A Christian Approach to Divorce Divorce, while not condoned in Scripture, has become common in today’s world. For this reason, we want to offer a Christian response. Throughout this book, we emphasize that marriage and family relationships should be based on a mutual covenant. God desires permanence in marriage, and married Christians must do all that they can to uphold their marriages. This ideal for Christian marriage is an honorable aspiration that can be achieved by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
However, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that there are no perfect people and none completely live up to this ideal. All marriages are composed of two imperfect people who fail each other to one degree or another. All couples struggle with their relationships. While many learn to deal successfully with marital conflict and find the healing needed through therapy and community support, others are unable to overcome the obstacles
of violence, disrespect, abuse, bitterness, addictions, cold detachment, and neglect. Brokenness heaps on brokenness and anger; hurt and bitterness begin to take on a life of their own. These marriages tend to spin in reverse—from conditionality to emotional distance to possessive power to conditional love and an atmosphere of law—and eventually the marriage is severed.
Wherever Jesus talks about divorce (Matt. 5:31–32; 19:3–9; Mark 10:2– 12; Luke 16:18), the clear thrust is that marriage is of the Lord and not to be broken (Wenham 2020). It is also important to acknowledge a range of Christian views on divorce and remarriage. The highly accessible Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, edited by Wayne House (1990), presents the arguments on divorce and remarriage. Christ calls couples to fidelity in marriage as a lifelong commitment; he does not have in view, however, a marriage of legalism that entails only commitment to the institution and not to the relationship. Marriage is a human structure, and we must never focus more on preserving a structure than on caring about the individual spouses. Jesus did not condemn the woman at the well for her unsuccessful marriages and relationships but offered redemption and a new beginning (John 4).
The New Testament focuses on grace and forgiveness and hope. The message of restoration must be generously offered to those who have gone through the pain of broken relationships. We advocate for the pastoral support of Christians who have gone through divorce. As we have seen, divorce negatively impacts everyone involved. The church should come alongside those experiencing divorce, offering hospitality and encouragement in word and deed. Romans 3:23 indicates that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” meaning that we should not be judgmental of our brothers and sisters who have experienced divorce. At the same time, there is a real, tangible need for aid, especially in the first couple of years after divorce.
Single-Parent Families Single-parent households can be defined as either mother or father living alone with their children, bringing children into a cohabiting situation, or sharing living arrangements with others (extended family or other single or married people). The parent who lives in the same household with his or her dependent children is referred to as the custodial parent, while the
noncustodial parent is the one who does not live with the children. There is evidence that whether they live in the home or not, grandmothers especially are becoming the default caregivers after divorce.
As trends of divorce have increased, so have single-parent homes. Every year approximately one million children become part of a single-parent home. The percentage of children under age eighteen living with a single parent has risen from 9 percent in 1960 to 28 percent in 2004. The changing proportion went from 22 percent in 1960 to 56 percent in 2004 among Blacks and from 7 percent to 22 percent among Whites (Popenoe and Whitehead 2005).
These trends have continued into the later part of the 2010s (Centers for Disease Control 2020). For example, about 15.76 million children lived with single mothers. About 3.23 million children lived with single fathers. These trends have been decreasing from the peak in 2012. It should also be noted that due to remarriage, many children from single-parent homes eventually become part of reconstituted families.
The first two years following a divorce can be an especially fragile period in the single-parent home as both the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent adjust to new roles. The degree of harmony or conflict between the parents is the major factor in how stressful this period will be. The hurt, anger, sadness, and depression that occur with a divorce affect the single parent at an emotional level especially in the first few years, making it more difficult for divorced parents to attend to the needs of their children. With their security undermined, they can feel unsure of themselves in many areas. Two major stressors accompany the adjustment to being a divorced person with children: not enough time and not enough money.
Not Enough Time The common complaint of not enough time only intensifies when the solo
parent is called on for double duty. At the practical level, this means something has to give. Single parents lack the time needed to juggle work, parenting, household tasks, and a personal life. Being deprived of a mate to share the parenting responsibilities, the single parent often feels both lonely and overwhelmed. Some single mothers give more to their children and take less care of themselves, which explains the common complaint among single mothers that they have little left over for themselves.
As hard as single parents try, their children are often shortchanged. The term latchkey children describes youngsters who are on their own and lack adult supervision for a large portion of time, even when living with the custodial parent. Because of the difficult circumstances of single parenthood, living in a single-parent home can be a lonely existence for children and place inordinate responsibility on them. Given less attention and guidance than they require, such children are disadvantaged when it comes to educational, occupational, and economical provisions.
Noncustodial Parents Potentially, but rarely in reality, the noncustodial parent equally shares
parenting responsibilities with the custodial parent. Those parents who truly put the good of their children first find a way to overcome differences with the ex-spouse and remain involved, caring, and supportive parents. Sadly, face-to-face involvement by noncustodial parents in the lives of their children consistently decreases with time. A major cause of the declining involvement is often the development of a new relationship for the father.
Economic and emotional abandonment of children by their fathers may cause many of divorce’s most damaging effects. Mothers rarely abandon their children when they abandon marriage, but fathers often move away or fail to pay child support. Since children ordinarily do not live with their father after divorce, his absence can be detrimental to both sons and daughters. One main issue with postdivorce father absence is reflected in nurturance and involvement. Popenoe and Whitehead (2003) reported that only one in six children saw their father as often as once a week in the first year after divorce. Ten years after the breakup, more than two-thirds of the children report not having seen their father for a year. Income for mothers and children declines about 30 percent, in contrast to fathers, who gain 10–15 percent in personal income.
These trends continue as children age. Fewer adolescents than younger children belong to single-father households (King, Boyd, and Pragg 2018). For adolescents in single-mother families, belonging and attachment to mothers is reflected in lower levels of marijuana and tobacco use, lower levels of alcohol use, fewer depressive symptoms, and less delinquency. In other words, secure attachment between single mothers and their children is associated with lower levels of drug use and delinquency as compared with single mothers with less secure attachment styles. For adolescents living with
their fathers only, these teens experienced lower depressive symptoms, lower marijuana use, and less delinquency compared with teens living with mothers only. In other words, single father households are associated with lower drug use and delinquency compared with single mother households, even ones with more secure attachment patterns. The divorced father’s closeness to the noncustodial mother did not provide the same level of support for adolescent well-being as even single-parent families. That is, the level of closeness between two divorced parents trying to coparent still does not provide the same level of support as single-parent families where one parent is no longer engaged in parenting. Fathers who stay engaged with their children after divorce reap the benefits of a higher quality relationship with them.
Not Enough Money: The Link between Single Parenthood and Poverty Although the lack of sufficient income adversely affects all types of low-
income families, the negative effect is especially pronounced among single- parent families (Conger, Conger, and Martin 2010). Perhaps the greatest difficulty experienced by single parents is a lack of economic resources. Whatever the path to single motherhood (divorce, death of a spouse, unwed pregnancy), it is estimated that approximately two-thirds of single-parent mothers live below the poverty level. The Brookings Institution found that finishing high school, getting married, and then having children has prevented 98 percent of the American population from experiencing poverty (Sawhill and Haskins 2003).
It is sobering that the majority of those who divorce live below the poverty level. Lack of sufficient education or skill often means that the single parent’s employment demands physical and emotional energy with little left over for the care of the children. As a way to alleviate economic stress, some single mothers remarry prematurely, only to face a second divorce. Finding employment, especially when one is not educated or trained, is an enormous burden. On top of this, the single mother must deal with the logistics of making ends meet, perhaps face the need to relocate, and take care of the emotional and physical needs of the children, which means she has little time to maintain a social life.
The discouraging evidence is that falling into single-parent family status often begins a downward spiral to deep poverty that persists from one generation to the next (Blalock, Tiller, and Monroe 2004). Such single-parent families are caught in a culture of poverty, a concept denoting a way of life that ensues when people are forced to adapt to poverty.
Poverty affects children’s physical and mental health. Children in poverty tend to have more dietary concerns, stress, and lowered physical health (Pascoe et al. 2016). These trends follow for lower educational outcomes as well as mental illness. Children from families with lower socioeconomic status had lower academic achievement, even in the earliest years of school.
One study found that married mothers had more education, were older when giving birth to their children, showed better psychological adjustment, were more financially secure, and had more social support than cohabiting or single mothers (Aronson 2004).
This bleak account of single-parent families should be balanced by the fact that, in spite of the extreme difficulty resulting from the lack of economic resources and time, some single-parent families function quite effectively. This is especially true when the noncustodial parent contributes financially and takes an active role in the lives of the children. Single mothers also fare better when grandparents step in to serve as surrogate parents to the children (Harper and Ruicheva 2010).