To shepherd the formerly married is to come to grips with his or her sexual need.

When the Hebrews were “making bricks” in captivity, they asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Most formerly married persons can identify with that disturbing question.

A notion exists that when a person becomes divorced—or widowed—a “stop” button is pushed, then a “rewind” button, and he or she is returned to a second adolescence.

While the church has had a great deal to say said about premarital sexual expression, little has been said concerning the needs of the formerly married—unless one simply assumes that everything said behavior applies as well to postmarital sexual conduct.

Over one million persons will be divorced this year; hundreds of thousands of others will lose a mate in death. Change may come on a moment’s notice, more and more frequently through desertion or defection. For others, such a change is wrought through accident or heart failure. One day someone may be married and sexually active, and the next day, single again. For some, age or personal preference makes termination of the marital state less burdensome, with sexual expression in marriage having become obligation rather than celebration. For others, sexual need can be a menacing reminder of a new status.

In our sexually oriented society, many Christians define their personal attractiveness by the love of a mate. If that mate leaves, especially for a younger, more attractive partner, how does the rejected person view his or her self-worth? How does one whose sexual expression has become “habitual” in twenty years of marriage live without the warmth and affirmation of intimacy?

Consider these statements by formerly married persons:

• You don’t turn off sexual desire like a water faucet.

• You can’t change automatically the way you’ve felt for a number of years at a moment’s notice.

• We all have needs—and after thirty-two years of marriage, they can’t be turned off all at once.

Divorced persons quickly realize the inadequacy of human resources to meet the demands of life. To whom do they turn? What is the role of the fellowship of believers in affirming and supporting both the rejected and rejecters? Paul warned the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends upon human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8, NIV). The Christian must scrutinize the word of his peers—whether they are Christians or not.

Article continues below

Many previously married singles find the programming in local churches helpful—but unrealistic in facing the tough problems of sexuality. One suggested the church has two statements: “No!” and “Definitely no!”

Formerly married Christians feel the tension between the “if it feels good, do it” mentality of pagan peers and the “turn it all over to the Lord” approach of some saints. The serious Christian is seeking neither license nor liberty but rather understanding in order to be responsible.

Paul suggested, “It is good for them [the unmarried] to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8, 9, NIV). Paul understood the dynamics of sexual expression: the body belonged not only to its owner but also to the spouse. What applied to the married in Paul’s day is relevant to today’s formerly married. Being deprived of marital commitment could lead to temptation and sin.

What Are The Realities?

Gagnon estimates that 90 percent of those who are formerly married have had sexual relations since divorce or widowhood (John H. Gagnon, Human Sexualities, 1977, Scott, Foresman and Co., p. 231). Hunt suggests that only one in twenty men, single for one year, and one in fourteen women are celibate; two-thirds of the men and over one-half of the women are as sexually active now as when they were married (Morton Hunt and Bernice Hunt, The Divorce Experience, 1977, McGraw-Hill, pp. 66, 135–139). Statistical ammunition thus exists for the myths, “gay divorcées,” or “merry widows,” or “everyone’s doing it.” How does the believer confront such generalizations?

Hunt labeled the celibates “refusers” and did not compliment persons who refrain because of religious convictions. Since such a high percentage are not celibate, intercourse is the norm. Those who vary from the norm are considered to be deviant, although Hunt does not use the term in any perjorative sense. Thus, those who offer religious objections are judged as disguising psychological inhibitions.

Should Hunt’s analysis go unchallenged? What if weak or new Christians read such a philosophy and appropriate this to their lifestyles and spread the news?

Because of the absence of research on formerly married Christians, I studied a group of singles at a large church in California. I recognized that such research would be subject to challenge because of the implications of the findings—particularly if I found that a high percentage of those interviewed proved to be sexually active. The first criterion I used was faith, asking, “Are you a Christian?” and then, “Would you call yourself ‘born again’?” Questions about church membership, attendance, and activity in the fellowship followed.

Article continues below

Initially I was surprised by the number of new Christians who said they had been born again during or after divorce. Many were dealing with sexual issues from a Christian perspective for the first time (a fact that makes the need for such research more pressing). Others had rededicated their lives and were more active in church than before.

In the data report, respondents identified themselves as born-again Christians. The information is true only of a group within the singles program at this church. It is important to note that generalizations from this data with regard to behavior and attitudes cannot be made.

1. Is celibacy realistic for the formerly married Christian? Forty-seven percent of the divorced men and 24 percent of the women reported that celibacy is realistic. Twenty-nine percent of the men and 28 percent of the women reported they were “uncertain.” These persons are struggling to define their sexual expression. One-fourth of the men and almost one-half of the women found celibacy unrealistic.

2. How many times have you had sexual relations in the last year? This question was necessary to confront Hunt’s frequency findings (i.e., 90 percent). It is one thing to know what formerly married Christians believe—but another to see what they practice. Based on 203 participants (146 women and 57 men), only 9 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women were celibate, although many noted the intimacy had been with only one partner and/or in a “serious” relationship.

It is worth noting that 67 percent of the men and 58 percent of the women reported a conflict between their faith and sexual experiences:

• Sometimes I feel so despondent after having been out—having a good time in companionship and sexually—that I feel like I want to die rather than live this torn-apart feeling.

