Focus on the Family

Divorce and Separation

by Focus on the Family

When Bob wanted a divorce because he wasn't happy, he sought the counsel of many people. His best friend said that getting divorce was the most positive decision he'd ever made; a misinformed pastor said, "Divorce is made in heaven," and his new Internet friends said, "It's best to do it now since your kids are out of the house." That was all Bob needed. He was convinced that divorce would be the ticket to help him recapture his youth, find another woman and finally live happily ever after.

Anyone who feels trapped in a marriage can find many marriage "counselors," each with their own opinions, to tell them what's best. But when it comes to divorce, it takes more than an opinion to discover the right thing to do — it takes wisdom.

At Focus on the Family, we're committed to providing that wisdom in order to help you navigate through your questions about divorce. With our help, we hope you'll find the wisdom you need to make a Godly decision for your marriage and your family.

Defining Divorce

In spite of the legal system's best efforts to make divorce "easier," it's still a messy process,

by Holly Hudson

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that divorce is happening at alarming rates in America. While actual numbers are disputed, statistical reports have estimated anywhere from 33 percent to 50 percent of today's marriages end in divorce. Grounds for divorce vary from state to state. In some, it's easier to file for divorce than it is to file for bankruptcy. Obviously, priorities have changed.

Contested and Uncontested Divorce

Divorce cases are identified as "contested" and "uncontested." "Contested" cases are those in which the couple can't agree on how to work out issues such as division of assets, child support, alimony, etc. Spouses who agree on such matters and don't need their lawyers to help make those decisions have an "uncontested" case.

When couples begin a contested divorce but then are able to agree about the terms of the divorce, they come to a settlement. Settlements are a relatively peaceable end to legal proceedings, though the couple still faces an emotional roller coaster of grief in light of their tremendous loss.


Some divorcing couples seek mediation instead of litigation. The mediator, a qualified but neutral party, facilitates agreement on divorce terms. This approach isn't recommended when issues of control, intense conflict or domestic violence are present.

Limited Divorces and Separations

Marriages that are not completely severed are called limited divorces or separations. The spouses no longer live together but are still married. Marriages that, with significant evidence, are declared to never have existed are annulled.

"Easy" Divorce

In spite of the legal system's best efforts to make divorce "easier," it's still a messy process, not just logistically but emotionally. Both spouses are often left with lasting emotional pain and regret. Some conflicts remain unresolved, allowing resentment to fester. Either spouse can experience anger, anxiety, depression and other emotions that affect them physically. The list of divorce's negative effects on people runs long. No matter how inexpensive the proceedings are or how necessary the split seems to be, divorce always comes at an excruciating price.

Divorce: Is it the Answer?

If you're in an unpleasant marriage, your only options are to stay married and miserable, or get divorced and happy. Right?

by Chris L. Stollar

A person stuck in an unpleasant marriage faces only two options: stay married and miserable, or get divorced and become happy.

Sound logical? Well, reality differs.

Divorce often creates additional problems and pain that had formerly not existed, such as child custody, support payments, and heartbreak.

"While temporary happiness may be found," said Lysa Terkeurst, President of Proverbs 31 ministry and author of Who Holds the Key to Your Heart, "divorce causes death — it harms not only the spouses involved but also their children and friends."

Recently, a report by the Institute for American Values, a private, nonpartisan family think tank, challenged the divorce presupposition.

"In popular discussion and in scholarly literature, the assumption has always been that if a marriage is unhappy, if you get a divorce, it is likely you will be happier than if you stayed married," said David Blankenhorn of the Institute. "This is the first time this has been tested empirically, and [the tests show that] there is no evidence to support this assumption."

The Facts and Figures

Conducted by a team of leading family scholars headed by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, the study analyzed the relationships between marriage, divorce and happiness. The research team used data collected by the National Survey of Family and Households that had interviewed 5,232 married adults in the late 1980s. Total reported unhappy marriages: 645. Five years later, 167 had divorced or separated, and 478 had remained married.

The research shows that unhappily married adults who had divorced were no happier than those who had stayed married. The 13 measures of well being include self-esteem, personal mastery, depression, purpose in life and alcohol drinks per day.

