Although I’ve never considered separation or divorce in 29 years of marriage, I’ve walked closely with many couples who have experienced both. I don’t expect there to be a time in pastoral ministry when I am not helping (directly or indirectly) 5-10 couples who are in significantly troubled marriages. This has been part of my work for at least two decades. And the complexities and pain related to troubled marriages can be overwhelming both for those in them and for those called to help them.
A significant part of the problem is that most couples don’t look for help until things become really bad between them. They don’t understand that a decision to “give counseling a try” when a marriage is holding by a thin thread makes the process far more challenging.
By the time they consider counseling, these couples usually have so little margin in their lives for rebuilding a marriage. Beyond the emotional depletion, they often have children to raise, bills to pay, and plenty of deadlines and demands to meet. Furthermore by the time they ask for help, they’re usually operating on limited goodwill toward each other. The more common feelings are distance, disappointment, resentment and anger. To make matters worse, they also tend to be low on patience — wanting change to occur yesterday!
Yet whenever someone comes for help, I start by commending them for taking the step. I also emphasize hope by assuring them that significant progress could be experienced if they commit to a long-term and challenging process. Some changes can take place more quickly than others. But ending and redirecting years of patterns with their extended histories is often and difficult path. And many choose not to take this path under the deceptive thinking that divorce will be an easier option.
Like many other pastors, I’ve invested large amounts of time on four levels of marriage related ministries:
- Preventative ministries
- Maintenance ministries (marriage tune-ups)
- Interventional ministries
- Restorative ministries
I assure you that I did not expect this kind of ministry when I became a pastor. And I still believe it’s the main area that will take younger leaders by surprise and for which they will feel inadequately equipped. These leaders will encounter people who feel hopeless because they think they’ve done everything possible to save their marriages but cannot change mates who persistently behave in ways that hinder a good marriage.
In some cases, leaders will find that marital separation becomes a necessary step in sending a wake-up call to a complacent and selfish mate. I have observed this in the context of substance abuse, severe financial irresponsibility, unending emotional and/or verbal abuse, psychological breakdown and abrogation of marital commitments. Each case has its own set of circumstances and level of severity.
Separation should be considered a last resort and never entered hastily or without godly counsel. It should also only be considered as a necessary step for saving the marriage. But once a couple separates into different dwellings, it becomes more difficult to bring them back together. The risks of permanent separation are significant. One of the primary risks of separation is the relief it gives to the oppressed and/or abused mate. The immediate experience of relief and the absence of tension could easily become a reason for not returning to the marriage.
Whenever dealing with troubled marriages, the words of our Lord must be held in highest regard. Jesus said, “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:6). Although Jesus made an allowance for divorce in Matthew 19:9, the goal should be to pursue God’s original plan (Matthew 19:4-6).
The apostle Paul wrote: “A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Every option to keep a couple together should be considered before resorting to separation.
Again, most couples in troubled marriages allow their relationships to disintegrate for years before seeking help. Often one mate enables the other to be selfish out of a distorted notion of being a “good Christian wife.” But by the time they look for help they typically feel helpless to change things. I tell people in troubled marriage that even if your mate refuses to seek help, you should pursue counseling. This could inspire the other person to seek help but at the end of the day, the only person you can change is yourself.
In view of the above realities and concerns, I have written a seven-point plan for what I call a structured separation. I have witnessed this effectively work with a number of couples. I suggest it as a point of conversation for leadership teams before they encounter a need for it.
Seven-point Structured Separation
- A specific purpose statement for the separation (developed in relation to the problems in the marriage). This could also include a signed covenant.
- A set of specific and measurable goals for husbands and wives.
- A projected time frame that does not allow for indefinite separation.
- A study on biblical themes of forgiveness and reconciliation and a Biblical vision for marriage.
- A reading assignment of “Hope for the Separated” by Gary Chapman and watching Choosing Wisely about Divorce.
- Accountability with Church leaders and/or a counselor/mentor.
- A small support team to pray for the marriage and offer tangible help.