• I felt the need to prove my sexuality to myself and to other men.… But that inner conflict between my sexual needs and moral and spiritual needs still tears away at me. One part of me says, “It is right and beautiful.” The other part tells me that as a Christian, I should not be doing it.

• How do you deal with the feelings and still be a Christian?

• [I have] tremendous guilt when I am sexual. My guilt prevents my spiritual growth.

Article continues below

Clearly, tension exists among those seeking to integrate two positions, traditionally held to be opposing.

• I’ve prayed about my sexual needs and God has answered them and given me someone to relate with. I couldn’t have planned it that way (10–20 episodes).

• I don’t feel condemned by God (20–50 episodes).

• My personal faith affirms God’s laws for the whole of man, not unreal, antiquated rules (10–20 episodes).

• I worry that I won’t go to heaven because I keep repeating myself (10–20 episodes).

• Christ wants us to live abundant lives; to me that includes sex (50-plus episodes).

For some Christians such thinking is blasphemous. Some will conclude, “They’re not really Christians!”—thereby avoiding the dilemma. Others may quote Romans 6:15, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” Can we be charitable? Can “we who are strong … bear with the failings of the weak” (Rom. 15:1, NIV)?

3. Why do the formerly married have sexual relations? The respondents ranked the answers: (1) loneliness; (2) strong sex drive; (3) it is natural; (4) reaffirmation of sexual attractiveness; (5) fear; (6) retaliation; (7) necessity to dull the pain; and (8) boredom. One young woman explained she had sex “because I need someone to hold me.”

Conscious believers are grappling with the reality that permissiveness creates tension in the believer’s life.

• I cry and cry and want even more to have back what I have lost.

• … guilt at myself for giving in and resentment of the man for continuing to push me.

• I feel like a tramp.

• … feelings of guilt and hopelessness.

• I wonder why the need is there?

There are also consequences for those who practice celibacy. One woman wrote, “I believe and practice celibacy, but in America in the 1970s I have to hide this fact even from church people.” Peer pressure is as significant to those who are formerly married as to adolescents.

The woman who says “no” may face a dilemma because of the dating structure. If she rejects a certain level of intimacy she may find herself not dating. Dates thus may respond to “no”:

• They tell me there is something wrong with me.

• Usually I don’t get asked out again.

• Usually called “old-fashioned.” Most often the man never calls for another date.

• I feel guilty of depriving that person of a good feeling.

• They express amazement that I can hold such puritanical notions.

The formerly married Christian must deal with the conflict between biblical standards and realities; few wish to be hypocrites. Several questioned the bias of the researcher:

Article continues below

• I resent the “extramarital sex is normal” attitude of this questionnaire. Doesn’t anyone live as a Christian?

• Your questionnaire seems to imply that the single must have sex.

• Christianity has to do with Jesus Christ, not with sex or no sex. Set your sights higher!

• The Bible has the answers; it’s people who try to change God’s words.

• The two sides [faith and sex] are completely different subjects and one in no way has to do with the other.

The absence of clear, precise teaching frustrates most formerly married Christians. The large numbers of undisciplined Christians and the misuse of Scripture (by foes and advocates alike) fuels the debate between unbelieving realists and unrealistic believers.

If Paul did not flinch in addressing the behavior and attitudes toward sex, why are we so timid?

What Can The Church Do?

The church, first of all, should respond rather than react. Formerly married people believe in the church: 42 percent of the divorced men and 47 percent of the women reported their church was supportive during the divorce process.

• 57 percent of the men and 55 percent of the women said they were active in a local church.

• 61 percent of the men and 36 percent of the women are members of the church they attend.

• Only 33 percent of the men and 43 percent of the women changed churches because of their divorce.

• Only 29 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women believe the church is more supportive of widows than the divorced.

• Only 22 percent of the men and 30 percent of the women say married friends in the church are suspicious when they come into contact with their mates.

It is not insignificant that the singles ministry at the church studied has evolved as an including, loving community. Thus, “I came here because there was no support elsewhere,” “They stood by me,” “They supported me,” or “They kept me together,” were frequent responses. Several ex-Catholics reported they have become part of the fellowship because they felt rejected by their communion and that they experienced acceptance at this particular church.

However, there are some who divorce the church. They find the easiest way to eliminate guilt and confusion is to flee—at least until inner conflicts can be resolved or until they remarry.

Marriage on the rebound is a third consequence. The notion persists that the best evidence of healing after divorce is remarriage, and many handle rejection by a quick remarriage: “See, someone loves me!” Some remarry to accommodate themselves to 1 Corinthians 7:2: “Since there so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” One forty-two-year-old woman noted, “Let’s go back to what God had to say about premarital sex. Those who cannot abstain should remarry.”

Article continues below

In some instances, a single with children who questions his or her ability as a solo parent—and where there is strong religious commitment—may, when he or she is unable to deal with sexual needs, ignore the most obvious warning signals and remarry.

