When Rich and Tina came to my office, their marriage was in shards. Like most desperate couples that come to me for pastoral counsel, their story was a quagmire of failed expectations, self-doubt, old wounds, immaturity, and misunderstanding. As we spoke, it was clear that Tina was willing to do anything to save the relationship. Rich on the other hand was accustomed to flight. The abandonment he suffered as a child had now become his primary tool for coping.
After an hour together, it became clear that if this couple did not have some space and time to reflect, their vows and newly born daughter would soon also be abandoned. I suggested a redemptive separation for the sake of redeeming their marriage.
Chris and Margaret were another couple on the cliff of divorce. The serial adulterous affairs Chris had made common place in his work life had recently broken the boundaries of their personal friend group and come to light within the church. Our pastoral team suggested a directed redemptive separation.
Unlike the situation with Rich and Tina, Margaret had adequate biblical grounds for divorce. Few would have faulted Margaret for ending the marriage. But instead, after the space of a redemptive separation, Margaret opted for hope.
The qualifications given for divorce in the Bible can be grace sometimes in a truly horrific marriage. But I believe in the grace to stay, the grace to forgive.
Redemptive separation is a pretty simple concept. A couple, on the edge of divorce, opt for a constructive and directed separation in lieu of ending the marriage outright.
Redemptive separation is always a last resort. It's like relational chemotherapy—meant to bring health back to a marriage by giving adequate space to destroy that which ails it. But also not medicine to be prescribed lightly.
I would be lying if I said that I was comfortable with the concept of encouraging couples to separate for any purpose other than physical or emotional abuse. I was raised in an evangelical church that believed that if you had God's Word and Jesus, you could overcome any obstacle. I still believe that. I also believe that the church is losing the battle for the family and this generation of believing couples needs new tools to reconstruct strong Christian marriages from the rubble of our failure.
In 2008 The Barna Group released a report stating that the number of Christian marriages that end in divorce is equal to that of atheist and agnostics. Today's church is ill equipped to offer hope or to lead when it comes to family issues.
Convincing couples or more importantly their friends and family that directed separation is neither anti-biblical nor the fast track to divorce is often the most difficult element of implementing it. We in the church have been trained to believe that anything resembling retreat is unbiblical. But any combat veteran will tell you that retreating is often the only other option besides dying with your boots on.
The same is true when a couple's marriage becomes a battlefield. Sometimes the best tactical option is to retreat for the purpose of regrouping—together. This creates space for couples to reflect, heal, and grow. In the war to save marriages, space is grace.
While there is no direct biblical template for redemptive separation, it is steeped in the biblical principles of forgiveness, wise counsel, prayer, and repentance. What redemptive separation does is give couples adequate margin for these biblical necessities to grow.