“Can Deacons Be Divorced?”

Please let me know what your thoughts are on the qualifications for deacons when the Bible speaks in 1 Timothy 3:12 about a husband of one wife. I know of a man that is serving as a Deacon that has been divorced 2 times and now he is married to his third wife. This has really bothered me. I have talked to a couple of people and they cannot give me answer, one of these being a minister. They say that if they go to Christ and ask for forgiveness that it is OK but I do not know what the scriptures say about being a Deacon. Thanks for your help.

I have served as an elder and as a chairman of the elders at our church and have spent a good deal of time studying the qualifications for elders and deacons. The general consensus of evangelical scholars on the phrase “husband of one wife” in both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is that it means the husband of one living woman. That is, it allows for a man to serve as an elder or deacon if his wife has passed away and he has remarried. This would seem to allow for a man to serve in these church leadership positions if he has been divorced and remarried. This is where it gets tricky. Jesus seemed to allow for divorce in the case of adultery (Matthew 5:31-32) and Paul added an allowance for divorce if left by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15). If a man seeking the office of elder or deacon had an unbelieving wife who left and divorced him, I would consider him eligible for office as long as he meets the other qualifications. However, if a believing wife and husband have sought divorce and the husband has remarried and is now seeking the office of elder or deacon, this would require a much deeper investigation into the circumstances. If the grounds for divorce were not biblical, then the subsequent marriages are suspect. I would not be inclined to allow such an individual to stand in church leadership because this would reflect poorly on their character and they may indeed be married in the eyes of God to two women. Paul instructs a married woman who leaves her husband to remain ummarried unless it is to be reconciled to her husband (1 Corinthians 7: 10-11).

The question today remains when you have a remarried couple who have sought forgiveness for their sin, what then? They may be forgiven and brought fully into the fellowship of the church but that does not necessarily mean the husband is qualified for an official position of leadership in the church. Elders and deacons are held to a higher standard. If I were divorced while a believer, I would no longer consider myself eligible for official leadership in the church. I can still serve and have a ministry but not as an official elder or deacon. I believe each situation must be evaluated individually and in depth. A man who has been divorced must expect to be questioned thoroughly about the nature of the divorce and whether any sin involved has been fully repented of, if he desires to serve as an elder or deacon. Also please understand that different evangelical churches have come to different conclusions on this question.

I am not a theologian nor a pastor, but this is my opinion as I read the Scriptures and have had to deal with this question as an elder.


Ray Bohlin
Probe Ministries

“How Can I Make It to Heaven If My Boyfriend and I Play House?”

Do you think you will go to heaven if you and your boyfriend stay together like married people? I mean everything, from having sex to going to church? Being faithful to one another? All I’m trying to do is see how can I make it to heaven.

I see married people everyday, getting a divorce. The Bible says “until death do us part.” Does a piece of paper matter when you love someone? Pastors, teachers, preachers, etc. marry people everyday and half of the time they’re doing wrong, trying to tell us right from wrong.

I am SO glad you wrote!!

There are really two issues in your question: first, how can I go to heaven, and secondly, will “playing house” with my boyfriend when we’re not married keep me out?

So let me address them both.

The heaven issue has nothing to do with being “good enough.” It has everything to do with Jesus Christ. See, the problem is that all of us are born separated from God. We are sinners and He is a holy God. (God is not responsible for our separation from Him; that’s the result of the first man, Adam, choosing to rebel against God. Ever since, all of Adam’s children were born as enemies of God.)

But God creates us for Himself and He hates our separation from Him as much as He hates our sin. So He provided a way to solve the separation problem. He sent His Son, Jesus, to earth to live as 100% God and 100% man. After living a perfect, sinless life, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified to pay the penalty for our sin. He is God-the-Son, but He was willingly separated from God-the-Father to take all of our sins on Himself. He died because of our sin, and then three days later God raised Him from the dead because the debt of our sin was paid in full. And He is alive today—unlike the founder of any world religion.

This is where you come in. You need to decide if you will pay the penalty for your own sin by being separated from God forever—here on earth and then forever in hell when you die. . . or if you will trust in Jesus because He loved you so much He paid for your sin. If you put your trust in Jesus instead of in yourself, your separation from God will be over and you will continue your friendship with God forever in heaven.

When Jesus was here on earth, He asked His followers, “Who do you say that I am?” He’s asking you the same question today. (If you want more information, I invite you to read my story of how I became a Christ-follower here.)

Your second question is about marriage. There is a big problem: every day, as you have noticed, people say “do the right thing,” and then they turn around and do wrong. I think this breaks God’s heart. But I also think God understands that we are broken and weak people who desperately need Him to live right, but we desperately don’t want to surrender our wills to follow Him. We are often like rebellious, disobedient children, spoiled brats who constantly throw temper tantrums because we want our own way and don’t want to obey.

None of this detracts from the fact that God’s rules for marriage and family are the ones that will keep our marriages and families intact. And one of God’s rules is that we enter into marriage, which is where that “piece of paper” becomes important. It’s the ceremony before witnesses of making promises and becoming a new family unit that transforms two single people into a married couple. If you talk to those who lived together before they got married, most of the time they will tell you that, even though it surprised them, things were just different after the wedding. It really does make a difference. (See also our article “Is a Marriage Ceremony Necessary?” )

I’m glad you wrote. Feel free to ask any further questions.

Sue Bohlin

© 2007 Probe Ministries

The Changing American Family

Kerby Anderson looks at the latest data on the American family and highlights trends that are changing the nature of family in America as well as debunking some sensationalist headlines. From a biblical worldivew perspective, Christians should be concerned about these trends which reflect an ongoing breakdown of family in America.


Are we headed toward a post-marital society where marriage is rare and the traditional family is all but extinct? One would certainly think so by reading some of the stories that have appeared lately. A New York Times headline in 2003 warned of “marriage’s stormy future” and documented the rise in the number of nontraditional unions as well as the rising percentage of people living alone.{1} A 2006 New York Times article documented the declining percentage of married couples as a proportion of American households and thus declared that married households are now a minority.{2} And a 2007 headline proclaimed that “51% of women are now living without a spouse.”{3}

Well, let’s take a deep breath for a moment. To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, rumors about the death of marriage and family are greatly exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean that marriage as an institution is doing well and will continue to do well in the twenty-first century.

Let’s first take on a few of these headlines pronouncing the end of marriage. The October 2006 New York Times headline proclaimed that “To Be Married Means to Be Outnumbered.” In other words, married households are now a minority in America and unmarried households are the majority. But the author had to manipulate the numbers in order to come to that conclusion. This so-called “new majority” of unmarried households includes lots of widows who were married. And this claim only works if you count households and not individuals. For example, if you have two households—one with two married people and three children and another with a single widow living alone—they would be split between one married household and one unmarried household. But one household has five people, and the other household has one person.

What about the January 2007 New York Times headline proclaiming that “51% of Women Are Now Living Without a Spouse”? Columnist and radio talk show host Michael Medved called this journalistic malpractice({4} and the ombudsman for the New York Times took his own paper to task for the article.{5} The most recent available figures showed that a clear majority (56%) of all women over the age of twenty are currently married.

So how did the author come to the opposite conclusion? It turns out that the author chose to count more than ten million girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen as “women.” So these so-called “women” are counted as women living without a spouse (never mind that they are really teenage girls living at home with their parents). This caused the ombudsman for the New York Times to ask this question in his op-ed: “Can a 15-year-old be a ‘Woman Without a Spouse’?”{6}

It is also worth mentioning, that even with this statistical sleight of hand, you still cannot get to the conclusion that a majority of women are living without a spouse. The article’s author had to find a way to shave off an additional 2% of the married majority. He did this by including those women whose “husbands are working out of town, are in the military, or are institutionalized.”{7}

Conflicting Attitudes about Marriage and Family

It is certainly premature to say that married couples are a minority and women living without a husband are a majority. But there has been a definite trend that we should not miss and will now address. The definition of marriage and the structure of family in the twenty-first century is very different from what existed in the recent past.

A few decades ago, marriages were the foundation of what many commentators referred to as “the traditional family.” Now marriages and families are taking some very unfamiliar shapes and orientations due to different views of marriage and family.

Americans are not exactly sure what to think about these dramatic changes in marriage and family. On the one hand, they believe that marriage and family are very important. A Better Homes and Garden survey found that their readers rated their relationship to their spouse as the single most important factor in their personal happiness.{8} And a MassMutual study on family values (taken many years ago) reported that eight out of ten Americans reported that their families were the greatest source of pleasure in their lives—more than friends, religion, recreation, or work.{9}

On the other hand, Americans are much less sanguine about other people’s marriages and families. I call this the “Lake Wobegon effect” where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are about average.” In other words, their marriage and family are fine, but the rest of the marriages and families are not. While the MassMutual Family Values Study found that a majority (81%) pointed to their family as the greatest source of pleasure, it also found that a majority (56%) rated the family in the U.S. “only fair” or “poor.” And almost six in ten expected it to get worse in the next ten years. The survey concluded that “Americans seem to see the family in decline everywhere but in their own home.”{10}

Similar results can be found in many other nationwide polls. A Gallup poll found that Americans believe the family is worse off today than it was ten years ago. And they believed it would be worse off in the future as well.{11} Americans also demonstrated their ambivalence toward marriage and family not only in their attitudes but their actions. One trend watcher predicted more than a decade ago in an article in American Demographics that marriage would become in the 1990s and the twenty-first century “an optional lifestyle.”{12}

Changing Trends in Marriage

While it may be too early to put the institution of marriage on the endangered species list, there is good reason to believe that changing attitudes and actions have significantly transformed marriage in the twenty-first century. The current generations are marrying later, marrying less, and divorcing more than previous generations.

