Mike and Sandy* came to see me for marriage therapy. They struggled with one of the most challenging questions a married couple can ask: Is divorce the right answer? It’s a high-stakes question — on par with the first question a couple must answer: Should we get married? Both issues require life-changing solutions. Like the decision to marry, couples need to realize that others’ lives — especially their children – will be affected. So, before saying yes to a divorce, a couple should always take a serious look at critical questions that can guide them in making sound emotional, psychological and spiritual decisions.
The first time I meet couples for a therapy session, I ask them to tell me the story of their relationship and ask questions like, “Where did you meet?” “What attracted you to each other?” and “When did you decide to get married?” Couples usually lean into the questions about their story, relax a little and take a stroll down memory lane.
Hearing their story gives the three of us a reference point and a context for their current situation. I also want the couple to remember that at one time, the relationship was good. Marriage was good. Life was full of hope.
Mike and Sandy never thought they would divorce. Now, they found themselves wondering if a divorce would make things better. But Mike couldn’t get away from the question that haunted him: “What does God desire?”
Few life experiences are as heart-wrenching as a divorce. So, if you’re wondering if divorce is the right answer, consider these 15 questions.
Question 1: Do you and your spouse communicate in a respectful, affirming way?
If you answered “no,” then it’s time to change how you communicate with your spouse. Many people have difficulty sharing their feelings and needs. Suppose couples “go through the motions” without honest communications. In that case, they turn away from each other, disconnect emotionally, and let negative thoughts and feelings override positive ones.
It can be challenging to move from poor to healthy communication — especially if you’ve never learned how to talk to your spouse. A skilled relationship expert can help you and your spouse learn how to turn toward each other, empathize and understand the others’ feelings and needs.
Question 2: Do you try to resolve every conflict in your marriage?
If you answered “yes,” you have set yourself up to fail.
Dr. John Gottman is one of America’s top researchers on relationships. One of his fundamental discoveries is that nearly 70% of relationship problems are perpetual. They keep coming up! In fact, fighting couples may be looking for a solution that does not exist.
If you and your spouse have the same argument over and over, you may find yourself asking, Is divorce the right answer? Maybe there is a better way to address your struggles. Instead of defaulting to divorce questions, I challenge you to make this statement the new goal of your discussions: I want us to learn to manage this respectfully. Such a simple declaration can make a profound difference. Couples can learn to talk about conflicts with compassion, acceptance and an understanding that it’s OK to disagree.
Couples should also remember there is usually a significant reason for the disagreement. One spouse (or both) may be dealing with a deeply held position, a dream (ideal) or other background issues. Uncovering this issue may help a couple reach a healthy compromise.
Finding Hope for Your Hurting Marriage
Question 3: Do you believe your marriage is all that it can become … or are you just tired of trying?
Six years. That’s how long most couples struggle before finally making an appointment with a counselor to ask if divorce is the right answer to their situation? Many suffer for decades — drowning in poor communication patterns, unhealthy behaviors, and emotional or physical disconnect before seeking help or filing for divorce. They arrive at the counselor’s or attorney’s office exhausted and think they’ve tried everything but feel nothing has worked.
It’s time to take an honest look at your marriage. Do you and your spouse struggle in one (or more) of these areas:
- Infidelity — emotional or physical.
- Disconnect — emotional or physical.
- Managing conflict.
- Thinking negatively about your spouse.
- Growing in different directions.
- Resentment or bitterness.
If you answered “yes” to any of these issues, consider marriage therapy with a Christian counselor.
Question 4: How have you contributed to the problem and the solution?
Many couples fall into the blame game: pointing fingers at their spouse instead of taking an honest self-inventory. We all have blind spots. And we can only find them if we take time to reflect on the things we’ve done that contribute to our marriage’s unhappiness. In other words, put the blame game in a timeout and do some self-reflection:
- Am I struggling with sinful behavior that affects my marriage?
- How do I talk to my spouse? Am I critical? Defensive?
- How do I handle conflict? Do I attack, avoid or blame?
- What does my spouse need from me? How do I know? Is it based on my own opinion or has my spouse told me about his or her needs?
- Am I regularly meeting my spouse’s needs? If not, why not?
- Am I checking with my spouse regularly to make sure I’m meeting his or her needs?
- Am I working on my friendship with my spouse?
- How am I showing my spouse love and appreciation?
Question 5: Are issues outside your marriage making you unhappy?
Mike and Sandy’s marriage changed for the better when medical tests showed Sandy had a thyroid condition. Her condition caused irritability, weight gain, frustration and fatigue. Once she started taking thyroid medication, her health improved, and so did her marriage. If you of your spouse are wondering whether divorce is the right answer, it may help to first seek medical or psychological assistance. Consider medical aid for:
- Mental health issues.
- Physical health issues.
- Stresses of life.
- Sleep deprivation.
Question 6: Do you know what makes a healthy marriage?
