Why do our marriages break down and end up in divorce? Quite often answers come by looking at the different mindsets of a couple heading for divorce. Perception factors and marriage stressors also contribute to the conflict. Almost certainly, each spouse has a role in dealing a deathblow to a marriage. It is important to understand why this conflict exists so that appropriate solutions are applied to the problems.
Divorce is as close as you can get to death without actually dying. Only those who have experienced it can truly understand its dark power to test emotions and intellect to the ultimate degree. The only social trauma greater than divorce is the physical death of a loved one.
In his popular book, Mere Christianity, the late British author and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis accurately described the divorce dilemma this way:
They [the Christian church community] all regard divorce as something like cutting up a living body, as a kind of surgical operation. Some of them think the operation is so violent that it cannot be done at all; others admit it is a desperate remedy in extreme cases. They are all agreed that it is more like having both of your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment.
Saying that divorce is an ugly nightmare is an understatement. Divorce is fullscale devastation! It cuts into hearts and souls deeper than most any other tragedy imaginable. It shatters precious memories as it strips us of family, roles, and identity. It saps our strength and breaks down the core of our spirits until emotional numbness and fog set in. It reduces one of the most intimately personal relationships we can ever share with another human being to sharp shards of broken dreams. Divorce, quite simply, is the most brutal, bloodless crime of passion known to man. Even that description diminishes the destruction if physical violence and abuse are also present.
Realizing that a marriage cannot be salvaged and that the death of the relationship is imminent can hit you suddenly or settle in over time. But it almost always first comes as a total shock, at least to one of the spouses, when the other says, “It’s over.” The pain, anxiety, bitterness, and grief of the divorce process, especially one that is unexpected, can overwhelm us. It does not matter whether the divorce is amicable and uncontested or hostile, or who filed the legal papers. Divorce is an immediate, radical, and painful change in our lives, welcome or not, with highly charged emotional consequences.
How does it happen? What forces work in our relationships to lead us to divorce? Before we provide the remedies, we must understand the problems. Look at the people caught up in this human drama and see how competing forces meld together in a final conflict.
We may not think our spouses are going to war against us, but plans for divorce, and the completion of it, are often warlike. The spoils of this conflict are everything we treasure and worked hard for all our lives. The battlefield is in the most private and intimate recesses of our lives. It is a contest of wills and a battle of hearts and minds—all on our home turf. When love falls prey to hatred or apathy and the personal stakes are high, there are no dispassionate foot soldiers.
Who are the people involved? Is one spouse the “divorcer” and the other the “divorcee”? Is one the “dumper” or “rejector” while the other is the “dumpee” or “rejectee”? Does the “aggressor” divorce the “victim”? One views the other partner as the “mate from hell,” while the other sees his or her spouse as “The Terminator.” But all these terms assign blame or fault that can cloud our judgment in seeing beyond descriptions to the real underlying issues. This is why thoughtful psychologists and counselors neutrally describe the one desiring the divorce as the “initiator,” and the one resisting the divorce as the “non-initiator.”
Our use of “initiator” and “non-initiator” does not imply that one spouse is more to blame for a divorce than the other. You may well have good reason to be the initiator in your situation if your spouse has destroyed your marriage already.
Calling the spouses “warriors” does not mean the combatants are evil or mean. After all, they are people who love others, work hard, and try to live decent lives. But the entire divorce process can force the best of people—husbands and wives, mothers and fathers—into positions of aggression and defense, depending upon the matters at stake (finances, children, social status, etc.). Also, referring to the “initiator” as “she,” or the “non-initiator” as “he,” does not imply that the wife is always the initiator or that the husband is the non-initiator. These descriptions are words of convenience only. In the past the husband was often the initiator since he usually controlled most of the economic power. However, as women have become more self-reliant and divorce carries less of a social stigma than it once did, the wife can force the issue of divorce in many relationships. Each marriage is unique.
There are a few common characteristics of both initiators and non-initiators. The initiator spouse who first decides to get out of the marriage usually wants personal freedom and happiness more than what is best for the other partner. There may be a third party love interest involved. Unless a divorce occurs by mutual consent, the non-initiator usually is the unwilling party to the severance of the marriage, for any number of good or bad reasons.
Children also have an important role in the breakdown of a marriage relationship. (Because of their special needs over a wide range of subjects, we will discuss children’s issues in chapter 15).
Divorce usually begins with a seed of doubt or lack of faith. Some small fear surfaces that a mistake was made in choosing the non-initiator as a mate.
