I think that it would be a fair guess to say that most people reading this book have been impacted by divorce in some way. Either it has happened to you and changes your life, or happens to someone close to you and affects your life. Now, we can have a long discussion about the evils of divorce, the biblical doctrine of marriage, divorce and remarriage, or how to avoid divorce, but we rarely talk about what we should do when divorce actually happens. It is important to know what to do because no matter what we think about divorce, it does happen. So here are some dos and don'ts that provide some guidance in the event of divorce (yours or someone else's).
In this chapter we will look at some of the things to consider when divorce happens to someone else, and in the next chapter I will do the same in the event that divorce is actually happening to you.
What Not to do in Case of Divorce
Do Not Choose Sides
Divorce not only divides couples, it also divides families, friends and even churches. The division happens because people want to believe someone is right and someone is wrong in the divorce. Division also happens because the individuals in the couple want and need support during this crisis, so they gather around them those people who will be sympathetic to their cause.
The problem with supporting one person over another is that it usually comes at the expense of rejecting the other party. People going through divorce want their supporters to be exclusive and loyal in their support which means no help or sympathy for the enemy. Of course, this is normal for close family and relatives who tend to "circle the wagons" when divorce happens. The problem grows when one side begins to recruit. In other words, we try to round up as many people as we can to support our cause, our rightness. Pretty soon everyone surrounding the couple finds themselves having to choose one side or the other, and neutrality is not an option. In the end this becomes a contest to see who can win the sympathy vote.
Of course, this type of strategy does not really help the couple or prevent the divorce. All it does is assign blame through a majority vote. The one with the greater number of sympathizers wins the blame game. In cases like this, guilt or innocence is based on the size of your group. The net result, however, is that many friendships and relationships become strained or broken in addition to the damage suffered by the divorcing couple themselves.
Do Not Think You Know Why
What is interestingly sad about divorce is that everybody thinks they know why it happened. Each person has a theory: she could not have children; he was always unfaithful; she was a nag, cold; he was selfish, immature; her mother interfered; he liked his buddies better etc. The truth of the matter is that no one outside of the marriage really knows, and many times even the partners within the relationship do not even know why their marriage is breaking up. In many instances they know they are unhappy or unfulfilled but cannot articulate the reasons why without the help of a third party. We like to think we know because it helps make sense of a bad thing or it provides us with a reason to assign blame.
I am not saying that you cannot know the reasons for the failure of a marriage, you can with time. But the reasons are usually more complex and hidden than we think they are. A significant truth that I have learned in my years of dealing with people going through divorce is this: except in extreme cases where one partner is mentally unstable in some serious way (sociopath, abuser, etc.) both partners usually contribute significantly to their eventual divorce. And because we tend to avoid acknowledging our guilt to ourselves or others, it is very difficult to discern what each has done to undermine the success of their marriage. Most people I know who have gone through a divorce only realize the true "why" much later after they have matured, reflected and acknowledged their own failings in regards to their past marriage. This sometimes takes years, if ever, to take place.
Therefore, do not be too quick to decide and proclaim that you know why, because you really do not, and you are not helping when you say that you do.
Do Not Feel Superior
One reason why people often leave the church after they have been through a divorce is because they feel inferior among us. It is as if divorce was a sin greater or more heinous than other sins. Some who have gone through a marital failure have said to me that a divorce seems to relegate them to a position of second class citizen in the church. They are Christians yes, but merely tolerated, not embraced as equals. Or course, for this to happen there must already exist a sense of superiority by others who, by the grace of God, have avoided the particular sin of divorce.
It is normal, I suppose, to feel superior when you have succeeded at something that someone sitting next to you has failed at. When this happens the problem is that we are comparing ourselves to each other instead of comparing ourselves to Christ. When we do this we risk feeling superior or inferior. When we compare ourselves to Christ, however, we can only feel grateful. This is because despite our obvious sinfulness in comparison to the Lord, we see in His cross the mercy and grace He offers, and this brings feelings of relief, joy and peace, not feelings of superiority or inferiority.
When you see the divorced person, therefore, do not feel superior. It may well be that their righteousness is greater than yours in other areas of life and service to God. Remember that in God's eyes, all have sinned and fallen short of His glory.
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
- Romans 3:23
To feel superior is a sign of pride. It is also a tool of the devil to cause division in the church and discourage the faith of those who have failed in marriage.
Of course, there are many other things to avoid that I could list given enough time and paper. For example:
- Do not gossip about the situation because this only spreads the division to more people. Gossip never helps!
- Do not judge the people involved. There will be a judgment, but God will do it and it will be accurate and fair.
