Where do I begin with this? Not sure. I don’t want to be misunderstood in what I am trying to say—Or better, I don’t think that I am trying to say anything, just ask some questions. I will try to give you the essence of my thoughts, then I will attempt to explain what I mean. Here is the question: Is there ever a time when people are justified in threatening divorce? No, that won’t due. I need to qualify this. Is there ever a time, even when abuse or marital infidelity are not an issue, when the threat of divorce is justified?
When you get married, you say “forever,” right? I know because I said it and I have counseled dozens of people to say the say thing. During premarital counseling I would make one thing plain: Marriage is forever. If you don’t have this in mind then don’t get married. For better or worse. In sickness and health. Whether we are rich or poor. Until death do we part. In other words, I will NEVER leave you! If the future husband and wife were able to say this with understanding, then I was pretty comfortable doing the marriage. Marriage is serious business. If you are going to bail, then do it before you tie the knot.
However, I think I have changed with regards to this commitment. I think.
I remember reading a book about eight years ago called “His Needs, Her Needs.” My wife and I listened to it together. While there were some great points that were brought up, I could not overcome my feeling that the author was compromising in the most important details about marriage. Although I don’t have the book in front of me (I don’t know what happened to it—maybe I threw it out the window!), this is what I remember was the essence of a main point that formed the canvas to his arguments: Divorce needs to be seen as a real possibility in order for the marriage to work. Did you get that? Divorce, even for Christians, needs to be seen as a real possibility.”A real possibility?” I said to my wife, “That will only create insecurity in the marriage. People need to have ultimate security. They need to know that no matter what happens, their spouse will never leave. Never, never, never, no matter what!”
I am not so sure any more. It depends on the day. Really, it depends on the situation. No, I am not advocating a form of marital situational relativism. I believe that God is never pleased with divorce. I have said as much in a previous blog series. Yet there are some issues with this. If you say you will never leave no matter what, and your spouse believes you, won’t that pose an opportunity (or liberty) for some to take advantage of your commitment, consciously or subconsciously, and bring about abusive, or at the very least, unhappy and unfulfilled marriages?
Let’s go a different direction than this for a moment. Some people only change when there is a threat—a real threat—of serious consequences for certain behavior. We find this in governmental laws. When my father received his third DUI in the mid-eighties, they took away his voting right. This scared him. This really scared him. The thought that he could lose many of his rights as a citizen was enough to make him quit drinking for many years. When Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go, God said that he would persuade him with calamity. These were serious consequences that caused him to rethink his decisions and ultimately let the Israelites go. As well, my mother would often threaten my father with divorce. Only when he believed the threat did he change.
I am pondering these things because there have been a few situations brought to me lately concerning difficulties in people’s marriage. In each of the situations there is one person who is following the Lord and the other who is either antagonistic to God or spiritually apathetic.
In one case, the husband is angry all the time. I would not qualify the behavior as necessarily abusive, but that which brings the wife down and has created a chasm in their relationship for quit some time. I call these situations “illegal divorces” because they have not had a formal divorce, but they live like they are not married. The wife desperately desires a good relationship, to be care for, loved, and teated with respect, but the husband does not put forth any effort. He knows that she will never leave because that would not be the “Christian” thing to do. So he is not motivated to change at all. What are her options? To ensure the husband that she will never leave him even though she is miserable? To say that being “happy” is not what is important, but obeying the Lord? Is she doomed to live a life of contentment in a non-marriage? Or should she threaten with divorce? What if the threat would cause him to change and bring about a good marriage—or at least a much better one? Has she done wrong?
Another situation comes to mind where the wife, again a committed Christian, has to watch helplessly as her husband drinks his life away. He neglects the kids and her for his love for drink and friends. Sometimes he comes home and sometimes he does not. There is no suspected adultery, only the reality of an “illegal divorce.” The wedding happened, but there has never been a marriage. She is faced with the real possibility that she will never have romance. Outside of a slim hope of an unmotivated miraculous change in her husbands character, she has not hope. She has seen too many people wait for this change and she knows that things don’t “just” happen, people don’t “just” change. They are motivated by something else. But she can’t leave, nor threaten to leave because, again, it is not the “Christian” thing to do. Sure, she can separate (Christians are much more tolerant of this), but this separation cannot have any directions to divorce on the map. Yet the husband would know this. Therefore, any threat of a “separation” would not be too serious. It might just give him a break—a vacation!
However, I have seen threats that work. I have seen Christians who live with the reality that a divorce is possible, as advocated in the book His Need, Her Needs. They know that both they and their spouses are imperfect sinners. Therefore, no matter how good you suspect yourself or your spouse to be, you live with the possibility that it might not work out. In these cases the threat of divorce—the real threat—keeps them on their toes. They are continually trying to keep each other—indeed, to win each other. They see marriage as a battle. If it is a battle, it can be lost. They know that there are casualties of this war and they could be one of them. In these cases, I have seen change. I have seen the spouse threaten divorce and scare their spouse into change. They know that there are boundaries and they do not cross them or they will suffer the real (not fake) consequences.
I have gone on quite long enough. I don’t know if I have communicated too well my ponderings, but would like to hear what you have to say. Here are my questions (they all really ask the same thing in different ways):
Is the threat of divorce ever justified outside of infidelity or abuse?
Can a fake threat be justified (in other words, you threaten divorce, but it is really an empty threat)?
Do you think that there are boundaries that justify this threat other than abuse and infidelity? How about just a miserable marriage or “illegal divorces”?
Is it sinful pragmatism to threaten divorce when you are not really willing to go through with it?
Should we counsel people to say “Until death do us part” or “Until death do us part, God help me.”