Unhappily Married or Happily Divorced? The False Dilemma

David J. Ayers
Monday, January 25th 2021

Whatever we believe the Scriptures say about legitimate grounds for divorce, the assumption that marital dissolution should not be common among those who claim to follow Christ and Biblical teaching is reasonable. The pertinent passages recognized in the New Testament at most allow for divorce and remarriage only for egregious violations of the marital covenant (Luke 16:18; Mark 10:2-12; Matt. 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:10-16). The Westminster Confession’s Chapter 24, Section 6 clearly supports this position. The very nature of marriage—a union of man and woman into one flesh, a covenant before God sealed by solemn, public vows, a revelation of the eternal bond between Christ and his church, an expression of the Trinity, a living embodiment of the gospel—argues forcefully against anything like “no-fault,” easy, divorce.

Yet divorce is shockingly common among professing evangelicals. In the General Social Survey (GSS) for years 1996 though 2016 combined, 48% of ever-married conservative Protestants between the ages of 40 and 65 said that their first marriages had ended in divorce or legal separation. The subset of these evangelicals who said they attended church about weekly or more did better, but the percentage—39%—was still alarming. Sadly, some of these respondents who are still married will also go on to divorce. Interestingly, in the same surveys, 28% of evangelicals wanted it to be easier to end a marriage. In another item used in the GSS in 2002 and 2012, a combined 43.5% of evangelicals agreed that divorce is the “best solution to marital problems.” Only 40% disagreed. Those of us seeking to reform practice and belief regarding divorce in the church certainly have our work cut out for us.

Certainly, two sinners remaining knit together through all the vicissitudes of life is rarely if ever going to be easy, as anyone whose marriage has lasted for decades can attest. Just about every married couple faces severe challenges in their relationship, which at times seem to drag on without clear resolution. There are also external trials, some of which, such as the death of a child or major financial calamity, can be gut-wrenching. Contemporary Christian couples deal with these challenges in the context of a culture that emphasizes individualism, self-actualization and moral subjectivity and which has completely destigmatized divorce. Married people today often face little pressure or even encouragement to stick together when they encounter serious marital problems. Still, the Word of God has not changed, and we Christians, having available to us the grace of the Spirit and the support of the church, can do better.

However, in years of engaging believers on these matters, I have repeatedly bumped into the argument that encouraging those who are unhappy in their marriages to persevere is cruel. The explicit or implicit belief underlying this view is that believers in so-called “bad” marriages face a stark choice between ongoing misery, or divorce. But this argument relies on the assumption that most marriages that end in divorce are riddled by conflict, which also imposes suffering upon whatever children a couple may have. While divorce is regrettable, it is argued, the alternative of remaining married will be worse for all. Such thinking represents a logical fallacy—a false dilemma—and one that is contradicted by the facts. First of all, the vast majority of marriages that end in divorce are not characterized by high levels of conflict such as violence, numerous vicious quarrels or profound disagreements. For example, in A Generation At Risk in 1997, respected family scholars Paul Amato and Alan Booth found that only about one-third of divorces were preceded by such volatility. Two fine research studies—one by Donna Morrison and Mary Jo Coiro that appeared in The Journal of Marriage and Family in 1999, and the other by Joan Kelly and Robert Emery that was published in Family Relations in 2003—found that no more than 20 to 25% of children in divorced homes saw their parents in this kind of difficulty prior to their split. Linda Waite and her co-authors pointed out, in Does Divorce Make People Happy?, that 86% of those who said their marriages were “unhappy,” including 77% who went on to divorce, reported no violence in their relationship. There is no doubt that divorce typically involves at least one deeply unhappy spouse, and that often these feelings are justified and the marital problems are deep and challenging. However, the notion that I confront often—that divorce typically ends a marriage riddled by severe conflict—is false.

Second, the unhappiness is normally one-sided. That is, as the latter book also showed, about three of every four spouses who said their marriages were “unhappy” had a spouse who was happy with the marriage. Putting all this together, the “normal” divorce involves one person ending the marriage for reasons that are hardly compelling ones such as serious marital abuse, violent conflict, desertion, or other severe covenant violations.

Meanwhile, the post-divorce period is often marked by terrible and destructive quarreling. That should not surprise us. If couples cannot work out their differences in marriage how can we expect them to do so making tough—even heart-wrenching—decisions in the midst of court battles? A large law firm in England sponsored a study about a decade ago of over 2,000 divorced couples and about the same number of children of divorce. Forty-two percent of the children saw their parents having bad quarrels, and another 17% witnessed violence between them. About a quarter of the children were asked by a parent to lie to the other. Half of the parents had to use the courts to negotiate disputes about their children with their ex-spouses, and half said they deliberately drew out the legal battle to secure personal advantage. Sixty-eight percent admitted to using their children as bargaining chips, while one in five said they tried to make their ex-spouse as miserable as possible, even when they knew it hurt their children. If these people believed that ending their marriage meant ending any conflicts with their spouses, they were sadly mistaken. For some it did, but for many this was not the case.