For the last 40 years, Gottman has conducted scientific studies of couples to answer the question, “Do healthy marriages share similar characteristics?”
We’ve already discussed one similarity: Healthy marriages learn to manage conflict successfully.
But according to Gottman, a second — and equally important characteristic — is that friendship and trust are at the heart of healthy marriages.
Gottman’s findings echo another key source of relationship knowledge: The Bible. Theologian Timothy Keller states that the Bible begins with the premise that marriage is friendship.
In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Keller explains that when God brought Eve to Adam, He brought him not just a lover, but “the friend his heart had been seeking.” The Bible takes the concept of a husband-wife friendship even deeper. Genesis 2:18 shows God’s design for a woman: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him. It’s important to take an in-depth look at the word “helper.”
In the English language, “helper” often implies someone with a lack of skill or strength. In the Hebrew language (the original text), the word “helper” means just the opposite. The Hebrew text says God made an ezer kenegdo — a helpmeet. The term ezer is used roughly 20 times in the Bible. It often refers to God as our “helper.” Psalm 121:1-2 says this: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” Seen in this context, the word “helper,” takes on a new meaning. God is not unskilled, nor is He weak. God did not make the woman as a “helper” in the English sense of the word. He made her an ally. Someone with equal strength manifested in different ways than in the man.
A healthy marriage then is one in which the husband and wife are allies — two individuals working toward a common goal. If you and your spouse are constantly asking if divorce is the right answer, then it becomes essential to stop viewing each other as the enemy and start seeing each other as allies. Often, the realization that you are both working toward a common goal — a relationship, a family — helps renew the friendship that is desperately needed to weather life’s storms.
Question 7: Do you know that the divorce rate isn’t as high as you’ve been told?
Social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn challenges the conventional wisdom that 50% of American marriages will end in divorce. Through a rigorous, eight-year study, Feldhahn found “72% of those who have ever been married are still married to their first spouse.” Based on her research, Feldhahn believes the U.S. divorce rate may be as low as 20 to 25%!
Much like Feldhahn, Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, analyzed U.S. divorce trends and discovered divorce rates dropped 21% between 2008 and 2017. The decline may be the result of adults choosing to live together rather than marry; however, Cohen suggests that the evidence points toward a continued decline in divorce and a progression toward more stable marriages. So if you’re wondering if divorce is the right answer, social science suggests that it’s possible to save your marriage.
Question 8: Do you and your spouse regularly attend church together?
In their publication “Religious Influences on the Risk of Marital Dissolution,” researchers from the University of Texas found church attendance lowers the risk of divorce. Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers examined characteristics of nearly 3,000 first-time married couples. Their findings showed the risk of divorce is substantially lower for couples who regularly attend church together. The study also finds that “persons who hold conservative theological beliefs about the Bible may be less likely to separate or divorce over time.” The survey results are consistent with the adage, “The family who prays together stays together.”
Question 9: Do you know what the Scriptures say about marriage and divorce?
The Bible is clear that God designed marriage to be a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. A spiritual union takes place in a marriage. The Apostle Paul describes it as a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Timothy Keller explains it as an example of God’s relationship with His people and Christ’s love for the church.
Are there grounds for leaving a marriage, for divorce? In the Bible, it’s clear God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). It’s important to note that this verse does not say that God hates divorced people. But His heart breaks when He sees the pain caused by divorced. It was never a part of His plan.
So, what is God’s plan for marriage? In Matthew 19:1-9, Jesus talks to religious leaders about marriage and divorce.
The Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He [Jesus] answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man separate.” They [the Pharisees] said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
1 Corinthians 7:15 gives one additional reason for divorce. The apostle Paul cites willful desertion or abandonment. In such a case, the wronged spouse “is not enslaved.” However, Paul’s exception applies only to an unbeliever leaving or abandoning a believing spouse, not to a believer’s actions.
Choosing to divorce should never be easy or considered without input from wise counsel and a spiritual community. If an unfaithful spouse shows no prospect of repentance or refuses offers of help and restoration, divorce is permissible. However, God never intended divorce to be the answer.
Question 10: Are you safe in your marriage?
The Bible releases a spouse from the marriage bond under limited circumstances: sexual immorality and abandonment. But what about spouses who suffer abuse? What does the Bible say to a woman married to a physically abusive man? Or the husband of an out-of-control substance abuser? Or worse, a spouse married to someone with violent or criminal intentions? Does the Bible say that spouses must stay in an abusive marriage?
Physical abuse is unacceptable. If you — or your children — suffer physical abuse, get to safety.
God intended marriage to be a blessing. His design never included abuse, violence or physical pain. Even emotional abuse — while it does not leave external marks — can bruise a person’s heart, mind and soul. Victims often feel helpless, hopeless, depressed or suicidal. If you’re in an abusive relationship, get help right away. Proverbs 22:3 tells us that “the prudent sees danger and hides himself.” In such a case, the purpose of separation is for safety. The intent should be that the wayward spouse seeks help and repents so that the relationship is healed and the marriage made pleasing to God. But if the abusive spouse is unrepentant and the other spouse remains in danger, reconciliation may never be possible.
Question 11: Do you understand the impact divorce will make on your children and grandchildren?
Anyone who has experienced a divorce knows that its effects continue for decades. Divorce hits like a tornado and leaves a trail of devastation and heartache. Among the victims are innocent children who must deal with the destruction for years to come.
Jane Anderson is a retired clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Anderson spent nearly 30 years studying the connection between family structure and children’s health. Her findings show that “with the exception of parents faced with unresolvable marital violence, children fare better when parents work at maintaining the marriage.”
The late psychologist Mavis Hetherington also studied the effect of divorce on children. While divorce is painful for adults, it affects children more, especially in the post-divorce years. Children may be at risk of displaying emotional, psychological and behavioral problems. Children of divorce may also suffer attachment issues. Resiliency and protective factors can influence outcomes following the divorce. Still, we cannot predict which children will fare better than others. Because a child’s future is at stake, spouses must ask — and answer — the question: Are you willing to take the chance with your child? No matter how parents attempt to “spin” the issue, divorce is devastating for many children and leaves life-long emotional, psychological and spiritual scars.
In addition to the findings by Anderson and Hetherington, researcher Judith Wallerstein also studied the long-term effects of divorce. Wallerstein studied families over 25 years and determined that divorce may leave lasting effects from which children may never fully recover.
Spouses asking if divorce is the answer should consider: Do we fully understand — and take responsibility for — the lasting damage divorce causes our children and grandchildren?
Question 12: Are you ready for the long-term financial challenges caused by divorce?
Linda Waite, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, has studied the financial consequences of divorce. In her book, The Case for Marriage, Waite shows that couples can work together to build wealth, but after a divorce, there is no mutual support. For example, two households cost more to run. Even if finances are distributed evenly, the standard of living almost always drops.
The challenge becomes even more complicated when children are involved. Child support orders are often not enough to cover all expenses. The result is a new set of challenges. Stay-at-home mothers may need to find work outside the home. Parents in the workforce may need to increase their hours — or take on second jobs — to make ends meet. More hours of work mean less time for childcare, teaching and activities.
Discover the Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Marriage
Question 13: Have you tried marriage therapy?
If you and your spouse are struggling, seek help. Connect with a trusted group of mature Christians or a pastor who can provide wise counsel. You can also seek advice from a marriage therapist. When looking for a marriage counselor, consider the following qualifications: If you want to talk to a therapist, look for someone who is licensed and has advanced training in the areas of marriage and relationships. Consider these points when searching for a qualified marriage therapist:
- Is the therapist licensed?
- Does the therapist have advanced training in marriage and relationships?
- What is the therapist’s stance on marriage?
- Does the therapist believe in God’s design for marriage?
Interview at least two therapists who specialize in marriage and, if possible, consider attending a marriage intensive, retreat or seminar.
Question 14: Are you prepared for the mental and physical stress of a divorce?
Many marriages fall apart for one heartbreaking reason: Spouses forget the value of the relationship. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 is a reminder that relationships are worth the struggle. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”
The late UCLA professor Dr. Robert H. Coombs reviewed more than 130 studies of married couples. He concluded that “it is in each person’s own best interest to establish and maintain a durable relationship with an emotionally supportive spouse. The lack of this resource is a mental health deficit.”
Additional research cited by Harvard Health Publishing suggests married people are:
- Less likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
- Less likely to suffer from depression.
- More likely to have a longer life than an unmarried person.
- More likely to survive a major operation.
It should come as no surprise that sound scientific research confirms God’s original plan for marriage — that a spouse provides companionship and psychological support.
Question 15: Will a divorce really make you happy?
In addition to her book The Case for Marriage, professor Waite researched whether divorce makes unhappily married people happy. Surprisingly, the answer, according to this research, is no. Waite’s study found that divorce did not offer an unhappy spouse relief from depression, nor was it associated with increases in psychological well-being or personal happiness. The only exception to the rule involved spouses who had experienced a violent marriage.
Is divorce the right answer? Will it make you happy? Waite’s research debunks the myth of the happy divorcee. It shows that divorce led to a reduction in happiness and an increase in depression.
Is divorce the right answer? Or is there hope?
Is divorce the right answer? In her book, The Case for Marriage, Waite followed couples for five years to check in on their marriages. She found that those who faced their challenges and managed conflicts reported a healthy marriage and a happy spouse. The social sciences indicate that change is possible.
But you have more — much more — than science on your side. The One who created marriage is on your side. “God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
God can change hearts. He can bring healing even when there has been an emotional or sexual betrayal. He offers hope. So, before you ask if divorce is the right answer, ask God to work in your heart and in your spouse’s heart. Invite Him to guide you as you seek answers. He is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.
*Names have been changed.