- Do not play marriage counsellor. Just because you drive a car does not mean you are a mechanic and can diagnose and repair it properly. In the same way, just because you are married or have been through a divorce does not qualify you to be a marriage counsellor telling people how to live their lives or fix their problems. You can certainly offer an opinion or share your own experiences, this is good. But people are extremely vulnerable when going through a divorce and need qualified help. Therefore, be careful not to try to become an "authority" on marriage or an "expert" on divorce when you are neither. Best intentions do not qualify a person to help someone deal with a crisis. If not careful, you can make things worse, not better.
In my ministry, I try to match couples having problems to the type of professional counselors that would best assist them since I am not formally trained in these areas. I realize that as a minister I have a role to play in providing spiritual guidance and encouragement in time of need. But I let the people trained in marriage crisis do their work because I want my brethren to receive the best care possible. Many times the most helpful thing I or you can do is convince people to get professional help when their marriage is in trouble.
What to do in Case of Divorce
We are not completely helpless when others are going through a divorce. There are things we can and should do.
We Should Pray
Let's face it, we do not know what is really going on, we should not pick sides, and may not be qualified to give advice, but the powerful avenue of prayer is always open to us. I believe that many marriages fail because there is not enough prayer invested in them by the couple or those around them. If we spent less time gossiping about the situation and more time in prayer about it, this would create a more positive impact. If you are not sure about this, simply measure the amount of time you have spent talking about the problem to others (which has zero positive effect) and how much time you spend in prayer to God about it (who has the power to change things). Jesus promises that prayer will yield results, "Ask, and it will be given to you..." (Matthew 7:7). Why do we not take Him at His word? Constant and fervent prayer by the people around the couple and the couple themselves would do more to save the marriage than taking sides, gossiping or assigning blame.
We Should Really Listen
The time to avoid the divorce is before the break-up, not once the lawyers are involved. By this time we are playing catch-up and people have usually made up their minds. Some go to counseling after they have begun divorce proceedings, but usually it is to calm their guilt concerning what they are about to do. They want to be able to say, "I tried everything."
Divorce can be headed off if we pay attention to what unhappy couples are saying to us long before the break-up. For example, continued complaints and putting down of the other spouse; expressions of sorrow, unhappiness and depression; decrease in noticeable affection, joy and wanting to be together; jokes about lack of sex, fun or intimacy; financial problems; decreased spiritual commitment by one or both partners. If you are paying attention you will notice these types of things and if you hear them, do something about it. Sometimes just asking if everything is ok can begin a series of conversations at a time when something can actually be done to help before it is too late.
Jesus said, "...What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." (Matthew 19:6). We seem to think that God is saying that it is impossible to fail in marriage because He has blessed it and made it special. But what God is saying is that we should not separate, and it is against His will, but not that it is impossible to do.
If we listen to what people say maybe we can help them avoid this all too common sin. Sometimes listening is the greatest service we can provide. And listening often leads to praying which is always the first step in the healing of any relationship.
Love Both Partners
When I do pastoral counseling with a couple, my personal objective is to love both people in the marriage. This is not always easy because sometimes one partner may be harder to love than the other. For example, the husband cheats on his wife with a younger woman and leaves her with two teenagers to raise by herself. A first impulse in a situation like this may be to take that old boy behind the woodshed and beat some sense into him. But this would neither solve nor change anything.
In this instance, she needs love to be able to deal with the hurt she feels and the different situation she is now in, and he also needs love because this will be the only way to keep the lines of communication open with him. Loving her does not mean you believe she is absolutely innocent or right in all of this, it means you are meeting her need for comfort and encouragement at a difficult moment. Loving him does not justify or excuse what he has done, it means you still care for him as a person and have not abandoned him.
If these two ever get back together again (and they often do) they will remember who loved them when they needed it most. And if they do not, then your love will help heal the wounds caused by their failed relationship and subsequent divorce. She will know that when she needed it most, your love was there. He will know that even when he did not deserve it, your love was there. Who knows, maybe it will be your love that will give him the courage to admit his sin and be restored to God, even if his wife will not take him back.
Love will not guarantee that you will save the marriage, but it may help save his soul, save her self-esteem, save each from further damaging their family, and save relationships beyond the couple like children, parents, friends, brethren and co-workers. You may not be able to force the partners going through a divorce to love each other, but you can make sure that you love them because you know that no matter what is happening, God still loves them.
Preacher and teacher, Jerry Jones, does a marriage seminar where the publicity materials have the following tag line, "All marriages end in either death or divorce." He is a widower and his wife is a divorcee so they teach from both perspectives. This saying is true when you think of it, even if it is not a happy thought.
In this chapter I have wanted to emphasize the fact that sooner or later most people will be affected by, confronted with or the victim of divorce in some way. It is not right, it is not ideal, it is not what God wants for us, but it is what often happens. When it does happen, therefore, remember: do not pick sides, think you know why, feel smug, gossip, judge, or play counselor. All of these are counter productive.
If you truly want to help: pray fervently, listen attentively and love graciously. Doing these things may heal the marriage and will certainly lessen the destruction and pain suffered by all concerned.