And what of the single who comes from a fellowship that demands “grounds” for remarriage? Fellowships that quickly and heavily wield Matthew 19 and similar passages to deny both permission and congregational support, need to weigh their message carefully. To deny an individual the blessings of marriage may be to condemn that one to promiscuity and to a roller-coaster spiritual experience.

The fourth reality is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A person punishes himself through a sexual spree—perhaps after an unaffectionate marriage, perhaps after rejection. We may never understand the depth of humiliation to which Satan can take those who have a low “self-destruct” threshold.

Finally, there are those who welcome with relief the end of intimacy. Some with less than intense needs have difficulty understanding the pressures of others who, like themselves, are single again. But if they establish themselves as examples, they can be as destructive as promiscuous Christians.

How Can We Respond?

1. Listen. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together that the first service Christians owe a man is to listen to him. The divorced Christian expects neither license nor complete, final answers. But he does want to be heard. Most formerly marrieds already know what is best; they want support to help them do the best. Many need guidance in facing honestly their sexual needs and in bringing them under discipline.

Many singles want the church to recognize their needs. But others feel the needs are as suspect or wrong as the resolution of the need. The church for its part fears recognition of the need, believing that in essence this recognizes equally satisfaction of the need. Although 75 percent of the men and 56 percent of the women said they could discuss their sexual needs with their minister, only 18 percent actually have. Responses to the question, “Why not?” were (1) “He’s not a counselor” (2.82 percent); (2) “He might judge me” (9.86 percent); (3) “He would not understand” (14.08 percent); (4) “He would be embarrassed” (4.23 percent); (5) “He would question my religious experience” (26.76 percent); (6) “I would feel uncomfortable” (61.97 percent); (7) “I do not know him” (33.80 percent); and (8) a combination of factors (25.35 percent).

Article continues below

Despite prevalence of the double standard, men reported they too would feel uncomfortable sharing with their ministers. Tragically, one in four believes the minister would question his religious experience if he shared. They reported:

• My minister would be threatened.

• He lives in an unrealistic world.

• I could—but he passes on supposed confidences.

• The minister never called or took an interest.

• The pastor tried to support and counsel but he became less accepting when he did not get a reconciliation and demanded compliance with his view of the Word.

If the formerly married are not confiding in their ministers, in whom are they confiding? Two-thirds have talked with another formerly married person, reflecting a strong conclusion that “You have to have been there to understand.” In order of frequency, people talked with (1) a formerly married (65.91 percent); (2) a date (42.61 percent); (3) a married friend (30.68 percent); (4) a psychologist (30.11 percent); (5) a counselor (23.86 percent); and tied for (6) a minister and the “ex” (18.18 percent); 11 percent reported they had talked with their children and 10 percent had talked with “no one.”

2. Comfort. We may not have the answers to uncomfortable questions, but we are beginning to listen. If the church can reaffirm those formerly marrieds who are struggling with their sexuality, they in turn can share their comfort with others in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 1.

The formerly married Christian has a right to learn the extent of his ignorance and misinformation and to expect the Christian community to replace such misinformation with facts. Although he has uncomfortable questions to ask, he should expect biblically sound answers. The formerly married, when he is adequately informed, will be more responsible than when he is intellectually misinformed—or underinformed.

3. Encourage. Emotionally hurt people make mistakes; but when they do, they want to know they are not alone. We must respond sensitively to those who have fallen.

We can encourage by defining a clear biblical understanding of sexuality: it is not what a person does, but rather what he is. Both the church and the world have overemphasized genital aspects that are only a part of all it means to be male or female.

Article continues below

Biblical standards are up to date despite one respondent’s observation that “the Bible was written a long time ago and the West coast is a far cry from those days.” Hundreds of thousands of single Christians choose to live by those standards; few go on talk shows to praise them. The world does not need someone to say, “Hey, look at me. I’m celibate!” It desperately needs Christians living by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is the Enabler, the Comforter.

We cannot pass out medals for celibacy as we once did for perfect Sunday school attendance. We must affirm celibacy as not only choosing not to seek intimacy, but also not to accept intimacy outside the bonds of marriage. Unfortunately, celibacy is equated as a “no” when it is in reality a “yes” to what is best for us.

We can encourage formerly marrieds through small groups and ministries to them. While many congregations have gone into singles ministries with the same enthusiasm with which they wandered into bus ministries—or because “First Baptist has this”—singles will sift through the fad to find substance. Many well-educated, professional, articulate, formerly marrieds have more than a “Sunday-schoolesque” understanding of the Bible and Christian tradition and are seeking application not accommodation.

4. Shepherd. We must recognize the distinctive needs of formerly married Christians. Their status influences perceptions, biases, and sensitivities that affect every facet of their lives. They are God’s children: forgiven and forgiving. In responding, we may be preparing ourselves for such a status should fate or mate determine.

To shepherd is to stand with these people as they confront issues that cause uneasiness or temptation or distress. To shepherd is to believe in the individual.

To shepherd is to help the formerly married come to grips with his or her sexual need. Some will be angry at a mate for leaving (thus denying the outlet); others will deny the existence of need. The answer to the dilemma is not suppression or repression or self-righteous “works,” but rather discipline: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13), with the emphasis not on I but on Christ.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.