At the first annual men’s retreat at our church, I was asked to speak about prayer. One of the topics we discussed was trust. I led a discussion after the men read Habbakuk and the article “Can God be Trusted” by Thomas D. Williams, a Catholic priest and professor of ethics. In the article, Williams comments: “Perhaps never before in history has the experience of betrayal personally affected so many people. To take one obvious example, a 50 percent divorce rate means that half the people who have dared to give their lives to someone (not to mention the millions of children affected) have experienced the brutal effects of misplaced trust.”

In passing, I mentioned Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, in which Marquardt documents the long-term effects of divorce on children well into adulthood. The response was immediate (“How do you spell that name?” “What’s that title again?” “Can I get that on Amazon?”) and formed the conversation after the session and at lunch.

I have rarely been confronted by such a visceral response to the ravages of divorce, which recently celebrated a sad anniversary.

In the inaugural edition of National Affairs, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, pointed out: “In [September] 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan of California made what he later admitted was one of the biggest mistakes of his political life. Seeking to eliminate the strife and deception often associated with the legal regime of fault-based divorce, Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce bill.”

After California, every state followed suit. 

No-fault divorce answers the Pharisee’s question to Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” with a resounding, “Yes!” Then it adds that it is also lawful for a woman to divorce her husband for any and every reason. In the U.S., wives initiate approximately two thirds of divorces.

It permits unilateral divorce, that is, one spouse can decide “for any and every reason” that the marriage is over giving the other spouse no recourse.

The result, says Wilcox, was that, when added to the sexual and psychological revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the number of divorces doubled between 1960 and 1980. 

Divorce became acceptable even among Christians, easier to rationalize, and far easier to obtain. People who were unhappy and found their marriages unfulfilling, says Wilcox, “felt obligated to divorce in order to honor the newly widespread ethic of expressive individualism.”  Children, everyone felt certain, were resilient and would do just fine.

But children of divorce, says Wilcox, are “two to three times more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies.”

Beyond children, divorce often has devastating social, psychological, spiritual, and financial consequences for at least one spouse. And others’ divorces effect all of us by calling every marriage into question.  “[W]idespread divorce,” writes Wilcox, “undermined ordinary couples’ faith in marital permanency and their ability to invest financially and emotionally in their marriages—ultimately casting clouds of doubt over their relationship.”

Children of divorce lose their faith in marriage and are less likely to marry themselves.  As a result, cohabitation rates have skyrocketed, which is bad news for adults, children, and marriage since, as Michael and Harriett McManus report in Living Together, cohabitation carries a whopping 80 percent failure rate.  

Wilcox is not, however, simply a bearer of bad news. “The good news,” he writes, “is that, on the whole, divorce has declined since 1980 and marital happiness has largely stabilized” as a result of three factors.

First, he says, “the views of academic and professional experts about divorce and family breakdown have changed significantly in recent decades.” Scholars across the political spectrum are rediscovering the importance of stable marriage for adult wellbeing and the priority of intact families for the wellbeing of children.

As Kristin Anderson Moore, Susan M. Jekielek, and Carol Emig write in the article “Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do about It?”: “The majority of children who are not raised by both biological parents manage to grow up without serious problems, especially after a period of adjustment for children whose parents divorce.  Yet, on average, children in single-parent families are more likely to have problems than are children who live in intact families headed by two biological parents.”

While myths about the resiliency of children and the extraneous nature of fathers persist, the conclusions reached by scholars are trickling down to the general population and marriages are being saved.

A second positive, says Wilcox, is that people are waiting longer to marry for the first time. “This means,” he writes, “that fewer Americans are marrying when they are too immature to forge successful marriages.”

This good news comes with a hidden problem.  As the age of marriage has increased, the onset of puberty has decreased. That is, sexually able people are spending a longer time single. The result is a need for pastoral care for people seeking to live chaste lives in our sex-obsessed culture beginning with explaining why that is important.

The final factor in divorce declining is troubling.  “Put simply,” writes Wilcox, “marriage is increasingly the preserve of the highly educated and the middle and upper classes.”  He goes on: “When it comes to divorce and marriage, America is increasingly divided along class and educational lines. Even as divorce in general has declined since the 1970s, what sociologist Steven Martin calls a “divorce divide” has also been growing between those with college degrees and those without (a distinction that also often translates to differences in income).”

College graduates are half as likely to divorce as their less educated peers. He also sites a Child Trends study showing that only seven percent of mothers with a college degree had a child out of wedlock compared to 50 percent (!) of mothers who do not have a degree.

So while the divorce rate has stabilized, the stabilization is uneven—it is down for college graduates, up for everyone else. This means that a stable, lasting marriage has become a luxury good enjoyed by the affluent and educated and by their children. Wilcox sums up the findings: “Thus, the fallout of America’s retreat from marriage has hit poor and working-class communities especially hard, with children on the lower end of the economic spectrum doubly disadvantaged by the material and marital circumstances of their parents.”

While he suggests public policy measures, he admits that they are not a solution. Cultural change is necessary: “Parents, churches, schools, public officials, and the entertainment industry will have to do a better job of stressing the merits of a more institutional model of marriage. This will be particularly important for poor and working-class young adults, who are drifting away from marriage the fastest.”

I have little confidence in public schools, most public officials, or the entertainment industry. And my confidence in parents is contingent on what the Church does.

If God hates divorce (Malachi 2:13-16), so should we. Yet as George Barna of Barna Research observed, “Americans have grown comfortable with divorce as a natural part of life.”

Having been a pastor, I understand the fear and trembling over teaching or preaching about divorce. Statistically, 26 percent of our hearers in evangelical churches have been divorced. That represents a lot of wounded people, some of whom will respond with fury and others who will respond with tears. Either way, the pastor can expect “feedback.”

It needs to be done anyway because shaping the culture of our churches is vital to shaping the culture of our communities and nation. In order to break the divorce culture of America, we need to break the divorce culture in the Church.

Love for neighbor should inspire us. As I spoke on the retreat with men haunted by their parents’ divorce, their children’s divorce, their own divorce, or their spouse’s prior divorce, their pain and sadness impressed me in a new way. A culture that feeds such unhappiness should be fought.

The good news is that while God hates divorce, He dearly loves His children. If we ask, He will send us the help we need. That is, while every man and woman may be a liar (Psalm 116:11), God can be trusted.

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