"Divorce leads to many ills including poverty, depression, poor health and a greater likelihood of suicide," said Bridget Maher, a policy analyst on marriage and family at the Family Research Council. "Divorced men have higher rates of mental illness and death due to accidents and suicide than married men. Also, divorced fathers who do not live with their children are more likely to engage in behaviors that compromise their health. A study of children's home environments found that divorced mothers are less able to provide the same level of emotional support to their children than married mothers."

The research also shows that the unhappiest marriages had encountered the most dramatic turnarounds when spouses addressed problems together, individual partners found ways to improve their own lives, or time simply passed. In each situation, commitment served as the underlying foundation for a lasting and often happy marriage.

"As a couples therapist for more than 20 years, these findings are consistent with my own clinical experiences," said Dr. Mark Goulston, an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "Marriages end not because couples stop loving each other but because they can't stop hating each other. When couples find a way to excavate and work through the misunderstandings, hurt and disappointment that hardened into anger, they often discover that they still have a strong bond underneath…

"[What this means] is that people should give their marriage their absolute best effort before they call it quits. If they don't, they could end up with deep regrets and more unhappiness down the road."

Tolstoy Was Right

Nineteenth-century author Leo Tolstoy observed, "What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility."

The organization's report supports Tolstoy's claim: "A strong commitment to marriage as an institution and a powerful reluctance to divorce do not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together, they also help couples form a happier bond. To avoid divorce, many assume, marriages must become happier. But it is at least equally true that in order to get happier, unhappy spouses or couples must first avoid divorce."

While circumstances — such as physical abuse — may make divorce a necessary evil, it is still a tragedy, and like any other misfortune, divorce causes pain.

"Divorce is to adultery what price gouging is to armed robbery: essentially the same crime, varying only in degree of brutality," said Dr. David Crabtree, president of Gutenberg College. "Adultery is character assassination; it is the breaking of one's solemn promise; it is the treacherous betrayal of one's closest friend. Divorce involves the same kind of betrayal; it may be legal, but it is still nasty."

The prophet Malachi declares, "The LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. . . . 'I hate divorce,' says the LORD God of Israel" (Malachi 2:14,16; New International Version).

While addressing the issue from different angles, Tolstoy, Malachi and the Institute for American Values arrive at conclusions about divorce that square with reality: divorce is not the best solution. It is a tragedy.

Healing the Wounds of Divorce

If you're among the one-third of Americans who have divorced, you're likely bearing deep emotional wounds.

by Brad Lewis

If you're among the one-third of Americans who have divorced, you're likely bearing deep emotional wounds.

Even if you're escaping a terrible situation, the effects of divorce can be devastating. Is there any hope for healing? Psychologist Thomas Whiteman, co-author of Starting Over (with Randy Petersen, Piñon Press, 2001) identifies six stages of divorce recovery. We've expanded the stages, adding some suggestions for moving through them. As you complete each stage, you'll be one step closer to recovery:

Hope for the Separated

Now that one million marriages fail each year, the term separation often equates divorce. Christians are called to change that equation.

by Lynne Thompson

Martin was far from home, when he walked into the lobby at Calvary Baptist Church one Sunday morning. A friend said he could get a book there called Hope for the Separated (Moody), by Gary Chapman, Ph.D.

Martin and his wife Leah had been separated for six months and he was desperate for help. That same Sunday, 3000 miles away, Leah went to a church in California, where a pastor handed her that same book. Imagine their surprise when they spoke a week later only to discover they had been reading the same book.

Separation = Divorce?

"We both recognized that had to be the hand of God. I went back home and we got counseling. Today we are back together," says Martin.

In an age where more than 1 million marriages fail each year, the term separation often becomes equivalent to divorce. Yet, through God’s power, Christians are called to change the equation.

"I don’t think separation equals divorce," says Chapman. "Separation can lead to an absolutely wonderful marriage if we are willing to deal with the problems that led to the separation."

Chapman suggests treating the trauma of separation with a 9-1-1 approach, "If it were a physical problem, we would put you in intensive care and look after you day and night until you either died or got better. Separation says this marriage is in serious trouble; it needs intensive care."