A major transition in attitudes toward marriage began with the baby boom generation. From 1946 to 1964, over seventy-six million babies were born. By the 1960s the leading edge of the baby boom generation was coming of age and entering into the years when previous generations would begin to marry. But baby boomers (as well as later generations) did not marry as early as previous generations. Instead, they postponed marriage until they established their careers. From the 1960s to the end of the twenty-first century, the median age of first marriage increased by nearly four years for men and four years for women.

Some of those who postponed marriage ended up postponing marriage indefinitely. An increasing proportion of the population adopted this “marriage is optional” perspective and never married. They may have had a number of live-in relationships, but they never joined the ranks of those who married. For them, singleness was not a transition but a lifestyle.

Over the last few decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has documented the increasing percentage of people who fit into the category of “adults living alone.” These are often lumped into a larger category of “non-family households.” Within this larger category are singles that are living alone as well as a growing number of unmarried, cohabiting couples who are “living together.” The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2000 there were nearly ten million Americans living with an unmarried opposite-sex partner and another 1.2 million Americans living with a same-sex partner.

These numbers are unprecedented. It is estimated that during most of the 1960s and 1970s, only about a half a million Americans were living together. And by 1980, that number was just 1.5 million.{13} Now that number is more than twelve million.

Cohabiting couples are also changing the nature of marriage. Researchers estimate that half of Americans will cohabit at one time or another prior to marriage.{14}And this arrangement often includes children. The traditional stereotype of two young, childless people living together is not completely accurate; currently, some 40% of cohabiting relationships involve children.{15}

Couples often use cohabitation to delay or forego marriage. But not only are they postponing future marriage, they are increasing their chance of marriage failure. Sociologists David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, in their study for the National Marriage Project, wrote: “Cohabitation is replacing marriage as the first living together experience for young men and women.” They conclude that those who live together before they get married are putting their future marriage in danger.{16}

Finally, we should note the impact of cohabitation on divorce. When the divorce rate began to level off and even slightly decline in the 1980s, those concerned about the state of marriage in America began to cheer. But soon the cheers turned to groans when it became obvious that the leveling of the divorce rate was due primarily to an increase in cohabitation. Essentially the divorce rate was down because the marriage rate was down. Couples who break up before they marry don’t show up as divorce statistics.

Many marriages today are less permanent than in previous decades. There have always been divorces in this country, but what used to be rare has now become routine. Changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce in this country are reflected in the changing divorce rate.

A graph of the divorce rate shows two significant trends. One is a sharp increase in divorces in the late 1960s that continued through the 1970s. The second is a leveling and even a slight decline in the 1980s. Both are related to the attitudes of the baby boom generation toward marriage and divorce.

The increasing divorce rate in the 1970s was due to both attitude and opportunity. Baby boomers did not stay married as long as their parents due to their different attitudes towards marriage and especially their attitude toward commitment in marriage. It is clear from the social research that the increase in the divorce rate in the 1970s did not come from empty nesters (e.g., builders) finally filing for divorce after sending their children into the world. Instead it came from young couples (e.g., baby boomers) divorcing even before they had children. {17}

The opportunity for divorce was also significant. When increasing numbers of couples began seeking divorce, state legislatures responded by passing no-fault divorce laws. Essentially a married person could get a divorce for any reason or no reason at all.

Economic opportunity was also a significant factor in divorce. During this same period, women enjoyed greater economic opportunities in the job market. Women with paychecks are less likely to stay in a marriage that was not fulfilling to them and have less incentive to stay in a marriage. Sociologist David Popenoe surveying a number of studies on divorce concluded that “nearly all have reached the same general conclusion. It has typically been found that the probability of divorce goes up the higher the wife’s income and the closer that income is to her husband’s.”{18}

The second part of a graph on divorce shows a leveling and even a slight decline. The divorce rate peaked in 1981 and has been in decline ever since. The reasons are twofold. Initially, the decline had to do with the aging of the baby boom generation who were entering into those years that have traditionally had lower rates of divorce. But long term the reason is due to what we have already discussed in terms of the impact of cohabitation on divorce. Fewer couples are untying the knot because fewer couples are tying the knot.

Changing Trends in Family

We have already mentioned that starting with the baby boom generation and continuing on with subsequent generations, couples postponed marriage. But not only did these generations postpone marriage, they also postponed procreation. Unlike the generations that preceded them (e.g., the builder generation born before the end of World War II), these subsequent generations waited longer to have children and also had few children. Lifestyle choice was certainly one factor. Another important factor was cost. The estimated cost of raising a child during this period of time rose to over six figures. Parents of a baby born in 1979 could expect to pay $66,000 to rear a child to eighteen. For a baby born in 1988, parents could expect to pay $150,000, and that did not include additional costs of piano lessons, summer camp, or a college education.{19}

When these generations did have children, often the family structure was very different than in previous generations. Consider the impact of divorce. Children in homes where a divorce has occurred are cut off from one of the parents and they suffer emotionally, educationally, and economically.

Judith Wallerstein in her research discovered long-term psychological devastation to the children.{20} For example, three out of five children felt rejected by at least one parent. And five years after their parents’ divorce, more than one-third of the children were doing markedly worse than they had been before the divorce. Essentially she found that these emotional tremors register on the psychological Richter scale many years after the divorce.

The middle class in this country has been rocked by the one-two punch of divorce and illegitimacy, creating what has been called the “feminization of poverty.” U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that single moms are five times more likely to be poor than are their married sisters.{21}

An increasing percentage of women give birth to children out of wedlock. This increase is due in large part to changing attitudes toward marriage and family. In a society that is already changing traditional patterns (by postponing marriage, divorcing more frequently, etc.), it is not surprising that many women are avoiding marriage altogether. Essentially, the current generation disconnects having children and getting married. In their minds, they separate parenthood from marriage, thus creating an enormous increase in the number of single parent homes.

Greater social acceptance of out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and single parenting tends to reinforce the trends and suggests that these percentages will increase in the future. Young adults who contemplate marriage may be less inclined to do so because they were raised in a home where divorce occurred. A young woman raised by a single mom may be less inclined to marry when they are older, convinced that they can raise a child without the help of a husband. Better employment options for young women even encourage them to “go it alone.”

These changes in attitudes and changes in the structure of marriage and family have created a very different family in the twenty-first century. One writer imagined the confusion that children would feel in this futuristic scenario:

On a spring afternoon, half a century from today, the Joneses are gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” to Junior. There’s Dad and his third wife, Mom and her second husband, Junior’s two half brothers from his father’s first marriage, his six stepsisters from his mother’s spouse’s previous unions, 100-year-old Great Grandpa, all eight of Junior’s current “grandparents,” assorted aunts, uncles-in-law and stepcousins. While one robot scoops up the gift wrappings and another blows out the candles, Junior makes a wish . . . that he didn’t have so many relatives.{22}


1. Tamar Lewin, “Ideas & Trends: Untying the Knot: For Better or Worse: Marriage’s Stormy Future,” New York Times, 23 November 2003, 1.
2. Sam Roberts, “It’s Official: To be Married means to be Outnumbered,” New York Times, 15 October 2006, 22.
3. Sam Roberts, “51% of Women are now Living Without Spouse,” New York Times, 16 January 2007, 1.
4. Michael Medved, “Journalistic Malpractice in ‘Marriage is Dead’ Report, 17 January 2007, www.townhall.com.
5. Peter Smith, “New York Times Ombudsman Takes Place to Task for its Journalistic Midadventures on Marriage,” 13 February 2007, www.LifeSiteNews.com.
6. Byron Calame, “Can a 15-Year-Old Be a ‘Woman Without a Spouse’?” New York Times, 11 February 2007.
7. Roberts, “51% of Women are now Living Without Spouse.”
8. What’s Happening to American Families, October 1988. 22.
9. MassMutual American Values Study, July 1989.
10. Ibid., 29-30.
11. “The 21st Century Family,” Newsweek Special Edition, Winter/Spring 1990, 18.
12. Martha Farnsworth Riche, “The Postmarital Society,” American Demographics, November 1988, 23.
13. U. S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P20-537; America’s Families and Living Arrangements: March 2000 and earlier reports.
14. Larry L. Bumpass, James A. Sweet, and Andrew Cherlin, “The Role of Cohabitation in the Declining Rates of Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 53 (1991), 914.
15. Ibid., 926.
16. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage,” The National Marriage Project, the Next Generation Series, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, January 1999.
17. Landon Jones, Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation (New York: Ballantine, 1980), 215.
18. David Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies (New York: de Gruyter, 1988), 223.
19. Karen Peters, “$150,000 to raise a kid,” USA Today, 17 January 1990, 1A.
20. Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children A Decade after Divorce (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989).
21. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993), Table 719.
22. “When the Family Will Have a New Definition,” What the Next 50 Years Will Bring, a special edition of U.S. News and World Report, 9 May 1983, A3.

© 2007 Probe Ministries

“Is My Husband’s Cybersex Grounds For Divorce?”

