Christians and divorce

October 9th, 2019

Marriage and divorce in the 21st century

Statistics from last year confirm that millennials are having the same impact on divorce as they are on chain restaurants and the golf industry: they’re “killing” it. Despite rhetoric about the increased instability of families and marriages, according to a September 2018 article in The Atlantic, the divorce rate has declined by 18% over the last 10 years, largely driven by the relative stability of millennial marriages. Part of this decline is due to the changing nature of marriage among younger people. Marriage has become more of a class marker —  something two people do once they’ve completed their educational goals and are economically stable. Those with a high school diploma or less are more likely to cohabitate and start a family together but less likely to make their union official in the eyes of the law. While both economic stability and delaying marriage appear to be driving divorce rates down for those who choose to get married, it also means that those whose marriages might be more susceptible to divorce aren’t marrying at all.

Additionally, baby boomers remain the generation with the highest divorce rate, and that rate has even increased as boomers have aged into their 60s and beyond, according to Pew Research Center. With many millennials growing up in households with marital instability, it’s no wonder they might be more cautious and intentional about entering into marriage. One of the reasons many millennial women prioritize their education and careers over marriage and children is because they watched women from prior generations sacrifice for their husbands and families only then to struggle financially after a divorce.

Despite the decline in the divorce rate, divorce remains something that deeply touches many people and families. Whether you’re divorced yourself, married to someone who was divorced, or grew up in a household where your parents were divorced, divorce affects almost everyone’s life and their relationships. Even though many churches recognize this and no longer view divorce as a moral failing, it’s still a sensitive topic and a source of shame for some. The church’s history of stigmatizing divorce and divorced people still makes many wary of disclosing their relationship histories within their church communities. 

The reality of divorce

In the wake of cultural changes and “no-fault” divorce laws, the divorce rate in America more than doubled between 1960 and 1980. While these laws made it easier for people to leave abusive marriages, they also enabled one partner to dissolve a marriage for any reason at all and lent moral legitimacy to the dissolution of marriages. At the same time, the anti-institutional sentiment of the time meant churches lost a lot of their moral authority to reinforce the marriage vow. Instead of being viewed through the prisms of duty and sacrifice, marriage came to be seen as a vehicle for personal fulfillment, intimacy and romance.

These shifts involving marriage and divorce have led many people to use divorce as a scapegoat for familial instability in the 21st century. While about 50% of marriages that started in 1970 ultimately ended in divorce, the oft-quoted statistic belies the complexity of the divorce phenomenon. Often used as proof that people just don’t value commitment anymore and are all too willing to throw away their marriages when things get hard, the 50% number is also reductive and inaccurate. Increasingly, the predicted success of a marriage has more to do with relationship history, family history, education, age and economic stability.

During the 1970s and 1980s, several mainline Protestant traditions eased their restrictions around divorce and remarriage and sought a more pastoral tone in ministering to families touched by divorce. In 1976, The United Methodist Church issued a pronouncement committing itself to ministering to the needs of divorced persons and recognizing the right of divorced persons to remarry. 

The effects of divorce

While divorce has become more commonplace and less stigmatized both inside and outside of the church, we shouldn’t lose sight of the tragic aspect of divorce. No one hopes to get divorced on their wedding day. Though humans are remarkably resilient, divorce is a major stressor, and when there are children involved, they also feel the effects of this highly emotional transition. When two people divorce, not only is it the end of a relationship, but it also comes with side effects including a heavy financial impact, the need to move residences and changes in other friendships and the person’s relationship with their church.

Divorce affects the whole person, including both physical and mental health. According to a recent Bloomberg article, recently separated or divorced people have higher resting blood pressure, and a 2018 German study found that divorce leads to considerable weight gain over time, especially in men. A “gray divorce,” or divorce over the age of 50, is particularly devastating both emotionally and financially. Not only do people over 50 who get divorced experience higher levels of depression, but their incomes also collapse, especially for women. According to Bloomberg, the standard of living drops 45% for women and 21 percent for men who divorce after age 50. Many of them are unable to recover from the financial shock. “Older Americans simply don’t have time to undo the financial destruction that a divorce causes,” Bloomberg reports.

While some churches offer divorce recovery groups or individual pastoral care, divorce is often seen as a personal issue, and there’s rarely the same kind of sustained communal response as there is with a death or illness. The circumstances around divorce are frequently complex and personal, and people are sometimes hesitant to share the gruesome details with anyone but their closest friends. Nevertheless, divorce is a grieving process, and individuals need to feel supported and loved by their churches while they heal. One way churches might support divorced and divorcing persons is with a liturgy for the end of a marriage. Far from encouraging or “blessing” divorce, this would serve as a recognition of the divorce in one’s faith community. Particularly if the marriage was initially blessed in a church, it would make sense for its end to be marked in the church as well and for each party to have an opportunity to express regret, ask for forgiveness, release one another from the vows they made before God, and commit to hold one another (and their children, if applicable) in prayer. Certainly not all marriages end in such a manner where this kind of liturgy is possible, but if it’s possible, this is one way that churches could care for those going through a divorce. 


Divorcing as clergy

I never thought I would get divorced. While other friends and even parishioners of mine might get divorced, I was clergy, and there was pressure on me and my family to be spiritual and moral exemplars for my congregation. But clergy are people too, and our relationships can become irretrievably broken, the same as anyone else’s. The long hours, high expectations and low pay of clergy often have a negative impact on the quality of our familial relationships.

According to a 2017 Barna study, only 10% of Protestant pastors have been divorced, compared to a quarter of the overall population. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes clergy are asked to step away from their pastoral appointments during a divorce, particularly if infidelity or abuse is involved. An added difficulty of divorcing as clergy is the lack of privacy. In my case, I had to notify my bishop and send a letter to my congregation informing them of the divorce. With the loss of my spouse’s household income, I also had to leave my church in search of a larger paycheck.

While my divorce was devastating, it also deepened my spiritual life and made me a better pastor. In my new congregation, it has opened up untapped avenues for ministry, particularly with other divorced and divorcing people. Even though my marriage ended, my relationships with friends and colleagues were strengthened. As a person who professes Jesus’ resurrection, it opened my eyes to resurrection in my own situation, as new life arose out of the death of my marriage. 

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