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Marriage and Divorce: A Moral Challenge

by J. Robert Ross

A popular song preaches: “Don’t lay your morality on me,” which made me wonder how the song writer could.be so dogmatic about the immorality of telling someone what is right or wrong. The truth is that when it comes down to the business of living or acting instead of just shooting the bull, a thorough-going ethical relativism falls apart for the simple reason that every one of us feels indignant when we are treated badly by others.

The church should begin to take seriously the call of the Gospel for a discipleship that leads both to personal holiness and to social respon­sibility.

Take the problem of divorce, which God says he hates (Mal. 2: 16). Surely we need a ministry of compassion for those who have been through a divorce, and admittedly there was a time when many churches did not exercise a ministry of grace for divorced persons. However, because most churches have so many divorcees they have been forced to develop ministries to them. Now the time has come for the church to exercise a prophetic ministry in a strenuous effort to maintain marital and family stability.

My own ministry is directed to helping people with all kinds of emotional, marital and family problems. Or trying to help. Frankly, I cannot do much to help the survivors of divorce, especially the children, who don’t have the option of divorcing one set of parents in order to adopt another.

Sometimes a parent intent on getting a divorce, often after initiat­ing an affair, and obviously expecting my support, will ask, “We should not stay together just for the kids, should we?” To which I re­ply, without a lot of soul searching, “Why not?”

Yes, drug abuse, spouse abuse or abandonment sometimes necessi­tates a marital separation. But most divorces occur for reasons far more petty than these. The argument that a bad marriage hurts children more than a divorce is mostly wishful thinking by those who find mari­tal vows too constraining.

“Dan Quayle Was Right” was the title of an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, April 1993, in which Barbara Dafoe Whitehead reviews the data from social science research, and the inescapable conclusion is that although divorce and remarriage and the increase in single parent households may be a way in which adults can achieve personal happi­ness, the dissolution of two-parent families is terribly harmful to chil­dren. Murphy Brown notwithstanding, children do not dream of having a single parent or a step-parent family. Some of the more so­bering observations made by Whitehead include the following:

Across time and across cultures family disruption has been re­garded as an event that threatens a child’s well-being and even sur­vival. This view is rooted in a fundamental biological fact: unlike the young of almost any other species, the human child is born in an ab­jectly helpless and immature state.

Each year a million children go through divorce or separation and almost as many are born out of wedlock. . . . One of every four children growing up in the 1990’s will eventually enter a step-family., Contrary to popular belief, many children do not “bounce back” after divorce or remarriage.

Family disruption is best understood not as a single event but as ‘a string of disruptive events: separation, divorce, life in a single-parent family, life with a parent and live-in lover, the remarriage of one or both parents, life in one stepparent family combined with visits to another stepparent family; the breakup of one or more stepparent families. And so on.

Fewer than half of all adult Americans today regard the idea of sacrifice for others as a positive moral virtue.

All too often the adult quest for freedom, independence, and choice in family relationships conflicts with a child’s developmental needs for stability, constancy, harmony, and permanence in family life.

I understand very well how these statements provide scant comfort or help to the families already broken by divorce or to devoted single parents, many of whom live what can only be called heroic lives in or­der to make a living and care for their children.

But perhaps speaking the truth out loud will encourage some par­ents to think of their children before they file for divorce. Perhaps it will encourage a teen to wait before having sex or before getting preg­nant. Or perhaps it will encourage our churches to do something, for example, like developing a community marriage policy to interrupt the chain of disasters that cascades from one generation of broken families to another. .

Michael McManus in his book, Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends Stay Married (Zondervan, 1993) calls on the church to initi­ate a campaign to save marriage with a two parent family to nurture children. Obviously there are other kinds of families, but the point is that it takes both a man and a woman to bring a child into the world, and the child thus conceived deserves the love and nurture of those two parents. McManus recommends a three-pronged strategy to achieve this objective.

ONE: Teach A Clear Sexual Ethic

Sex education or the increase of knowledge about sex, which is ap­propriate and desirable, does not by itself prevent sex or sexual activ­ity. Teens should understand how the reproductive system works just like they should understand how the circulatory or digestive system works, but they need and deserve a lot more than the mechanics. They need moral instruction –not just “values clarification”–they need wise parental rules and discipline, they need examples of unimpeachable be­havior in their parents and other role models, and they need support from their peers.

Studies show that premarital cohabitation increases odds of di­vorce 50%. McManus reports that, “Of one hundred couples who be­gin living together, forty will break up before marriage. And of the sixty who marry, at least forty-five will divorce. That leaves only fif­teen intact marriages out of the original one hundred couples” (page 23). We seem to have forgotten that a trial marriage is a contradiction in terms. Either marriage is “until death do us part,” or it is just shack­ing up.

TWO: Provide Increased Legal Protection Of Marriage And Of Children

  1. We need some legal restrictions on divorce. It is now widely recognized that the prevalence of no-fault divorce laws has encouraged the breakup of marriages.
  2. We should increase fiscal support for children and custodial parents .
  3. The sale of a family home to settle property rights should be deferred if children are involved.
  4. Mediation should be required to resolve disputes over visita­tion rights.
  5. Counseling of the parents should be required if there is evidence that children are being triangulated into the marital conflict.
  6. We need a change in the welfare system that is prejudicial to the presence of a man in a household. The law should reward couples who are married and who stay together.

THREE: Provide Prevention, Enrichment And Reconciliation Programs

Including The Implementation Of A Community Marriage Policy.

Our goals should be, first to avert bad marriages before they be­gin; second to improve existing marriages; and third to save a signifi­cant percentage of troubled marriages and restore them to health. For example, churches in a community can develop a policy which requires that couples wishing to be married by clergy meet the following mini­mum requirements:

  1. A four month waiting period;
  2. Premarital counseling using PREPARE, probably the most valid instrument avail­able today to determine which couples are unsuited to each other;
  3. Several sessions with a mentor couple and (4) a follow-up check up andor enrichment program after two to three years of marriage.

McManus reports that clergy in Peoria, IL, signed a similar policy in 1991 when there were 1,210 divorces. A year later divorces dropped to 947. Although more study will be required to demonstrate the effec­tiveness of these programs, the church cannot wait until social science has completed its research in order to be faithful to the command of Je­sus: “Feed my sheep.”

[Robert Ross is a marriage counselor in Lexington, Ky.]




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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10