My husband has been having cyber sex. Sometimes there was a camera on the other end. Is this biblical grounds for divorce?

Dear ________,

I am so sorry. What a horrible betrayal you are feeling!

I don’t know God’s definitive answer on this, but I do think that cyber sex and webcams are high-tech ways of extending the sins of lust and fantasy, which are mental and emotional sins . . . but I don’t believe they cross the line of adultery. Actual sex between two people has an effect of creating soul-ties to each other that compromises the marriage covenant.

I think the bigger issue is one of hard-heartedness. If you have asked your husband not to engage in cyber sex and to get rid of the camera, and he refuses because he wants what he wants even if it means hurting you, then that’s the real issue. What kind of marriage is it if one person makes self-centered choices that insure the other will be hurt?

May I respectfully suggest you read Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud’s excellent book Boundaries in Marriage for some wisdom on what to do next. For example, I have a friend whose husband refuses to stop going to a website where he can play games and chat with other women, and he has fallen into at least emotional affairs with a couple of them. She has said, “As long as you won’t get rid of Pogo, you can do your own laundry.” This way, his stubbornness and selfishness are costing him something.

Hope you find this helpful. Again, I am so sorry. My heart hurts for you.

Sue Bohlin

© 2007 Probe Ministries

Starting Over: Facing the Future after Significant Loss

Written by Rusty Wright

February 13th fell on a Tuesday that year, but it seemed like my unlucky day.

My wife of twenty years was divorcing me; it would be final in two days. February 1, my employer had shown me the door—on the twenty-fifth anniversary of my employment. Now, on February 13, I was in my physician’s office getting test results. Unaware of my difficulties, he asked, “Have you been under stress recently?” Perhaps he was assessing my emotional state to help him gently ease into the difficult subject he was about to address.

He said I might have cancer.

That evening, a longtime friend called to encourage me. As we spoke, I felt the weight of my world crashing in. Would the haunting pain of spousal rejection ever end? Where would I work? What of my life’s mission? Would life itself last much longer? I wept into the phone as I struggled to make sense of the swirling vortex of uncertainty.

Relationships, work and health absorb our time, energy, memories and hopes. Ever had a fulfilling relationship turn to ashes? Maybe you’ve excelled at work; then a new or insensitive boss decides your services are no longer wanted or affordable. Or perhaps your health falters. Your parent or best friend dies suddenly of a heart attack or perishes in an auto wreck.

What do you feel? Shock? Grief? Anger? Desires for revenge or justice? Discouragement and depression? How do you cope with the loss, and how can you start over again?

Over dinner, a new friend told me he had lost both his parents in recent years. “How did you cope?” I inquired. He related painful details of their alcohol-related deaths. I listened intently and tried to express sympathy. “But how did you deal with their deaths?” I asked, curious to know how he had handled his feelings. “I guess I haven’t,” he replied. Painful emotions from deep loss can be difficult to process. Some seek solace by suppressing them.

My wife lost her father, then her mother, during a five-year span in her late twenties and early thirties. Focusing on her mother’s needs after her father’s passing occupied much of her thought. After her mother’s death, she felt quite somber. “People who always were there, whom you could always call on for advice, were no longer around,” she recalls. “That was very sobering.” Over time, the pain of grief diminished.

How can you adjust to significant loss and start over again? I certainly don’t have all the answers. But may I suggest ideas that have worked for me and for others along life’s sometimes challenging journey?

Grieve the loss. Don’t ignore your pain. Take time to reflect on your loss, to cry, to ask questions of yourself, others or God. I remember deep, heaving sobs after my wife left me. I would not wish that pain on anyone, but I recommend experiencing grief rather than ignoring and stuffing it. This tends to diminish ulcers and delayed rage.

A little help from your friends. During divorce proceedings and my rocky employment ending, good friends hung close. We ate meals together, watched football games, attended a concert and more. A trusted counselor helped me cope. A divorce recovery group at a nearby church showed me I was not the only one experiencing weird feelings. Don’t try to handle enormous loss alone.

Watch your vulnerabilities. In our coed divorce recovery group, I appreciated learning how women as well as men processed their pain. It also was tempting to enter new relationships at a very risky time. Some members, not yet divorced, were dating. Some dated each other. Attractive, needy divorcés/divorcées can appear inviting. After each group session, I made a beeline to my car. “Guard your heart,” advises an ancient proverb, “for it affects everything you do.”{1}

Look for a bright spot. Not every cloud has a silver lining, but maybe yours does. After my divorce and termination, I returned to graduate school and saw my career enhanced. My cancer scare turned out to be kidney stones, no fun but not as serious. I met and—four years after the divorce—married a wonderful woman, Meg Korpi. We are very happy.

CNN star Larry King once was fired from the Miami Herald. “It was very difficult for me when they dropped me,” he recalls. King says one can view firing as “a terrible tragedy” or a chance to seek new opportunities.{2}

Cherish your memories. Displaying treasured photos of a deceased loved one can help you adjust gradually to their loss. Recall fun times you had together, fulfilling experiences with coworkers or noteworthy projects accomplished. Be grateful. But don’t become enmeshed in past memories, because the time will come to. . .

Turn the page. After appropriate grieving, there comes a time to move on. One widow lived alone for years in their large, empty house with the curtains drawn. Her children finally convinced her to move but in many ways she seemed emotionally stuck for the next three decades until her death.

Significant steps for me were taking down and storing photos of my ex-wife. Embracing my subsequent job with enthusiasm made it fulfilling and productive. Consider how you’ll emotionally process and respond to the common question, “Where do you work?” Perhaps you’ll want to take a course, exercise and diet for health, or develop a hobby. Meet new people at volunteer projects, civic clubs, church, or vacations. Consider what you can learn from your loss. Often, suffering develops character, patience, confidence and opportunities to help others.

Sink your spiritual roots deep. I’m glad my coping resources included personal faith. Once quite skeptical, I discovered spiritual life during college. Students whose love and joy I admired explained that God loved me enough to send His Son, Jesus, to die to pay the penalty due for all my wrongdoing. Then He rose from the dead to give new life. I invited Him to enter my life, forgive me, and become my friend. I found inner peace, assurance of forgiveness, and strength to adapt to difficulties. Amidst life’s curve balls, I’ve had a close Friend who promised never to leave.

One early believer said those who place their faith in Christ “become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!”{3} Jesus can help you start all over with life itself. He can help you forgive those who have wronged you.

As you grieve your loss, seek support in good friends, watch your vulnerabilities, and seek to turn the page. . . may I encourage you to meet the One who can help you make all things new? He’ll never let you down.

This article first appeared in Answer magazine 14:1 January/February 2007. Copyright © 2007 by Rusty Wright. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


1. Proverbs 4:23 NLT.
2. Harvey Mackay, We Got Fired!…And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), pp. 150-153 ff.
3. 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT.

Copyright © 2007 Rusty Wright

Divorce and You

How can you cope with divorce if it comes your way? How can you help a friend who is going through it? What about divorce and the ministry? Practical—and personal—thoughts on this important issue.

It’s Over

Divorce. What thoughts and feelings does that word kindle in you?

Are you happily married and feel that divorce is not an option? Maybe the concept scares you. The fear of loss seems overwhelming.

Are you in a struggling marriage and the end is near? Perhaps you are confused, angry, depressed, or grieving. Or maybe you are happy and envision this as the necessary end of an unpleasant relationship.

Perhaps your parents are divorced. Maybe you recall their angry disputes during your childhood, fear over your family’s future, anguish over deciding with whom you would live.

Got any friends whose marriage is on the rocks? You might care for both of them, but how should you relate to them now? Take sides? Remain neutral? Intervene? Keep out of it?

In 1975 I married a wonderful woman. She was kind, sensitive, beautiful, loving, intelligent, fun, talented . . . my best friend. We traveled the globe together speaking in universities, on television and radio, writing books and articles about love, sex and marriage. She taught me much about love, kindness, sensitivity, communication. Much of the modest success I’ve seen in speaking and writing I owe in part to her excellent coaching.

Twenty years later, in 1995, she told me she wanted out. I felt devastated. The love of my life didn’t love me any more. The pain of rejection ran deep. I had not committed adultery or desertion. I felt helpless. Legally, I was helpless. California’s “no-fault” divorce laws mean that in our state it takes two to get married but only one to get divorced. One partner can simply claim “irreconcilable differences” — no proof is needed — and a judge will dissolve the union after a six-month waiting period. The unwilling partner is legally powerless to stop it.

Imagine the worst spat you’ve ever had with your spouse, partner, or friend. Multiply the pain of that by a jillion and you have a glimpse of the hurt. It felt as if I were being reamed out by an emotional Roto Rooter. I cried buckets. It was really, really awful. Are you getting the idea that I did not like this experience?

What does the Bible say about divorce? How can you cope with divorce if it comes your way? How can you help a friend who is going through it? And what about divorce in the ministry? This article offers you some practical thoughts on this controversial topic.

Biblical Issues

Is divorce a solution or a cop-out?

I appreciate it when speakers or writers make clear their way of looking at the world. My worldview is a biblical one. You may agree or disagree, and I certainly respect that, but may I encourage you to consider what the biblical documents say on this issue?

Moses, the famous Jewish liberator, explained that God made the first man and woman for a close bond. “For this reason,” Moses wrote, “a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”{1}

Hundreds of years later, some religious leaders asked Jesus of Nazareth about divorce. He quoted Moses’ statement, then added, “Since they are no longer two but one, let no one separate them, for God has joined them together.”{2} Jesus held marriage in high esteem: “God has joined them together,” He declared, “. . . let no one separate them.”

