How to “Divorce-Proof” Your Marriage
By Dr. Ron Woodworth
- This article, though dealing with “divorce-proofing” your marriage, is not somuch a reactive article, against divorce, as it is a proactive one—in favor of marriage. In addition to further equipping happily married couples, the contents of the text will also assist Christian singles—giving them wisdom for future choices; as well as helpful advice for any who may be in the midst of a troubled marriage.
- Divorce is a serious problem in our culture. Most statisticians would agree that, at the present rate, around 45% of marriages taking place in the U.S. today will eventually end in divorce.1 That is part of the reason why so many younger people are choosing in larger numbers to experimentally co-habit2rather than make the commitment to marriage–even though a major block of research shows that married people tend to be healthier, wealthier, happier, out live, and stay together longer than their unmarried co-habiting counterparts.3 Of course, the most troubling consequences of our “culture of divorce” are the effects of divorce upon children including, guilt, depression, delinquency, low self-esteem, poor grades, and difficulties in social relations4–not to mention the fear and insecurity associated with the parental example of a failed marriage.
Unfortunately, it must be stated here that divorce could actually be better for children in certain extreme situations of child abuse–such as sexual exploitation, violence, drug addition, and family abandonment to name a few. In fact, spousal abuse would be one of four basic reasons the author has found as biblical justifications of divorce–the other three being adultery, addiction, and abandonment. But, rather than engage the reader in the arguments over the biblical justifications of divorce, I would simply invite all who have further interest in the subject to secure my series on the subject.5
Suffice it to say that divorce, justified or not, still has some serious consequences for its victims–be they adults and/or children. This is the reason that I have selected the title of divorce-proofing your marriage as the rubric6 under which to outline a number of key considerations for all those committed to protecting the sacred bonds of their marriage covenant.
Divorce-proofing can be better understood if you think about the more familiar terms like weatherproofing, soundproofing, or bulletproofing. For instance, “weatherproofing” is the ability to withstand exposure to weather without damage or loss of function–usually through the application of some kind of coating. Notice how weatherproofing does not guarantee that there will be no adverse weather–only that the ability to effectively resist such weather is assured. The same is true about divorce-proofing your marriage. The following insights will not guarantee that a marriage will be without difficulty. Rather, when difficulties come, the application of such principles from God’s Word can be relied on to deliver us through the trials.
“No temptation (or trial) has overtaken you but such as is common to man. And God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide a way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Principle #1: Only marry in the Lord–the importance of spiritual compatibility.
“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership do righteousness and lawlessness have, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
The clear principle here is that, without being paranoid or arrogant, Christians need to be careful about establishing binding social relations with unbelievers–including marriage and business partnerships. The obvious reason is that an unbeliever does not yet have the same biblical world view and hence kingdom values as an “informed” Christian. As a result, the unbeliever may be more susceptible to worldly temptations that could distort their decision making process thus causing future relational conflicts.
In a larger sense this principle deals with the issue of spiritual compatibility. Even if the prospective mate declares to be a “Christian” do they have the same or similar spiritual experiences, priorities, maturity, and zeal that can be shared together? If not, then this issue needs to be honestly discussed so that steps can be taken to ensure that agreement can be reached in this vital area of marital harmony. To not do so may translate into frustration and/or spiritual loneliness in coming years.
Principle #2: Marry for life–not just for a season.
