Fail to Leave, Fail Your Spouse

Effective and compassionate ministry, to my way of thinking, frequently involves saying the exact same thing over and over – oftentimes to the exact same person! – without falling into the trap of allowing one’s heart to become in any way cold or jaded. Those of us (like me) who can be tempted to become annoyed that no one seems to internalize biblical truth even after multiple exposures would do well to study the life of the prophet Jeremiah, or at least find a trustworthy confidant…or maybe several.

As of this writing, The Crossing is just a bit more than halfway through another semester of DivorceCare, this being the 11th time our church has offered this particular recovery program. I tend to be something of a cynic, but I am a big believer in the power of the DivorceCare curriculum and methodology. My wife and I have sat “ringside” for just over 200 hours of class time, taking in the material and processing it with others who are living through the pain of separation and/or divorce. (And that’s just the time spent in class; there is plenty of “spillover” into the rest of the week as we develop relationships with people in those classes.)

In all that time, we have met hundreds of people, each with a unique story, and many have become good friends. Suffice to say that everyone’s life is messy, and divorce tends to bring out the very worst in people. All that being true, is there any one common theme that crops up in marriages and contributes to their decline? A few hundred hours of time does not make me a divorce expert by any means, but if I was asked to “put all my chips” on the item that I believe does more damage to marriages than any other, I know what I would pick without hesitation:

“Failure to leave and forsake all others.”

In the book of Genesis, God makes His plan for marriage abundantly simple and easy to understand. The emphasis in the passage below has been added by me.

Genesis 2:21-25 (ESV)
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

In my experience, most of us tend to read the emphasized passage with our attention focused on the hold fast to his wife part of that sentence. And certainly, in my experience, what is most often the “final nail in the coffin” for marriages is infidelity on the part of one or both spouses. But sexual unfaithfulness does not typically spring up out of nowhere, though it is very often the event that finally kills off the marriage for good.

What I am beginning to see is that “failure to leave” generally precedes the failure to hold fast to your spouse. In fact, I might even go so far as to say most marital difficulty has “failure to leave” as its root cause.

In the passage above, the command to leave specifically names parents, and this is to be expected. In the ancient Near East, individuals typically went straight from their family of origin into the marriage relationship. These days, I would suggest that the command to leave father and mother also includes the need to leave behind other non-familial relationships that are a part of “life before marriage” and that do not necessarily foster a healthy relationship with one’s spouse. The well-known phrase “forsaking all others” does not appear in your average exchange of wedding vows for no good reason; other people and practices – no matter how much fun they were when you were a single person – must become secondary to the one-flesh bond.

No, this doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a rewarding and enjoyable relationship with your college friends, nor does it mean that “leaving” your parents requires you to completely detach from your family of origin, screeching tires and spraying gravel as you pull away from the old homestead. After all, to not honor parents would be a violation of the Fifth Commandment.

What it does mean, I believe, is that all those relationships that held a position of priority in your life as a single person must be re-prioritized to a position that honors your marriage and prevents those relationships from damaging the one relationship God calls us to honor above all.

Let’s be honest here. Many of us have messed-up families of origin. In those cases, it can be somewhat easier to separate from Mom and Dad to begin our own new family unit. In those instances, it may be close friends whose place in your life must now be relegated to “something lesser” so as to appropriately cleave to your spouse. Even if our experience in our family of origin was overwhelmingly positive, it does not allow us to set aside God’s design for marriage. We still must “forsake all others” and build a new family unit as husband and wife. If Mom and Dad (or other relatives) still have their “fingers in the pie,” no matter how well-intentioned, it will only invite marital discord and conflict.

As just one common example, conflict can arise when newly-married spouses are each trying to please their parents during the holiday season by spending time with them “like we always have,” and prioritizing the desires of their parents over and above the desires of their spouse.

Parents, siblings and other close relatives – and even some of those close friends – can often labor, however unconsciously, under the mistaken impression that they are being called to help steer the family boat, “helping” you and your spouse make the right decisions. They are not.

“Advice?” Great! “Control?” Absolutely not.

In an abundance of counselors, one finds wisdom and safety (Proverbs 11:14). Parents and other close friends and family are to enjoy a privileged position in the lives of any married couple, and can be a source of advice as one of many “counselors.” As we all celebrate the birth of a new family and their entrance into the Kingdom of Christ, it’s fitting and joyous to ride in the backseat of the family’s new Buick and enjoy the sites and sounds of the “parade” that will mark their journey together. The problem comes when any of us jump into the front and try to grab the steering wheel.

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