D is for Divorce


Despondent man

Photo by austindivorcelawyernow on Flickr

I am currently blogging, along with my daughter, all the way through the alphabet. Check out how the idea started, and get the rules here.

Practically everyone who gets married does so believing marriage is forever. Religious people even bring God into it, citing the scripture that says God hates divorce, as if it is a talisman that will ward off the spirit of divorce and keep them happy and divorce-free. It doesn’t. (Statistics show that the divorce rate among professing Christians is just as high as the divorce rate in the general population.) Everyone marries thinking it will be forever, and then 1/2 of all marriages end in divorce. What are we to make of this?

I think we can think of divorce similar to how we might think about war. There are pacifists in this world — “doves” who believe war never is and never can be justified at all. There are also “hawks” in the world — people who move quickly toward military solutions to problems. But mostly the world is filled with people who live between these extremes; people who acknowledge, at the same time, the horror, the tragedy, the evil, and the occasional inevitability of war.

I think we should see divorce this way. We should acknowledge that it is horrible, tragic, often evil in various ways, and occasionally just completely inevitable. Doing this would help us to see it clearly for what it is and any time we see clearly, we are in a better position to do what is right. Most wars are not justifiable, but are pushed upon the public by politicians who have vested interests in war. Most divorces are not justified either, but are pursued by one or both parties in the marriage who, for various reasons, come to have vested interests in not being together.

So yes, divorce is occasionally inevitable. But not nearly as occasionally as the one-half of marriages that currently end in divorce. I’m stabbing in the dark to do this, but if I had to state a number of divorces that actually need to happen, I’ll bet it’s closer to 6 or 7%. In a small number of cases there is physical violence and often divorce simply needs to happen to protect someone who is in danger. In a small number of cases there is someone who is chronically and severely abusive and will not seek help. Divorce may need to happen here. In a small number of cases, one partner may need to divorce the other in order to remove children from an abusive environment. In a small number of cases couples will simply not be able to repair a severe rift created between them due to adultery, or something tragic like the death of a child. (And of course I do not intend here to make a list of every possible case for justifiable divorce.)

These cases notwithstanding, surely divorce almost never needs to happen for the main reason it happens today, which is simply that one or both partners are not happy. Conditions can be cultivated which lead to happiness, oftentimes even if only one of the two partners is willing to seek help and stick with it. The vast majority of what are called “irreconcilable differences” are in fact not irreconcilable at all. It is a great irony that marriages that do not need to end are ending at very high rates, and marriages that are horrifically crippled and violent and abusive often go on far too long.

That is the double tragedy of divorce. It is tragic when it doesn’t need to happen. And it is tragic when it does.

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  • Tim Walsh

    I seem to have an interesting perspective on this issue personally, but I believe that a commitment to reconciliation, no matter what can go a long way.

    I think that the divorce rate (% percentages) is actually more indicative of peoples commitment rate. People commit to things all the time and just give up (smoking, working out, diet, etc…)the list could be endless. I would be interested in finding out how close the “commitment rate” & “divorce rate” are, although the commitment thing is much harder to measure especially when you consider that most people can’t be honest with themselves when it comes to their lack of commitment.

    I always appreciate your insight and wisdom

    • No doubt you are right, Tim. Having worked with couples for 15 years, this gets very tricky. Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard accurately says that we live from the heart. You will ultimately do whatever you most want to do. Therefore we need to cultivate our hearts so that they naturally want to embrace good things and avoid bad things. That is spiritual formation. Once a marriage breaks down to a place where one or both partners simply do not desire reconciliation, what is left is a dry, robotic assent to work on it simply because of some external command to do so. And the fact is, no one wants to be married because of some external command, and even intellectual assent to “work on it” will often not produce results because the fact is that one or both partners have lost heart and hope. If problems with marriages cannot be addressed before they get to this level, divorce will often indeed be the outcome.

  • Modern society treats marriage as a contractual partnership – and nothing more. Marriage is seen as little more than a means of determining property claims. How the married party views their arrangement is somewhat meaningless to how society will process it. If you’re unhappy with a business partner, you dissolve the arrangement. Why would marriage be any different? We even have “messy” divorces, where property is fought over in the dissolution of the partnership (children are even mistakenly processed as property)

    If I had to guess I believe the problem comes about when Christians, who hold marriage to be something more than a simple contract, are influenced by this view held by society.

