“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.
9 thoughts on “Should Divorce Be An Option?”
Oh my goodness, thank you so much for this. I’ve been thinking the exact same thing lately in the wake of the whole Ashley Madison scandal. There’s been a lot of well intentioned advice from Christian corners advising affected spouses to work through the problems, pray through them, and stay for the sake of honouring their marriage. And I don’t disagree that those may be the right options for some couples. But no one has been saying ‘Sometimes divorce might be the right thing for you. You should know that it’s at least an option’. I’ve been wondering how much extra pressure these affected spouses might be feeling in an already awful time – to feel like there’s no other choice than to stay in their marriage if they want to do the ‘Christian’ thing.
Totally. And then what kind of really ugly thing happens in 5 years when they realize they never really worked through any of this? Again, I’m in no way advocating for divorce, but I think ignoring it does more harm than good.
As a person who desires to have a marriage positive voice and works with married couples on a regular basis this is a completely valid and important conversation to have. While I love 500-1000 words on many subjects I believe this is one topic where that few words are grossly inadequate to actually begin to understand the complexity of the situations people face. In order to keep my comment short I will share what I believe is one option for a marriage positive approach to having honest and helpful conversations about marriage and divorce.
The number one piece of advice I offer married couples and pre-married couples is that all marriages encounter struggles, yes even very difficult ones. The feelings of isolation, shame and fear marriage struggles bring to an individual indeed do make them feel trapped and many feel inadequate to express, confront and deal with those issues. Cultural standards at large are not favorable towards vulnerability and honesty when it comes to admitting and working through personal or relational problems therefore we regularly swallow the unhealthy and muster up the perseverance and tough it out mindset you mentioned. Perhaps it’s not so much about making divorce an option that leads to people wanting to make it less of an option. Perhaps it’s that idea that from pre-marriage on we need to find healthy people and circles who can truly support us when difficulties arise and then be bold enough to truly take the opportunity to open up.
I believe the “divorce is not an option” mantra exists because marriages that last matter more than we recognize. At the same time, that mantra is woefully inadequate to deal with the complexities of each individual situation and likely the person saying it has little to offer you when the thoughts of divorce come bouncing through your mind on a daily basis. If however we had others we could rely on and go to when those thoughts came we just may have a better chance of silencing both the negative divorce mantras (“divorce is never an option” vs. “divorce is the only option”) because, let’s face it, those are about the only two options we can sense alone. Giving voice to struggles, questions and hurts is incredibly vulnerable but is essential to finding our way out.
Anyway, I am far more able to have open dialogue about these topics than I am to write comments about such things but didn’t want to neglect to write at least a little something.
Well said. I do think that there’s a pretty black and white mentality, which is definitely not what I’m trying to get at here. And I totally agree – more honesty is good. Letting people say, out loud, I don’t like this person and I don’t want to be married to them may seem really scary, but I think that’s the only way we can actually get anyone back to a point where they might actually want to reverse that way of thinking. But like you said, when we only rely on “never” or “only,” it’s hard to see any other choice and that tends to keep us from honesty.
I appreciate you stopping by!
Like most adult commitments, marriage vows commit us to a relationship that may result in our unhappiness at times. Being a parent does that on a regular basis. But we CHOSE to marry a person. And we CHOSE by having sex to be a (biological) parent.
I say this as someone who has gone through divorce and is very happily remarried. Adultery and abuse are unacceptable in my opinion. They are extreme violations of the marriage covenant, and I believe God recognizes such as grounds for ending the marriage through divorce.
But I DO think making happiness or not feeling trapped the benchmark for the viability of a marriage trivializes the covenant God designed for us. It may lead to people missing out on the greater gifts God has in store for those who remain faithful.
As an American culture, we are rather self-centered and hedonistic in our orientation. Covenant keeping is counter-cultural in suggesting a higher good is served than simply our pleasure or so called personal happiness/fulfillment.
Divorce wasn’t an option in my first marriage. Yet it happened. But I am still not making divorce an option in my second. I do not see that commitment to one’s own vows and integrity as the problem.
The problem is when we refuse to accept that man (or woman) has already physically broken/separated that covenant in one way or another (e.g. adultery).
I resonate with what Megan has advised–finding true support–as the greatest wisdom, and regret (in my own experience). We don’t typically know we lack true support until we need it. The total void of true support can also prevent us from being able to move forward with the less-culturally-accepted option of divorce. I.e. If you feel that the decision of divorce is not truly supported by others in your life, and, if then, you don’t have your spouse and you don’t have true support from friends or family, what do you have left? Another kind of “trapped”, but this time by the prison of “judgement”.
Even in my closest friendships, I’ve seen how we judge each others’ marriages even subtly. We don’t share struggles openly. We use each other as a litmus test for how well our own marriage is going. And we’re good people who love each other. But we aren’t suffering or overcoming together. The kind of true support you need when times get difficult.
Thank you, Alise and Megan. You’re giving me breath today.