How important is marriage? What if that marriage is unhealthy? What if my needs aren’t being met? Doesn’t God hate divorce?
Marriage and family are celebrated in Christian culture. But while marriage has its roles to play, we must also apply a critical lens to what is healthy and biblical for marriage. I know from my sessions in the counseling office that not all marriages honor God. I want to highlight struggles I see within Christian marriage that can lead to divorce and offer some insight into how to avoid these risks.
Marriage as a Christian Idol
Pop-culture Christianity has long touted marriage as a highly-valued goal for all believers. In contrast, Christian scripture notes both benefits and costs to marriage, not clearly advocating for it over singleness. Yet many Christians still feel the pull of that cultural value to marry and stay married, even in the midst of abusive or destructive committed relationships. Church communities often push for unwavering loyalty, despite harm being perpetuated. Without the evidence of cuts and bruises, many spouses struggle to find support from their religious communities.
It’s as if marriage itself, healthy or unhealthy, has become a thing we worship over the Kingdom of Shalom. We absurdly call slave chains “unity.”
The Benefits of Marriage
On the other hand, committing to one another in faithful marriage has its benefits if you can make it work! Research shows that married individuals (regardless of their Christianity) reported less drinking and psychological distress, more life satisfaction, and better overall health, relative to those who were unmarried but in a relationship.
There’s also little debate that happily married households demonstrate greater financial security and relational stability for children. BUT those effects change significantly if the marriage is highly contentious. Changes to the family structure are similarly stressful for children, but less than the stress levels experienced if high conflict endures.
The Standard for Christian Marriage
For those Christians who have chosen marriage then, our goal ought to be living out a demonstration of miraculous, graceful, faithful free love between two flawed beings. Unfortunately the statistics show that the label “Christian” doesn’t change the outcome of a marriage or the quality of love in the marriage one bit. To the outsider, the label “Christian” on a marriage likely means nothing or, worse, is a hypocritical testimony.
We can do better. Rather than just calling ourselves Christians, actively following a God who loves so completely, so faithfully, absolutely changes a person. He is a good leader, a good provider, and gives wisdom to those who ask. Because our God is so good, we can come to him with our troubles and weaknesses and He will make up the difference! Knowing His Word, fellowshipping with His people, and being honest with ourselves in His presence will be transformative.
What Causes Divorce in Christian Marriages
If Christians are interested in marriage and serious about their commitments to faithfully follow Jesus they must consider three likely pitfalls:
Quitting - Giving up too easily
Neglect - Failing to respond to reasonable needs of a spouse
Abuse - Authoritarian domination over a spouse
The Temptation to Quit
In a society that plays fast and loose, it's easy to think of marriage as just one more cheap game. Even though we love big events with flowers and fan-fare, we rarely love the slow, steady, plodding work that long-term marriage requires. There’s no question about how hard marriage can be at times, when you’re trying to unite and work together with an equally flawed, equally limited human.
Temptation doubles when you meet green grass on the other side of the fence. Even though attraction sparks are not even a fraction of a whole person, they easily draw a lonely soul if marriage hasn’t been going well.
Christians who are serious about remaining faithful to their spouses need to make sure they are honest with themselves and are connecting regularly with the good God who refreshes and sustains. He models faithfulness and endurance for us in His relationship with the Israelites. It also helps tremendously to stay closely connected with the Body, who will both hold you accountable and support you in the hard times. Good friends love your marriage with you.
And keep in mind that enduring intimacy actually requires work! Coasting on the fumes of early attraction or expecting your spouse to do all the wooing is immature and short-sighted. Slacking is risky and doesn’t reflect God’s faithful, tenacious effort.
If your spouse has quit on you, I’m so sorry. Just remember that God is a much better lover than any simple human. He offers you a supportive community in the Body of Christ. While you will likely grieve deeply, He is good enough to help you recover and thrive amidst such hardship.
The Temptation to Neglect
No one gets to read the whole marriage contract before they get married, but we do clearly sign up for something. We should never get married just to get something for ourselves without expecting to give in return. Clarifying those expectations and making sure you actually want to sign on the dotted line is why premarital counseling is so important. A professional counselor can help you ward off mistaken commitments before they’re cemented in wedding bands and joint assets.
But no matter what, those hidden parts of the marital contract reveal themselves over time. You may realize your partner has mental, emotional, or physical illness. Or those may develop over time! You might discover addiction, toxic family patterns, or just plain old poor character. You will learn that your spouse is not who you thought they were (entirely). You just can not possibly know all of someone by knowing them for a short while. Humans change, grow, and develop over time–sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. They also learn more about themselves!
