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Divorce, Inc.

Divorce has become big business in America. But what can be done to keep more marriages together and offer support to those who have gone through a breakup?


By John W. Kennedy

From all appearances, Thomas and Nancy Ludwig* had a thriving marriage 20 years after their wedding. As the head of a family with a wife and four children, Thomas had grown to the point spiritually where he had become a leader in his California church.

But shortly after their 22nd wedding anniversary, Nancy sensed something amiss. Thomas suddenly seemed withdrawn and wouldn’t talk to her. He rarely came home except to sleep. On Christmas, Nancy learned where Thomas had been spending so much time: at the home of a female acquaintance he met at one of his child’s athletic events.

Church elders confronted Thomas with evidence of a sexual affair. Four days later, he moved out of his house and in with the other woman. The elders, and other Christians who knew Thomas, continued to urge him to repent under guidelines outlined in Matthew 18, but to no avail. A year and a half later Thomas divorced his wife. Under California law, Nancy had no legal defense.

"He had counseled dozens of couples who are together today because of his guidance," says Nancy, 47. "He repeatedly told our children, ‘Your mother and I will never divorce. We will always work it out. We will always be together.’ "

Tragically the Ludwigs’ story is not unusual these days. Divorce has become common in America. The National Center for Health Statistics reported 1998-2000 divorce totals at about 1 million per year in the United States. According to SmartMoney.com, the average cost of divorce is $15,000. That translates into a conservative estimate of $15 billion a year being spent on the dissolution of marriage in the United States.

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Divorce culture
Gary R. Allen, national coordinator for ministerial enrichment for the Assemblies of God, says the Ludwigs’ situation isn’t unique. In many cases, one spouse doesn’t want a divorce and has tried to keep the failing marriage intact. "When someone who has loved another then is rejected by that person, it undermines every element of self-confidence the rejected individual has," says Allen.

Until the last third of the 20th century, "till death do us part" usually meant just that. However, in 1970, California became the first state to allow "no fault" divorce and within 15 years every other state also had eased restrictions. Previously, a person had to find a legally defined cause such as infidelity or desertion to end a marriage. Today, either spouse may merely cite "incompatibility" or "irreconcilable differences" to break a marriage contract.

The number of U.S. divorces more than tripled from 393,000 in 1960 to 1.2 million 35 years later. An estimated 43 percent of new marriages will end in divorce.

Glenn T. Stanton, senior research analyst on marriage and sexuality with Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, says liberalized divorce laws have been a miserable failure. "We entered the divorce revolution with the idea that we could exit relationships that hindered our self-expression and enter better relationships that would make us better individuals," says Stanton, 40. "That’s not been the case." In most instances, a divorced person does not leave problems behind but rather takes the root cause into a new relationship, according to Stanton, author of Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society.

Stanton says government and business have largely failed to recognize the irony of penalizing marriage.

For instance, couples who live together instead of marrying pay a lower income tax rate. Many companies, as well as state and local governments, now provide health insurance benefits to an employee’s live-in partner.

Meanwhile, divorce has become an acceptable, even expected, rite of passage. A trend since the mid-1990s has been "starter marriages" for couples in their 20s. Some in this generation, which has experienced parental divorce in record numbers, view a brief marriage as a natural part of upward mobility.

There is little social pressure to stay married when tough times hit. A Gallup poll last year indicated 59 percent of respondents believe divorce is "morally acceptable." Earlier this year a Web site began offering Florida couples the opportunity for an online divorce for only $249.

"Divorce is a symptom of the devaluing of an intimate, monogamous husband and wife relationship," Allen says. "Primarily the problem is a failure to keep a love relationship growing with the stages of life."

The church’s role
The pop culture of divorce has entered the church in a significant way. Several celebrity Christian musicians, athletes and even ministry leaders almost act as though divorce should be an expected part of fame.

Such messages stand in contrast with the Bible. "Unfortunately the church reflects its culture more than it should," Allen says.

