“Divorce is never an option!”
This was the mantra that I heard growing up and into adulthood. Every Christian marriage class, every Christian marriage forum, every Christian blog post – “Divorce is never an option!”
Of course, there was usually a bit of backtracking. If the relationship was abusive you could maybe, possibly consider thinking about divorce. If there was an incident of adultery, same thing. There were allowances, but they were rare, and they were only allowances, and even in those cases, divorce should only be a last resort. For the most part, divorce was so unacceptable as to not even be put on the table.
So if you had a regular, run-of-the-mill unhappy marriage, you figured out a way to put a happy face on it, because that is how it works. You knuckle down. You persevere. You tough it out.
Sometimes that works. In staying, some couples discover aspects of their marriages that they didn’t realize they were missing. They look for ways to make their relationship happier. They find new ways to experience joy with their spouse.
Sometimes, however, it doesn’t work. The relationship can begin to feel more like a prison, and less like a respite. There can be little motivation to change anything that is undesirable because after all, your spouse can’t leave. Digging deep and uncovering ugly things is an unpleasant task because divorce isn’t an option, and if the dirty is too dirty, you’re just stuck with it. Better to leave well enough alone and carry on.
I would have always said that my first marriage was at no risk of a divorce precisely because “divorce is never an option” was ingrained in me from the time I was old enough to express an interest in dating. Knowing the statistics didn’t matter because divorce was never talked about. When different challenges hit even in the pre-marriage days, I simply ignored them because I wasn’t leaving. I buried frustrations and resentments because dealing with them could cause me to reevaluate the mantra I had been taught and accepted as true.
Here’s the thing. Whether we like to admit it or not, divorce IS an option, and everyone knows it. People say that it’s not out of the best of intentions. They desire to see couples honor the commitments they have made. They want to see marriages that thrive and that work through difficulties. They say it because they want it to be true.
But that phrase can leave people feeling trapped, and trapped people rarely behave in the best way. They make decisions that undermine the idea of a forever marriage – sometimes all at once, sometimes bit by bit.
Sometimes I think by saying that divorce is never an option, divorce becomes the only option.
What if we acknowledge that sometimes divorce isn’t just an option, but a good option? What if we recognized that having all of the options laid out allows people to make better decisions about how they want to proceed? What if by saying, “Divorce is a possibility,” people begin to enter marriage not looking for a way out, but looking for a way to make that out less likely?
We can see that when kids receive sex education, it doesn’t cause them to have sex sooner, but rather, they are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners, or even choose celibacy. Not because of fear, but because access to accurate, true information allows people to make decisions based on all of their options.
I never want to be flippant about divorce. I have seen first-hand how it hurts all involved. Even in the most amicable circumstances, there will still be pain. Part of talking about divorce as an option needs to be understanding how it will affect the people involved.
But pretending that divorce isn’t an option when it clearly is, and sometimes must be, is not lowering divorce rates. Instead, it may be contributing to people who see their marriages as something that need to be presented in a happy light, lest they be seen as part of a “divorce culture.” And when people are pretending about the state of their marriage, they may be headed right toward the thing that they want to avoid.
Maybe we can allow divorce to be an option so that divorce doesn’t have to be the only option.