    Just my two cents

    • You know I think you’re brilliant, but if I’m following you at all, I think you’re off on this one, though not entirely. I do not accept that secular society views marriage as nothing more than a contractual partnership (unless you are referring strictly to the court system). In my work with real couples from a variety of backgrounds both Christian and otherwise, I’ve never met any couple who views marriage as a means of determining property claims. Most people believe marriage means a great deal more than that. Some of what people think about marriage falls into the realm of illusion and fantasy, but a great deal more falls under human aspiration, hope, and desire for connection within a bond that is taken to be indissoluble. All three of these ideals are “spiritual” and they are shared by the majority of people who marry.

      The spiritual tradition insists that there are things that are good for human beings that cannot be immediately determined to be of benefit. Meditation is an example. I began meditating 18 months ago and before I started doing it I thought the idea of it was hooey. Now that I’m doing it, the benefits have become self-evident to me. In regard to marriage, many spiritual traditions insist that profound good can occur in human life by virtue of the difficulty and strain of keeping one’s relational commitments. Kant’s categorical imperative is useful here, as it can hardly be argued that society would be worse off if everyone kept their commitments.

      I do agree with you in your assertion that modern/secular understandings of marriage are slipping into the church, but my experience is that nearly all people hold some version of “marriage is sacred” ideology, so when they come to see me for help, they are seeking help living up to the ideal they have set for their marriages. In other words, it’s not just Christians who believe marriage is forever and want their marriages to last. I believe this ideal is good and valuable for individuals, partners, children, and societies (except in certain cases, obviously), and so I am always more than willing to encourage couples to work to keep their marriages together, not simply discard them when they no longer seem or appear useful. The heart of spiritual understanding is that life is more than it seems or appears.

      • **(unless you are referring strictly to the court system).**

        That was actually my point 🙂

        The system that processes divorce treats it as a contract. This ‘mindset’ does seep into the social consciousness at some level. In fact there are a lot more people than you might realize who marry and divorce every year purely for tax reasons.

        Beyond that I got to thinking about something after I posted here. Do you think it is actually an accurate assessment of society to look at these sorts of raw statistics? By that I mean we look at total marriages v. total divorces and we say “half of all marriages end in divorce”. Sure that might be factually true, but I don’t know if it paints an accurate picture. Here is an example:

        1. Total number of marriages: 100
        2. Total number of divorces: 50
        3. This simple statistic tells us that 50% of marriages end in divorce.

        Here is an alternate look (not saying these are the numbers, they are here purely for example purposes):

        1. Total number of marriages: 100
        2. Total number of divorces: 50
        3. Number of repeat offenders that married and divorced twice: 50 (equating to 50 divorces)

        Now if this was accurate, it would mean that of 150 people getting married, only 50 of them (or 30%) get divorced.

        Again, I don’t know the real numbers, but it seems to me a bit premature to declare marriage is doomed based on such a simple comparison as “total marriages v. total divorces”.

        I’d be curious what your counselors resources might provide to shed some light on this subject.

        • unmarried cohabitations overall are less
          stable than marriages. The probability of a first marriage ending in
          separation or divorce within 5 years is 20 percent, but the probability of
          a premarital cohabitation breaking up within 5 years is 49 percent. After
          10 years, the probability of a first marriage ending is 33 percent…

          [source: http://www.divorcereform.org/rates.html%5D

          The fact that a portion of divorces are from serial divorces is beside the point. Once one has accepted that it’s generally better for individuals and societies for marriage commitments to remain stable over time, then it’s just as true for someone on a first marriage as someone on a fourth marriage. It does, however, make it more urgent to try to prevent first divorces, since the chances of divorce in subsequent marriages continues to increase with each marriage that ends in divorce.

          People on fourth and fifth marriages continue to (foolishly) believe “this one is it.” They are devastated when they begin to deteriorate. My job is to help save them, which always involves finding the patterns that led to previous divorces, which are almost always continuing to play themselves out in the current marriage (never seen an exception to this).

          50% of marriages end in divorce and to me it is equally difficult and tragic regardless of how you spin it.