In all of these instances it’s important for Christians, who are called to love as they love themselves, to figure out how to respond to newly revealed needs with compassion and sacrifice–your spouse's newly revealed needs AND YOUR OWN. Caring for your spouse doesn’t, however, mean you can meet all of your spouse’s needs—that would be God’s job alone. To clarify whose job is whose, I highly recommend a mental health professional who can help you differentiate and maintain your own health in the meantime. While we are called to sacrifice, we are not called to stop valuing ourselves.
Warm, kind responsiveness (even when we have to say no!) is essential for long-term healthy marriage. That means that though sometimes we have to tell our partners "no" because of our own reasonable limitations, that doesn’t mean we don’t care about the unmet need. It should matter to us when our partners are disappointed or suffer, even when we can’t reasonably fix the problem. Responding consistently builds attachment, trust, and a solid base for having a lot of fun together. If we don’t respond to our partner’s needs reasonably, we shouldn’t expect them to want to stick around.
If your spouse is failing to meet your reasonable needs, I’m sorry. Not all spouses are ready, willing, or capable of doing the hard work of caring for another person. Some spouses can barely take care of themselves! We can be thankful that God does not leave us in deserts indefinitely–He always provides a way out. I highly recommend connecting with a professional counselor to figure out next steps for you to identify appropriate resources to get those real needs met. The Body of Christ is a great place to find solace in the meantime.
The Temptation to Abuse
While most humans don’t walk into marriage wanting to oppress their partners, it unfortunately happens a lot. One in four women and one in seven men experience domestic abuse from a partner in their lifetime.
If we broaden the term “abuse” to include emotional and psychological experiences of fear and shaming, those numbers would elevate even further. In the heat of the moment any human is likely to spout off something they later regret, but repeated patterns of belittling, name-calling, gaslighting, or stonewalling have painfully damaging effects—especially when the perpetrator lives in your home!
For those who haven’t experienced this, you might be thinking, “Why in the world would those people get married in the first place?!?” But many spouses stuck in a toxic cycle of pain and codependent self-blaming often can’t even imagine leaving, especially in a marriage with children and joint assets.
Hearing from your church community that you need to “try harder” and “forgive,” when you’ve already done everything you know to prevent the problem and let it go, that “encouragement” feels like a hopeless death sentence. I have met countless Christians told to stick with their marriages because “God hates divorce,” (a misuse of that verse, by the way), never once hearing that “God hates abuse” (not a verse, but obvious from the way God responds abusive behavior in the biblical narrative).
Christians who find themselves repeating harmful behaviors toward their spouse need to seek help immediately. It is never ok to harm your spouse. It does not illustrate the love of Christ. It does not further the kingdom of God. And even if it’s hard for you to see how behavior is hurtful, but your spouse is saying he or she is hurt, you need to back off as if you are hurting them to seek the counsel and support you need to heal and learn to love better.
If you are being abused in marriage, you need to get out. Continuing to endure abuse, whether it is emotional or physical when you have an option to leave is not demonstrating grace. Instead, it is enabling harmful treatment of one of God’s precious children (that child just happens to be YOU.) If you’re not sure what steps to take, consider calling the domestic abuse hotline: 800-799-7233.
What More Can We Do to Support Marriages?
While unfaithful commitments are certainly harmful, perpetuated abuse and neglect are equally damaging. Churches can support marriages by being honest and open about how difficult marriage is, not speaking about it as a biblical goal or even a higher calling than singleness. Pastors and teachers need to lead the charge in being vulnerable about their own difficulties and asking for help and support when they need it. Marriage should definitely NEVER be talked about as a solution to pornography. (For more on that consider Jay Stringer’s work.)
The church needs to be a safe place for people to share about their difficulties in marriage, where members listen without judgment and ask more curious questions when someone comes to us for help, rather than assuming we know exactly who the victim is. We at least need to get both sides of the story and be wary of remaining uninvolved in the name of neutrality.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” –Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Unfortunately when someone decides to leave a marriage, they are rarely convinced to return. If they are convinced to stay, it will only be in the context of graceful, gentle love. Otherwise, their return is merely superficial. True reconciliation only happens if the problems are actually addressed and resolved, not just pacified or hidden.
Scripturally, Christians are encouraged to let those spouses walk that don’t actually want to do that work (I Cor 7). The freedom offered is actually more demonstrative of God’s gentlemanly freedom than any sort of authoritarian compulsion. It literally says, “God has called you to peace.”
If you are a married Christian, spend some time today reflecting with God on how you can become more loving, both to your spouse and to yourself. Make it your goal to love your partner the way God loves: with both truth and grace. Do not call good things bad or bad things good. You cannot love a spouse the way you love yourself if you don’t first love yourself! Healing begins in community, but don’t wait for your spouse to do their work before you engage with your own.
If you are ready to start healing regarding your sexuality and relationship with the opposite sex, consider my masterclass The Truth About Holy Sex: A Workshop for People Who Love Jesus and Want to Love Sex.