Marriage, Divorce, and the ROOT of a problem

It bugs me how often people address symptoms rather than getting to the root of the issue. For instance, the anti-abortion crowd tries to ban abortion even though the root cause is unplanned pregnancies and abortion is only a symptom. In reading through the comments on a post called Divorce and Custody on an evangelical Christian blog, I’ve realized that conservative evangelicals do the same exact thing with divorce.

David D. Flowers says:

My concern is for professing Christians involved in these matters. Why are Christians getting divorced and wrecking their families in the first place? If Christian couples worked on their marriages the way most of them do their ministries and careers, we wouldn’t be near as inclined to get involved in these legal matters of the state–where the courts must play God.

… If it’s a “Christian” couple, I say give the children to the parent who refused to quit on their family and the Lord. If they both agreed to quit, tell the children that their parents have decided to love themselves more than the Lord or their own kids. Mommy and daddy are dangerous people, home-wreckers, domestic terrorists! Give the kids to willing grandparents or a faithful Christian couple in the church–at least until their parents put an end to their selfishness, get right with the Lord, and are restored to fellowship.

Fortunately, just as my blood started to boil I found a perfect smack-down just a few comments down:

Kate Johnson says:

So David, according to you I, as a Christian, should have stayed in a violent abusive marriage and because I did not stay and sought a divorce and my “Christian” X did not want the divorce, he should have been given custody of our 3 sons who at the time were 7, 9 and 11? By the way he was also an alcoholic? And I worked for19 years trying to “fix” abroken marriae that could not be fixed. A very naive comment. And not the example of Jesus. Also, he would not pay his measely child support so yes, I did have to go to court and no, they did not get a percentage.

And yes, the divorce rate for Christians is way too high, it equals the secular world. But why is that? Did you know the divorce rate for non-abused women is 15% but the divorce rate for abused women is 75%? Want to cut down on divorce, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Something most are not willing to do, especially in the church. One last comment…. what breaks the marriage bond is not the divorce, it is the disrespectful treatment that is perpetrated in all too many cases. Love, honor and cherish means just that. If it happened more often, there would be less disrespect and abuse.

In other words, Kate blames divorce on abusive male treatment of women, and calls the church out for not addressing this treatment. And I think she is dead right. The point I find most interesting here is that while David addresses only a symptom – hey y’all, stop getting divorced already! – Kate points to the root – abuse that is perpetuated by church teaching.

For a movement that claims to be all about building healthy families, conservative evangelicalism goes about this completely backwardly. By arguing that God has commanded men to be in charge and women to submit, conservative evangelicalism creates a situation that is ripe for abuse. And more often than not, when an abused woman goes to the church for help she is told that it is her fault, or that she just needs to work harder on submitting.

And then of course there’s the whole “selfishness” thing that David emphasized. According to conservative evangelicalism, thinking of your own needs is “selfish.” You’re supposed to spend your life sacrificing for others and ignoring your own needs. It’s selfish to want out of a failed marriage, selfish for a woman to want a career, selfish for a couple to choose not to have children. By enshrining sacrifice the way it does, conservative evangelicalism tells women that their needs don’t matter and helps keep them from leaving abusive relationships.

And finally, of course, the church’s handling of marriage and divorce is just one more instance of its attempts to value rules over people and roles over individuals. Individual circumstances don’t matter. Individual personalities don’t matter. Men are to lead, women are to submit. And no one is to get divorced. Period. You see what I mean about placing rules and roles above people and individuals?

And they call themselves “pro-family.” Well, if that’s what a family has to look like, I don’t want one. It sounds stifling and suffocating. Fortunately, while they might think they do, conservative evangelicals do not have a monopoly on the family. And personally? I like my dynamic, fulfilling egalitarian marriage just fine, thank you very much.

A Matter of Patriarchy
Red Town, Blue Town
When Marriage Looks Like the Only Escape
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Steve

    One of the reasons for the higher divorce rate in conservative circles and geographical areas is probably related to the fact that people tend to get married very early. Since marriage is the only kind of relationship they are allowed to have (and even if dating is allowed, people are still expected to marry by their late 20s or so) they tend to get married to one of the first partners they can find. Without really finding out whether they work together. Which may not necessarily be the best choice.

    • Libby Anne

      Yes, and I think part of that is there isn’t a huge emphasis on compatibility. The message I got, at least, is that so long as God is at the center and both spouses are devoted to God first, any marriage can work. So if you find someone who also loves God, and you fall in love with each other, you’re golden. Compatibility? Pshaw!

      Also, at the evangelical megachurch I grew up in premarital counselling was focused not on things like compatibility but rather on the need to fulfill proper gender roles as set out in the Bible. In other words, the man being the leader, the woman submitting to her man, etc. The implication is that compatibility matters less than loving God and fulfilling your proper role.

      • Amethyst

        Compatibility, as well as things like spontaneous erotic love, are also seen as selfish desires in many conservative circles. Basically, if you feel happiness without trying, you must be doing something wrong.

      • ScottInOH

        You’ve got it just right, Libby Anne (again). As I think you’ve said before, the teaching is that if both spouses are trying to get closer to God, they’ll naturally be getting closer to each other, as well (God in this metaphor is a fixed point). Turns out it’s also important to intentionally get closer to your spouse, not just as an accidental by-product of trying to get closer to God. I would also note that the same is true for parents with children–both parents trying to get closer to their children doesn’t automatically bring the parents closer to each other.

        Amethyst is right on it, too. Conservatives’ (especially conservative Christians’) ability to see selfishness in others is pretty amazing if you think about it.

      • Christine

        Given how much of premarital counselling is about working together, and how to collaborate on stuff, it would be quite incompatible with the conservative evangelical view of marriage. And that’s without the idea that there’s no such thing as compatibility.

    • Cathy W

      …and some fraction of the early marriages result from “shotgun weddings”, don’t they? “We had sex a couple times, her parents caught us, next thing I knew we were standing at the altar” strikes me as an even less firm foundation for a lifetime relationship than “My daddy thinks he’s a good Christian boy.”

  • Dianne

    Why do people-not only fundamentalist Christians, but many people of different sorts including atheists-equate ending a marriage with abandoning one’s children or selfishness? Sometimes ending a marriage can be the most loving, unselfish thing you can do for your children. Taking them away from an abusive parent is the most obvious example. Slightly less obviously, by ending a marriage that is abusive or just not right anymore due to incompatibility, you’re sending the message that relationships don’t have to be abusive or boring and if they are it’s ok to leave them and seek a happier situation, in or out of a relationship. Raising children isn’t just about providing them with the highest possible standard of living or both parents’ physical presence or even about making childhood comfortable. It’s also about teaching them how to be adults. And I don’t want my child learning that marriage is abusive, stifling, or even just boring.

    • Steve

      Even if it’s not an abusive relationship, ending one can result in some sort of shared custody arrangement. So the children don’t always lose access to both of their parents. Sure, it’s not the same as living together, but neither does it mean that one parents “abandons” their children.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      This is where I stand. My parents weren’t right for each other and they fought all the time. Had they stayed together “for the kids,” the model I would have had for my own future marriage would have been one of unhappiness and constant fighting. They separated and each married to wonderful people that they get along with really well. As a result, not only did I have very good models from which to build my future relationships, I also had four parents to love and care for me.

      Steve – A lot depends on how the parents handle it. There are some who do definitely do it selfishly and get so caught up in their own negative feelings for their ex partner that the kids get screwed. But for my parents, I had both very present in my life – plus their new partners. Most of my friends with married parents would be cared for by their moms while their fathers worked all the time. I had four parents at my dance recitals, they would generally only have one. So simply knowing that parents are married or not tells you absolutely nothing about the standard of care or how present they are in their children’s lives.

    • Flora

      My in-laws got divorced when my fiancé was 4 years old because it was a bad, bad relationship. Sure, it was incredibly hard on the two kids, who had to grow up without a father (he skipped town), lived in poverty, and had to deal with years of messy court proceedings that pitted their parents against each other, etc. etc. It was an absolutely horrible experience. But all that fighting in the courtroom, the suffering – how much worse would it have been on the kids to have that going on in their living room? My mother-in-law tells me the moment she knew she needed to get out was when her 3 year old son mentioned casually, in public, like it was normal “… when daddy beats you.”

      I don’t blame them for getting married – she was only 17 and trying to escape an abusive household, and it was the only way she could. By standing up for herself, and her kids, she made sure that the cycle she’d lived through wouldn’t be perpetuated through them.

      She got remarried, about ten years ago, to another divorcé. Neither of them felt it was particularly important for themselves, but they ultimately decided to do it so that they could show their kids a healthy relationship was possible. Selfish, indeed.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    Most measures find that divorce rates are higher in “red” states where we can assume more conservative family values. Meanwhile, every study I’ve seen that specifically looks at it has found that marriages in which both partners are feminists are less likely to end with divorce.

    That feeds right into the respect issue. We all need to feel respected, and we’ll be unhappy if we’re not. As much as people in the patriarchy movement may talk about how nice women have it to not be responsible for decisions (and potentially making wrong ones) and to just be taken care of financially and spiritually, that’s not what makes people happy. We need responsibility, we need personal agency. We’re not happy when we’re denied these things.

  • OneSmallStep

    **Individual circumstances don’t matter. Individual personalities don’t matter. Men are to lead, women are to submit. And no one is to get divorced. Period. You see what I mean about placing rules and roles above people and individuals?**

    It seems like a lot of this would stem from the whole “One cure fits all” mentality in conservative culture. No matter what the problem is, Jesus is the answer. Whether it be depression, alcoholism, dissatisfaction with life, cancer, a cold, a need for a job change … Jesus is the answer whether you’re dying or looking for a close parking space at the mall.

    But life doesn’t work like that. Marriages don’t work like that, and people don’t work like that. What works for one person doesn’t work for another, and yet there’s not a lot of room for that kind of thinking in conservative Christianity.

  • Emma

    Its interesting that, for all their complaints, you don’t see evangelicals actually campaigning to ban divorce, even though (as Lewis recently pointed out on Commandments of Men) this would arguably do more to protect their view of the sanctity of marriage than, say, gay marriage bans.

    Also, bad marriages do not need to be full out abusive for them to be bad for the kids. I remember one reader writing to an advice column, saying that her parents stayed together solely for the sake of the kids. The kids whoever, could sense the constant strain between their parents, and according to the letter writer, that experience made her inclined to stay in a lot of bad relationships long past their due.

  • Luna_the_cat

    Ok, I have to note this, because I can’t believe how many people seem not to see it. With regard to “By arguing that God has commanded men to be in charge and women to submit, conservative evangelicalism creates a situation that is ripe for abuse. And more often than not, when an abused woman goes to the church for help she is told that it is her fault, or that she just needs to work harder on submitting.”

    I’ve trained animals. I’ve helped train a couple of children. Anyone who has ever trained animals and/or children should surely recognise this basic principle of training, and understand that it applies equally to adults:
    ***Behavior that is rewarded is repeated.***
    Let’s just say that again, for emphasis: BEHAVIOR THAT IS REWARDED IS REPEATED.

    When a man abuses his partner/girlfriend/wife, what is it that he wants?
    Submission. A cringing apology for the wrongs *she* has (supposedly) done. For things to go exactly the way that he demands.

    So when a woman is counselled “Submit! Submit! Apologise for your transgression! Do things better!” and she actually tried to follow this advice — this in fact tells him, “you get what you want if you do this.” He gets EXACTLY what he is after. The behavior — abuse — is classically rewarded.

    The man in this situation will not “outgrow” his abuse of his spouse or partner. He will not stop because she’s doing better. The behavior has been rewarded; according to the most basic, most classic, best understood principles of animal training, he is being taught that abuse of her == he gets rewarded. He gets what he wants. And so, it will be repeated. Behavior that is rewarded is repeated.

    And, if the “reward” that he comes to expect is later delayed because she begins to protest or fight back, or it isn’t as much as he has come to expect, then the behavior will simply escalate — when a reward is delayed in training, generally the creature in question, human or animal, does what they expect the reward for again, and does it more.

    The advice that the church is giving abused women is wrong, dangerously wrong, so dangerously wrong that it can ONLY lead to more abuse except through an actual miracle…and those are called “miracles” precisely because they don’t happen so much.

  • smrnda

    I just can’t see why divorce is seen as a tragedy or as selfishness; what I used to say when I was asked my opinion on divorce was that ‘even the Beatles broke up.’ My point was that it might be more selfish to demand that people stay in a bad situation than to let them change it.

    I’m totally in agreement that conservative Christians have this idea of a ‘sacrifice’ based marriage, and it doesn’t work since a relationship has to work, and it can’t work unless people are compatible. Couples are happy when they don’t have to make ‘sacrifices’ to keep the relationship going because they’re both on the same page. Sacrifices can be good when they are done for a reason, but it’s like they’re preaching sacrifice for its own sake.

    If kids grow up in and they know their parents are unhappily married, I can’t imagine that’s a good thing. Don’t we want kids to have higher expectations? I know that lots of Christian sources on marriage blast the high expectations as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘too selfish’ it seems like plenty of people I know have been able to get the marriages they want. I sometimes read Focus on the Family for a laugh and they’re always talking about how bad it is to have such ‘unrealistic expectations’ (like husbands that actually listen or that you can keep separate checking accounts without fighting over money, which most married couples I know do quite well.)

    And wifely submission is a free pass for the guy to do anything. The reason is that it’s based on the woman gets love and man needs respect. I can understand unconditional love, but unconditional respect? Respect you have to earn, and if a guy’s going to get it no matter what he’s got little incentive to change, and male-led organizations cannot possibly realistically ‘defend’ women.

    The problem is when people decide their answers must be right and no amount of evidence that they don’t work will be accepted, they refuse to admit they don’t have the answers.

  • seditiosus

    ::snigger:: “the ROOT of the problem” ::snort, giggle:: Are you aware, Libby, that in the Antipodes to “root” means to have sexual congress? I enjoyed that pun.

    I completely agree; the root cause of divorce is bad marriages, and that frequently means abusive marriages. Much of that is attributable to a culture that condones abuse and stifles healthy (equal) marital relations. I also think some of it derives from the practise of “courtship” – which denies young people the opportunity to properly get to know their fiances and make good decisions about whether their marriage is a good idea – and the rabid hatred of pre-marital sex which encourages young people to marry far too young and with too much emphasis on finally getting their end away.

    I also think the fundies totally drop the ball when it comes to understanding what working on your marriage entails. They believe that if everyone sticks to their gender roles it will all work out. Real life doesn’t work that way, but of course fundies only recognise one “acceptable” marriage dynamic. Additionally, I think the fundy creed of putting god first scuppers their efforts at working on their marriages. They put all their efforts into getting right with god when they should be getting right with each other.

    This is actually one of my main problems with religion – that it distracts people from what is really important and therefore harms their ability to interact with others in healthy ways.

  • Emma Tameside

    Hi Libby, great article thanks. I believe the bible and the teachings of church is quite clear that separation is an option if your partner does not live as a Christian. I think that him being violently abusive alcholic puts David well outside the acceptable boundaries of Christian life and as such she did the right thing by protecting herself and her children from any potential harm.

    So what I’m saying is that the initial complaint by David D. Flowers isn’t even justified in the christian faith system, it’s just a rash opinion of someone on the internet!

    Look, for normal relationships, there’s plenty of available separation advice that can search for and address the ROOT of the problem, but the above fiasco is really a rant based on one man’s insensitive and rude opinion when he didn’t have all the facts to hand.

  • Michelle M

    Emma, many Christians would agree that the Bible allows separation in extreme circumstances; i.e., abuse or adultery. The church would then support each spouse using the separation to work on themselves in order to reconcile. But divorce is still considered a major sin, and therein lies the rub. In my case, my ex is an abuser. He is manipulative and conniving and very charming in public, especially in front of counselors and pastors. He insisted that he was working on himself, that he didn’t even want the separation, that he didn’t understand why I left, etc. I knew the truth. I’d learned over the years that he would never change (I know, I know, saying that your husband will never change is considered heresy in some Christian circles). And because he would never change, divorce was the only option. So all the separation advice in the world would not have helped. I had to save myself and my kids. And guess what? In Christendom I was still the bad guy because I filed for divorce. What was I supposed to do, stay separated forever? According to some fundy pastors, I was.