One feature of being in marriage ministry is hearing plenty of stories—inspiring stories, struggling stories, and heartbreaking stories. Spouses reach out, share what they’ve gone through, and ask for advice, encouragement, or prayer. I do my best to provide that, but sometimes I come away believing the person’s marriage is not worth saving. That, as marriage author Gary Thomas once said, the cost is too high.
One Flesh Marriage recently put it this way: “Don’t buy into the lie that remaining ‘un-divorced’ is enough.” In other words, it’s not enough to stick it out in a marriage, especially if that marriage involves ongoing abuse, addiction, or adultery. While the ideal is to foster a relationship that includes none of those aspects, God doesn’t force people to change, and some spouses simply won’t.
Given that I believe divorce is sometimes the best option, why don’t I tell a spouse to leave? Why don’t I encourage them to unplug from the source of their continuous heartbreak? Why have I never directly told a reader to seek a divorce?
I May Not Know the Whole Story
One spouse writes me and tells me what they’ve been through, but it’s all through their eyes. While their story may be 100% true, it also may not be. Sorry, but people can misconstrue, bring their own baggage to a situation, and outright lie.
Now, I’m not saying that’s typical—I tend to take people at their word and address the situation from there. But to tell someone to leave their spouse based on what they’ve told me when I don’t know them personally and have had no chance to hear from their mate strikes me as presumptuous.
Perhaps I’m influenced by having people in my own family background who experienced bad marriages where an abusive spouse managed to convince friends, counselors, and others that they were not the problem, but rather their uncooperative or unstable mate.
All in all, I agree with the Russian proverb Doveryai, no proveryai, which translates to a phrase US President Reagan popularized: trust, but verify.
Spouses Leave When They’re Ready
I’ve been there when friends and family have gone through divorces that were well-chosen. But rarely were they timely. In such situations, a victimized spouse should have left long before they did. But they weren’t ready until they were ready.
Anyone who has been through can tell you how heartbreaking it is to observe a loved one in a toxic relationship who needs to leave but isn’t emotionally ready to go. Now we should rescue people when needed and inform them of their options! But law enforcement officers and social workers can back me up on the reality that spouses often stay with people who hurt them deeply.
Most of my advice, therefore, is to help spouses in failing marriages recognize that what’s happening is unacceptable. That’s the first step for a trapped spouse to begin thinking outside the box of “this is just how it is” and imagine a different future.
If there’s hope for the marriage, then they need to take steps to turn it around anyway. But if there’s not hope, then taking steps to turn it around and seeing no response or a negative response from their spouse may jolt them into realizing that it’s time to go.
Personalized Help Has a Greater Impact
One or two emails from me aren’t nearly as impactful as having someone “on the ground” to walk with the spouse in need. Spouses who should leave would benefit from having a mentor, pastor, counselor, or friend to help them break away—someone who knows more of the story, can point to local resources and provide practical advice, and will be there longer term to comfort, strengthen, and support.
That’s why one of my biggest pieces of advice to such folks is to consult someone who can provide personalized guidance. Often that means seeing a qualified counselor, but sometimes it’s reaching out to a mentor or to an organization like RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). There are specialists who do this for a living—that is, they recognize abuse survivors and know how to speak to their concerns. And they can tailor their recommendations to the individual they’re working with.
Look, I know who and what I am: I teach couples, especially wives, about God’s design for sex in marriage. I have excellent credentials for that, including a counseling degree, but I am not a licensed marriage counselor nor a domestic-abuse, trauma-trained, or addiction expert. So, when I encounter a story that makes me think someone needs to get the heck outta Dodge, I strongly encourage them to seek out the right resource for their situation.
Not Everyone Shares My Theology
Finally, some of you may have been yelling at this post already, wondering why I’m even talking about divorce as an option. Isn’t God opposed to divorce? Can’t God turn any bad situation around?
Obviously, I’m pro-marriage, or I wouldn’t have devoted over 11 years of my life to writing and speaking about it. And I believe God can turn around relationships in ways that we couldn’t have imagined until we saw it happen. It happened for my marriage and for many other spouses I’ve seen and heard from.
