The Demise of a Marriage: Part 1

My husband and I began facilitating our fourth semester of DivorceCare this week. In the days and weeks leading up to the start of class, I’ve been thinking off and on about how one gets to the point of divorce. Why do so many marriages fall apart? How is it that we can stand at the altar with our spouse, before a pastor and the Lord Himself, convinced that this is the person we are going to be with for the rest of our lives…only to have been so very wrong?

Every time we begin a new session of DivorceCare, Warren and I introduce ourselves to the group as people who have gone through divorce, and it’s at that time that we get the “opportunity” to revisit the mistakes we made in our first marriages that led to our divorces.

My heart always breaks for the stories I hear of broken marriages, because the feelings that accompany those stories are so very familiar to me; I know very well how it feels to live through a dying relationship. I know what it’s like to lie awake at night thinking about your wreck of a marriage, and trying to retrace your steps to figure out where you first went wrong.

The demise of a marriage is a path you can wander onto long before you realize you’re even there. No one ever gets up one morning and, completely out of the blue, decides they are going to have an affair, or pack their bags and move back in with their parents, leaving behind the spouse that they have up until the night before been happily married to. Instead, tiny incidents happen that, left unchecked, erode intimacy and entice you to slowly move from a general attitude of protecting and strengthening your marriage to tearing it down. We go slowly, very slowly, from an overall sense of loyalty, of being “on the same team,” if you will, to feeling as though our spouse is against us, and then living out that feeling as if it were a fact.

Earlier this week, I read a post on Christianity Today‘s blog for women, Her-meneutics, written by guest blogger Jenell Williams Paris. In her post, Paris shared some of her thoughts on staying in touch with what she called “old flames” via Facebook; you can read the entire post here. Her overall point was that Facebook “friending” someone with whom you once had a romantic involvement, particularly if you are married, is a dangerous thing to do, as it invites you into sin that seems innocent enough at first, but can lead to much more. She says it this way:

I know what full-blown adultery is, but fidelity is breached long before physical acts occur. How about looking at an ex’s profile pictures and imagining the life you could have had together, the children you could have been raising, the house you could have bought? How about looking at old photos your ex has posted, remembering the encounters you had in that time and place? How about indulging the brief thrill that arises when his or her name appears in your e-mail inbox or your Facebook wall (the rush is fueled, after all, by past words and experiences shared only between the two of you)? How about nurturing the notion that you missed your chance with your real soul-mate by keeping in touch with the supposed soul-mate? These actions and attitudes may not be adultery, but they certainly do not represent loyalty.

This is just one example of a single small step off the path that, if you continue, could lead to a heart filled with discontent toward your marriage. And by the way, I would say that Jesus Himself very clearly did call those actions and attitudes she references adultery (Matthew 5:27-28).

I certainly agree with Paris’ assertion that staying in touch with old boyfriends or girlfriends is a dangerous step. But she makes another comment in an earlier paragraph that I think is even more important to look at. Paris says, “I believe that all relationships in my life either support or detract from my marriage, however tacitly, and they stay or go based on that criterion.”

Bingo. Your marriage can be deeply hurt by other relationships in your life – and the damage can be done in such small ways that you don’t even see it until the cumulative effect shows itself as significant. I think most of us can see the warning signs associated with being friends with an old flame, but it’s much harder to see – and therefore more dangerous, I think – the attitudes and behaviors of friends or family as potentially threatening to our covenant relationship, but they most certainly can be.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Have you ever had a friend question the level of effort your husband put into your anniversary or birthday celebration, and found discontent or irritation toward your spouse being stirred within you?

  • Have you ever had a family member – a parent or a sibling, for instance – say something disparaging about your wife, and found yourself “seeing their point?”

  • Have you ever talked to a friend whose opinion you trust about an argument you had with your spouse, only to have them “take your side” and vilify your husband/wife?

  • Have you ever listened to a friend complain about their own husband long enough that you began looking at your spouse with a more critical eye, sensing similarities between the two marriages?

  • Have you ever had someone tell you something, then follow it up with “Don’t tell your wife/husband I told you that?”

In each of these examples, whether you realize it or not, you are being brought to a decision point. At each point, you decide if you are going to be loyal to the person to whom you are married, or to someone else. At each point, you decide if you are going to honor your covenant commitment to your spouse, or if you’re going to allow someone else in your life to potentially drive a wedge between the two of you.

Granted, these may seem like minor incidents. “Hardly the kind of thing that destroys marriages!” It may seem like a stretch to say, for example, that keeping a small secret out of loyalty to a friend is a failure to honor your covenant with your husband or wife. But remember, oftentimes the demise of a marriage begins with minor offenses, accumulated over time and left unchecked. If, over time, you are brought to these kinds of decision points in moments within the various relationships of your life, and you consistently choose not to defend your spouse and/or not think the very best of your spouse, you may find that your heart is slowly being turned away from your marriage.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we go around cutting off all friendship with anyone who has ever criticized our spouse. Oftentimes the people in your life have no idea that their words and attitudes can have the power that they do. In every one of the examples above, the source of the problem is within our own hearts. We all have this tendency to be blind to our own sins, but we have a remarkable ability to focus on our spouse’s with tenacity.

If we are to protect our marriages from damage from without, we must protect our hearts from within. We need to constantly and vigilantly remind ourselves of who God’s Word says we are – sinners, saved by grace (Romans 3:10-18, 22-24). That doesn’t just define my husband; it defines me. We are both in deep need of the grace of God, and God in His wisdom has bound the two of us together. If Christ calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39), to love each other sacrificially as God first loved us, how much more should we live out that love in what should be the single deepest relationship we have this side of heaven?

Matthew 19:3-9 (ESV)
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”


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