But if divorce is wrong, these male religious leaders responded, why did Moses discuss how to handle certain complicated divorce situations? Jesus explained: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you,” Jesus continued, “that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”{3}

Strong words. What do they mean? Even dedicated followers of God differ about whether He allows divorce and under what circumstances. A thorough study exceeds the scope of this short series. I recommend Jay Adams’ book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible,{4} for more detail.

Years before my own marriage began to crumble, I carefully studied a biblical perspective on divorce and remarriage. Here is what made the most sense to me. Partners should enter marriage for life, “until death do us part.” If splits arise, reconciliation should always be the first aim. If reconciliation fails, I see two biblical bases for divorce and remarriage: adultery of one spouse{5}, and desertion{6}. Adultery or desertion do not mandate divorce, but they make it allowable.

As difficult as this subject may seem, remember that God loves you and wants the very best for you.{7} If you are hurting right now, He understands. He wants to wrap His arms around you, be your friend, and help you handle your deepest disappointment.

Coping With Divorce

What are some ways to cope with a shipwrecked marriage?

Divorce can teach you a lot. I’m a sinful person who made plenty of mistakes in marriage. I could have been more thoughtful, sensitive, and kind. Though I tried hard to be a good husband, I realized I could not be responsible for another’s decision.

About a year after the divorce, at some friends’ encouragement, I began to speak publicly about what I had learned. I was determined not to speak ill of my ex wife, but I wanted to encourage others. My story got several reactions, which I began reflecting to audiences to help them process it. Maybe you can relate.

“Some of you feel uncomfortable with this topic,” I would tell listeners. “You wish I would change the subject. I’ve felt that way. Others of you think, I wish the person I love would be as open with his heart as you’re being.’ Some of you are skeptical,” I’d continue. “You’d like to hear her side of the story! I can appreciate that. Maybe you’re angry. Perhaps I remind you of your ex-spouse. You think, He talks so sweet. But I bet he’s a tyrant in private!’ I realized that I cannot assume responsibility for all the people who have hurt you. But I can offer hope. Maybe people will reason, He’s hurt; I’ve hurt. He says Jesus helped him with his hurt. Maybe Jesus can help me with my hurt.’”

Jesus can help you with your hurt. He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls.”{8}

Often divorcees experience the classic stages of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.{9} You may not believe you’re experiencing this. You may be mad at your mate or God. You may promise God you’ll follow Him if He restores your marriage. You may become depressed when the end seems certain. Eventually you may accept reality.

What helped my journey through grief? I had to believe that God really did cause “all things to work together for good to those who love” Him.{10} I sought to walk closely with Him. I asked forgiveness of my ex-wife for my many shortcomings. I forgave her and forgave myself.

I saw a skilled counselor. A wonderful divorce recovery group helped me understand what I was experiencing and feeling. I did not date for about two years after the divorce was final, to allow time to sort things out. And some fine friends helped me to land on my feet.

Responding to a Friend’s Divorce

How might you be a friend to someone in the midst of divorce?

The couple next door is splitting up. One partner is bailing on the marriage. You and your family have known them for years. You’ve babysat each other’s kids, carpooled to work, vacationed together, laughed and cried together. You are members of the same church.

How should you relate to them now? Take sides? Remain neutral? Intervene? Keep out of it?

If you are a follower of Jesus, you likely will want to seek divine wisdom. Every situation is different, and marital strife can be explosive. Jesus’ mother Mary once had some wise advice that relates well to these situations. She said, “Whatever He [Jesus] says to you, do it.”{11}

I was quite fortunate to have a circle of good friends who reached out in loving care. Perhaps their examples can give you some ideas of what you might do.

My friends did not abandon me in my darkest hour. They stuck with me, let me know that they cared, asked how they could help, arranged opportunities for us to spend time together. One couple had me over to dinner every Friday night during the fall. Then we would watch their son play high school football. It helped take my mind off of my problems, relax, and enjoy being around other people.

Some recommended books,{12} met me for lunch, and invited me to a concert. One couple listened as I poured my heart out and helped me plan my future. Some organized a prayer meeting among close friends, helped me move, sat with me in court. They would call to ask how I was doing, especially when I felt particularly lonely or burdened.

Two friends tried to contact my estranged wife to encourage her to drop the divorce action.

After the divorce, many gracious folks welcomed me into their circles and encouraged me to serve others. Some pastors and theologians who knew me well told me they thought it was appropriate biblically for me to remarry. I was reluctant. I wondered if I could ever open my heart to another woman.

Then, at a conference, I met Meg Korpi, a beautiful, sensitive, kind, wise, caring, brilliant, fun woman. She was as dedicated to God as she was wise and gorgeous. (I get points for saying all this in writing, you understand!) I knew what I liked and I liked what I saw! We began to date almost three years after the divorce ended and were married about a year-and-a-half later. We are very happy together. We thank God often.

Divorcees and the Ministry

What about divorce and the ministry? If a ministry leader divorces, should he or she remain in ministry?

If a leader initiates an unbiblical divorce — or commits adultery or otherwise acts inappropriately — one should confront him or her as described in Matthew 18. In my view (not all will agree), with a change of mind and heart — and after appropriate time — it may be possible to restore a fallen leader to effective service. Paul wrote, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”{13}

What about the victim of an unbiblical divorce? There are both wise and unwise ways to deal with such tragedies. Ministry boards and executives should take special care to act biblically. They may be tempted to value public image and donations above biblical principles.

Perhaps my case will be instructive. My first wife and I were international speakers with a prominent evangelical movement with thousands of wonderful staff. We traveled the world together, wrote books, appeared on television. In my twenty-fifth year with this organization, my wife filed for divorce without — in my opinion — biblical grounds. This caused quite a stir.

Though initially expressing concern and care, corporate leaders claimed they had a policy requiring me to leave if my spouse divorced me. I was told I was a PR risk and would need to go. At one point they wanted me to agree never to speak or write about marriage, divorce, or remarriage (mine in particular or these themes in general). Things got “curiouser and curiouser.”

Again, this movement has done much good around the globe. It helped me come to faith when I was a student. Please understand that I am seeking here the proper blend of grace and truth, not an easy task in these matters.

My employer owned a seminary, a separate corporation that had no automatic divorce restriction. The seminary president hired me. He took some heat for acting biblically, but those like him who refused to convict me of a sin — divorce — that I did not commit were God’s instruments of grace in my life. After a time of healing, I returned to the lecture circuit. Today, I am privileged to enjoy an even larger global influence via speaking and writing.

Divorce does not have to end ministry. Has any sin been dealt with in a biblical fashion? If so, then the divorced servant of Christ can, with God’s direction and power — and with appropriate accountability — continue to touch lives for Him. Jesus welcomed the denying Peter into fellowship and service.

The wounded servant may become even more effective, able to connect with people on a deep level and to point them to the One who can heal their broken hearts.


1. Genesis 2:24 NASB.
2. Matthew 19:6 NLT.
3. Matthew 19:8-9 NIV.
4. Jay E. Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980).
5. Matthew 19:9.
6. 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, taken with Matthew 18:15-17. An outline of this argument regarding desertion is as follows: 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 can be understood to mean that when a spouse who does not believe in Christ deserts a spouse who does have faith in Christ, the deserted believer is not bound from remarriage. Regarding a marriage between two believers, a deserted spouse should first seek reconciliation. If the deserter will not reconcile, the deserted spouse should follow the biblical “progressive correction” prescription in Matthew 18:15-17. That is, s/he should confront the deserter with his/her sin individually, then (if the deserter continues to resist) with one or two others, then involving the church. If the deserting spouse still resists, then the Lord’s admonition to the church (which includes the deserted spouse) is “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words,
relate to that person just as you would to someone outside the church, as to an unbeliever. How does the church relate to unbelievers? One of the many biblical teachings regarding relationships between believers and unbelievers is that an unbelieving spouse who deserts a
believer does not bind that believer from remarriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). See Adams, op. cit., for a more complete discussion of desertion as allowable grounds for remarriage.
7. Romans 8:35-39; Psalm 23.
8. Matthew 11:28-29 NLT.
9. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., On Death and Dying, reprint edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, reprint, 1997).
10. Romans 8:28, NASB.
11. John 2:5 NASB.
12. Especially helpful are Joseph Warren Kniskern, When the Vow
(Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993); and many of the Fresh Start resources
13. Galatians 6:1 NIV.

©2005 Probe Ministries

Trash Your Marriage in Eight Easy Steps – A Christian Perspective

Sue Bohlin helps us take a biblical perspective on eight activities and attitudes that will tear down our marriage. Fortunately, she also provides us eight Christian alternatives that will help build up our marriages.

The divorce rate is at an all-time high, and marriages are falling apart everywhere you look. Marriages of church-going people are crashing and burning especially fast. There are forces in our culture that contribute to marriage stresses such as pornography, the prevalence of drivenness, two-career families, and the dynamics of the blended family. But people also make foolish choices to destroy their marriages from within.

Talking about the family, Proverbs 14:1 says, “The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.” Ephesians 5:28 exhorts husbands to love their wives as their own bodies, nourishing and cherishing them. God’s plan is that we treasure and cultivate our marriages, but it’s very easy to trash them instead. Let’s take a tongue-in-cheek look at eight ways that people trash their marriages.