Now For The Good News

It’s interesting to note that working on the marriage is often successful, while leaving one marriage for another does not necessarily result in a better outcome. In the 1996 through 2016 GSS, married people who were previously divorced were slightly less likely to call their second marriages “very happy,” and a bit more likely to call them “not too happy.” Waite and her co-authors found that on average, among those who said their marriages were “unhappy,” those who divorced and remarried ended up no happier than those who remained in their marriages. Two-thirds of those who stayed with their marriages identified their marriages as happy five years later, compared to only one in five of those who got a divorce or separation becoming both remarried and happy in those years.

What seems to account for those dissatisfied spouses seeing their marriages not only lasting but being turned around? There is quite a bit of good research on that. Having a high view of marriage and marital commitment, while simultaneously holding a negative opinion of divorce, are critical. Researchers at the National Marriage Project found that marriages in which the spouses have these views about marriage and divorce are much happier and more stable. These attitudes should ideally also be shared by family and friends. For this, and many other reasons, staying active and engaged in a Biblically-faithful local church is important as well.

Good marriage counseling can help, but only if the professional is committed to saving the marriage rather than being “value-neutral” on the matter of divorce. The best marital counseling will help couples with communication and conflict management skills, which are vital. After all, every problem plaguing a marital relationship can only improve if a couple learns better ways to address the problem. This is certainly true for many of the big ones, such as quarrels over children or sex, work hours and other outside commitments. They will also help couples tackle issues which place heavy stress upon many marriages, such as debt and other financial problems. Sometimes a good financial planner can do more to save a marriage than anyone. Where sin problems such as substance abuse or pornography are undermining a relationship, repentance, accountability, and pastoral ministry can be beneficial. Quite often, the marital difficulties are associated with other stressors, such as caring for a sick parent, or having a difficult boss. When those difficulties pass, the marriage rebounds.

No couple in distress should avoid one vital weapon of spiritual warfare—prayer. Married couples need to come together against the Evil One who seeks to divide them, and direct prayer toward the issues they are confronting together, while also praising God and meditating upon his immeasurable goodness and grace. Moreover, they need to both ask for, and grant, forgiveness. This means the difficult work of confronting and confessing, done with forthrightness, but also charity and kindness.

Regrettably, some marriages cannot and even should not be preserved, because the violations are too great and the offending spouse remains unrepentant. Nevertheless, in cases that are persistently unhappy but do not rise to the level of clear and serious violations of the marital covenant, persevering through adversity in order to remain faithful to our vows to God and to one’s spouse is consistent with the gospel.

Honoring our vows, even when it costs us dearly, is commended to us repeatedly in Scripture, with promises of blessings to the faithful often attached to these admonitions (cf. Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21-23; Eccl. 5:4-6). That person is blessed “…who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind” (Psalm 15:4b, NIV). Turning one’s back on a marital covenant witnessed by God himself is a grave offense (Mal. 2:14). Moreover, being faithful to God in general will often require great perseverance, which is why we are instructed to count the costs when making a commitment to follow the Lord. Yet the reward is worth it (Luke 14:25-33; James 1:12). As the Book of Revelation (14:12, NIV) instructs us, “…patient endurance on the part of the people of God…” is highly esteemed by our Lord. This is as true with honoring our marriage as it is in any other aspect of our commitment to God.

There’s even better news: normally, these difficulties will not endure forever. For most couples whose marriages are troubled, “misery or divorce” is a false choice. Persevering while pursuing wise courses of action and engaging the help of God’s people and, where necessary, professionals, normally leads to a much better end than divorce. Linda Waite and her co-authors wisely point out that many couples who are happily married at any given point in time have weathered serious marital difficulties for two years or more, and yet worked through issues together to realize something wonderful and enduring at the other side of those storms. There is confidence and hope in the realization that the hard seasons can be endured and they do end. Many find themselves appreciating their spouse in ways they could not have imagined, especially when their partners have demonstrated their willingness to also make difficult changes. As with any trial God walks us through, there is that renewed knowledge of the depth of his goodness, provision and mercy, in his delight in and commitment to their marriages.

This brings us to the final point, namely, that those facing marital difficulties and seeking to persevere in them must never forget that the God who has called them is faithful (1 Cor. 1:9; 1 Thes. 5:24). Suffering spouse: nothing, even a difficult marriage, can separate you from the love he has showered upon you through Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:35-39). Be encouraged in him, find strength, wisdom, and comfort through his Word, his Spirit, and his people, and know that these trials will not be in vain.

David J. Ayers is Professor of Sociology and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the recently released Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham Press). He and his wife Kathy have been married over 36 years, and have six children, three sons-in-law, and four grandchildren.

This article was originally published at Modern Reformation on March 18, 2019.

Monday, January 25th 2021

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