“A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:39)
As this verse indicates, the attitude of the Christian believer (male or female) must be to marry for one’s lifetime. It is sad and heretical how one Unitarian Universalist Minister in the 1970’s proposed to change the traditional vows from “as long as we both shall live” to “as long as we both shall love.”7 In other words, as long as I feel I love you and you love me then we’ll stay married. But if (for any reason I deem sufficient) that love is lacking, then it is appropriate for us to divorce. Though no one would argue that mutual love is essential to marital harmony the truth is: God’s love doesn’t look for excuses to leave, but always for reasons to stay…
“Love is patient, love is kind…It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs…It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, 7)
All of us go through seasons of life8 that are filled with frustration, difficulty, and suffering, but our “momentary afflictions”9 must not be allowed to compromise our faith in God’s grace and promises. Indeed, perseverance, which literally means to “persist through severity,” should be a character trait that every devoted follower of Christ Jesus should seek to cultivate—never to avoid.10
Principle #3: Cultivate intimacy with your spouse—spirit, soul, and body.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:24-25)
Someone has rightly defined intimacy as “in-to-me-see.” Intimacy implies access to the inner self, or the ability to disclose the deepest self without fear of rejection or betrayal. Now, most people will look at this principle as self-evident in the marriage relationship. Marriage, after all, legally grants a spouse access to intimacy of a physical-sexual nature—or what Tim LaHaye insightfully calls “The Act of Marriage.”11 Unfortunately, our secular culture makes the sexual dimension of a couples relationship (married or not) the primary objective and evidence of a happy couple. And, though it is true that physical intimacy is certainly an essential aspect of a happy marriage, there must also be an openness to disclose and engage the soul and/or spirit.12
In other words, cultivating a growing knowledge and appreciation of your spouse’s mental (how they think), emotional (how they feel), and spiritual state (their relationship with God and the church) are equally important if a married couple is to enjoy the most fulfilling intimate relationship possible. And, even though a couple may have been married for 40 years it is no guarantee that they have achieved a mutually fulfilling degree of intimacy. For to do so, requires commitment, practice, patience, encouragement, and coaching—more later on this. Every couple would do well to regularly read-discuss material [like this article or a good sermon] and attend seminars together as part of their growing exercise of martial intimacy.13
Important point: As most people are now aware, a lack of intimacy may contribute to the temptation of an adulterous affair. And though lack of marital intimacy is never an excuse for infidelity, it is important to understand that when intimacy is lacking (regardless of who is to blame) it poses a potential weakness in one’s ability to resist extra-marital allurements. Thankfully the opposite is also true. For if a lack of intimacy can contribute to the temptation to an affair then an adequate depth of intimacy can serve as a deterrent to such temptation. In fact, a healthily transparent couple can honestly discuss their weaknesses–including any adulterous temptations before they become a problem. If, for any reason, such a level of intimacy has not yet been attained, the reader would be well advised to seek out a counselor-confessor to whom they can become specifically accountable in the area of adulterous temptations.
Principle #4: Resist sexual temptation and immorality.
“Flee from sexual immorality.” (1 Cor. 6:18)
Temptation is one of the foremost tools that satan uses to cause us to commit sin. James says it best:
“Don’t let anyone blame their temptation on God. For God cannot be tempted by evil—not does he tempt anyone [with evil]; but each one is tempted when, by their own evil desires, they are dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:13-15)
In other words, satan is very aware that the carnal or fleshly nature within us all has a weakness to temptation. And so he seeks to lure us into sin by attracting our fallen nature to respond to the stimulation of sexual immorality. The wise man or woman will be alert to satanic allurements and purposefully seek to avoid them so as not to be snared in the enemy’s trap—resulting in relational destruction. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death [and destruction].” (Pr. 14:12) In other words, lust is a lie—believe it and you die.
Sexual temptation can come in many different forms. However, its most prominent form in contemporary culture is pornography. Pornography comes from the Greek word “porneia” that literally means “to fornicate.” Fornication is generally defined as sexual intercourse before marriage—or premarital sex; whereas adultery generally implies sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s spouse. Both fornication and adultery come under the broader Scriptural designation of sexual immorality and as such are condemned in the Scripture: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” (Heb. 13:4)
In fleeing temptation, that could incite one to sexual immorality, three areas are worth noting: flirtatious behavior, sexually graphic entertainment (movies, music, and shows), and pornographic literature (books, magazines and especially on the internet). Again, the wise person and dedicated believer in Christ will seek to honor the Lord by avoiding the very appearance of evil—instead of toying with danger or justifying ungodly behavior.
“Do not let anyone deceive you, God is not mocked; for whatever a man [or woman] sows, this he [or she] will also reap. For one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:7-8)
Principle #5: Resolve offenses as soon as possible—deal with anger constructively.
“In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a stronghold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
“Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh [bitter, resentful, or constantly irritated] with them.” (Colossians 3:19)
It is obvious from the verse above that all anger is not sin. Sometimes anger is a defense mechanism that is triggered when we are personally violated or injured in some way. However, more often than not, anger can become an uncontrollably heated emotion that can seethe with hostility, rage and revenge—even leading to violent reactions and murder. Indeed, according to Jesus, anger is the principle upon which murder is predicated.14 As a result, God’s Word often encourages us to deal as quickly and constructively (vs. destructively) as possible with the emotion of anger.
Fortunately (or not) marriage is the primary relationship where God has intended us to work through our issues of anger. After all, it’s hard to hide from someone who sees you all the time. Selah. Remember, Adam and Eve were both naked and yet felt no shame. In other words, marriage is to be a place where we should guard one another from feeling shame as we necessarily encounter our true selves in the process of becoming more like Jesus.15 For, whenever we feel shame we instinctively cover or hide ourselves–physically or emotionally from each other (and even spiritually from the Lord). The consequence of not constructively managing our anger, or helping our partner manage theirs, can be to give the devil a stronghold (or fortified position) from which to attack the marriage relationship. And husbands, according to the Bible, we tend to be more tempted to harbor an angry spirit toward our wives than the reverse—although there are notable exceptions to this rule.
In addition to emotional intimacy, the best way to guard against a stronghold of anger and offense is to mutually master (by regular practice) the three most important tools of reconciliation: confession, repentance, and forgiveness.
- In confession we admit where our attitudes and actions have been inappropriate and/or specifically sinful.
- In repentance we boldly commit to change our behavior welcoming supportive accountability.
- In forgiveness we release the offending spouse from the shame and guilt of their offense—promising to do our part to restore the foundation of trust again upon which to build even a stronger marriage.
Principle #5: Loose the “D” word.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” (Pr. 18:21)
“Cease threatening…” (Eph. 6:9)
The “D” word is “Divorce” and should be purposefully avoided in all marital communication—especially when accompanied with anger. Most people will think and speak before acting. Therefore one’s speech can be a precursor to future actions. Simply stated, if you don’t want to end up divorced then don’t use the word in a threatening way. This kind of argument most certainly will end up breeding a spirit of mistrust and defensiveness in the relationship. And when the foundation of your relationship is one of mistrust, nearly everything is interpreted in a negative manner. Such negativity will most certainly lead to a more serious breach that can ultimately result in divorce—which was only a careless word in the beginning.
You see, words are like seeds that can be sown into the heart for a future harvest. Good seeds produce good fruit and bad seeds can produce bad fruit. Even if there has been a lot of bad sowing in your marriage, in time, as you sow good seeds, you can actually reap a better harvest. The power of the seed is in your words…so be careful what you say…you may reap it one day—either for the better or for the worse.
Principle #6: Get help before it’s too late.
“Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well and the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” (James 5:14-16a)
Doctors say that the key to recovering from cancer is early detection and treatment. In other words, those who get medical attention in the early stages of a disease are far more likely to recover for the ailment than those who put off any treatment until it’s too late. Though some sicknesses can be self-inflicted, there is no shame in needing to recover from illnesses—that is unless you believe some “hyper-faith preachers” who heretically ascribe personal guilt to any and all who may be sick—insisting that all illnesses are fundamentally a “lack of faith.’16
What is true of physical sicknesses can also apply to marital illnesses. Whereas most of our issues can be solved by regular “marital” hygiene, healthy habits and non-surgical remedies, there are some maladies that require more extensive medical attention. In the case of marriage this translates into the need to address serious problems with competent spiritual counselors before they threaten the life of the marriage itself. The “elders” mentioned above were the spiritual leaders of the early church who would have the spiritual maturity and grace to minister the prayer of healing faith as well as godly wisdom to restore any misguided soul.17 Though this verse should not be construed to limit prayer for healing and restorative guidance for the wayward to only official church leaders, it nevertheless does suggest that certain times of serious sickness require the assistance of those to whom we look for expertise beyond the norm.
Such is the case for seeking help from a competent Christian marriage therapist—which comes from the Greek word “therapeuo” literally meaning “to heal.” Serious problems would at least encompass those issues that might potentially end the marriage such as adultery, abuse, addiction and abandonment. Some of these kinds of matters are simply too complicated, potentially reproachful and at times even dangerous to not seek professional Christian counseling—that can often exceed the expertise or availability of local church leaders.18 Also, when seeking marriage counseling it is always preferable to have the couple attend sessions together. However, even if one’s spouse refuses to seek joint counseling, the other mate (husband or wife), after a respectful invitation, should feel free to seek help in personally coping with the present problem—from their perspective.
Principle #7: Stay closely related to other healthy Christian couples in the church.
Regular Christian fellowship (or a shared way of life together) is a basic need for every believer—whether they think so or not. In fact, John advocates that the evidence for “walking in the light” [a metaphor for living in the love and truth of Christ] is that we have fellowship with one another.
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)
One of the key earmarks of the early church was that they shared a community [literally “fellowship”] of faith together supporting one another as anyone might have need (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). And though the intensity of the early Christian community may not require an exact reproduction, none can doubt the example and calling to authentic Christian fellowship that pervades the New Testament text (See especially 2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1; 1 John 1:3).
This priority of Christian fellowship, in the context of the church, needs to be stated clearly since there are some in our day who deem the church as so irrelevant that it should be abandoned with impunity in favor of a kind of “postmodern individualism.” However, as noble as the quest for personal responsibility, cultural relevance, and organizational effectiveness may be, at the end of the day, the church [locally and universally] is still a key biblical priority in the Kingdom work of God on earth (Matthew 16:18). And not to acknowledge the centrality of God’s people assembled under the oversight of spiritually called, graced, and compassionate leadership is, in my mind, to leave the Body of Christ vulnerable to “every wind of doctrine” that will lead many to a wilderness of disillusionment—at the end of a journey of the “uninformed.”19 (Hebrews 13:17; 10:25; Ephesians 4:14-16).
In other words,
Reform the church as you must–but never renounce it!
My counsel is that every Christian couple finds a local church with a leadership that they can respect and attach themselves to it. Additionally, each couple must intentionally cultivate relationships with other Christian couples in a smaller “group”20 context in order to experience Christ-centered fellowship at a more personal level. In other words, both the larger corporate assembly as well as involvement in a smaller family-like group are mutually inclusive commitments for those couples who want their marriages to be sustained and enriched through the biblical call to Christian fellowship.21
“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3)
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to prayer…Every day they continued to meet in the temple courts, and breaking bread in their homes—they ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:42, 46-47a)
For Patty, [written and sung by Ron at their wedding, July 11, 1981]
Honey, I’m a Grateful Man
“Father I thank you for the love I feel,
Awaked deep within me, saved for this girl.
And there she stands so full of life.
I know I’ve found your favor Lord,
You’ve brought me my wife.
Now I’m humbled to think she’d give all her life for free.
I want you to know I’ll honor that trust that you’ve placed in me.
But from my heart, I’ve got to say…
Honey I’m a grateful man in love with you.
When I first met you Lord I didn’t know,
Where your light would lead me or what this pathway would hold.
But trusting in your word by faith,
You said that if I’d seek your kingdom I’d find your grace.
Now I’ve seen a lot of happy times even though I’ve felt some pain.
As I’ve lifted up my life to him, my heart’s completely changed.
So before him now—and to you I vow.
Honey, I’m a grateful man in love with you.
From the start, I never dreamed that we’d be one.
In my heart I wondered if such a day could come.
Then into my life you walked with laughter in your eyes.
You’ve brightened up my day girl—so glad to be alive.
And now I’ve come to take you home—
You’re beautiful my bride.
With him we’ll climb the mountain tops turn darkness in to light.
But just before we go, I want the world to know…
Honey I’m a grateful man in love with you.
Honey I’m a grateful man in love with you.
Let the wedding bells ring…let the wedding bells ring…let the wedding bells ring.
Lord we’ve sought you with all our heart the Spirit knows it’s true.
You’ve brought us to this place; we know we’re here with you.
So let the wedding bells ring…let’s the wedding bells ring…
Honey I’m a grateful man…in love with you
1) “This is the Census Bureau’s often-cited ‘50%’ rate, the proportion of marriages taking place right now that will eventually divorce, which has since been revised downward to roughly 43% by the National Center for Health Statistics but has moved back up to around 50% by the Census Bureau in 2002, with even more ifs ands and buts than usual. Most recently, according to the New York Times, it has been revised downward to just over 40%.” Source: http://www.divorcereform.org/rates.html See also: “Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think,” by Dan Hurley, April 19, 2005, New York Times Article @ http://www.divorcereform.org/nyt05.html
2) See “Singles Seek Financial, Legal Perks Offered Marrieds” by Kelly B. Vlahos at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,103590,00.html
3) See “The Many Benefits of Traditional Marriage” by Sara Russo @ http://www.bethhaven.net/marriage.htm
4) See Divorceinfo @ http://www.divorceinfo.com/disadvantages.htm#HurtsChildren
5) See “Divorce: A Biblical Perspective” @ www.RonWoodworth.Org
6) A rubric is a classification or category under which something is listed.
7) See Philocrites: Commentary on religion, liberalism, and culture @ http://www.philocrites.com/archives/001550.html
8) “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Refer to “Savoring Life’s Seasons” @ Ron’s website.
9) See 2 Corinthians 4:17.
10) See Romans 5:3-5 &; Hebrews 12:1.
11) “The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love” by Tim & Beverly LaHaye, Zondervan Publishers, 1998.
12) There is some Christian controversy as to whether a person is two (body and soul/spirit) or three parts (body, soul, and spirit). The author prefers the tripartite composition of the human being as body—world conscious; soul—self conscious; and spirit—God conscious. See “The Spiritual Man,” by Watchman Nee, Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1968.
13) In fact, I would recommend that couples consider using this article as discussion this Valentine’s Day!
14) See Matthew 5:21-24.
15) See 2 Corinthians 4:18. Interestingly, this verse says that the process of character transformation can only be accomplished when we are “unveiled” or uncovered/unclothed—hence naked before the Lord.
16) For an extensive treatment of the causes and cures of sickness, divine healing and health, and the biblical steps to follow when suffering from a serious illness see “What Does the Bible Say about Healing” from www.ronwoodworth.org.
17) See also Galatians 6:1and note the commission to the spiritually mature to bring gentle restoration to any of those who are caught, or trapped in sin.
18) See “Psychological Health—Jesus Style” from Ron’s website for biblical guidelines when selecting a professional marriage counselor.
19) I am reminded of the alleged (and highly disputed) recantation of Charles Darwin on his death bed when he said, “I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything. And to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.” Quote from: Darwin’s Final Recantation @ http://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/X0724_Darwins_Final_Recant.html
20) Small groups can be defined in any number of ways from highly formal to informal. The important thing is not the “group” per se, but the experience of fellowship with a smaller context of believers in order to meet each others more personal needs from a mutual commitment to Christ and one another as fellow members of his body—the church (Ephesians 2:22-23) Such a “group” should always recognize the need for its own accountability to the larger church body under duly ordained ministry leaders—as should the larger body recognize its need for smaller group sub-structures to provide the intimacy of family. Remember, early Christians met both in the temple and from house to house (Acts 2:46). In other words, it should always be a “both-and” proposition never an “either-or” prohibition.
21) For much more on the vital subject of church involvement see “Finding Your Place in God’s House” at Ron’s website @ www.RonWoodworth.Org.