Be Selfish

The first step is to be selfish. My pastor once said that the AIDS of marriage is justified self-centeredness. Everything needs to revolve around you because, let’s face it, you are at the center of the universe, right? If you find something you like to do that ignores your spouses’ feelings and interests, go ahead and do it! Too bad if they don’t like it! You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can get!

Always insist on having things your own way. If you don’t get your own way, throw a tantrum. Or freeze your spouse out. Get your kids involved in this game by saying things like, “Would you please ask your father to pass the salt?” Don’t be afraid to withhold sex if your spouse isn’t letting you have things your own way. There’s a lot of power in that, so don’t waste it!

If there’s only enough money in your budget for what one of you wants, make sure you get what you want. Especially if you’re the wage earner, or if you make more than the other. Money is power, and don’t be afraid to use it against your spouse!

Make demands instead of requests. Wives, let your husband know that he will do things your way, or you’ll make his life miserable. Husbands, when you want your wife to do something, just tell her to do it. “Please” and “thank you” are for the kids. This is your spouse you’re talking about–they don’t need it. Save all your courtesy for strangers; don’t waste it on the person you said you’d spend the rest of your life with.

What we really mean to say:

Selfishness is guaranteed to hurt marriages, so ask for God’s help in putting your husband or wife ahead of yourself so you don’t trash your marriage.

Pick at Each Other

The second step is to pick at each other. If you know that something you do annoys your spouse, be sure to do it often. And intentionally. When she complains about it, tell her to buzz off, it’s not as annoying as the stupid things she does to bug you. The more childish the annoying habit, the better.

Be critical of the smallest thing the other one says and does. Don’t let your spouse get away with anything! Stay vigilant for every little offense. Be sure to address these small details with an air of superiority . . . unless it works better for you to act like a martyr, as if you deserve the Nobel Prize for putting up with someone who doesn’t squeeze the toothpaste from the end.

Always get the last word when you’re arguing. Dr. Phil McGraw has said that the most accurate predictor of divorce is when people don’t allow their partners to retreat with dignity. So make your spouse feel whipped and defeated at the end of a fight. As long as you win, that’s what matters.

Let The Kids Be More Important

A third step to trashing your marriage is to let the kids become more important than your spouse. Moms, make your husband feel left out of the intimate, secret relationship between you and your baby. As the baby grows, continue to draw the line where it’s you and your child on one side, your husband on the other. Keep your Mommy hat on all day and all night. Your kids don’t care if your hair is brushed and if you put on perfume and a little makeup before Daddy comes home, so why should he?

Dads, invest all your energies into making your child succeed at what he’s good at, or what you want him to be good at. Squeeze out Mom so that you will be your kid’s favorite parent. Work so hard on homework and school projects that there’s no time for family time.

Let the kids and your other priorities crowd out your “alone together” time. Date nights are for unmarried people! In order to be fulfilled as a person, it is essential to invest all your energies in parenting, career, housework, church commitments and hobbies, so don’t worry if there isn’t enough time left over for the two of you. It’s no big deal. There’s always tomorrow. Or next year.

What we really mean to say:

Hey! If you find yourself doing these things, stop! You don’t have to trash your marriage!

Show Disrespect

Show disrespect for your spouse, especially in public. One of the best ways to disrespect your partner is ugly name-calling, especially about things he or she can’t change. However, the old standbys of “stupid,” “fat,” “ugly,” “weak,” and “loser” are always effective, too.

Complain about your spouse to your friends. It’s even more powerful if you do it in front of your spouse. Then, if he objects, punch him in the arm and say, “I’m just kidding! You take everything so seriously!

There are a number of ways to show disrespect with nonverbal communication. Roll your eyes, cluck your tongue, narrow your eyes in contempt. The heavy sigh is a real winner, too.

Wives: Straighten out your husband when he makes a mistake, especially in front of others. Lecture him. Ridicule him: his feelings, his behavior, his dreams, his thoughts. Do everything you can to emasculate your husband. Husbands: Let your wife know you think your opinion is better than hers. Interrupt her when she’s speaking.

Refuse to Meet Emotional Needs

His Needs, Her NeedsAnother easy way to trash your marriage is to refuse to meet your spouse’s emotional needs. Men and women need different things from their life partners. Dr. Willard Harley discovered and examined a pattern in his excellent book His Needs, Her Needs. Husbands’ top needs, it turns out, are: first of all sexual fulfillment; second, recreational companionship; third, an attractive spouse; fourth, domestic support; and fifth, admiration. Wives, if you want to trash your marriage, ignore his need for sex and that you be there for him in leisure time. Blow off his desire that you look your best and he can be proud that you’re his wife. Make your home as stressful and chaotic as you can, and never, ever tell him what you admire about him.

Wives’ top needs are: first of all affection; second conversations; third, honesty and openness; fourth, financial commitment; and fifth, family commitment. So guys, if you want to trash your marriage, don’t show your wife you love and appreciate her. Don’t talk to her. Close off your heart to her. Make her constantly worry about finances. Don’t be a faithful husband and father.

Dr. Harley’s got a Web site, MarriageBuilders.com, that has a lot of good, practical information for building strong marriages, so you’d better stay away from there if you’re not interested in being intentional and constructive!

Remember, we’re being tongue-in-cheek here. We want you to build your marriage, not trash it!

Treat Your Friends Better than Your Spouse

The sixth easy step to trashing your marriage is to treat your friends better than your spouse. Since a lot of men unfortunately don’t even have friends, this is something women tend to do more. Women know how to treat their girlfriends. They call them up just to encourage them. They drop off flowers for no reason. They send them cards, and they listen intently to whatever’s going on in their lives. They are emotionally invested in their friends. They are quick to mention when someone looks nice or does something well because women are usually good at affirming each other. If you want to trash your marriage, don’t do any of these thoughtful kindnesses for your husband. If your girlfriend is having a bad day, go out of your way to take her a wonderful casserole and fresh salad and dessert . . . but serve your husband Spaghetti-O’s.

But husbands, if your wife needs you for something at home, and your buddy scores some tickets to a game, tell your wife “too bad, so sad.” After all, she’ll be around forever but tonight’s hockey game won’t. If someone at church or in the neighborhood needs something fixed, drop everything to take care of it, even if it means that the broken things around your house will continue to go unfixed.

Be a Pansy

Step number seven for trashing your marriage has two parts. Husbands, be a pansy. Retreat into the safety of passivity. Refuse to take initiative or responsibility in making plans or suggestions. That way, when things go wrong, you can say, “Don’t blame me! It’s not my fault!” These are great ways to trash your marriage.

Be His Mother

Wives, be a mother to your husband. When people ask how many children you have, say things like, “Two–three, if you count my husband.” Tell him to wear a coat when it’s cold and take an umbrella when it’s raining, because he can’t figure it out on his own. Be sure to say “I told you so” as often as possible. If he is passive or irresponsible, jump in and rescue him so he won’t have to deal with the consequences of his own choices. Make sure he feels three years old. Tell him how to live his life, down to the smallest detail.

What we really mean to say:

Please, if you find yourself doing these things, ask for God’s help in being constructive instead of destructive. We want to help you build your marriage, not trash it.

When You’re Angry, Blow Up

Let’s talk about one final way to trash your marriage. Yell and scream, or quietly say hurtful words; it doesn’t matter. Inflicting pain is the important thing. Call each other names in the heat of your emotion. Dredge up the past and bring up old hurts. You can hit or slap with words as well as with hands, and they each leave a different kind of lasting damage to your spouse and to your marriage. Losing control when you’re angry is a powerful way to hurt your spouse.

Build Your Marriage in Eight Harder Steps

Well, enough of ways to trash your marriage–how about eight steps to build it? All we have to do is look at the opposite of this article’s negative, destructive steps.

To build your marriage, fight selfishness by developing a servant’s heart. Commit yourself to acting in your spouse’s best interests. Do at least one unselfish deed for your husband or wife every day.

Second, instead of picking at each other, choose to let things go. Be grace-givers. Remember that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

Third, be intentional in keeping your marriage at the center of your family. Have regular date nights, and schedule times away to invest in the intimacy of your relationship. Go to a FamilyLife Marriage Conference (www.familylife.com).

Fourth, commit to actively be respectful to your spouse by never saying anything negative to other people. Be kind in your words and actions. Treat each other as courteously and with the kind of honor you would bestow on a stranger or a dear friend.

Fifth, talk about your spouse’s particular emotional needs. Read Willard Harley’s excellent book His Needs, Her Needs. Find out which ones are most important to your partner, and do everything in your power to meet them.

Sixth, treat your husband or wife at least as well as you treat your friends. Be as thoughtful and encouraging and affirming as you can possibly be.

Seventh: Ladies, resign as your husband’s mother. You married an adult; treat him with the respect an adult deserves. Men: Your wife needs a servant-leader–someone who refuses either passivity or tyranny–to love her as Christ loves the church.

And last, when you’re angry, express it wisely and constructively. Use words like “I’m angry about this” instead of yelling or hurtful silence. If you’re too mad to speak with self-control, wait till you cool down. And don’t go to bed without dealing with the situation (Eph. 4:26).

You don’t have to trash your marriage. You can treasure it instead.

