Separation Of Church And Marriage
Although some troubled couples can avoid divorce, this post is written in support of those who can’t.
Strange title, I know, especially coming from a minister but religion and marriage are just as different as church and state and shouldn’t be managed as one.
You can be religiously happy without being married. You can be married happily without being religious. You can be married on one day, with no interest in religion, and become very religious later.
But, it has proven particularly difficult for an excessively religious person to marry only within the strict guidelines of their religion and be happy for a life time. The marriage might last for a life time but the happiness fades. Sometimes the marriage falls apart. According to Barna, even the Catholic divorce rate is high (28%).
One team from the University of Chicago, led by Linda J. Waite, did a study on unhappy marriages which suggested that many couples who stuck it out during the bad times reported their marriages happy five years later. The report also suggested that those who divorced were generally no more happy than those who didn’t.
However, an article at Religious Tolerance points out that part of the motivation to stay together was religious indoctrination so we can’t be sure from the U of C study whether the couples were happy with the marriage or the personal development in their lives individually in spite of the marriage.
Religion-influenced marriages may be more likely to stay together but are these couples happy or forbearing? Religion has added layers of adhesive to the institution’s external side but not much to sustain it on the inside. So religion’s legacy might be stated as: “married unhappily ever after.”
Although religion and religious people have served many good purposes, interfering with marriage is obviously not one of them.
Admittedly, it would be illogical to suggest all non-religious couples are happy. Marriage is easily mangled, religion or not. And it is also true that happiness in any marriage will never be absolute. It isn’t easy to get it right.
The problems that cause breakups don’t mysteriously appear all of a sudden decades after the wedding. They lurk quietly in the background from the start and over time grow intolerably huge if not managed well.
Kind of like warts. Small at first, growing over time and eventually getting painfully in the way. And we all have them.
However, my focus is not the problems that cause break ups but religion because religion tends to be dismissive toward such problems which in turn adds another dimension of difficulty to married life. Instead of admitting up front that relationship problems can be deal killers the focus is limited. Only the permanence of marriage is addressed and the possibility of a break up is treated as if it could never happen. Head-in-sand stuff.
Like snake oil pedaled by traveling salesmen, marriage is presented as a fairytale elixir to all relationship dreams for this life with implications for the next.
What religion fails to acknowledge are the problems induced by marriage that arise only after the ceremony, maybe years after. One study done at UT Austin found these problem areas begin to surface during the first two years of marriage and foreshadow breakups as far off as 13 years later. Unfortunately, when the problems become glaringly obvious, some religions never allow them to trump the vows.
Psychologists tell us that divorce is one of the most traumatic human experiences. It rates right up there with the death of a loved one or the loss of a limb. And, again, religious conservatives use this information to support the theory that divorce should never happen.
But is this trauma caused only by the divorce? Shouldn’t religion be blamed for part of the problem since they historically have proven unable to accept this unhappy experience and therefore haven’t been there for people when it happens?
Shouldn’t we also attribute part of the trauma to the culturally negative attitudes, encouraged by religion, that leave divorced couples stigmatized?
Knowing that religion and culture are against you before you start makes it stressful just thinking about a divorce never mind getting one.
Society is much more accepting today and divorce numbers have increased but maybe the 1 in 2 divorce rate isn’t a sign of more marriages going wrong but an indication that people are taking advantage of a more forgiving culture to correct poor marriage choices.
In the past more people stayed in their marriages but were they happy? Were they really committed to each other or just afraid of public responses toward divorce? Maybe it was less painful to stay in a difficult marriage than to dissolve it and in that light the 1 in 2 rate may be better than we thought.
If speculations about behind the scenes morality during the Victorian Age are even partly true it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the number of extramarital affairs were indirectly proportional to the number of divorces.
And looking around today you find that some of the strongest and happiest couples are second marriages. Go figure!
Religious leaders aren’t bad people and they aren’t saying evil things. The problem is they paint only half the picture. I think marriages would have a better chance of lasting if couples were told up front that marriage can be very hard to get right. It isn’t always easy to find the right partner in the first place and even when the partnership fits well you can’t know ahead of time how each person will react to the ups and downs of family life or to each other when things go south.
For these reasons it would do us well to consider some of the fail-points in the religious approach to marriage. And maybe consider removing all the add-ons religion has imposed on the wedding and the relationship.