Restoration and Growth

Attending Toward a Growing Marriage seminars led by Chapman is one way to get help. For years, couples nationwide have attended these two-day workshops for the purpose of marriage restoration and growth. Lisa* believes this seminar provided the remedy her marriage desperately needed.

"I knew in my heart that divorce was not what God wanted … but deep down, I was hoping he (her husband) would leave," confessed Lisa. "What happened after the seminar could fill a book! We confessed the ways we had failed one another and sought forgiveness. Then my husband was convicted of his need to be in God's Word daily. Prior to attending the seminar I was certain I had two options, end my marriage or continue unhappily ever after. Praise be to God that his ways are not our ways."

"There are two objectives for the seminar," explains Dr. Chapman, "help people, wherever they are in their marriage, take steps of growth, and then equip couples to go back into their churches and minister to others."

No Quick Fix

Couples looking for a quick fix for their marital woes often become frustrated, abandoning the marriage too early, thereby missing the benefits of God's timing.

"I think the most common problem is couples try to get on with their life too quickly," explains Chapman. "They go six months and the spouse shows no response, so they start dating and become involved with someone else. A year later the spouse comes back and says 'I realize I made a terrible mistake,' and they want to reconcile, but now the other partner’s already involved with someone else. I like to encourage couples to give some time. I use two years as a guideline. For people who are separated it seems like a terribly long time, but in all of life, it's a short time."

The Way It Wasn't Supposed to Be

A single mom details the devastation wrought by divorce on families and the culture in hopes of encouraging others to remain committed to marriage.

by Lynda Hunter

Birds chirped outside the window in the branches of the flowering locust tree. Spring hung in the air but not in my heart. I sat in the second row of the classroom watching my oldest daughter, 5-year-old Ashley, file into the room with the other students dressed for their preschool graduation.

The ceremony began. I scarcely heard a word, however, as I watched my child and wondered how the events of the previous 18 months would affect her. Her dad had left our home when Ashley was 3, her sister, Courtney, was 1 and I was pregnant with her brother, Clint. My mind retraced the events. Afraid to face what lay ahead on my own, I had surrendered my life to Christ. I prayed, "I give You not just this situation, but I give You my whole life."

Then I had read everything I could get my hands on and pulled godly people around me for counsel. In Love Life for Every Married Couple, author Ed Wheat talked about three options every couple face during crises in marriage: get divorced, remain in a bad situation or stay together and make things better. I had chosen to stay, but eventually my husband served me divorce papers.

The teacher in front of me finished her words, then had the children stand to receive their diplomas: "Now students, take your diplomas to your parents."

Ashley stood, head held high. She reached with enthusiasm to accept her certificate, then she walked toward me, smiling. She stopped and turned toward the rear of the room where her dad sat. She headed toward him. She stopped again and turned back toward me. Her eyes met mine, and in that moment I saw every question and hurt and uncertainty she felt over her home breaking apart. What do I do? Whom do I run to? Where do I belong? I smiled and nodded for her to take the diploma to her dad, her quandary fixed for the moment.

Ashley has just turned 18. Long ago she outgrew her yellow bows, and her little curls have turned to long brown tresses. She will soon graduate again, this time from high school. How have I managed to raise her and her siblings by myself for more than 14 years?

God has truly remained faithful to me and my family over these years, and He will continue to guide us to the end of the journey. Yet there's still a degree of sadness in my heart. I've given my children the best of everything I could at home, school and church. But I can never give them solid tools for loving and for resolving conflict that come from two parents committed to keeping their home together. To try to mend the torn places in a child from a divorced home is similar to patching a torn piece of fabric: It can be repaired, but it will never be like new.

Ashley recently ran in her cross-country regionals and won first place. My heart swelled with the same pride I have known since my first hour of becoming a mom. But as I watched her cross the finish line, I felt another all-too-familiar emotion, which caused me to pause. Ashley stumbled toward her dad and leaned on his shoulder as he helped her walk out the strenuous race she had just run. She looked over at me, despite her pain, and I saw that same look of uncertainty I had seen in her face at age 5. What do I do? Whom do I run to? Where do I belong?

