One of the true blessings of the work I do, is getting to help people carry the burdens of life with them for a little while; to hear their real, unvarnished stories even when those stories are heartbreaking to share.
A few months ago a woman named Sarah emailed me asking if I might have time to speak with her. I called her later that night, and after a moment of small talk I asked her what was happening.
She paused, her voice quivering as she began, saying “It’s about my marriage…”
I listened silently, as over the next few minutes Sarah shared the story of her now 8-year marriage, recalling her husband’s addiction, his verbal and physical abuse, his financial indiscretions, and a pattern of destructive behavior that had many times brought her to the brink of a breakdown—or well beyond it.
She talked about long stretches of estrangement, coldness, and sometimes outright contempt from her husband, only briefly interrupted by his “emergency” efforts to stave off divorce the few times she found the nerve to give full voice to her frustrations. He would revive some semblance of the man she married for a few days or weeks, invariably slipping back into his previous patterns once he felt as though he’d sidestepped disaster.
Through labored sobs she told me that she had endured too much fear and received too many wounds and had finally reached her breaking point. She asked me what she should do.
“What do you think you should do?” I asked her. “If you were giving a friend counsel, knowing about her marriage what you know about your own, what would be your advice to her?”
“I’d tell her she should leave,” she immediately replied and then seemed to catch herself, “but I’m a Christian and I know God hates divorce… God does hate divorce, right?”
I thought for a second. “Well, I imagine God doesn’t rejoice over a marriage ending,” I said to her, “but do you think God is okay with you being abused and living without love? Do you believe it’s possible that God might hate that even more?”
She suddenly stopped crying and said, “I never considered that.”
As a pastor in local church ministry for the past 19 years, I’ve heard hundreds of stories like Sarah’s and I’ve seen the way organized religion can tend to nurture abuse instead of eliminating it, especially for Christian women. When someone like her finally summons the courage to share the depths of their suffering with the Church, they often find themselves sitting in front of a pastor or minister (usually a man) and hearing a frighteningly similar refrain.
In an all-too familiar religious Patriarchal trope, she is given the full burden of martial reconciliation, instructed to be more patient, to make herself more attractive, to be more sexually open, to be more tolerant, to consider her children. In other words, she is completely saddled with the guilt of staying in something that may be incredibly dangerous and painful in order to please God.
I don’t believe that Marriage as an institution is itself sacred. It is in its purest and truest sense, a contract, a covenant. There isn’t anything magical or spiritual about this. I believe a specific marriage is made sacred when those two people give the best of themselves, when they sacrifice for one another, when they are mutually invested in their own union. That is what makes it holy. If there’s magic, this is where it lives.
The vows that a couple make to one another are serious and important, but they are also conditional. They are promises made with the expectation of reciprocity. In other words, they are contingent on the other’s full partnership. The idea of “two becoming one” only really works when each of those two people are willingly carrying equal weight of their relationship. Those wedding day for better or for worse promises are made with this agreement as a given, and when that fails to be true the marriage covenant is already in default. In Sarah’s case, she was trying to shoulder her entire relationship alone (not to mention their children, care of their home, and their finances) and still somehow feeling spiritually inadequate. She needed permission to demand what she deserved—and to know that God was okay with this.
Divorce is sad and it’s tragic and it is devastating for everyone involved—but it isn’t a sin. More than that, sometimes it isn’t any more God-honoring for a person of faith to stay in an abusive, dangerous, loveless marriage than it is to walk away from it. In fact, that may be the most faith-affirming thing one can do. Among Jesus’ greatest commandments for his people is that we are to love others as we love ourselves. In this way, our greatest act of self-love may be to remove ourselves from harm’s way. God’s heart for us is abundant life and that sometimes means Plan B.
Friend, if you’re struggling in your marriage right now, there’s no one who can tell you when you’ve done enough, when you’ve endured enough, when you’ve exhausted all your options to save it. You should absolutely do all that you can to preserve and heal and sustain that union. Work, pray, sweat, and sacrifice for it.
But ultimately, there may come a day when you do need to leave for your safety, for your sanity, or simply to embrace the good that God desires for you in this short time here.
And along with the crushing weight of sadness and grief and disappointment that would certainly come with this realization, the biggest mistake would be to also place upon your aching, weary shoulders the disapproval of God. God knows the Hell you’ve been through more than anyone.
Hear this truth, Beloved: God doesn’t hate divorce more than God adores you.