Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When is The Decision To Divorce Justified?

November 8, 2004

If you were to survey divorcing couples, the reasons for divorce would loom large. The unhappiness and problems have mushroomed to the point where one partner or perhaps both are convinced that there is no hope for a loving marriage. Are the circumstances such that either their relationship or their characters in this unhappy drama are flawed beyond change and correction?

People are capable of learning from their bad choices and judgments. From bad judgment comes good judgment. We learn from experience. On the other hand, some people don't learn, and the same nasty problems go on and on.

Who should get divorced. There are some mistakes that, if persisted in, are intolerable. What about spouse abuse, child abuse, adultery, irresponsibility, chronic alcoholism and other addictions, desertion, deceit and dishonesty, sexual perversion, criminal behavior, unrelenting selfishness, and other character defects?

Marriage should be based on mutual love and respect. How far people stray from principles of right living and still expect to preserve the marriage is a matter of deep spiritual judgment. I believe there are limits to what even God tolerates or expects from couples in these situations. He desires happiness for His children.

What if the couple was mismatched from the beginning? For some, the biggest mistake was in the courtship and decision to marry. This becomes obvious almost from the start. What if there never any love, if there is no love now, and there is no hope that there can ever be any love?

I have found that people who find themselves in these extreme situations are a small minority of those who get divorced. Even within the subgroup of obvious and painful behavior problems, some partners persist and keep their marriages together out of sheer tenacity. The only thing left is their commitment.

Change is possible. A marital or personal crisis can be the impetus for major change. Habits can be changed. New skills can be learned. Forgiveness is possible. The past can be set aside.

This is true for the majority of divorcing couples where unhappiness springs from poor communication, strong differences, failure to meet needs, betrayal, and failed expectations about marital roles.

These circumstances can also be viewed as justifiable grounds for divorce or they can be viewed as painful problems that need to be resolved so that love can come back into the relationship.

Barriers to divorce. If feelings were the criterion, then divorce would be the answer. Sometimes the only barrier to divorce is a couple’s willingness to choose not to divorce. For many, the reason to persist has to do with the harm a divorce causes innocent children.

Within marriage, we choose to act in loving, giving and caring ways. That is within our power. Sometimes that can be an answer. We create love by giving love.

But not always. What is not within our power is the giving of respect. Feelings of love won’t last without a foundation of respect. The loving thing to do in that case is to confront our partner on behavior that diminishes our respect for him or her.

Couples need to take the time to review those days of courtship and early marriage to recall that there was love once. If there was love once, there is the possibility of loving each other once again.

Don't give up without a fight. Part of the loving confrontation process is to insist on counseling. Many people give up before they have taken every step possible.

How do they know change isn't possible unless they've tried it? If they have tried counseling and it hasn't worked, they can search for another counselor in whom they have confidence.

The time to seek counseling is while there is still a willingness to try and not after the will to continue has been lost. The time to seek counseling is before there are too many broken promises and prolonged unhappiness. It amazes me how many couples go through a divorce without having tried counseling.

The act of giving up, the loss of hope, and the decision to leave have tremendous power over attitudes and perceptions. When placed under the scrutiny of that microscope, the marital warts become magnified. The "divorce" word carries with it a self-fulfilling prophecy that promotes self-preservation and short term thinking.

Though problems leading to divorce vary, the act of choosing not to try any more is a very difficult problem to overcome. Regardless of the gravity of the problems and with help, two people trying at the same time can trigger changes that turn into small miracles. On the other hand, one partner who stops trying can spell the doom of what still might be a good marriage.

Belief in commitment. Another common trait of long lasting marriage is that partners believe that marriage is a life-long commitment and as a sacred institution. Couples who share a mutual determination and commitment make marriage work through adversity and sharp difficulties.

Sure, we have the freedom to divorce. We also have the freedom to follow through on a committed course and be responsible for the choices we have already made.

Divorce shouldn’t be an easy answer. While sometimes it may be necessary, most of the time it is not. Our power to choose is the greatest deterrent to divorce we have.