage saving tactics to “you should not get divorced” we actually create a situation which fosters divorce.

      I am NOT making excuses for those who give up – but I am looking at the reality that some will give up if it gets to a certain point. I think we need to focus on keeping their marriage from getting to the point where they will give up.

      • I hear you. Too many local bodies have the “thou shalt not or else” attitude regarding divorce and a multitude of other issues. But there is also an amazing and growing number of local bodies and marriage specific ministries providing support and resources that focus exactly on what you are talking about. (you should check out when you can) My wife and I understand the desire to just end it and get away from a seemingly dark & hopeless situation. We are both grateful & humbled beyond words that our marriage is restored. Pray for everyone who is at that point. God is bigger.

  6. Thank you for writing this. You are only of the only people outside my counselor and support group that understands what most people don’t – in some cases, divorce is healthy. And I mean in the specific ways that you listed – if the marriage has addiction, adultery, etc. So many times as I have struggled with my marriage to a sex addict, I have heard people say “But you don’t have a reason to leave, so you need to just keep loving him. He hasn’t committed adultery yet.”
    While I am doing all I can to rebuild and strengthen my marriage, this view upsets me. My husband HAS committed adultery, albeit not with another person, but the Bible does say that “if a man even looks at another woman with lust in his heart, he has committed adultery.” I know for a fact that my husband has committed adultery in this sense. If it ever got to the point that his porn usage was continual and he had no desire to change, I would divorce him, because that IS adultery. (no desire to change being the key phrase there)
    I hate it that a lot of times, the church makes me feel trapped in my marriage no matter what. Then they offer me no alternatives other than just to “love him regardless” or “oh just pray for him. Prayer changes things! *cheesy smile*”
    That’s crazy. Even the Lord doesn’t just let someone get away with sin and only “love him regardless” with no judgment.
    I don’t think divorce should be the FIRST option in such a situation as mine. It’s a heavy decision and much time should be taken to consider all options. I am not going to go out and divorce my husband tomorrow, because our marriage is strengthening and being rebuilt. There is progress and hope in our relationship. But to bar divorce altogether when someone is in a highly damaging marriage is lunacy. It shows a lack of care for each heart involved on the part of the person speaking.

    • @Laurie – I would not say divorce is healthy, but it is sometimes the least unhealthy thing one can do. Other times someone reaches the end of the pain they can stand.

      Either way, I would like our primary goal to be keeping any marriage from getting to the point that divorce is a better option.

  7. I would like to point out that the most important arguement for Divorce, comes from the Bible. Let us keep in mind that God gave divorce to Israel as part of the law to protect people (mostly women). He also gives us some insturctions (although incomplete) on how and when to divorce.

    The greatest case for divorce is the fact that God did command divorce at one point we no of and actually committed divorce with Israel. We know that the divorces were righteous, and if they hadn’t divorced they would have sinned. Next time you want to pick on a divorced husband, remember that you are describing God.

    I also think it should be pointed out that it is likely far more women cause bad marriages than men. I say this because when women misbehave in marriage there are no reprocussions and it is taken as normal behaviour. How many women physically and emotionally abuse their husbands? We don’t know because husbands just take it, but it is likely a very high percentage. When the opposite occurs there are so many options to help the woman that it is virutally impossible for the bad behaviour to continue.

    • @Take Two – It may be true that men are more likely to be called on things, although I’m not sure that is true. Beyond that, I must disagree with you on who causes more bad marriages. There are good stats on wives who abuse, and while it’s real it’s a fraction of the number of men who abuse. Additionally, women take a massive amount of emotional abuse that most men will never face. Studies of stress are pretty clear – on the whole, wives have it far worse than husbands.

      Women file 60% of divorces. Usually one files when they just can’t take it any more. That would suggest that women are more often pushed to the edge than men. What makes that even worse is many churches blame the one who files, and exonerates the other spouse.

  8. “You find women dying at a younger age, more depression in women, and far more women who are deeply hurt and feeling trapped in their marriages. You also see more women who “leave the faith” so they can divorce and not become an outcast.” That seems a fairly sexist statement. No men who’s life expectancy, emotional and spiritual health suffer in marriage? You are right about the statistics on physical abuse, but what about the unsung saga of spousal indifference? “Women file 60% of divorces.” Why is it that when a woman files for divorce she’s a victim, and when a man does it he’s a jerk?

    • @Arthur – I think you’re seeing the same thing I see. You don’t have to be very observant to see that men can be treated any way they want by women, and there is very little men can do. If they fight back, they are accused of abuse. If they give in, they become enslaved to their wives demands. Both are horrible.

      And where exactly can men turn when this happens. There are no organizations for battered husbands. When the last time a Church became indignant over a wife’s treatment of a husband? When have you even heard a sermon mention bad behavior by wives (while men get mentioned about once a month)? If we try to mention something we are told with a thousand voices that we are bad husbands and “we deserve what we get” and “we don’t love our wives and families”. We mush simply endure what we deserve or be blamed for what we have no control over

      I agree that when men abuse wives it can be much worse for a time, since most any man can overpower a woman. But these situations are often quickly fixed. I’ve seen it happen many times and there is never a lack of concern. But people just don’t care about situations that don’t make headlines or go against stereotypes. There are no bonus points for helping men.

      The reason women divorce more often than men is quite obvious. Men lose everything they’ve earned when they get divorced. Few men can afford to divorce and choose not to, unit their wives get tired of them and kick them out. Then you lose your house, your family, and a large part of your income for the foreseeable future. I’ve seen it happen many times, and hardly a tear gets shed for the real victim, while the wife makes off like a bandit.
      I don’t claim that my experiences are a scientific study, but I know trends when I see them. We trust these organizations that try to secure government and private funding to give us real statistics. Anyone with half a brain knows most any statistic can be changed by how, where, and when a question gets asked. Men don’t need this kind of endless degradation in an age when we get so little respect as it is. If you can’t take this into consideration, it would be better not to speak at all.