Religion Interfered When They Were Neither Needed Nor Wanted
Throughout most of human history marriage was considered private and mostly secular. Religious approval and blessings – modern day trends – were never required until the last 500 years.
In Greece marriage was seen as a fundamentally social institution.
In ancient Rome marriages were made binding in private ceremonies with civil agreements between the bride, the groom and their two families. They did not need government approval or religious blessing.
Even marriages in the Bible lacked references to traditional vows and there was no ceremony to speak of.
So the first fail point is, religion stuck its nose where it was neither wanted nor needed. Instead of helping orphans and widows and making followers of Jesus they made the assumption that marriage could be made perfect even when the partners are not. And, of course, religionists are the ones to coach couples into perfection.
Religious Vows Focus On The Institution Not The Individuals
Instead of exploring and carefully marking the boundaries within which a healthy marriage should exist – and admitting to the possibility of break ups before hand – religious vows coerce couples into “never say die for any reason” promises that are more focused on the institution than relationship.
And once conflicts enlarge, the only “counseling” offered does little to target and correct the actual problem and mostly reinforces the non-negotiable “till death do us part” vow taken at the marriage ceremony. Religious counselors often give the impression they are more interested in saving the marriage at the expense of a life than solving the actual problem. They’ll do anything to avoid a divorce.
The implication is this:
If you marry someone who neglects your needs and abuses you – an unhappy, uncomfortable, possibly degrading, possibly dangerous, soul destroying relationship – you are forever stuck unless, of course, someone dies. That is the promise being made when we take traditional vows.
Why bother getting married in the first place? These conditions are a hard pill to swallow especially since marriage was intended to meet needs. In the words of Jesus, Marriage, like the Sabbath, was made for man not man for marriage.
When needs aren’t met or are abused, changes need to be made and it may involve replacing one partner with another.
Wouldn’t it make sense to discuss thoroughly what each partner’s needs are and to condition the promises we make accordingly. Unqualified mindless “forever and ever” commitments are neither rational nor spiritual which doesn’t say much for the religions that encourage us to make them.
Note: It’s interesting that the two institutions created before sin, the sabbath and marriage, are the ones most abused by religion, an institution established after sin. And human government, also established after sin, has provided much assistance in curbing the wrongful influence of religion.
Religion’s second fail point was introducing vows which make the institution of marriage more important than the people who marry.
The Church Turned Weddings Into Religious Ceremonies
People are naturally drawn to partnerships and need intimacy, and it happens very naturally. The consistency, protection, security and stability of such a relationship is what we long for. People who don’t get married are the exceptions not the rule and they usually have very compelling reasons to forgo such a union. Which is to say it takes special circumstances to force us away from and out of relationships not into them.
You have to wonder why some religions have turned marriage into a spiritual necessity and why they place so many ceremonial requirements on those tying the knot. There is nothing wrong with ceremonies and there are good reasons to have them but the ceremony is incidental to the marriage not the foundation. When religious rules are excessive they become a barrier. They dampen the celebration.
The very first marriage illustrates the point. It was initiated in a perfect environment between two perfect people and they were perfect in every way: spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. In this first setting the word “marriage” was never used and the ceremony – if you could call it that – was sparse. After making Eve from one of Adam’s rib – a portion of the ceremony we forgo today – the Bible says God:
Brought her (Eve) to the man (Adam)
That was it. No solemnization. No vows taken. No preaching, no warning, no blessing. Just here she is. There was no discussion about sex: how, when, where or what happens when you do. There was no threat, no worry. It wasn’t the best day of their lives or their relationship, it was simply the first.
That first couple connected easily and immediately, no introductions or dating required. They were naturally drawn to each other. No encouragement, pushing, enticement or manipulation involved.
Following that ceremony, all other marriages are described as two people “cleaving” to each other (Genesis 2:24).
And once connected they didn’t abuse, ignore, consume, neglect or control each other. They were neither shy nor aggressive toward one another. Their relationship was natural and comfortable. Noting insecure about it.
Religion’s third fail point? They turned marriage into a religious exercise. I don’t like the word “secular” because it is taken as the antithesis of “spiritual” but the truth is civil (secular) marriages that happen “naturally” and “publicly,” two individuals agreeing to marry with witnesses present, no vows or religious blessings required, are just as spiritual as those officiated over by the church.