At first, the initiator marries with all sorts of expectations that often only begin to take shape after the marriage vows are made. The biblical concept of “two become one flesh” is initially embraced. The initiator is content to be spiritually, financially, physically and emotionally intertwined with a loving mate. Joys and sorrows ebb and flow as the couple changes and adapts to each other.
Initially both spouses are in the “honeymoon stage” of the marriage. The basic needs of security, love, and acceptance are satisfied. Then, slowly but surely, the initiator’s focus begins to change—for better or for worse.
Why does this happen?
Various “perception factors” affect the initiator (and non-initiator) and prompt these doubts:
The media constantly masquerades romance as love. But the two can be very different. On television, it takes thirty minutes to resolve a conflict. Many of us grew up watching the “Father Knows Best” family, where clothes did not become soiled and everyone smiled at every meal. Romance creates the illusion that our spouse is that beautiful princess or the knight in shining armor. We look to our marriage partners to give us a lifetime of pure bliss as they meet all our needs and strengthen our weaknesses. But this is not reality!
If we let our emotions run over us, we marry someone with the potential for fulfilling our mental fantasies. We cannot accept them for who they are. Instead we dream of making them what we want them to be.
Then there is the intoxication of sexual attraction. We may not know how to separate love from sex. We think sex substitutes for emotional intimacy. Instead of reminding ourselves that beauty is fleeting, we somehow think that this good-looking person will compensate for everything else that may be lacking.
Romance, disguised as love, will appreciate the lovely qualities in life. It falls at the feet of the vivacious personality, the alluring appearance, the sense of humor, and all the other trappings of a “good catch.” But romance will not get its own feet dirty when these qualities fade. This type of “love” lasts only as long as the initial attraction.
Every marriage is tested. That is where real love begins and romance starts heading for the exit. Love digs in deep and accepts the person while dealing firmly with the circumstances. It is grounded in an irrevocable commitment. Love says, “I am with you to the end.” Romance falters when flexibility or endurance is required. The cruel barb of accepting the romance lie is that we cannot accept our spouses for who they are, but quickly reject them when they fail to meet our flawed expectations.
All humankind is created in the image of God. But sometimes we are not content with His creation. We seek to put the finishing touch on our mate. We try, in a wide variety of ways, to make him or her over in our own image. In doing so we fall into the greatest temptation of all—the desire to be like God.
We encroach upon the personal freedom and identity of our mates and try to control them at will. If they do not, we want to bail out of the marriage.
These makeovers are doomed. We are not qualified for the makeover game. Why? Because the way we view our mates is often flawed. Our personal histories and value judgments distort our perception. Many of us grew up unfulfilled in love. Early experiences with parents and siblings determine whom we love and how we love.
Dysfunctional families with histories of violence, sexual abuse, or alcoholism leave scars on each family member. If our parents treated each other with disrespect and unkindness, we inherit a negative role model for adult love relationships. As we move on in life, peers reject us, superiors judge us inferior in school and work, and seasonal changes in our lives affect us.
As we are all changed during our life journey, any deprivations influence us and skew our vision of reality. That is why any makeovers are best left to the Lord. He speaks to the hearts of individuals who seek Him, and He ministers best to their personal needs.
Husbands traditionally were seen to be caretakers, providers—the spouse who is more “business oriented.” Wives were nurturers, keepers of the home—the ones more communicative and emotional. Children watch parents in these roles. Then as married adults, they try to emulate what they saw.
We could make a good start in our marriages if the example of our parents was constructive and well adjusted. But if our parental role models were flawed, or missing entirely through death or divorce, then we can only learn from our own bad experiences.
Changing roles in society for men and women work against traditional family relationships and bonding. More women are leaving children in day care and joining the working world. Business pressures force workers to put in long hours. By necessity children often must look to television characters or other adults as role models.
We also may unfairly look to our mates to be parent figures for fulfillment of personal needs unmet in childhood. Instead of reaching out to friends, our church, or counselors for help, we put an enormous burden on our mates. Rather than companions, we want our mates to be surrogate parents. We expect them to right the wrongs that scarred us when we were children. When our spouses refuse to act out our parental fantasies, we become disappointed and angry. No wonder! We cannot selfishly depend upon our mates to complete us as persons.
Very few people can survive this suffocation in a relationship. The marriage is doomed unless the partners consciously break the mold of past experience and build a healthy marriage.
Meaningful relationships outside the marriage today are hard to find. Neighbors and friends used to enjoy relationships that lasted over decades. Husbands would hunt, fish, or golf together; wives would share coffee with each other in the mornings. Folks on our block even planned joint vacations.
But today, jobs uproot families and move them in an instant. People lose touch with each other. Visits with extended families thousands of miles away are expensive and impractical. These facts of life can push spouses toward making increasing demands on each other.
Boredom flattens out the joy of marriage. “Why won’t you talk to me? I don’t have any friends!” is the cry. It rings in the ears of the spouse who is too drained to listen. Frustration and depression well up within us. Our spouses have enough responsibility in being our marriage partners. Are they now expected to fulfill all our friendship needs? This is too much to ask.
Most of us struggle at times with low self-esteem, but some handle it better than others. There is an emptiness inside, and the world beckons us to fill this vacuum with the pursuit of money, sex, power, and freedom.
Anything keeping us from becoming a whole person is externalized. We feel an urge to jump from job to job, person to person, and place to place on a personal quest for happiness and fulfillment. Excuses run rampant. We fall into “if onlys”—“If only I inherited a million dollars...,” or “If only I had married my high school sweetheart...,” or “If only I could be head of that company...,”—then we would truly be happy.
There is also the discontent of advancing age. We feel less desirable when we see those dreaded bulges, sags, and creases. “Would someone else still find me attractive?” becomes a nagging question. We suddenly need compliments from members of the opposite sex to feel good about ourselves.
The real trap of low self-esteem is that our compelling objective in life focuses on reorganizing the outside world, including our marriage. Everybody else has the problem—not us. We try to fix others rather than take an honest look at our own lives.
At first we were concerned about meeting the “right one” to marry. Now we are learning how important it is to be the “right one” for someone else. Zig Ziglar said it well:
If you treat the wrong person like the right person, you could well end up having married the right person after all. On the other hand, if you marry the right person, and treat that person wrong, you certainly will have ended up marrying the wrong person. I also know that it is far more important to be the right kind of person than it is to marry the right person. In short, whether you married the right or wrong person is primarily up to you.
These are only some of the “perception factors” that work on our minds. They distort the way we view people and events and often become the initial catalysts for dissolving relationships. The marriage does not fall to a quick kill but a slow death. Our perception of reality creates doubt and feeds a hunger within for something better. The battle is ready to begin.
Subconsciously the initiator begins reacting negatively to any patterns of rigidity, alienation of affection, changing priorities, competition for time and events, and similar stresses in a marriage. Eventually these displeasures build until they are impossible to ignore any longer.
This process can take months, but most often it evolves over a period of years. There is vacillation and indecision. One struggles with the morality of these thoughts, but a desire to escape is always there feeding on itself and growing. Eventually the ethics of divorce are worked out in the mind, which may take three to five years to settle in fully.
The initiator thinks, This marriage is not really working out. There are fantasies about freedom. The non-initiator’s weaknesses become more noticeable and irritating. The marriage may have many positive qualities and satisfactions, but the initiator focuses on the negatives.
As the initiator looks for more shortcomings and weaknesses in his or her mate, the non-initiator may make this task easy. It is difficult to tolerate an unshaven face, excessive weight gain, incessant nagging, wearing unattractive clothes, or failings in personal hygiene for long—especially if one is looking for shortcomings. The initiator makes mental notes of every checkbook imbalance, improper positioning of the toilet seat, or uncapped toothpaste tube. Clothes dumped on the floor, curlers worn at the breakfast table, or stockings hung over the sink infuriate the initiator as he or she builds a case for divorce.
With criticism of these shortcomings, the initiator and non-initiator punish each other with the infamous “silent treatment” or take other deliberately punitive measures. If the non-initiator reacts with defensiveness and self-justification, this perceived lack of repentance leads the initiator to further criticism. The non-initiator feels nagged. The initiator believes the non-initiator “just won’t listen to me.” Both spouses drive the problems deep inside their hearts and minds to fester for another day. Rather than discussing and resolving problems, each mate secretly stockpiles evidence. These weapons are used to justify, and rationalize away, the guilt of thinking about divorce.
If the initiator finds divorce scripturally indefensible, he or she may lay the Bible aside and keep Christian friends at a distance. Situational ethics impress the initiator; biblical literacy declines; vows made and the initial joy of the marriage fade from memory. Self-sacrifice, honesty, purity, justice, humility, and servanthood inevitably yield to selfish pursuits without consideration of one’s marriage partner. As personal offenses combine with compromised religious beliefs, the initiator’s Christian faith may wither and die long before the marriage does. There is isolation and hopelessness. The initiator thinks, Maybe God doesn’t care about me or what I do. Alternative living relationships become more plausible—even reasonable. In numbing the pain and loneliness, God is put on the shelf, and a shady side of the initiator’s life may begin. After all, with duplicity in one’s life, the choice is to cover up the deceit with lie upon lie, or slowly to lose one’s mind.
Worldly acclaim and financial and emotional control may �