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.”

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    23 replies to "Is the Threat of Divorce Ever Justified?"

    • UK Solicitors

      Divorce is never easy. The thought (or the threat) of it alone is already beyond unpleasant. However, there are those who find themselves in this exhausting proceedings and hope for them to pull through this very tough time.

    • Katy

      I’m a newlywed and I think this is an interesting and valid thought. My husband has a sense that I’m not going to leave him because of the babies and his parents modeled this for him. That worries me because his mother was unhappy and he doesn’t seem to mind if I’m unhappy. For instance, we are poor right now and he doesn’t even care. I suffer so much because of our poverty. I don’t mind being temporarily broke and moving forward but we don’t seem to be moving forward and it’s making me sad.

    • Jane

      I am in situation #1 that you described and as my husband always does what he wants more or less, he says that it is my problem that I am unhappy.
      Actually, God did use threats in the form of prophets, but he planned to carry them out if demands/criteria were not met. There are certain “rules of the game” that marriage partners are supposed to follow, such as acting unselfishly as much as possible and wanting to live in harmony through loving acts and communicating with attentiveness and consideration. So, if the partner who is not a follower or seeker of the ways of Jesus refuses to do anything about making the marriage a give and take situation as an expression of love, then I believe that that person has no concept of love and needs a threat or two! This may sound like retribution, but when a marriage is non-functional it really renders the Christian relatively ineffective as a witness, when she cannot see any good coming from it.
      God hates divorce but when it paralyzes a believer then I think that it is ok to threaten divorce. In the Bible it says that if you are married to an unbeliever then you should wait until they divorce you. Maybe the threat is what they are waiting for. Maybe God wants us to realize that we are being ineffective and that we could threaten divorce and that would make the spouse choose our ways or their ways. Like Pharoah, they can choose to listen to God or not; the husband can become a Godly husband or listen to his base instincts.

    • Lisa

      Yes … as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes the threat of divorce is needed to reclaim equality in the marriage. If one person’s needs are dominating the marriage (dishonesty, anger, drinking, infidelity) and they need to realize that the other person has limits of what they can tolerate.

      But I’d also say that it is a last-resort threat and should be used sparingly.

    • Solicitor

      When people find out that I asked my husband to sign a prenuptial agreement in advance of our marriage they are often surprised and sometimes shocked. People ask me why I would get married if I was already looking at a scenario where we might split and our assets be divided, but the truth is that I am a realist. Inspired piece about divorce. keep up the good work. 🙂

    • Judy

      To ask if the threat of divorce is justified is to ask if divorce is justified outside of the 2 big reasons Christians tend to accept :physical abuse and sexual infidelity.

      Married Christian women are absolutely taken for granted by lazy Christian men. I think the only reason that the divorce rate is higher now among Christians than it used to be is because more women have the financial ability to leave. Before almost all women had to remain in a marriage no matter how bad it was. Now they don’t have to, and many aren’t.

    • Bible STudy

      I hate divorce. Interestingly enought the bible never justifies a woman leaving the man, only the man the woman because of fornication.

    • Surely the threat of divorce points to a fundamental issue with the marriage. If there was no big problem, the subject wouldn’t come up; and it a spouse were to threaten divorce, could the issue be so simple to fix that they would be persuaded not to take it any further.

      When couples are thinking about divorce, in the majority of cases it’s because they have reached a point where they don’t think they could go on. However, there are many steps leading up to divorce that most couples will go through in order to fix a damaged marriage. Plus, what kind of relationship would exist after the threat has been withdrawn?

      Nice post.

    • Currently Separated

      I am making my way through your posts on divorce, and this is the 2nd I’ve read. I am currently separated from my husband due to his porn addiction. The issues of divorce, separation, fulfilling my vows, etc. have been on my heart and mind for the past few months. I see that no one has answered your questions directly, so I wanted to give you my opinions based on what I have learned through my own journey.

      First, “Is the threat of divorce ever justified outside of infidelity or abuse?”

      I would not have had an answer four months ago. But now I say yes. My pastor said that the only biblical justification for divorce is infidelity, but if you define infidelity as Jesus did in Matthew 5:28 (“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.), then all of us are guilty of adultery.

      Does that mean all divorces are justified? No, of course not. It is clear that God hates divorce. But there is a place for it.

    • Currently Separated

      Related to the first question is your question, “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”?”

      I think a case could be made for viewing marriage vows as a contract: Party A promises X,Y, & Z, and Party B promises X,Y, & Z. Therefore, if Party A breaks a promise, then Party B is released from her obligations. So, assuming that the promise to love was included in the marriage vows, the first time either spouse treats the other in a manner devoid of love, then the marriage vows are null and void. Again, this interpretation would give all of us grounds for divorce, but should not be taken lightly or used as a free pass.

      I believe there are justifiable boundaries in marriage that are not delineated in the vows. For example, is criminal behavior grounds for divorce? I would think so, but I don’t have a biblical basis for saying so other than the two arguments already…

    • Currently Separated

      “Can a fake threat be justified?”

      No. This is a general issue, not just applicable in marriage. Fake threats damage relationships instead of healing them.

      “Should we counsel people to say “Until death do us part” or “Until death do us part, God help me.””

      Obviously, people should be wholly committed before marrying. But I think counseling pre-marital couples about legitimate reasons for separation and divorce, as well as informing them of the different degrees of separation that can be enforced prior to a divorce, would be helpful to both parties and society in general.

      I’ve concluded that sometimes a divorce can be the most loving thing a person can do for her spouse. I valued a healthy marriage more than a healthy husband. And that was wrong. If I had allowed myself to consider divorce as a legitimate step from the beginning, my husband may have been motivated to conquer his addiction years ago. Regardless, I would not still be suffering the pain of that…

    • Mark

      An empty threat is never justified–well almost, maybe in an extreme situation to save one’s life. A threat you are not willing to followup on is a lie and manipulative.