If I could accomplish one thing with my life, it would be to stamp out divorce. I have seen the devastation it causes. I know why God says in Malachi 2:16, "I hate divorce." He knows and I know that divorce is not the way it was meant to be — not for the mother or the father or the children.

Dr. Bill Maier on Separation

Dr. Bill Maier addresses issues involving marital separation, children and in-laws.

Answered byDr. Bill Maier

How to Handle Marital Separation

Dear Dr. Bill: My husband and I are separated for the time being due to a difficulty in our relationship. We are in counseling and don't want to divorce. We feel this time apart is important right now because we're concerned that our constant fighting may have an impact on our 3-year-old son. Sometimes our son will spend the night at my husband's apartment in town — but how do we explain to him what is going on?

A 3-year-old doesn't have the capacity to understand concepts like marital separation. You will need to keep your explanations very concrete and simple. You should be completely honest with him about what is going on. You might say something like, "Honey, Daddy and I love each other but lately we have been having some arguments. We are trying to learn how to get along better with a special helper. While we do that we have decided that Daddy is going to live in a different house for a while."

For a 3-year-old child, the most important thing you can do is make sure that he feels safe and loved. During this time of instability you will need to reassure him that mommy and daddy love him very much and that you will always be there for him. You and your husband should also do all you can to act appropriately toward each other when you are around him. Swallow your pride and put his needs ahead of your desire to criticize or snipe at each other.

I'm encouraged to hear that you have made a commitment to attend counseling together and work on your relationship. By the way, one of the most promising new forms of marital counseling is called "Emotionally Focused Therapy" or "EFT." Many couples who have felt they were at the end of their rope have found hope and healing through EFT. You might ask your counselor if he or she is familiar with that form of therapy.

I would also encourage you to move back in together as soon as possible. Research shows that the longer you stay physically separated the higher your risk for divorce. I pray that you are able to work things out for the sake of your son.

Separation and the Holidays

Dear Dr. Bill: My husband and I have been separated for 4 months now. But he recently asked me to join him and our children at his mom and dad's house on Christmas morning. He said he wants me to come because he wants to be there next year when it's my turn to have the kids on Christmas morning. Although I would love to see my girls open their presents, I'm afraid this will send mixed messages to them about the marriage problems they know we are experiencing. What do you think is the right choice for my children?

Kathy, I'm sorry to hear about your situation and that you're dealing with this difficult decision at Christmas time. I'll be honest, in my opinion, the most helpful thing you can do for your girls is to work out your marital problems with your husband and get back together. You didn't mention the nature of the conflict, but unless it involves abuse, addiction or dangerous behavior, separation is not the answer.

The vast majority of divorces today are what psychologists refer to as "low-conflict" divorces. In other words, the couple isn't involved in angry, knock-down, drag-out fights—they simply report that they "fell out of love" or that their partner was no longer "meeting their needs."

Unless there's an issue like addiction or abuse involved, separation typically doesn't help a couple—the vast majority of separations actually lead to divorce. That's because when a couple separates, they've got "one foot out the door" of their relationship. The level of commitment takes a big hit, which makes getting a divorce that much easier.

On the other hand if a couple who is having marital problems sticks it out, they often find that their problems work themselves out over time. Research shows that the majority of couples who make the decision to stay together and work on their conflict report that their marriage is "much happier" three years later. Many of these couples stayed together for the sake of their kids, and in hindsight they say are very thankful they didn't get divorced.

So again, unless your husband has been abusive or is involved in some type of dangerous or addictive behavior, I'd encourage you to spend Christmas with him at your in-laws house. Let your daughters know that you and daddy are trying to work things out, but be honest that you don't know what the future holds.

Kathy, your e-mail didn't say anything about marital counseling. If you and your husband haven't seen a counselor to work on your issues, make an appointment with one this week.

I pray that you and your girls have a wonderful Christmas, and that God will open the door to reconciliation with your husband.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources addressing crisis in marriage

Popular questions on this topic: