“I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel
I watched as she lay paralyzed in bed. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t talk. I was not confident she could see well either. This wasn’t a sudden end, it took months for cancer to eat away at my Auntie’s life. She was once full of life. She was caring and adventurous, but then cancer seized, draining her of her life. Her body became fragile, her hair fell out, her life drew thin. She aged rapidly. I remember seeing my Auntie deteriorate and thinking plainly, “I hate cancer.”
Hate is a strong word. We should not be careless with it, but only use it when it is truly fitting. The oracle of Malachi states, “‘For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord the God of Israel,” This is coming from God, and I don’t think He says the word “hate” lightly either.
God hates divorce.
Marriage is God’s idea, and divorce is to dismantle what God has joined together. Divorce always involves unfaithfulness to the solemn covenant of marriage that two partners have entered into before Him, and it brings harmful consequences to those partners and their children. At this moment in writing I am newly married, and the more I think about the life-long commitment I have made to my partner, the more I am also starting to hate divorce. I hear of affairs and I hate it. I see couples being neglectful and dishonouring towards each other and I hate it. I see couples showing each other contempt, and again, I hate it.
But all this is easy to say while I’m young and loved up. I have spent a lot of time wondering why so many marriages end in divorce, why so many of my friends throughout school were the children of divorce. And then in the years after my education, why so many of my peers have already been divorced, and all the while wondering why so many of my family are divorced. But will I still be wondering 10, 20, 30 years into my marriage? When time has had its toll, when I have experienced long painful periods of hard communication, financial stress and frustration? When I have fallen in and out of love numerous times with my wife? Will I still wonder why there are so many who divorce? Probably not, but God willing I won’t give in.
God’s idea of marriage
To understand a Christian view of divorce we must first understand God’s idea of marriage. In marriage two people become one. Marriage is part of God’s design for humanity and strong, healthy family is key to the flourishing of the world. Strong marriages create healthy families and healthy families create sound people.
Marriage also helps us to learn how to love. It is a daily call to love with faithfulness, to obey selflessly, to lead with humility and to lay down our lives. Marriage is part of God’s plan for creating healthy, whole individuals.
Deeper than this, though, is the truth that because God created humanity in His image, the union of masculinity and femininity in marriage expresses the character of God, it gives us an example of faithful love which acts as an analogy for God’s faithfulness to and for the world.
Therefore, scripture says marriage is for procreation, sanctification and demonstration. This is a much higher view of the purpose and potential of marriage that puts modern notions of marriage as “coupling for convenience” to shame.
There is good reason not to divorce. A successful marriage is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of life. A healthy marriage has the potential to create the bonds of friendships; the foundation to build a family; the security to express your sexuality; the motivation to better the world, and the character growth to better reflect the image of Christ.
The modern view of marriage that encourages divorce
No one goes into marriage expecting to divorce, yet roughly 50% end up that way. Flip a coin. Head or tails? That’s the odds we are dealing with. I recently spoke to a woman who has just had a divorce, I gently asked what made her come to that decision, thinking I may have stepped over the line of privacy, her answer – “I just wasn’t happy with him anymore.”
What a disappointing response. Marriage is not primarily about your personal happiness. This is not to say marriage is meant to be miserable, certainly not. Happiness should be a feature you aspire to build and maintain in your relationship, but that doesn’t mean that when you’re not happy anymore, the marriage can be done away with. That would make the stability of the relationship calculated on the happiness it provides to you. What you called your “love” has in fact been entirely self-serving. Happiness can be the result of a healthy marriage but it’s not the purpose of it. A spouse is not a substitute for God. We are asking too much of our romantic relationships. I cringe when I hear people say to their partner “I promise to make you happy.” Huh? Good luck, how the heck are you going to keep that promise? You’re not God!
We want people to love us unconditionally, with our flaws. We want faithful, long-game love, for someone to hold us in our weakest moments. To know someone accepts us in our vulnerability is the greatest treasure of love. Yet when we dump marriage as soon as the other person shows flaws, we act hypocritically. The kind of love that marriage requires is a love that continues believing in the other. It’s patient, it’s gentle yet almost stubborn in its faithfulness.
Society is experiencing a psychological revolution on individual fulfilment and personal growth. In this shift, marriage is now seen as a vehicle for a self-oriented ethic of romance, intimacy, and fulfilment. In this new psychological approach to married life, your primary obligation is not to your family but to yourself; hence, marital success is defined not by successfully meeting obligations to your spouse but by a strong sense of subjective happiness—usually to be found through an intense, emotional relationship with one’s spouse.
This new approach to marriage is largely consistent with what I call a “soulmate model” of marriage, which assumes that marriage is primarily about “an intense romantic or emotional connection that should last only as long as it remains happy, fulfilling, and life giving to yourself.” This new view that marriage is not “till death do us part,” but rather “till displeasure do us part.” It lasts only for as long as our love lasts – where “love” is understood as feeling fulfilled, happy, or self-actualized. So marriages should only last for as long as matrimony brings happiness and self actualization. Now do you think this idea of marriage can necessarily include being there for your husband or wife when dementia, disability, or decline looms on the horizon? When suffering strikes; when your relationship faces difficulty? In this dismantled model of marriage, if you’re not feeling it, you should feel free to go in a “different direction.”
So is it any wonder that one of the most popular justifications for divorce is “I deserve to be happy?” But if you put your faith in your spouse to make you happy, it’s only a matter of time until they let you down. Now it’s realistic to expect that doing life with someone you love will have seasons of happiness, but there will also be moments when that’s not the case, and that’s okay. Marriage is about something so much bigger than just the pleasure of the moment. Our whole mindset on happiness is deeply flawed. “I deserve to be happy.” Really? I am not sure. All of life is a gift. Happiness is not a right. It’s a gift. You will have happy seasons in life, you will have sad ones too. God doesn’t owe you anything. And neither does your spouse. It’s all a gift. Don’t burden your partner with the unrealistic responsibility to maintain your happiness. If you go into marriage searching for happiness, all you will do is walk out filled with disillusionment. Don’t get me wrong. Marriage is incredible. But I don’t know a single married couple who would describe their relationship as heaven on earth.
A person’s philosophical view of happiness and suffering, obligation and sacrifice, is where it all begins. At the heart of many of our cultural woes, especially divorce, is our frenzied desire for happiness and the avoidance of pain and suffering.
“Do whatever makes you happy” isn’t always right. No one wants to be miserable in life, but sometimes what makes you “happy” in the moment can cause you distress in the future, or worse, ruin the future all together. Really, you need to ask where your ultimate happiness and responsibilities lie, and aim for that, recognising that sometimes that might not be what you want, or feel, in the moment, even sometimes for a long, long moment. So be cautious that you are not led astray by your desire for happiness here and now, which might prompt you to leave your partner or have an affair. In contrast, Christianity teaches that not all hardship is something that is to be necessarily avoided —we can learn to live through it, grow from it, and build character in the process. True joy, which is far richer than momentary happiness, comes primarily from authentic giving-love and self-sacrifice, not primarily through seeking the fulfilment of our personal desires.
The shift from thinking about what is good for the other, to only what is good for me, is the foundational act of violence and betrayal.
Let marriage be marriage and let God be God. Let marriage be for friendship and aspiration and sex and family and character growth. And let God be the well for your soul. This doesn’t mean you won’t be happy in marriage. Most people are. But God is the source of your life, not your spouse. Your spouse is an amazing gift you probably don’t deserve, but they’re not your source of steadfast happiness. They are not your salvation. Remember that.
Divorce isn’t always the answer
The reality is, most couples who stay married for fifty or sixty years fall in and out of love numerous times. And that’s okay. I think it is ludicrous to think that we experience “being in love” the same over a 50 year marriage, just like we felt at the beginning of that relationship. It is naïve and immature to think that staying married is mainly about staying in love. It is not. Do you really think that two imperfect people coming together through thick and thin will mean that every season will be one of warmth and sweetness and sexual romance? Staying married is not first about staying in love. You made a promise. You have a responsibility. Your spouse is now your priority. You took vows! When you made those vows, you were effectively saying to yourself that “I have no right to give up the effort to love even if my marriage proves difficult or runs into unforeseen obstacles. I have no right to let my spouse down, or our children down, or other people down. Finally, I have no right to let myself down or to think I can avoid my responsibilities and abandon my vows.”
Let’s get to the pointy end – it’s not natural or in any way Christian for a husband or wife to abandon their partner just because he or she is imprisoned or an alcoholic, or because they are not happy anymore. We need to build on this conviction if we sense that some married people tend to think or react differently – with too little natural loyalty and courage and with too much natural self-concern and cowardice – then this should be seen as a problem to be worked through, so as to help the couple acquire a more godly understanding of all the demanding strength and beauty of the married relationship.
Once married, your integrity is now bound to upholding those marriage vows – which appeals to your deepest values, calling you to put the proper rights of your spouse above your own personal convenience or advantage. God knows what he is doing in making the bond of marriage permanent. He knows that love means giving and being faithful to one’s gift, and therefore he wants husband and wife to be bound to the liberating task and saving effort of learning to give and learning to love. Earth is no heaven; but human love on earth is meant to be a preparation for love in heaven. Therefore, if God wishes to bind husband and wife to one another for life, it is also so that, in the end, He can bind each one of them to himself for eternity.
Divorce, on the other hand, is having failed to measure up to the challenge of love and character growth it demands. Divorce is down the slope of isolating selfishness, and apart from any possible sense of having failed God, divorcees are dogged by a deep and intimate self-disillusionment, for having failed their partner, their children, other people or themselves. If we do not maintain the pastoral thrust of helping people to stick to the task of learning to love their spouse throughout the hard periods of marriage, then we will see more and more isolated and loveless people. So be a man and woman of your word, a man and woman who keeps their vows to be committed for better or for worse, a man and a woman of character. That’s what it’s about. The modern world’s shift towards self-centeredness and self-exultation and self-expression has taken the normal fifty-year process of falling in and out of love and turned it into a fifty-year process of multiple marriages, divorces, relationships and breakups. Ironically, that pattern has not and will not bear the fruit of joy. It leaves a trail of misery in the soul.
When you complain about your spouse and how unhappy you are to counsellors, friends and acquaintances, they may advise you to get a divorce. They will probably tell you that “you have to do what’s best for you. You don’t deserve this. Start prioritising your own happiness and wellbeing.” Divorce is offered as a door to hope and happiness; an answer to your emotional and mental suffering. But does divorce really bring healing? Contrary to what you may have heard – divorce is treacherous. It does not solve your problems, it only betrays you, and deep down you probably know that – the upheaval of life is immeasurable. The sense of failure, guilt and fear torture the soul. Night after night you fall asleep with tears. Work performance is hindered. People draw near or withdraw with uncertain feelings. Loneliness can be overwhelming. A sense of a devastated future can be all consuming. Courtroom controversy compounds the personal misery. And then there is often the agonising place of children. Kids are shuffled between their parents. Like a deck of cards, but the kids feel like jokers and they don’t know who the king or queen is. Back and forth between two different houses, two toy boxes, two closets full of outfits. Parents hope that the scars will not cripple them or ruin their own marriages someday. Tensions over custody and financial support deepen the wounds over the years. And then the awkward and artificial visitation rights can lengthen the tragedy over decades. Divorce is bloody tragic!
The wounds left by the end of a familiar family life are deep; the pain is real. Decades later and you will still reap the results of shortsighted decisions. Your wrongs will always be before you.
Divorce seduces. During seasons of hardship, it looks to be a way out of misery, but instead, bitterness never fails to follow. I remember asking someone if divorce was worth it, the man responded: “It felt right at the time. I really didn’t see a way forward. But now I look back, I wish we just worked it out. You think the grass is greener, but it really isn’t.”
Before you consider divorce, think about what you’re giving up. Marriage grows you up because with it you take on a huge amount of responsibility that will demand the very best from you. And when you marry, you aim for peace as if your soul depends upon it, and you make it work – you make the sacrifices, you continue to serve the other, or you suffer miserably. You will be tempted by avoidance, anger, and tears, or enticed to employ the trapdoor of divorce so that you will not have to face what must be faced. But your failure will follow you and while you are frustrated, weeping, or in the process of separation, the same unsolved problems will likely remain intact within the next relationship you stumble into, and your negotiating skill not improved a whit. You have not moved forward. The NCHS (National Centre for Health Statistics) shows that if both you and your partner have had previous marriages, you are 90 percent more likely to get divorced than if this had been the first marriage for both of you.
Furthermore, you may like to keep the possibility of escape secretly in the back of your mind, or just avoid the commitment of permanence in the first place. But then you cannot achieve the transformation, which might well demand everything you can possibly muster. But in the negotiations, sacrifices and dedication to the good of the other lies a tremendous promise for the relationship, which is part of a radically successful life: you could have a marriage that works, and you could make it work. Isn’t that a grand achievement, to have established a solid marriage? There are not many genuine achievements of that magnitude in life. And because of that, you have created a solid, reliable, honest and playful home into which you could dare raise children and sustain a family. So don’t give up.
Attitudes to divorce and marital satisfaction
Now before we move on, I want to take some time to address our attitude about divorce, and the implications of it. I have heard that the more open you are to divorce the greater your odds of divorcing. That makes sense to me. Interestingly enough, research in the field of sociology has something to say regarding a positive effect on relationships correlating to a negative view of divorce.
The IFS California Family Survey conducted in 2019 with over 2000 participants on marital satisfaction, by attitudes to divorce, found that 82% of people who said that “divorce was not an option” were satisfied with their overall relationship with their spouse, and this level of satisfaction fell to 77% for people who said “I’m in this marriage so long as our love lasts.” This may suggest that couples are more satisfied when they know divorce is not an option. Or does it? Are we confusing correlation with causation? Instead, could it be that those who are unhappy in their marriage are more likely to consider divorce?
However, research tracking more than a thousand husbands and wives over time, by sociologists Paul Amato and Stacy Rogers is more clearly conclusive. In observing them over time, Amato and Rogers found that people who adopted more favourable attitudes toward divorce tended to experience declines in relationship quality, whereas those who adopted less favourable attitudes toward divorce tended to experience improvements in relationship quality or at least a slowdown in the gradual decline in marital happiness and interaction that characterises many marriages.
So the idea that adapting a “more casual” ethic of marital commitment is linked to happier marriages is simply not true. Instead, we see that husbands and wives who embrace a classic ethic of marital commitment are likely to be more satisfied. Now I think the reasoning is pretty obvious – in most marriages, knowing that you and your spouse are deeply committed to one another, come what may, fosters many other marital goods: more trust, more emotional security, more mutually beneficial investments in one another and the marriage—both financially and emotionally— and it provides a clearer vision for a joint future. All of which translate, for the average couple, into higher levels of marital quality, especially compared to couples who do not share a commitment to marriage ‘til death do us part.’
If you are married, make the choice to throw divorce off the table.
Being committed for the long-term has a powerful influence on husbands’ and wives’ willingness to serve the best interest of the couple rather than the short-term interest of the self. An important benefit of having a long-term view in marriage is that the relationship is evaluated on the basis of a shared past and a shared future, rather than only on the basis of what happens in the here and now. Because few relationships are continuously satisfying, a here-and-now focus puts great pressure on the current exchange of positives and negatives in your marriage as the basis for evaluating the relationship. Generally speaking, when you are confident that your marriage will endure, you are more likely to behave in ways that do not always benefit yourself immediately but enhance the long-term quality of the relationship. That is, you are more likely to approach your marriage in a spirit of generosity and, in so doing, you are more likely to effectively love your spouse.
When there’s no way forward – legitimate reasons for divorce
Let’s move on. There are two extremes we should avoid: one side that completely condemns divorce irrespective of the circumstances and the other that treats marriage like a trifle, an arrangement of convenience that should be annulled on a whim.
Let’s first start with a disclaimer: don’t seek reasons to divorce just because you’re not “feeling it” right now within your marriage. Divorce is not the way things are meant to be. A marriage can’t just be broken that easily, because it’s not really yours to break. What do I mean? Think of the word ownership. What I mean by ownership is that the union between a man and a woman isn’t really theirs to break. They didn’t create it. They can’t break it. It’s not theirs. Jesus said, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). It’s another sign of the contemporary self-centeredness that a young couple would have the mindset that they created the union called marriage and, therefore, they can break it. Ultimately, it was God, not them, who joined them together when they married. They didn’t create their union so neither can they break it. It ends with death. For the sake of maximum, long-term joy, for the sake of the deepest and highest significance, and for the sake of the maker and owner of your union, keep your covenant! Oh, what joy lies ahead beyond anything you can presently imagine for those who keep their covenant, even when their hearts are broken and weary.
The question of when divorce is permissible was a debate among the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ time. One faction barred it in almost all situations, whereas the other group had a casual attitude towards divorce, claiming that a single burnt meal was grounds for divorce. They confronted Jesus about it too. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” Jesus replied, “that at the beginning God ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:3-8)
Here Jesus reasserted God’s purpose of unity for marriage and that no human being can separate what He has joined together. Some of the Pharisees held more of a “casual” attitude to divorce and Jesus criticised their failure to recognize in the books of Moses God’s deepest and original intention for marriage. He effectively says that none of us should try to undo the “one-flesh” relationship which God has united. It is not possible to separate two parts of one flesh without killing the one divided.
And yet, sadly, it would seem sometimes divorce is permitted, but because of the hardness of human hearts. Divorce is something which is never meant to exist, never intended from the beginning, but was brought about because of our hardness of heart. Nowhere does the bible command divorce, since it is not something to be sought after – the scriptures merely permits, regulates and limits divorce. In Matthew 19: 1-12, Jesus first reminds his listeners that the Scripture is clear that marriage is a lasting institution in which God binds two individuals together. Constructing a list of escape clauses to pull apart what “God has joined together” is to trivialise the sacred and mystical nature of the union. So while Jesus denies that you can divorce for any reason by reiterating that marriage is a covenant and so not a casual relationship that can be discarded easily, he goes on to say that situations for divorce do indeed exist, but because of “the hardness of your hearts.” That means that sometimes the human heart becomes so hard that it leads a spouse into a severe violation of the covenant, without prospects of repentance and healing, and in such cases, only such cases, divorce is reluctantly permitted.
As far as I can tell, the only such violation Jesus named is sexual immorality – “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality… commits adultery” (Mathew 5:32). This reference to sexual immorality is derived from the Greek word “pornea.” The word has a range of meanings, but it is a reference to the Holiness Code as recorded in Leviticus (an Old Testament book), which entails adultery, homosexual sex, incest and bestiality as constituting grounds for divorce.
Now, let’s consider a counterargument: some theologians oppose this interpretation of the word “pornea”. Pastor John Piper, a teacher I respect and would often refer too, argues that when Jesus said “pornea”, he is not referring to adultery but only to premarital sexual fornication which a man or a woman discovers in the betrothed partner, so that there are no grounds for divorce in a married couple. John refers to the case with Joseph and Mary: when Joseph found that Mary was first pregnant, he went to “divorce” her since they had not had sex yet. But they were only engaged, so why did he try to divorce her? It turns out that betrothal was considered a type of marriage agreement in Jewish culture at the time, and a couple may “divorce” (break off the marriage agreement) either during the betrothal period or after marrying if sexual immorality was discovered.
I get that, and I agree that would be good grounds to break an engagement, but to think that Jesus was talking exclusively of sexual immorality just within the engagement period seems like sloppy reasoning to me. Here’s why I say that: firstly, and as mentioned, the word “pornea” has a range of meanings in reference to the holiness Code as recorded in Leviticus, which doesn’t exclusively entail sexual immorality during engagement, and secondly, in the text of Matthew, Jesus was answering the question from the Pharisees which was in the context of marriage and divorce – this is quite clear from the text.
So Jesus names sexual immorality as grounds for divorce, then St Paul the apostle adds another ground – willful desertion (1 Corinthians 7:10-16), which is essentially being deserted by your spouse. It takes two to make a relationship work, so what can you do when one ‘gives up and gets out?’ The phrase “it just didn’t work out” is not real when it comes to marriage. Somebody, whether it was one or both, made the decision not to continue building and investing in the relationship, one or both pulled their chips off the table and said “I’m out.” If your unbelieving partner leaves you with no intention of returning, he or she has broken that bond. And so, just like in the case of adultery, you are free to seek either reconciliation or divorce.
Many pastors and theologians believe that abuse can be a form of desertion. I agree. Although I don’t think this decision can be made alone. “Abuse” can sometimes be a vague term, so I would argue that unrepentant violence and manipulation constitute abuse. Your partner may impose upon you such intolerable conditions that you’re forced to leave the home. This forced abandonment has the same effect as if your partner had packed their bags and moved out, never to return.
So let me wrap this bit up – I can summarise five cases that a divorce can be deemed legitimate under God’s eyes, in reference to the teachings of Paul and in reference to Jesus’ clause of sexual immorality (pornea).
- Where your spouse has committed adultery – i.e. sexual intimacy with another man or woman, but if you take Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:28, then adultery could also include an unrepentant habit of watching pornography, for example
- Where your spouse has engaged in homosexual sex
- Where your spouse has had sex with an animal
- Where your spouse has been sexually intimate with a relative
- Where your spouse has deserted you (‘deserted’ can be a vague term – essentially it is if your spouse has given up on the marriage and is desiring to leave or has left. I would include unrepentant physical or emotional abuse as an obvious indicator that one has given up on the marriage).
I said earlier that because God joins people in marriage only death can break that unity, and this still stands. Sin is death, and there are sins that directly break the covenant of marriage. In these instances, divorce is permitted as it simply acknowledges a marriage that has already died, a unity that has already been broken. Without these covenant-breaking sins, divorce itself is sinful as it constitutes unjustified desertion.
God’s heart for marriage is that whenever possible we should persistently seek reconciliation. Marriage is sacred and binding, so to allow divorce for almost any reason is to hollow out the very concept of a covenant. This means many of the reasons given for divorce today do not actually dissolve the marriage under God:
- Not ‘feeling’ it anymore – falling out of love
- They just won’t grow up
- They changed after marriage
- They had a whole bunch of credit card debt
- They are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol
- They are spending all of our money
- They don’t like your family or your family doesn’t like them
The list goes on and on. Now I know all this isn’t easy to swallow, but when you get married you become accountable; you made a vow “for better, or for worse”, so divorce should not be easy. It certainly isn’t, and it should be that way, but remember that the wronged party should not live in shame.
Infidelity – the common driver of divorce
Let’s drill down on the first basis for divorce mentioned – adultery. Infidelity happens in “bad” marriages and in “good” marriages, and it’s more common than you might think. Love, like every virtue, is difficult and suffers moments of temptation. The faithful spouse is superior in their love than to the one who lends themself to fleeting affairs. Love is more genuine because it is more faithful. So where unfaithfulness is present, the commitment to love has deteriorated.
Cheating is easy. Try something hard, like being faithful.
According to a recent General Social Survey, 20% of men and 13% of women in America reported that they’ve had sex with someone other than their spouse while married. In the UK 20% of people have been unfaithful to their partner (According to a 2015 YouGov study of 1,660 British adults). And for those who are unmarried, rates of “infidelity” are much higher.
God has spoken – sexuality is a sacred gift for marriage, an outworking of your vows. So when you have sex with someone other than your spouse, then you have forsaken your covenant obligation. You have violated the agreement you made with your spouse.
But an affair doesn’t have to be physical to be intense or to ruin a relationship. While I wouldn’t argue that a purely emotional affair is grounds for divorce, it can certainly lead to a sexual affair and will cause hurt and damage in the process.
Consider Jack. Jack was a family guy, a likeable fella. Then he started working later and going in early. His wife, Hannah, found out when she visited him one day at work. “I was gutted to see my husband talk to another woman with such a closeness,” said Hannah. “I suspected something. He no longer came to me with his problems, hidden thoughts and aspirations, and now it makes sense, he was going to another woman.” Jack never slept with his colleague, but years later Hannah is still feeling hurt from it. There is no rule book for what is and isn’t an affair, but if your partner is intimate (in a nonsexual way) with someone other than you in such a way that violates your trust and expectations, shouldn’t that be taken seriously? With technology enabling round-the-clock and covert communication, it has never been easier to fall into that grey area between “just friends” and “more than friends” – often with plausible deniability.
Generally speaking, women are more distressed by an emotional affair than by a sexual one, while the opposite is true for men (as shown in a recent Norwegian study). Men tend to question their partners: “Have you had sex with that person?” Women tend to ask: “Do you have feelings for that person?” And the unfaithful partner will deny the aspect that’s more hurtful.
The common conception is that an emotional affair is a precursor to a physical one, which is usually true. A little bit of chemistry or sexual tension is typical of emotional affairs, but their underlying cause – the behaviours driving the betrayal, may not be obvious.
Extramarital affairs are one of the top three reasons given for divorce. Analysis based on General Social Survey data suggests that adults who cheated are 23% more likely to divorce as a result. I can’t say I’m surprised. Once you face betrayal of this kind, it wipes the past, because now you never quite know who you were dealing with before. The person in front of you now seems like a stranger because you can no longer trust the memories you shared with that person. Betrayal of this kind is a knife to the heart. All their love and affection now feels like it was just a fraud. Broken trust is like a broken rope: you can tie it again and use it, but it is not the same, you can’t trust that joined rope 100 percent.
There is much concern for the agony suffered by the betrayed. And agony it is—infidelity today isn’t just a violation of trust; it’s a shattering of the grand ambition of authentic and romantic love. It is a shock that makes us question our past, our future, and even our very identity with that person. Indeed, the maelstrom of emotions unleashed in the wake of an affair can be so overwhelming that many psychologists turn to the field of trauma to explain the symptoms: obsessive rumination, hypervigilance, numbness and dissociation, inexplicable rages, uncontrollable panic.
Intimate betrayal hurts. It hurts badly. If you were to stumble upon a text, a photo, or an email that revealed your partner’s dalliance, you would be devastated. And thanks to modern technology, the pain would likely be magnified by an archive of electronic evidence of your partner’s duplicity. If you we’re to catch your partner in the act of having sex with another person, you’d be destraut, furious, potentially in trauma.
The consequence of an affair is that the relationship is unlikely to ever reach what it could have, since there are some things in marriage which can only be obtained when you’re all in. To recover from this is not going to be easy. The cheating partner must sincerely regret the act and move forward from it, and as hard as it may be the wronged partner must learn to forgive. Otherwise, I see no recovery.
Now maybe you’re tempted to have an affair – maybe you’re bored with your partner. A new person has walked into your life who you find more attractive, who makes you feel excited, and we know that when someone has an affair great sex is often a given, you know it’s going to be passionate because of the illicit nature, the urgency, and the newness of it all. The thrill of the forbidden and the ego rush of being desired is mistaken for love because superficially it makes the sexual encounter fired up. But do you really think you have a life with someone when you have an affair with them?
If you are married to someone, you often see them at their worst because you have to share the genuine difficulties of life with them. So you save the easy parts for your adulterous partner: no responsibility, just going out, exciting nights of rule-breaking, careful preparation for romance, and the general absence of reality that accompanies the privilege of making one person pay for the real troubles of existence while the other benefits unrealistically from their absence. So make no mistake, when you have an affair with someone all you have is the fresh bit on a mouldy fruit. That is it. You see each other under the best possible conditions with nothing but sex in your minds and nothing else interfering with your lives. Yet as soon as it transforms from that into an actual relationship, a huge part of the affair immediately turns right back into whatever it was that was bothering you about your marriage. You are back in the same position with less character than when you started. Your integrity and nobility has fallen.
There is also little grounds for trust – if they cheat with you, they are more likely to cheat on you. Having cheated with them you’ve already proven to be a cheater. Having violated the grounds for marriage it’s easier to do it again. People who think the grass is greener usually end up playing in the mud. A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, titled “Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Serial Infidelity Across Subsequent Relationships” found that those who were unfaithful in one relationship had three times the odds of being unfaithful in the next relationship, compared to those who had not been unfaithful in the first one.
An affair is not helpful and people end up horribly hurt, including children. When the affair comes to light (which it probably will), the marriage may well fall apart. And then was it worth it? Consider an elderly couple who have sustained a marriage of forty or so years with momentous success. A few weeks or months of illicit passion, a fleeting romance, however passionate, is incomparable to a faithfully nurtured marriage which in the long run is miles more interesting.
Here’s something to remember: don’t sell your future for the desires of the present. If you don’t maintain a vision for the future of your marriage, you will be led by any current desire in the moment, and that may well lead you on a path of foolishness. Adultery is foolish. When you married you gave your word to be faithful to your spouse in the good times and even in the bad. Have integrity – keep your word. Be ruthless in upholding your faithfulness – cut off anyone who is playing (or trying to play) the role of your spouse in your life, who is not actually your partner. And a final word of advice on this matter – don’t get drunk around someone else you find attractive. Don’t bloody do it! When the alcohol hits the brain, your self-control drops, and the chance of an affair occurring rockets up.
What about remarriage?
So what happens when things break down beyond repair? Maybe your partner’s adultery has led to divorce, or maybe they’ve simply abandoned you. What’s next? What are the right circumstances for remarriage?
I’m going to start this with a confession – when I started my studies on the theology of remarriage I wanted a conclusion which accepted remarriage as something which is in most cases ‘OK’ with God. Why? Because I thought about what it would be like if my wife divorced me, and whether I could comfortably stay single for the rest of my life. I thought about friends and family who have or did get divorced at a young age, and knowing the agony of loneliness, I want them to have the opportunity to find someone new again. When I started my studies I started to figure out how I could reconcile the scriptures, or even re-interpret them to support the decision to remarry, but the more I leaned into God’s word, the more my desired conclusion deteriorated and God’s word seeped through my biased expectations.
I started off with the first mention of remarriage in the Old testament:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 has traditionally been regarded as the key divorce text of the old testament. It is quoted as an authoritative word on divorce by the prophet Jeremiah (3:1); it also served the Pharisees as their basic text on the subject. The passage presents a hypothetical situation which was likely to happen among the people of Israel, and Moses highlights that God takes both marriage and divorce as serious, permanent things, not to be considered casually. This rule seems to highlight the fixed nature of the marriage/divorce decision, and perhaps this would also strengthen the second marriage, since it would discourage a spouse from thinking they might as well just leave their second marriage and go back to their first partner. Now looking at this text more broadly, I can begin to see a case to permit remarriage, since Dueteronomy highlights that the divorce had dissolved the bond of marriage as effectively as death could dissolve it; so that she was as free to marry again as if her first husband had been naturally dead.
But then Jesus comes along and clarifies a few things. Jesus takes the teaching of divorce and remarriage in Deuteronomy, and basically says the rule isn’t quite complete. Jesus proceeds:
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mathew 5:31-32)
Jesus also says something similar in Matthew 19:8-9:
“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’”
If we focus on these two passages, Jesus effectively says that the “uncleanness” in Deuteronomy by which someone may divorce their spouse is really only meant to be adultery, and then he goes on to contrast what the Law of Moses permitted with his own teaching – the teaching of the new covenant. Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts, had granted the Israelites a concession that spouses could divorce and that they could remarry to another. But Jesus was reinstating God’s original purpose that what “God has joined together, let no man separate.” In other words, “you should not divorce, and so you should not remarry.” Some of the religious leaders thought that remarriage was always lawful as long as a divorce had first occurred, but Jesus adds onto Deuteronomy and only gives one case for remarriage – if sexual immorality occurred i.e. if the spouse had been sexually intimate with another person.
This was a much stricter teaching than what people were used to under the liberal understanding of the Law of Moses – Jesus restricts the grounds of divorce, and writes off almost all reasons for remarriage. In fact, the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:10 provides further evidence that this was indeed the case: “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”
In the beginning, God’s revealed purpose for marriage was to join one man to one woman for life. But because of the hardness of men’s hearts God allowed for divorce and remarriage in the case of some form of sexual indecency – as Moses told in Deuteronomy. Jesus came to fulfil the Old Covenant and clarify its true meaning. He established the principles of his kingdom, and one of these principles was to reinstate God’s original purpose for marriage – marriage is one-off, divorce is restricted, and the only “indecency” to allow for remarriage is sexual immorality.
So, the general rule is that morally, you don’t get a divorce and so you don’t remarry. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke Jesus established this general principle of marriage as permanent and unbreakable – “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” Luke 16:18 (as well as Mark 10:11-12). Generally speaking, Jesus does not recognize divorce as terminating a marriage in God’s sight. The reason a second marriage is called adultery is because the first one is considered to still be valid – only death, abondment and sexual immorality breaks the bond of marriage.
That’s what Moses and Jesus had to say about remarriage. Then Paul jumps in to emphasise Jesus’ teaching on remarriage. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 Paul teaches that if divorce is inevitable the person who divorces should not remarry:
“To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife.”
Paul seems to be aware that separation will be inevitable in certain cases. But in such a case he says that the person who feels constrained to separate should not seek remarriage but remain single. So for those couples who feel that they cannot live under the same roof—for whatever reason—the Church suggests that they remain single until such a time they can reconcile or at the death of the other spouse.
Then a little later in Romans 7:1-3 Paul again says something similar:
“Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.”
In both Corinthians and Romans, Paul seems to be getting straight to the point: Christian partners are bound together for the rest of their natural lives, remarriage is legitimate only after the death of a spouse. Here Paul seems to be stricter than Moses, and even more so than Christ, since he doesn’t mention sexual immorality as grounds for remarriage, as Jesus implied. In Paul’s writings, no exceptions are explicitly mentioned that would suggest you could be free to remarry on any other basis. That’s what I first thought reading these passages, but read these two texts more carefully and you will find that Paul actually aligned with Christ.
First of all, Romans 7 isn’t actually about divorce, in fact, it’s not actually addressing marriage at all. Read Romans 7 in its full context, and Paul is just using marriage as part of an analogy. You don’t use analogies to make a case for the subject of the analogy in itself, that’s just silly. Analogies are used to help describe another case, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to use Romans 7 for this debate. Analogies are broad and generic, so while Paul describes the basic principle of marriage, you would not expect him to go into detail on the exceptions and finer rules regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage.
Secondly, if we take 1 Corinthians 7:39 – this is written to the Church. Christians should not be divorcing because their faith should prevent them from adultery or desertion, so if they do divorce for any other reason they should remain single until they can seek reconciliation, God’s ultimate desire. So while Paul advises Christians to not leave their partners, this makes no mention cases in which their (non-Christian) partner leaves them or cheats on them. 1 Corinthians 7:39 doesn’t address this but is rather a word against divorce within the Church.
So after listening to Moses, Jesus and Paul, here is my conclusion – divorce is severe – it ends marriage, a potent and deep union. But here’s the clause – divorce does not end the moral obligation of the marriage – it just allows a couple to live separately due to the current inability (or unwillingness) to reconcile. This was Jesus’ radical teaching. Only sexual immorality and death sever marriage to the point that if divorced, no obligation remains to the marriage, and remarriage to another is permitted but not promoted. If a couple illegitimately divorced and one of them remarried, the remarriage would be adultery (sexual immorality) against the first.
Divorce and remarriage – messy business
God-ordained marriage is a monogamous, permanent and exclusive union. The entrance of sin into the world, which in its essence is selfishness, brought divorce. Marriage and family brings health and life and it expresses God’s faithful love to the world. Because of this, God hates divorce as the ruin of something good and holy. But understanding the wickedness of humankind, God graciously tolerates divorce while establishing regulations to curb it. Jesus upheld the ideal of permanent marriage, making clear that divorce breaks the oneness of marriage. Initiating divorce and/or marrying a divorced person often leads to adultery. The only exceptions to this principle, and, therefore, the only legitimate ground for divorce are the five reasons I mentioned earlier. Divorce is permitted for these reasons, but not demanded. Reconciliation should always be sought when fornication or separation has occurred. Believers should, however, always love and accept divorced people and seek to encourage them in reconciliation and godly ways. And for those who have divorced, apart from on the grounds of sexual immorality, then my view is that the grace of God is sufficient to enable a trusting, divorced Christian to be single all this earthly life if necessary (Matthew 19:10-12,26; 1 Corinthians 10:13).
At the end of the day, when it comes to remarriage this is a tricky business. The fact is, sin is always messy and complicated. For those who are already remarried, and where their previous marriage didn’t end due to sexual immorality, I think they should acknowledge that the choice to remarry and the act of entering a second marriage was an act of adultery. They should confess it as such and seek forgiveness. God forgives when sincere remorse takes place, and I do not see anything in Scripture to indicate anything other than that. From that point on the believer should continue in his or her current marriage. There were promises made and there has been a union formed. It should not have been formed, but it was. It is not to be taken lightly. Promises are to be kept, and the union is to be sanctified to God. While not the ideal state, I am confident that staying in a second marriage is God’s will for a couple and their ongoing relations should not be looked on as adulterous.
Marriage and divorce. Remarriage and adultery. What is the main point of all this? Jesus reminded us that marriage is sacred and binding, it is a divine establishment done before God. Take it seriously. God instituted marriage as a foreshadow of what God intends and has promised for his people in the future – a spiritually intimate relationship between God and humanity – a “marriage” between Christ and his Church. The temporary covenant of marriage now, “until death do us part,” is a sign of the eternal covenant God has promised His people. Because of this ultimate vision, to betray marriage now is to mock what it is intended to portray. That is why marriage is so personal to God, and that is why He hates divorce.