      My wife and I have a friend who threatened and then left her husband after years of alcoholism. She did not seek another relationship or file for divorce. She just got an apartment and enjoyed some time to herself.

      Got his attention. He quit drinking and joined AA. They had a couple of good years together before he died.

      I do think it is justified to make realistic threats: “If you don’t spend more time with me, we will not be as happy as we could be.” Something like that.

    • Ben

      Hey, here’s an idea…..maybe God should threaten to take away our salvation so that we would become more righteous people and turn away from sin! Fortunately for us that’s not the way it works. Gods grace towards us as well as the grace we show towards our spouses are similar in this regard- Grace does not have the POWER to change unless it has the POTENTIAL to be abused.

    • Christine

      “I believed you would always be there because you said you would never get a divorce”. “Your a Christian. You can’t divorce me”. This was my husband’s comment after I agonizingly sought for divorce after seven years of separation and infidelity. He admitted later that he thought he could do whatever he liked and I would always be there to come back to. He is very well acquainted with ‘current evangelical truth’. He at this point does not want to acknowledge His need for Christ. “God will always be there I’ll come to Him when I’m ready”. Today is the day of salvation. Today, if you will hear His voice…do not harden your hearts as those in the rebellion. God’s love and forgiveness is limitless. But only at an extreme cost to Himself. God has said that His Spirit will not strive with man forever. I see my husband’s attitude to our marriage as being in the same vein as his attitude to God. Did my resolution to stay married no matter what help my husband or my marriage? Did it help in giving him a true picture of God’s love for him? Was I a true witness of God’s grace to my husband? God who alone is wise is the one who knows. Some people need to be saved with compassion and others with fear (Jude 22-23). Maybe some need to have the full weight of consequences hanging over their head to wake up. Others might only need the gentle touch of compassion to rouse them to right action. Marriage exists for the couple in that relationship. The couple does not exist for the marriage. God hates divorce but does He not hate violence done to those created in His image more. Does He not hate the contempt shown to the relationship when it is taken for granted and abused. We have to be aware of legalism while at the same time not erring on the side of licence. Love thinks no evil and is long-suffering. Love also rejoices in the truth. Only the Spirit of God can lead any of us to a right understanding and decision about what to do in each and every situation.

    • Lora

      Great book:
      Mere Morality: WHat God Expects from Ordinary People.
      by Lewis Smedes

      Great book on Christian Ethics…best discussion of divorce I have ever read.

    • Lora

      I do believe it is wrong to use divorce as a threat.

      In light of Scripture, divorce is a moral solution to address a moral problem-lack of repentance.

      Divorce does not break the covenant….divorce acknowledges that the convenant is already broken.

    • Angela

      My Name is Mrs Angela, I was married to my husband for 8years and we were both blessed with three children, living together as one love, until 2013 when things was no longer the way it was [when he lost his job]. But when he later gets a new job 6 months after, he started sleeping outside our matrimonial home. Only for me to find out that he was having an affair with the lady that gave him the job. since that day, when i called him, he no longer pick up my calls and nothing good since to come out from him. Yet my husbands just still keep on seeing the new girl friend till Dr. Orinoko cast a spell for me, now he is back with me and me only. And i am happy with my family if you need his help contact on via email, orinokosolutiontemple1@ gmail. com

    • Adam

      If there are two committed Christians, this should be a non issue as each party seeks to do marriage properly and with God at the centre. You implicitly acknowledge this, as your examples are one believer and one apathetic believer or non believer. In which case, surely 1 cor 7:12-16 applies? And when Paul says ‘and they (the unbeliver) consents to live with them (the believer)’ does that just mean the semi borderline partner has to say ‘yes I would like to stay married’ or is there maybe a case of actions speak louder than words that needs to happen here, as exampled by Paul in 1 cor 4:19-20?

    • jeri smith

      Is divorce sin? I thought just remarriage after divorce was sin.

    • Rachel

      The problem with marriage today is not divorce. It is the hope given by the expectation of remarriage. I think if churches would refuse to grant second (or third or fourth) marriages in cases where divorces didn’t involve abuse or adultery it would be a wake up call to Christians who abuse the marriage covenant. Yes, they could get legally married, but most “Christians” still want a pastor and a church. It happened in my family – my parents and their spouses all managed to get married in front of a pastor – 3 times each (ie 4 persons each married to a different spouse 3 times each), at least two after they’d committed adultery. By blessing remarriage the modern church condones and encourages divorce – and our society is reaping the results.

      That said the solution is often physical, and celibate separation, sometimes long separations. Give people time to realize what they have lost and space to heal. It has worked a miracle in at least one marriage I know of that involved emotional abuse.

    • JimQ

      Live by the Bible. The article and some comments want to second guess what the Bible states clearly. There is only one Biblical ground for divorce.

      Drug addicts are happier with their desires met, just as divorce may make some, but that is not the aim of our lives here — we are to give God glory and obeying His commands is the way we do that.

    • cj

      Think about this: When the husband or the wife is molesting the children do you suppose to stay in that marriage or household? How can those kids live and know God’s love in a home like that. Do you really believe God wants a spouse to stay married and let the children get molested and raped?? The spouse who is molesting or raping the children is at the same time committing incest and adultery which is sin.

    • Mark

      Under certain circumstances, and when pursued redemptively, the divorce process can be the most appropriate response to unrepentant or ongoing sin.

      At the risk of appearing self-serving, see Redemptive Divorce (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.