Yet I believe there are some outs in the Scripture for spouses to leave a marriage. Which specific situations light up that Exit sign, we can debate another time, but there’s an Exit door for some.
However, a fair number of people who write me about their terrible, awful, soul-sucking marriage don’t think there’s an Exit sign. At least, not yet. If I then say, “You should leave!” I have lost any opportunity I have of helping them navigate a better way now or in the future. Rather, I feel it’s important to show how the marriage that they’re in doesn’t glorify God and needs to be changed. (Or left, but I don’t always say that part aloud.)
Off the top of my head, there are four people who have written me over the years that I’m nearly certain should get out of their marriage, like yesterday. Three of them are in abusive situations, and one is so bitter that I cannot imagine how things could ever turn around. All of them involve intense, ongoing betrayal. But all of them believe their Christian duty is to stay. So, I commit to say and do what I can in the framework they’re in right now.
What I Want Spouses to Know
Speaking of intense betrayal, let’s contrast two apostles who both failed Jesus. Peter and Judas both followed Jesus around for three years, eating and traveling with Him, learning at His feet, ministering to His followers, and witnessing His miracles. And they both screwed up—big time. Peter messed up several times and even denied Christ when He was arrested, but each time Peter got to his feet, repented, and drew closer to the Lord, eventually becoming the prime evangelist on Pentecost and a prominent leader of the First Century Church.
Meanwhile, Judas escorted the enemy right to Jesus, but when he felt the full weight of his sin and remorse for it, he didn’t change. He didn’t choose Christ. He actually chose death rather than the difficult-but-worthwhile road of repentance and reconciliation.
I want spouses to know that many not-good mates are Peter. They mess up, they need to learn more, they need practice and help to get it right, but they can draw closer to Christ and their spouse. But some are Judas. Even if they recognize somewhere deep down that they are the problem, they’d rather die than soften their heart and change. Even God-in-the-flesh couldn’t prick that hardened heart.
I want spouses to know the difference between an imperfect marriage and an ungodly marriage. God can work wonders in a flailing marriage with two imperfect sinners, but we have no obligation to cooperate with evil and perpetuate sin.
I want spouses to know where to go for good, biblically based advice and assistance. It’s why I’ve talked about experts who hurt your intimacy rather than help it and point readers to helpful resources. It’s why I’m thrilled that my podcast partner, Bonny Burns, is now an APSATS-trained coach helping women who’ve been sexually betrayed.
But more than anything, I want spouses—and all people—to know God. The more we learn about who God is, the less likely we are to countenance oppression, injustice, evil, and violence. The more likely we’ll be to speak up for the abused or mistreated spouse and intervene to insist on better treatment from their mate. The more likely we’ll be to embrace our God-given value and set appropriate boundaries in our relationships. And the more likely we’ll be to help the hurting among us and provide wisdom and resources for those in our midst who need to get out of a destructive marriage.Why I've Never Told a Reader to Seek Divorce: "The more we learn about who God is, the less likely we are to countenance oppression, injustice, evil, and violence." #marriage @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
Should divorce be an option?
In my marriage, removing the D-word from my mouth and mind was helpful, because if I wasn’t going to leave and I wasn’t going to accept the status quo, I had extra motivation to improve our relationship.
For others I know, removing the D-word was harmful, because their spouse believing they wouldn’t leave gave them confidence that they could abuse or mistreat their mate without consequence. The relationship would never improve; in fact, it got worse. And the damaged spouse felt trapped.
When a reader writes me, I don’t know which situation I’m dealing with. Even in the four marriages I believe are in the trash bin, I could be wrong. A thousand words in an email just doesn’t give me enough to go by.
But one thing that shouldn’t be an option is living in a bad marriage for decades! The Church should never settle for that. When it comes to marriage, we need a Fix It mentality. Marriages should be thriving or striving, not just surviving. No one should be stuck in a broken, soul-crushing marriage. God wants much better for His precious child.
Related post: Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage?