How to Help a Friend Through a Dying Marriage
I walked a dear friend through the grief of a dying marriage last year. After less than two years enjoying what she thought was a wonderful marriage, she discovered the lies and the multiple infidelities her husband had been covering up since before they were married. Even worse, he was unrepentant for his numerous betrayals.
It was the first and only time I ever counseled anyone to seek a divorce.
We both knew how deeply marriage matters to God and that covenantal relationships are not intended to be broken. Yet, God gives his people clear guidelines for times when divorce might be the only acceptable solution. In her case, the damage and lies were too numerous to overcome with only one party committed to repairing their failed relationship.
As her marriage died, I was able to come alongside her, mourning her husband’s unrepentant heart and the future that she had lost. I saw the heartbreak the revelations of her husband’s deceit brought. Then her outlook sunk lower when she recognized that they weren’t going to be able to work to mend their young marriage, and this was the end.
These seemed like inevitable aspects of the pain of divorce. What I didn’t anticipate was her agony grow as she walked into church on Sunday morning.
As a church, we are significantly more committed to staying married than the culture around us. Unfortunately, sometimes the biblical zeal for marriage overwhelms the need for grace, support, and care for those who are victims of the broken relationships bound to arise in our sinful world.
So in her Christian community, the gossip spread. She quietly backed away from her former church, in hopes that her husband would be free to experience repentance and heal in the midst of a community of believers. Her selfless attitude was met with fellow church members speculating that things might have been different had she fought harder for him or trusted God more to heal their relationship.
None of us imagine divorce to be an easy solution; however, it took this close look at the saga for me to realize just how deeply painful and layered it is to be the one who left, the divorcee, the ex-wife in the pews.
For the married women who face the pain of ongoing infidelity or abuse, going to church often brings feelings of inadequacy not only as a wife but also as a Christian. When women have already wrestled with the question of whether or not their marriage is salvageable— have sought God in prayer and Christian counsel—being forced to defend their decision to their brothers and sisters is an unnecessary burden on an already unbearable situation.
Nobody wants to delve into just how many times their spouse was unfaithful, how many lies covered it up, or how repentant or unrepentant they might be. (Not to mention when children are involved, parents may seek to protect them by keeping the details private.)
Americans overall are actually more likely than pastors themselves to believe divorce is a sin even in the cases of adultery (39%) and abandonment (38%). The women in our church working through the grief of the loss of their marriage cannot afford for us to treat divorce in this all-or-nothing manner, as if every instance of a failed marriage is a wrong and sinful decision.
Some of us will be in positions where we counsel, advise, and assist fellow church members who are considering whether to divorce. If we are called to this task, we need to come alongside marriages with prayerful discernment, asking questions to ascertain the full situation so that we can advise with understanding and wisdom.
But for casual friends and pew-mates, for those who learn of the divorce later, I believe our initial impulse should be to grieve and care for the parties involved, rather than to challenge their decision or seek out proof that the relationship was really irreparable.
The church is the best place to care for those who are hurt by the brokenness of the world while also affirming the importance of commitment in marriage. In our churches, we will often come across divorces where we feel compelled to take sides and declare one person justified and the other guilty. But the Bible doesn’t give us these easy answers. It shows us we are all sinners in need of grace. Instead of shallow gossip or good riddances, we must offer those going through a divorce the truth of the gospel.
As outsiders of the marriage, processing a divorce in a Christian manner requires showing grace to both parties involved; we both support the hurting spouse in their grief and show our willingness to help restore the offending spouse should repentance come.
We need to come alongside those who are grieving the loss of their marriage, of the future they had dreamed of, and support them as they face, full-force, the reality of the fallen world we live in. As believers, we are called to bind up the wounded hearts and set the captives free. Supporting those grieving the devastating effects of sin on their marriages is just one way we can carry out our mission to be the hands and feet of Christ to the hurting in this world.
Divorce shatters a sense of identity built, in part, around being a wife, or particularly so-and-so’s wife. Deep betrayal leads to deep wounds. Instead of negating this pain, we need to speak to them the truth that they are beloved by God, altogether lovely and without blemish.
Because marriage is meant to mirror Christ’s relationship with the church, though, it can have devastating spiritual implications. For some women, it becomes hard to see how God would extend grace and love that their own husband would not offer them. As a church, we need to speak this truth to them and remind them of the worth they have in Christ and the love God has already and will continue to lavish upon them.
We need to lament with them the loss of their marriage and not downplay their hurt. As Esther Fleece, the author of No More Faking Fine, wrote, God expresses his love for us in lament for the broken state we are in. He laments with us when good things are broken and so too should we lament when people around us face the brokenness of the world.
In fact, when we see the heartache of earthly relationships, we are reminded that we shouldn’t be too comfortable in this world but should long for the one to come. Our friends experiencing divorce bear the weight of this tension in a visceral way. When we come alongside them in lament, they direct our hearts again to this reality and call us to lament the sin in the world and call for Christ’s return.
Ultimately, none of our marriages are meant to be sufficient but are pointers to this greater longing. The fallen state of our world means that this reflection will occasionally be distorted beyond recognition, and that, in some circumstances, God allows for divorce. It is heartbreaking, but also a reality we as Christians must learn to process and grieve.
In this process, may we come alongside those who bear the battle wounds of this broken world with the grace and love of Christ who continues to long for his bride, the church.
Bailey Suzio is passionate about drinking copious amounts of coffee and equipping believers to see God’s work in their daily lives and church communities. You can connect with her at The Thin Place as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter