You Asked, I Deliver: Some Advice About Divorce

I got an email this week that started, “I have a friend who wants out of her marriage, or for him to shape up, but feels like as a Christian she has no option for divorce…” I get these questions a lot. As this same friend put it, “Being open and honest must get you a lot of feedback and questions. Like owning a pick up and always being the person who helps move.” That sums it up pretty well.

I’ve been hesitant to write and advice-style blog post about divorce for many, many reasons. But… I’ve been asked this often enough, there are a few common threads that I want to write about publicly. I’m addressing Christian women who feel like they’ve exhausted their options for fixing their marriages, because that’s who I typically hear from. If it applies in other scenarios, great. Either way, I’d love to hear whether this is helpful.

Dear Sister,

I’m sorry you are hurting. I can guess that you’re hurting badly because you’ve turned to me, and we live far away from one another or we’re not close friends, which means you feel like you have nowhere else to turn. It probably also means this problem has been going on for a long time. I’m sorry. I know the pain you feel. First of all, know this: You are priceless. Your presence in anyone’s life is a gift, whether they acknowledge it or not. Jesus died TO BE WITH YOU. That’s the end result of His sacrifice that we don’t hear enough about. He died for our sins SO HE COULD BE WITH US. He values our company that much.

I’m also hearing from you because you love God, and you just don’t know how to reconcile your situation with your love for Him. Bless you for wanting to do the right and God-honoring thing, for having a heart that desires unity with God and unity with your spouse in spite of extremely difficult circumstances. And when I say “bless you,” I mean just that. God will bless you, even though it doesn’t feel like it right now. Isaiah 54 is well worth reading—the whole chapter describes God’s love for neglected and abandoned wives. It talks specifically about that feeling of being abandoned by God. I started inserting a quote here and ended up with half the chapter. Just go read it.

Now, the elephant in the room. You’ve heard it a million times, like a broken record—God hates divorce. It is in the Bible: Malachi 2:16. Go look at the context, though. If you read verses 12-16, you’ll find that God hates all the things that lead up to the divorce, too, specifically (and repeatedly) when husbands who are “faithless” and treat their wives “treacherously” (depending on the translation). Yeah, if you’re writing to me, that’s probably gonna resonate for you. The conclusion of the passage? It’s not, “Don’t get a divorce under any circumstances.” It’s, “So guard yourselves in the spirit and do not be faithless.” As always, God cares most about the heart. I say this first because I hear of SO many situations where a person acts unmarried in everything except the legal document, leaving the spouse who would rather preserve the marriage feeling bad about being the one to actually file the paperwork. That’s just straight up cowardly. If you’re the spouse trying to fix things in the face of overwhelming odds and even opposition, you have no reason to feel bad about your actions. In fact, you should be proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish even if you’re don’t succeed at saving your marriage. I also say this because it’s important to remember that the heart of God is for our hearts. Jesus said divorce had been allowed because hearts were hard. If you have a hard-hearted spouse, God sees your situation with eyes of compassion and love. He cares about your broken heart.

Marriage is hard. Anyone who has been married knows that. Marriage is also strong. It can survive unimaginably hard times. Have real talks with enough people who have been married at least fifteen years, and you’ll find out that  “dealbreakers” like infidelity and major financial malfeasance aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Couples move on from those things to have strong marriages. But trajectory matters. Intent matters. Somewhere, there is a line between someone committed to the marriage who is just having a bad day/week/month/year and someone who is actively dismantling your union. I’m not going to pretend to know where that line is. I think that is an individual judgment call, one made after a lot of prayer. But it is there. I know women who have waited for years for their husbands to come around, and they did. It happens. But there is a point at which patience with bad behavior becomes destructive to everyone involved. Destructive to the person enduring it and destructive to the person whose behavior it enables. No one wins. That kind of destructive disunity is the thing God is calling out as bad when He says he hates divorce. I don’t think God requires us to stay in marriages that are defying His design for marriage at every conceivable point.