  9. @Arthur Krebbs – Most of what you quote in the first part of your comment is backed up in my recent post A bad marriage is worse for her. Is it sexists if the evidence supports it as fact?

    My claim is that it is usually the one who is most wronged who files for divorce. There are exceptions, but they are that, exceptions.

    As for victim or jerk, my observation is that women who divorce are treated more harshly than men who divorce. I’ve seen women who were seen as martyrs for staying with a jerk of a husband, then they file for divorce and become the scourge of the earth. Quite a double standard!

    Of course this is not uniform, and I know it happens other ways. My observations here are about the way churches tend to react, not individuals.

  10. Generous Husband – Fair enough. But who speaks for me? I live w/ a woman who has just flat quit – heaved to and struck her colors. She has gained an immense amount of weight, complains about it, and continues to eat. She takes no care of her appearance. As for sex, well, I have no interest any longer. At this point, “sex” would require a preliminary of “sexuality,” which is completely absent. I have another – what? – forty years to log on this post. I am allowed to look at, touch, talk to and be interested in one woman, and she figures this is all I have earned. AND I HAVE NO OPTIONS.

    • @Arthur Krebbs – I would say the church should be in your corner – but odds are they don’t want to be involved. To me this is another example of how the “yo can never divorce” mentality locks people into horrible situations.

    • Arthur-
      Have you tried talking to your wife in a respectful way about these valid concerns? There are so many different reason why someone over eats and basically self mutilates. It sounds like she feels disgusted with herself and feels unworthy of love from you and herself. Please reach out to her if you still have love in your heart… she is more than likely hurting and needs your positive support and help. I hope you see the beauty in your wife again someday and she sees the beauty of you on her journey to a healthier weight. Best wishes to the both of you.

  11. I see your point and mostly agree. However; my experience has been churches approving of divorce much too easily.

    I don’t believe JESUS gave blanket approval to divorce in case of adultery. If you study his words carefully, HE said if you divorce for any reason other than adultery that you make the other person an adulterer. If you divorce because of adultery, you cannot make the other person an adulterer, they already were one. If he gave blanket authorization, then every woman(and most men) would have the right to divorce(if you use JESUS’s standard of adultery).

    I think we overlook the value of separation in cases of Unrepentant Adultery, abuse and neglect. I think frequently total separation can protect the injured spouse without requiring divorce. Then if the unrepentant files for divorce, let them leave. But if not the injured spouse can wait, but not remarry.

  12. @rz – Yes, there are churches that seem to see divorce as a personal matter that they should say out of and ignore. I too see this as a wrong approach.

    What I have seen on separations is that they lead to divorce the majority of the time. I’ve seen a several who have studied this say a separation is more likely to end in divorce than if the couple does not separate – so in general it’s better not to separate.. The obvious exception here is when there is a real danger (physical or emotional) to the spouse and or the children.

    The only problem then is that in some states separation is a halfway no-man’s land that can make it very difficult – especially if there are kids. This has gotten better, but I suspect it’s still a problem in some states. Also some states do not offer a legal separation (I found a list good as of 2009 that said Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Texas). This may force a person to divorce just to have safety or the help of the court in dealing with assets or children.

  13. Dear Mr. Krebbs.
    I lived what you are living for over 30 years. My situation was not identical and some would say not even close but close enough for me to speak from some experience.
    First let me tell you something I acquired at great cost. Do not be angry with your wife. Her behavior is not to purposely hurt you. From her point of view she is going through life doing the best she can do with what she has to work with. This is probably the same point of view you have. Unfortunately it is wreaking havoc on your marriage. Forgiveness, compassion and tough love are the only things that will help and even then your chances are slim that you will both make the changes you need to make if you don’t both acquire the right attitude.
    The bottom line according to my experience is that the right counselor might be able to get through to her under the right circumstances, but only if she has an incentive to listen. Look around in your life and see if there is an incentive or leverage if you will, that you can take advantage of. Such as: Your love for each other, religion, appearances, money, education, opinion of the children, etc. I know this will seem terribly manipulative to many of the people reading this but that is just too too bad. You must be as ruthless with this as necessary. Also, keep in mind that you are going to have work to do, this isn’t all about your wife.
    Whatever you do don’t wait. Don’t spend 30+ years in horrible agonizing emotional pain trying to do the right thing only to have her leave you.
    To you and your wife I would say please make a commitment to counseling for at least a year. Be open to the idea that you both might have a problem. And remember this is not about you being right and your spouse being wrong. This is about constructively fixing the problems in your relationship, which means you both must change. If you do not do this you will simply carry the problems forward into your next relationships and yes you will have other relationships.
    Whatever you do don’t wait and don’t divorce until you have given it at least a year of concerted effort.
    I wish someone had given me this advice 35 years ago.

  14. I think you bring up great points and I would add that the church as a whole should also find a way to discuss sex and finances. Both of these seem to be a starting point for many of the issues that lead to divorce, but the church tends to shy away from discussing them because they are “controversial” topics that might offend someone. Great post!~Sha

  15. Really loved this.  I love how you approach the topic of divorce here.  My husband and I both had the “we’ll never get divorced” mentality.  But after 12 1/2 years in the whole cycle of sin, I was ready to change that mentality.  I made a lot of mistakes anyway.  Divorce is messy no matter what “immediate problems” it may solve.

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