Divorce Is A Solution Not A Sin
I have written extensively on the nature of divorce elsewhere. Suffice it to say for now that divorce proceedings which were very brief were legally allowed in the Bible. It was a solution to problems in the marriage and provided an out when the relationship became intolerable.
Religion’s fourth fail point? They made divorce a sin.
Religion Intrudes On The Private Lives of Couples And Rewrites the History of Marriage
Marriage has been around much longer than organized religion and is the superior institution. If anything, married couples should hold influence over religion but the opposite has become true. Religionists now have authority to sanction marriages but that isn’t enough. They also attempt to control many personal aspects of marriage.
The musings of clerics, if anything, have created stresses in marriage where none existed before. Consider the following religious teachings:
- Humans were NOT originally created to have sexual relations.
One cleric suggested that it was only after sin and death were introduced that sex became necessary to keep the population going.
Yea? What about the command to “be fruitful and multiply” which came before sin. I guess God originally planned for bees to do the pollinating.
- No sex is allowed the night before “holy” communion.
Yea? what about people who take communion everyday?
- Birth control not allowed.
Yea? What about all the kids unattended to by parents? Has the church taken up the slack?
Making “no go” rules for birth control places a huge responsibility on the church to provide support when the number of children exceeds parental capacity to provide and nurture. But religion is often hiding in the stuff when children need attention.
Without some way to control the number of kids you have, it would be better not to marry at all. Kids are expensive and time consuming especially if you want to send them to the RIGHT schools.
- Only marriages following THE specified formula in THE right church with THE properly endorsed minister officiating are recognized by God.
Yea? What about the millions of marriages which took place over thousands of years before churches made these rules (1500′s AD)? If marriage is a sacrament those poor people went to hell, right?
The bottom line is this. If your marriage was presided over by an officer of the state in a courtroom with witnesses present – the law requires it – you are just as married as if your wedding took place in the most revered cathedral and the service was conducted by the most prominent minister.
And in the event you find yourself faced with the potential dissolution of your marriage I hope you will find support, guidance and encouragement from family, friends and even religious associates.
Many people suffered and died extricating the State from Religion. Maybe we should do the same for marriage.
Many couples work very hard planning their wedding, buying how-to books and consulting professionals. Well, the same should be true when planning a divorce. Both require diligent, intelligent planning. Don’t let pain or sadness keep you from doing the smart thing. Learn from your past and plan your future.
And DIVORCE 101: A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO DIVORCE is a book that can help you do that. Tracy, the author, having gone through divorce without suitable resources decided to put what she learned in writing. She’s experienced the feelings, personally considered the issues, had the meetings, organized the details and made the decisions and that experience is shared in her book. It is mostly practical but contains great emotional insight and support as well. Divorce 101 is a compilation of all the pertinent information you will need in planning your divorce.
If you prefer a digital copy, Tracy’s book can be downloaded here and the download comes with several free bonuses to help you get through your divorce wisely.
Tracy also put together a website, WomansDivorce.com, which provides helpful articles from a wide range of professionals – and variety of perspectives – relating to every stage of divorce. She also has a blog in which many ladies share their experiences.
If you are a young woman, only a few years into marriage and facing inevitable divorce…AND you need a friend, this book is for you. Reviewers have painted it as food and solace for the hurting soul:
“This book was like an old friend, comforting me, guiding me through the process, assuring me that everything I was feeling was normal and to be expected.”
“It gave me hope that I might one day be happy again.”
“I was looking for something that spoke to me, in a girlfriend type of tone, not a preaching tone and this (book) was perfect.”
“Reading this book is like having my best girlfriend sitting next to me encouraging me that what I’m about to go through will only make me stronger and that I WILL in fact survive and be better off for it and a MUCH happier person!”
The book doesn’t claim to take the place of therapy and doesn’t encourage divorce but provides real support for those who find it unavoidable.
If your marriage is failing and you don’t feel loved but you aren’t quite ready for divorce court yet, your problem might be more solvable than you think. In The Five Love Languages Dr. Chapman departs from academic definitions of love, which are mostly intellectual and therefore cold, and discusses a love he refers to as “emotional.” This is the romantic love often portrayed in novels and movies and rooted in our psychological makeup.
He explains that even two good partners can easily fall out of love if they don’t learn how to love each other properly, in the right “language.” The adjustments are not difficult and languages are easy to understand. Many call his approach miraculous. Get the book. It’s a small price to pay to save a marriage.