Here is my practical advice if you’re thinking about divorce:

  • Don’t run away from God. He loves you. The fact that you are considering divorce doesn’t change that. You are probably judging yourself for the things you could have done better in your marriage or for even considering divorce, He died so that He could look past those things to walk with you toward your breathtaking potential. You feel hopeless, he has plans to give you a hope and a future. Find a good list of the ways God sees you and read it as often as possible, out loud. Victory Over the Darkness has my favorite lists. Here are the first few: I am God’s child (John 1:12). I am Christ’s friend (John 15:15). I have been justified (Romans 5:1). I am united with the Lord, and I am one spirit with Him (I Corinthians 6:17).
  • Communicate and Calibrate. Find good people you can talk to. Wise people. People whose first response is not judgment or advice. People who will listen. Most importantly, people you are comfortable being open with. I hid a lot of things in my marriage from everyone. I was ashamed, and I felt disloyal airing our dirty laundry. Also, talking about it means admitting there’s a problem. Hiding became such a habit, I didn’t even bring some things up in counseling until well after my divorce. When you don’t talk to people, it is very easy to justify really bad things in your own head. I’ve seen people overlook rampant infidelity, physical abuse, drug use, even hiding dead bodies. When you’re in your own head, it’s also really easy to overreact to things that aren’t so bad—think about the little things that can upset us like husbands who bring home the wrong kind of cheese from the store or leave the toilet seat up. I’ve seen people react more strongly to incorrect cheese than to physical abuse—no joke. The more reasonable people you talk with openly, the better idea you’ll get of whether your reaction is proportionate to what is going on.  Try to include conversation with someone who has been through divorce. No one hates divorce more than people who’ve lived through it. They’re less likely to be judgmental and often more likely to give you sound, practical advice.
  • Consider separation. It may feel like a nuclear option, but it’s not. It’s a good strategy for giving you and your spouse space to collect your thoughts and clear your heads to see the truth of the situation.
  • Take care of yourself and remember that you’re not responsible for someone else’s actions. Even if you want to try to fix things or wait for your spouse to come around, that doesn’t mean you have to put up with being treated badly. Do what you need to do to ensure your needs are met, even if that means drawing lines that your spouse is unhappy about. He may try to use your healthy boundaries to blame you for his bad behavior. If there is harmful behavior going on, allowing it to continue instead of distancing yourself from it will only make the situation worse. Enlist support, because this will be hard.
  • Look at trajectory. Ultimately, you want to see evidence of where your spouse is headed, where his heart is leading him. If he is lying and persists in it, it’s not a good sign. Honestly, I think lies are the worst wrong someone can commit in a relationship. I used to see them as secondary issues—I did a bad thing, so I’m covering it up. Bad things can be overcome by good when people are truthful. If someone continues bad behavior but is truthful about it and shows signs of trying to fix it, you might actually be able to work with that. Lies prevent that. Lies put up barriers to relationship that can only be removed by truth. Fact-finding has limited effectiveness when it comes to lies (What will you do with what you learn? Confront the liar only to have him lie some more?), but I wrote about some other ways you can identify them in a previous post.
  • Pray. Well, duh, you say. Yes. Obvious. Less obvious is to pray for insight. Every time I’ve heard of someone praying for God to show a spouse’s true heart and intentions, He has done it in ways that cannot be ignored. I never prayed for insight in my marriage, only for healing. God very gently showed me later why He didn’t answer my prayers to heal our marriage—there were things going on I didn’t know about. He knows. Yes, pray for reconciliation. But also ask God to show you what He sees, ask Him for the truth. Even the act of asking can open your eyes to things you might not see otherwise. Also, ask God to give you direction–when to be patient and when to say enough is enough.
  • Try not to hide from people. There can be a lot of shame in these sorts of situations, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. Particularly at church. If you are around people who make you feel ashamed, find other people to be with. Try not to run away from people entirely. And try not to run exclusively to people who are also in the middle of separation or divorce—misery loves company, but it’s not usually helpful for much else.
  • If you’ve done everything you can, file for divorce in good conscience. You can’t make someone stay in a marriage they don’t want to be a constructive part of, nor should you.

I love you, I love your heart. You are breathtaking and amazing, and you will come out of this stronger and more beautiful no matter what happens. I believe in you.

Amy