Subsequently, Stanton believes, many Christians have lost the theology of marriage as espoused by Jesus: what God has joined let no one separate. And marital counseling often is delayed until one, if not both, of the parties has determined that divorce is inevitable.

Nancy Ludwig says she ignored the warning signs; she and her husband should have sought counseling earlier. "I knew something was wrong, but I never thought he would have an affair," she says.

Stanton says many congregations neglect the principle outlined in Titus 2 in which older couples are admonished to help younger ones. He says those who have long-term, stable marriages should offer expertise and wisdom to the newly married on how to make it through difficult times.

Societal fallout
A divorce can damage more than a person’s spiritual life. Nancy Ludwig had been homeschooling her children, but that ended when Thomas no longer brought a paycheck home. She had to enter the work force after being a stay-at-home mom for 17 years. She gained an entry-level job that didn’t support her family and survived through the generosity of other believers.

According to Nancy, Thomas contributes the legal minimum in child support and he has no interest in paying college tuition for his offspring. The oldest Ludwig daughter, Teresa,* a bright student, dropped out of college and turned her back on the church. At 19, she became pregnant and had a baby out of wedlock.

"The divorce impacts us every day," says Nancy, choking back tears. "The children are ashamed and hurt."

Divorce is a financial hardship especially for children when one household splits into two, according to University of Chicago sociology professor Linda Waite.

"Men are much less willing to share income with an ex-wife and children they don’t live with," says Waite, 54, author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier & Better Off Financially. "Often children in college get no money from their father, even though he has plenty of it."

Marriage is for the long haul
For many couples, problems begin when it becomes apparent they didn’t bring realistic expectations to the marriage.

Larry and Nora Larson* married in 1978 after meeting at a college in Iowa. Nora soon told Larry she didn’t want a husband involved in campus ministry activities. The next year she decided to move to Missouri to be near friends. Larry reluctantly went along. In 1980, the Larsons had a baby daughter, prompting Larry to drop out of college. By the following year, Larry felt something in his marriage had to change because his spiritual life had waned. He moved out in an effort to hear God’s voice. A week later an attorney informed him that Nora had instituted divorce proceedings.

A bitter child custody battle and years of financial hardship ensued. Nearly 20 years after their divorce, Larry finished his education and became a Christian psychologist. In hindsight, he says he should have communicated with God and his wife to prevent the separation in the first place.

"I do a lot of counseling and I tell Christians they need to become so intimate with God that they know His will," says Larson, now 49. "Even in a relationship that is not satisfying, we’re still responsible for our own behavior and choices."

Studies indicate that 60 percent of divorces result not from domestic violence, psychological abuse or adultery, but from low-level conflicts that are never resolved.

Waite surveyed 3,500 couples who reported high levels of unhappiness in their marriage. Five years later, 86 percent of those same couples characterized their marriage as "happy."

"Just hanging in there and riding it out is necessary," Stanton says.

"Any relationship has conflicting times," Allen says. "Conflict can be constructive or destructive. When a couple has a deep commitment for each other they persevere."

The aftermath of divorce impacts children dramatically, even if one or both of the parents weren’t the greatest parents.

"Children are most affected because the security of home and family is altered forever," says Ralph Dunlop,* a 48-year-old graphic artist whose wife walked out on their 20-year marriage against his will. "They end up being shuttled from one house to another and often from one blended family to another. Divorce for one or both members of the couple is a choice. For all others involved, it is a forced and usually tragic situation."

A place for the divorced
Condemnation and grace go hand in hand, and believers need to be supportive of a person who has just divorced, Stanton says.

If friends announce plans to divorce, love and support must come before judgment, according to Allen. The initial revelation may not include the full details behind the decision.

Churches need to be more intentional in ministering to people who have experienced or are facing divorce, Allen says. "There has been a feeling that if we give special attention to a sin it implies acceptance," he says. "We are not condoning divorce when we love and support those who have experienced divorce."

The church should be the safest emotional place for those already divorced, Allen says. Indeed, congregations have a wonderful opportunity to provide tangible help to the divorced, from classes on how to pay bills when income falls to helping in job searches.

Larson says he experienced a change in how people perceived him once his divorce became final. "Some churches don’t want to use a divorced person’s talents and gifts because he or she is seen as ‘damaged goods.’ But the person who is divorced and repentant," says Larson, "is no different from anyone else who has been regenerated from a sin."

Covenant marriage
Some form of no-fault divorce still exists in every state. But in the past five years, lawmakers in three states — Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas — have adopted a more stringent standard for a union: covenant marriage.

Ordinarily, a covenant marriage requires the couple to participate in premarital counseling. In addition, it mandates a two-year separation before divorce is finalized, unless grounds of adultery, abandonment or abuse are cited.

Suzanne and Guy Hobgood of Baton Rouge chose a covenant marriage when Louisiana became the first state to offer the option in 1997. The decision saved their marriage, the second for each.

With the increased challenges of making a blended family work — four children from the previous marriages came with the vows — the Hobgoods had a difficult time adjusting. The couple split after six months of marriage, but the covenant required them to undergo counseling. With a regular marriage, they could have obtained a no-fault divorce after a six-month separation.

"When we went to counseling we saw that lots of problems are normal in a marriage," says Suzanne Hobgood, 50. "Our commitment to go the extra mile with our partner and with God saved us."

Many pastors in states without a covenant marriage law aren’t waiting to act.

Paul Kirk, 38, senior pastor of Timbercreek Assembly in Springfield, Mo., won’t marry a couple unless they attend a minimum of eight counseling sessions over a six-month period. In addition, the prospective husband and wife must sign a covenant with Kirk in which they agree not to separate or divorce without first submitting to pastoral counseling. "The covenant replaces the ability of attorneys to be the primary separator of couples," Kirk says. "It puts the power of negotiation back into ecclesiastical hands."

Kirk believes the church is the only institution in position to safeguard the institution of marriage. "God still hates divorce," he says. "It’s not His will or His choice."

Marriage restored
Unless a divorced spouse has remarried, it’s not too late to get back together, according to Gary Thayer, national coordinator with his wife, Juanita, of Lafayette, Ind.-based MarriageRestored. The Thayers, married for 30 years, endured their own marital crisis seven years ago and started the ministry in 2000.

MarriageRestored is a weekend retreat for couples whose marriages are in serious trouble. Typically, a dozen couples — some separated or even divorced already — gather to hear an A/G pastor and his wife as well as two lay couples tell how they have weathered pain, anger and conflict.

Most of the rest of the weekend each couple stays in their room to examine their attitudes toward each other and their own faults. There is no pastoral counseling or problem-solving group therapy. Praying together as a couple is emphasized, and by Sunday afternoon even the coldest relationship has usually thawed.

"On Friday night, some couples are hardly speaking to each other, let alone praying together," says Gary Thayer, 52. "But statistically, only one out of a thousand couples who pray daily divorce."

About seven MarriageRestored weekends are held around the country each year. Rosalie and Johnny Mooring Sr., of suburban Dallas, attended a MarriageRestored weekend last year. Despite the couple’s Christian convictions and Johnny’s confession after an adulterous affair, the marriage still appeared troubled — until the MarriageRestored sessions.

"Adultery can be forgiven and a marriage can be rebuilt if trust, respect, confidence and emotional security are re-established," Allen says.

Johnny, now 62, says he learned how to really dialogue and understand what his wife had suffered emotionally as the couple wrote letters to each other and read them aloud.

"It opened my eyes to how much I really loved my wife," he says of the weekend. "We’re more in love now than we’ve ever been."

*Names have been changed.


John W. Kennedy is news editor for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

E-mail the author at pe@ag.org.

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