© 2003 Probe Ministries

Love Myths

Soul Mates

In this article we are going to focus on a few of the myths surrounding love and romance that can have a negative effect on dating and marriage. Some of these ideas have become so pervasive in our society that it may seem heretical to label them as myths. But as we will see, they can have a devastating impact if they are accepted uncritically.

The first myth is the belief that you will know when you meet “the one.” Of course, this assumes that there is only one person who is right for you–a soul mate you must find and marry. Garry Friesen in his book Decision Making & the Will of God (along with many other Christian writers) question whether there is only one right person for you to marry. But I will set aside this theological question to focus on some relevant practical issues.

First, is the problem of a false positive. We have all heard stories about couples who met and immediately one or both of them knew they were going to marry the other person. Often we call this “love at first sight.” But we don’t hear as much about the many other people who met, thought they had met “the one,” but later decided not to get married or ended up getting married and then divorced.

Certain people come into our lives and we immediately “click” with them. Why? We carry around in our minds a template of what that certain ideal person may be. It is influenced by our family background, our own expectations, books, movies, and personal experiences. When that template comes into our lives sparks fly. We may not even know much about that person’s social, family, and religious background, but we are immediately attracted to him or her. We may feel that he or she is “the one,” but over time our relationship may surface concerns that might be detrimental to a successful marriage. Unfortunately, many people can be blinded by a belief that they have met “the one” and thus ignore important warning signs.

Second is the problem of the false negative. We also no doubt have heard stories of couples who weren’t attracted to each other when they first met. Many didn’t even like the other person. Only over time did they get to know each other and began to see admirable qualities in what became their marriage partner.

Pepper Schwartz in her book Everything You Know About Love and Sex Is Wrong (New York: Pedigree, 2000) says we are a romance-addicted society. We love movies with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but life is more complicated than what is portrayed in movies with skillfully written plots, blended music, beautiful actors, and exotic locations.

Choosing a marriage partner requires more than romance and emotion. For every story someone tells of finding “the one” and experiencing “love at first sight,” there are many more where those initial emotions turned out to be wrong.

Two Peas in a Pod

The second love myth is the belief that you should be similar to your partner. This myth is quite pervasive in part because there is some truth to it. Obviously, there should be some common basis of belief within a marriage. The Bible warns Christians not to be “unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” (2 Cor. 6:14) And there should be some common areas of social and cultural similarity.

But I believe we should question the prevailing belief that your life partner should be the same age, height, and race while having the same interests, gifts, and abilities. As some marriage counselors have said, “If your mate is exactly like you, then one of you is redundant.” Strong marriages celebrate the differences and work to have each person’s gifts and abilities complement the other. One partner may be good with the finances. The other partner may be good in the kitchen. One partner may be good at details. The other partner may be able to look at the bigger picture and plan for the future. Each partner’s gifts complement the other partner’s gifts.

In many cases, having a similar partner can actually be a source of conflict. Kevin Leman has found that two “first-borns” bring their perfectionist tendencies into a marriage. They will often “pick” at each other leading to increased marital conflict. Does that mean that two first-born children should never marry? Of course not. But they might want to reconsider whether they want to marry someone who is so similar to them.

What about differences in age? Couples should obviously consider the implications of vast differences in age in terms of energy level, hobbies, activities, and friendships. But there is also good reason to begin to rethink the prevailing assumption that compatibility must be based upon similar ages. Once again different ages and life experiences might be a significant way to bring complementarity into a marriage.

The same could be said about difference in ethnicity. Not so long ago, society frowned upon so-called mixed marriages. Today, more and more marriage partners come from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. While we still tend to marry people who come from the same social and cultural background, this trend seems to be changing.

The key point is this: you don’t have to be similar to your partner to have a good marriage. In fact, your differences might actually help you to complement each other in marriage.

Annoying Habits

Now I would like to focus on the question of whether little annoying habits are unimportant in a long-term relationship.

When we are in love, little things like bad manners or chronic lateness may seem insignificant. Besides, we reason, we can always change our partner later on so that this is no longer a problem. We may even convince ourselves that these little annoying habits are kind of cute.

Well, they may seem cute in the courtship phase of a relationship, but they usually don’t stay cute once you are married and have to deal with them every day. In fact, small habits often grow into bigger habits once they are indulged.

The book Everything You Know About Love and Sex Is Wrong describes a study done by Professor Diane Femly at the University of California-Davis. The researcher asked people why they married and then why they divorced. The reasons for both were often quite similar. The only difference is that what was once sweet had now turned sour.

For example, a person might say: “I married him for his incredible sense of humor.” When asked why they broke up, she might say: “He was always silly, he was a lightweight.” Another person might cite her partner’s creativity and spontaneity as a big attraction, but later said of her spouse that he was “a dreamer” who “couldn’t stick with any one thing, couldn’t plan anything ahead of time.”

So it wasn’t that these people didn’t know who they married. Their spouse hadn’t changed, but their tolerance of their habits had changed. What was a minor annoyance before they married, became a major reason for their breakup later on.

Frankly, I believe one of the real tests in a marriage are the minor annoyances of everyday life because they accumulate day after day. A quirky habit might be even attractive when you first encounter it, but with daily repetition can become annoying and irksome.

A related issue is the iceberg problem. Most of the mass of an iceberg is below the surface. Likewise, most of the really difficult problems a person may have will stay below the surface during the dating and courtship phase of a relationship. Many couples, in fact, awake on their honeymoons to an entirely different person than the one they thought they married.

Here are a few issues to consider:

• Cleanliness: what might at first seem like an admirable lack of vanity may indicate a general lack of personal hygiene.

• Neatness: although keeping things in order may seem like a small thing, it can develop into a major problem in marriage reminiscent of scenes from “The Odd Couple.”

The bottom line is this: consider the long-term impact these little annoying habits will have in your marriage, before you get married.

Living Together

Next I would like to look at the question of living together before marriage.

In our society today, cohabitation has become an extension of dating and courtship. Couples see living together as an audition for marriage, reasoning that you want to get to know someone intimately before you marry them. Although the logic seems sound, it not only goes against biblical injunctions but against sound sociological research.

A 1999 study by sociologists David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead released through the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University confirms earlier studies about the danger of cohabiting and added additional detail. They found that cohabiting appears to be so counterproductive to long-lasting marriage that unmarried couples should avoid living together, especially if it involves children. Whitehead says that living together is “a fragile family form that poses increased risk to women and children.”

Part of the reason for the danger is the difference in perception. “Women tend to see [living together] as a step toward eventual marriage, while men regard it more as a sexual opportunity without the ties of long-term commitment.” And people who live together in uncommitted relationships may be unwilling to work out problems, and instead will seek less fractious relationships with a new partner.

The National Institute for Healthcare Research has found that couples who live together and then marry report less satisfaction in their marriages than other couples. Scott Stanley at the University of Denver has found that cohabiting couples who get married have a significantly higher rate of divorce than those who did not live together.(A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. Josey-Bass, 1998)

Couples argue that living together will provide important information about how a partner will behave and interact once married. But a cohabiting person may be quite different from a person within marriage. Marriage is a commitment for life, while cohabitation is usually a commitment for a season. That makes a big difference in a relationship. It’s like the difference between being in a play and auditioning for the play. In the first example, you are in the stage production and working to make the play the best it can be. In the second example, you are trying out for the play and have much less invested.

Couples may also argue that they can live together and eventually get married when they are ready for children. But will that day ever come? The living together arrangement actually erodes a foundation of commitment rather than strengthening it. And if the woman becomes pregnant during cohabitation rather than marriage, it is less likely that the children will have a legal (and committed) father.

Living together before marriage may sound like a good idea, until you look at the facts.

Got Problems? Have Kids

Finally I would like to conclude by focusing on the idea that children bring a couple closer.

To begin, let’s acknowledge that Psalm 127:3 says that children are a gift from the Lord. Children are wonderful. A Christian family with children is delightful.

The issue here is the prevailing belief that bringing a child into a relationship that has problems will improve the situation. There is good evidence to believe that is not the case. If anything, a child can increase the tensions that are already present. Pepper Schwartz in her book Everything You Know About Love and Sex Is Wrong believes this may be the most damaging myth of the 25 myths she addresses in her book.

The fantasy that children will increase love and intimacy needs to be balanced by the reality that child-rearing also involves time and energy that can increase stress, fatigue, and worry. It will also decrease privacy and communication between partners. Unfortunately, many young couples may underestimate the impact of children on their marriage and be unprepared for the constant daily attention necessary to be a successful parent.

While having a child may be one of the most intimate things a man and a woman can do, the erosion of intimacy after the child arrives often surprises many couples. Even before the child arrives, a pregnant mother often begins to feel fat and unattractive. Once the baby arrives, she must give most of her time and attention to the child. On the positive side, she is madly in love with the child but may tend to squeeze her husband out of the picture. On the negative side, she may be so exhausted from caring for a child all day that she has little energy left for her husband.

Even good marriages must work hard not to allow their marriage to be pulled into two parallel worlds. It is natural to begin to divide tasks and focus on those, but couples need to schedule “date nights” and “talk times” to make sure their two worlds intersect. Isolation is a natural drift in any marriage. Children and children’s activities can increase isolation if marriage partners don’t attempt to counter-program against the pressures that naturally will push a couple apart.

Couples should also plan ahead for a time when children are not a constant focus of the marriage. In my article on The Second Half of Marriage, I talk about the time when children begin to leave the nest. No longer does the marriage have to be child-focused. It should return to a partner-focused marriage. Even while a couple is traveling through “the valley of the diapers,” they should keep a clear focus on the need to invest time, energy, and emotions in their partner.

Children are a gift from the Lord, but couples should understand their impact on a marriage. If a marriage has problems, having children will not bring that couple closer.

©2002 Probe Ministries.

Marriage Test

Is your marriage in the danger zone? How would you know? This article provides a marriage test to help you evaluate your marriage and see if you might need to obtain information or counsel about improving your marriage.

A few years ago I addressed the issue in an article titled, “Why Marriages Fail.” The material came from PREP, which stands for the “Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program” developed at the University of Denver. The material was originally published in a book entitled Fighting for Your Marriage, and has been featured on numerous TV newsmagazine programs like 20/20. There is also a Christian version of this material found in a book written by Scott Stanley entitled A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage.

Marriage Test

I want to extend that discussion by providing a test you can apply to your marriage. It is loosely based on a questionnaire developed by Howard Markman at the Center for Marital and Family Studies. There are fifteen questions you answer by giving your marriage points. At the end you total the points to see how your marriage is doing. If your total is positive, you are doing well. If it is negative, then you may need to do some work and perhaps seek counseling.

The first three questions have to do with your background. Many of us come into a marriage without considering our previous family and marital backgrounds. The truth is that we are not blank slates when we get married. Our background does have an influence on our marriage.

The first question is about cohabitation. Living together before marriage could signal a lack of commitment. In fact, numerous studies show that living together can have a detrimental effect on a marriage. Often poor communication patterns are developed in such a living arrangement that carry over into marriage. Here’s how you score the first question. If you moved in before the wedding give your marriage a 1. If you waited until after marriage, give your marriage a +1.

The second question involves your parents’ marriage. Poor communication and conflict-management skills can be inherited from parents. If your parents had a poor marriage, give your marriage a 1. If they had a strong marriage, give your marriage a +1.

The third question involves a previous marriage that ended in divorce. It turns out that one of the best predictors for divorce is a previous divorce. Divorcing once could mean a willingness to divorce again. If you had a previous marriage, give your marriage a 1. If this is your first marriage, give it a +1.

Religion and Finances

The fourth question involves religion which can be the source of strength or strain in a marriage. Religion provides support for marriage and usually discourages divorce. But practicing separate ones can add strain. If you don’t practice religion, give yourself a 2. If you practice different religions, give yourself a 1. If you both attend church regularly, give yourselves a +2.

Question five concerns finances. Money is the number one cause of fights in a marriage. Frequently these differences can lead to marital disharmony or disruption. If you and your spouse fight about money, give your marriage a 1. If you generally agree about spending, give your marriage a +1.

The sixth question also involves finances. In particular it deals with income. Some men aren’t comfortable when the wife is the family breadwinner. If the wife earns more in your marriage, give yourself a 1. If the husband earns more, give yourself a +1.

The seventh question is about your current age. Simply put, older couples are less likely to divorce. If your current age is under 30, give yourself a 1. If you are over 40, then give yourself a +1. If you are over 60, give yourself a +2.

The eighth question is about the length of your marriage. The longer you are married, the less likely you are to split. If you are married less than five years, give yourself a 1. If you have been married five to ten years, give yourself a +1. If have been married more than ten years, give yourself a +2.

Well, that’s the first eight questions. As you can see these questions focus on all sorts of issues that engaged couples rarely consider, but can be significant indicators of marital success. Keep track of your score and see how your marriage is doing. Although this is not an exhaustive questionnaire, the answers to these questions give you a quick look at how your marriage is doing.

Support and Family

The ninth question concerns support for your marriage. A lack of support from family or friends for your marriage creates tension and can cause a couple to question their relationship. Was your family supportive of this marriage? Did your friends support your choice in a marriage partner or were they concerned about your choice? If family and friends disapproved, give your marriage a 1. If family and friends approved, give your marriage a +1.

The tenth question revolves around changes in the family. Family additions or changes can impact a marriage. Having a baby, adjusting to an empty nest, or moving Grandma in adds stress. If you have had a recent family change, give your marriage 1. If there have been no big changes, then give your marriage a +1.

The eleventh question deals with conflicting attitudes. Opposing views on key issues in a marriage can cause division. Differences about commitment, beliefs, or expectations are just a few issues that can affect a marriage. If you mostly disagree with each other, give yourself a 2. If you are split about half-and-half, give yourself a 0. If you mostly agree, give yourself a +2.

The twelfth question concerns confidence. Feeling assured that relationships will survive anything can help couples through. If you are doubtful the marriage will last, give your marriage a 2. If you are pretty confident, give your marriage a 0. If you think your marriage will never fail, give yourself a +2.

Marital Communication

The thirteenth question involves marital communication. It’s best if a couple can talk openly about problems without fighting or withdrawing. If you always fight rather than talk about problems, then give yourself a 2. If you sometimes fight, give yourself a 0. If you mostly talk rather than fight, give yourself a +2.

The fourteenth question deals with happiness. Feeling fulfilled in marriage is critical. If you are unhappy in the relationship, give yourself a 3. If you are not consistently happy, give yourself a 0. If you are happy in a relationship, give yourself a +3.

The fifteenth question deals with sex. Being unsatisfied with frequency or quality can create tension in a marriage. If you are unsatisfied with your sex life, give your marriage a 1. If you are satisfied, give yourself a +1.

Well, that’s the test. If you have kept track of your answers to these questions, you should have a score. If your score is positive, especially if it is +5 or higher then your marriage is doing well. If your score is negative, then you may want to work on your marriage. That might mean reading a book on marriage, attending a marriage conference, or seek out counseling. That might be helpful even if you had a positive score, but it would be essential if you did not have a positive score.

As I mentioned previously in the article on “Why Marriages Fail,” you should not be discouraged by a negative score. The research does show which marriages might have trouble, but that does not suggest that there is nothing we can do about it. As the book of James reminds us, it is not enough to just believe something, we must act upon it (James 1:25, 2:15-18, 3:13). So let’s talk about what we can do.

Steps to Change

We have been talking about marriage and helped you to evaluate your marriage by taking a marriage test. The first few questions dealt with our marital background. Specifically the questions focused on cohabitation, your parents’ marriage, and previous divorce. We do not come into a marriage as a blank slate. Our previous experiences do influence the way we interact with our spouse. Obviously, we can change our behavior but we have to make a concerted effort to do so or else we will fall back into patterns that may adversely affect our marriage.

Many of our other questions dealt with the current status of your marriage. This included such issues as religious background, finances, age, the length of your marriage, support for your marriage, changes in your family, conflicting attitudes, confidence, marital communication, happiness, and sexual satisfaction. Again, many of these factors can be changed with a desire and plan to do so. But if we do not change our behavior then we will fall back into patterns that could be detrimental to our marriage.

I hope you will take the time to act on the results of this test. Most of us go through life and go through our marriages on auto- pilot. We set the controls and then fall back into a pattern that is the result of our background and current circumstances. Perhaps this marriage test will encourage you to work on your marriage. Perhaps this test will show your spouse that there are some issues you need to address.

The sad social statistics about divorce show that many marriages fall apart for lack of adequate attention. Every year a million couples end up in divorce court. Yet if you asked them if that would be how their marriage would end, very few would have predicted it on their wedding day.

Most people get married because they want their marriage to work. Unfortunately, many of those marriages fail. Some fail because of poor marital communication. If you identify that as a problem, then I encourage you to read my article on “Why Marriages Fail.” If you want to identify other potential problems, I encourage you to take this test with your spouse and then talk about the results. I pray that you will use this test to alert you and your spouse to any danger signs and then begin to change your habits and actions so that your marriage will be successful.

©2001 Probe Ministries.

Why Marriages Fail

Why do marriages fail? While the answers to that question are many, there is a growing body of empirical research to suggest there are four negative risk factors that create barriers to oneness in marriage and increase a couple’s chances for marital failure.

A Lasting PromiseI am going to look at these risk factors and see how they can be corrosive elements to oneness in marriage. Most of the material I will cover comes from PREP, which stands for the “Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program” developed at the University of Denver. The material was originally published in a book entitled Fighting for Your Marriage, and has been featured on numerous TV newsmagazine programs like “20/20.” There is a Christian version of this material found in a book written by Scott Stanley entitled A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. Perhaps you have heard marriage speakers like Gary Smalley or Dave and Claudia Arp recommend this book (which should be available in your local Christian bookstore and is also available online at Amazon.com).

The significance of this research is two-fold. First, it provides a strong body of university research on what makes marriages fail. Other Christian books, though very helpful, are often based upon the opinions and spiritual insights of the authors. The material we will be talking about in this article is based on clinical studies which validate biblical principles others have discussed.

Second, the research provides an extremely accurate predictor of subsequent behavior and marital failure. In one of the key studies, researchers followed a sample of 135 couples for twelve years, starting before they were married. The researchers found that using only data from before the couple married, they were able to differentiate those couples who do well from those who do not, with up to 91% accuracy. In other words, the seeds of distress and possible divorce were already sown before the couples went to the altar.

Now please do not be discouraged by those numbers. At the outset it seems to be telling us that certain marriages are doomed to failure, and there is nothing a couple can do. But we need to reconsider that conclusion. This research, while showing us marriages which might fall apart, does not suggest that there is nothing we can do about it. This research simply shows us what behaviors can be changed and warns us what will probably happen if we are unwilling or unable to change. As the book of James reminds us, it is not enough to just believe something, we must act upon it (James 1:25, 2:15-18, 3:13).

Since knowing precedes acting, it is necessary to discuss these four negative risk factors that can be barriers to oneness, for oneness is God’s design for marriage. Genesis 2:24 says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” When Jesus was confronted by the scribes and Pharisees about the issue of divorce, He brought them back to this foundational truth and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:5-6).


According to the research done over the last two decades, negative patterns can destroy a relationship. Couples who want to save their marriage need to focus on changing these negative behavior patterns. There are four such patterns I will discuss here, the first of which is escalation.

According to the researchers, “escalation occurs when partners respond back and forth negatively to each other, continually upping the ante so the conversation gets more and more hostile.”{1} 1 Peter 3:9 says, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.” But this is exactly what happens with escalation. Each negative comment increases the level of anger and frustration, and soon a small disagreement blows up into a major fight.

Research shows that couples who have a good marriage are less prone to escalation. And if the argument starts to escalate, they are able to stop the negative process before it erupts into a full-blown fight. Marriages that will have problems, and even fail, find that arguments escalate so that such damaging things are said that they may even threaten the lifeblood of the marriage.

Escalation can develop in two different ways. The first is a major shouting fight that may erupt over a conflict as small as putting the cap back on the toothpaste. As the battle heats up the partners get more and more angry, saying mean things about each other. Frequently there are threats to end the relationship. Over time those angry words damage oneness, and angry threats to leave begin to seem like prophecy. Once negative comments are made, they are hard to take back and drive a knife into the partner’s heart. Proverbs 12:18 says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword.”

These reckless words can do great damage to a marriage because when an argument escalates, every comment and vulnerability becomes fair game. Concerns, failings, and past mistakes can now be used by the attacking partner. Oneness and intimacy can be shattered quickly by a few reckless words.

You may be thinking, “we don’t fight like cats and dogs.” And while that may be true, your marriage may still have this risk factor. Damaging escalation is not always dramatic. Voices do not have to be raised for couples to get into a cycle of returning negative for negative. Conflict over paying the rent, taking out the garbage, running errands that result in muttering to oneself, rolling your eyes, or throwing up your hands can also be examples of escalation.

Couples who escalate arguments must control their emotions and control their tongues. James writes, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Couples who want a strong marriage must learn to counteract the tendency to escalate as a couple. The key to a strong and stable marriage is learning to control your emotions and learning how to keep a rein on your tongue.


Having covered escalation, I will now turn to the second of the four negative risk factors to oneness. This risk factor is called invalidation. “Invalidation is a pattern in which one partner subtly or directly puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other.”{2}

Invalidation can take many forms. Sometimes it can be caustic, in which one partner (or both) attacks the other person verbally. You can hear, and even feel, the contempt one partner has for another.

Sarcastic phrases like “Well, I’m sorry I’m not perfect like you” or “I forgot how lucky I am to be married to you” can cut like a knife. These are attacks on the person’s character and personality that easily destroy a marriage. Research has found that invalidation is one of the best predictors of future problems and divorce.

Jesus taught that attacks on the character of another person are sinful and harmful. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:22). Calling a person worthless or empty-headed (which is what the Aramaic term raca means) is not what a Christian should do.

Invalidation can also be much more subtle. It may involve an argument where contempt for the other partner is not so obvious. One partner may merely be putting the other partner down for his or her feelings. The message conveyed is that your feelings do not matter. A husband may put his wife down because she is more emotional or because she is more easily hurt by comments. A husband may invalidate a wife’s fears about the children’s safety. A wife may invalidate a husband’s desire to succeed in the company, saying that it really doesn’t matter if he becomes district manager. Ultimately the partner receiving these comments begins to share less and less so that the intimate level of sharing evaporates. When this happens, oneness is lost.

Sometimes invalidation may be nothing more than trite cliches like “It’s not so bad” or “Just trust in the Lord.” While the sayings may be true, they invalidate the pain or concern of the other partner. They make the other partner feel like their fears or frustration are inappropriate. This kind of invalidation is what Solomon called “singing songs to a heavy heart” (Prov. 25:20). When one partner is hurting, the other partner should find words of encouragement that do not invalidate his or her pain or concerns.

The antidote to invalidation is validation. Couples must work at validating and accepting the feelings of their spouse. That does not mean you have to agree with your spouse on the issue at hand, but it does mean that you listen to and respect the other person’s perspective. Providing care, concern, and comfort will build intimacy. Invalidating fears and feelings will build barriers in a marriage. Discipline yourself to encourage your spouse without invalidating his or her feelings.

Negative Interpretations

So far we have looked at the negative risk factors of escalation and invalidation. The third risk factor is negative interpretations. “Negative interpretations occur when one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case.”{3}

Such behavior can be a very destructive pattern in a relationship, and quickly erode intimacy and oneness in a marriage. A wife may believe that her husband does not like her parents. As a result, she may attack him anytime he is not overly enthusiastic about visiting them. He may be concerned with the financial cost of going home for Christmas or about whether he has enough vacation time. She, in turn, considers his behavior as disliking her parents.

When a relationship becomes more distressed, the negative interpretations mount and help create an environment of hopelessness. The attacked partner gives up trying to make himself or herself clear and becomes demoralized.

Another kind of negative interpretation is mind reading. “Mind reading occurs when you assume you know what your partner is thinking or why he or she did something.” Nearly everyone is guilty of mind reading at some time or other. And when you mind read positively, it does not tend to do much harm. But when you mind read on the negative side, it can spell trouble for a marriage.

Paul warned against attempting to judge the thoughts and motives of others (1 Cor. 4:5). And Jesus asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41).

Negative interpretations are hard to detect and counteract. Research shows that in distressed marriages there is a tendency for partners to discount the positive things they see, attributing them to causes such as chance rather than to positive characteristics of the partner. That is why negative interpretations do not change easily.

The key to battling negative interpretations is to reconsider what you think about your partner’s motives. Perhaps your partner is more positive than you think. This is not some unrealistic “positive thinking” program, but a realistic assessment of negative assumptions you may be bringing to the marriage.

Did your spouse really forget to do what you asked? Was it intentional or accidental? Does he or she try to annoy you or are you being more critical than is warranted? Most of the time, people think they are doing the best they can. It hurts to be accused of something you never intended to be hurtful. For couples to have a good marriage this pattern of negative interpretation must be eliminated.

Often this is easier said than done. First, you have to ask yourself if your thinking might be overly negative. Do you give your spouse the benefit of the doubt? Second, you have to push yourself to look for evidence that is contrary to your negative interpretation. Often it is easier to see his or her speck than your own plank. Give your mate the benefit of the doubt rather than let inaccurate interpretations sabotage your marriage.

Withdrawal and Avoidance

Escalation, invalidation, and negative interpretations are three of the four negative risk factors identified by researchers at the University of Denver. The last of these has two descriptors: withdrawal and avoidance. These are two different manifestations of the problem wherein a partner is unwilling to get in or stay in a discussion that is too threatening.

“Withdrawal can be as obvious as getting up and leaving the room or as subtle as ‘turning off’ or ‘shutting down’ during an argument. The withdrawer often tends to get quiet during an argument, look away, or agree quickly to a partner’s suggestion just to end the conversation, with no real intention of following through.”{4}

“Avoidance reflects the same reluctance to get into certain discussions, with more emphasis on the attempt to not let the conversation happen in the first place. A person prone to avoidance would prefer that the topic not come up and, if it does, may manifest the signs of withdrawal just described.”{5}

In a typical marriage, one partner is the pursuer and the other is the withdrawer. Studies show that it is usually the man who wants to avoid these discussions and is more likely in the withdrawing role. However, sometimes the roles reverse. But, for the sake of this discussion, we will assume that the husband is the one who withdraws.

Why does he withdraw? Because he does not feel emotionally safe to stay in the argument. Sometimes he may even be afraid that if he stays in the discussion or argument that he might turn violent, so he retreats.

When the husband withdraws, the wife feels shut out and believes that he does not care about the marriage. In other words, lack of talking equals lack of caring. But that is often a negative interpretation about the withdrawer.

He, on the other hand, may believe that his wife gets upset too much of the time, nagging and picking fights. This is also a negative interpretation because most pursuers really want to stay connected and resolve the issue he does not want to talk about.

Couples who want to have a good marriage must learn to stay engaged. Paul said, writing to the church in Ephesus, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:25-27).

Although the immediate context in this passage is anger, the broader principle is the importance of not allowing avoidance to become a corrosive pattern in your marriage. Couples should build oneness and intimacy by speaking openly and honestly about important issues in their marriage.


Each of these four risk factors (escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal and avoidance) can build barriers in a marriage leading ultimately to loneliness and isolation. The research shows that couples that want a good marriage need to eliminate these risk factors from their marriage, or else the negative factors will overwhelm the positive aspects of the marriage. It is never too late to put your marriage back on track.

For further study on this topic, I would once again recommend that you purchase the book A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. This book is widely available and is a good source for help in establishing and maintaining the oneness that God desires for every marriage.


1. Scott Stanley, et al. A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1998), p. 29.
2. Stanley, p. 32.
3. Stanley, p. 35-36.
4. Stanley, p. 40.
5. Stanley, p. 40-41.

©1998 Probe Ministries


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