In our pill-oriented society, we want instant relief and cure from all that ails us. One aspirin advertisement promises relief “when you don’t have time for the pain.” Our society promotes the quick fix over the long, hard work required to overcome most of the stress in today’s world. To become whole, a healing process must take place in the believer. This healing process, which includes growth in faith and in our relationship to God and others, usually works at a gradual pace.
To think that Christians are immune to stress and pain is not only an unrealistic view but also bad theology. Scripture includes numerous examples of disaster falling on the just and the unjust alike. We need look only at the life of Job to know that evil circumstances come to the righteous and that instant cure is not the norm. What is guaranteed is the compassion of God in every circumstance. God will be present with us through the body of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. This belief can bring deep spiritual hope that helps not only the individual family member but also the entire family. A study done on patients with advanced cancer, for example, found that higher levels of hope were associated with lower levels of strain on the part of family caregivers (Lohne, Miaskowski, and Rustoen 2012).
The two extreme responses to stress that we have examined lead, respectively, to a theology of escapism, in which the Christian tends to
withdraw in the face of crisis, and to a theology of activism, in which the Christian tends to be self-reliant to the point of rendering God a mere bystander in the process. What is the biblical response? Scripture suggests that when confronted by a crisis, Christians should not fatalistically resign themselves. For example, when arrested, Paul did not meekly succumb. Instead, he asserted his status as a Roman citizen. Examples from the life of David point to a balance between passivity and activism in the midst of stress. At times David fell on his knees before the Lord, acknowledging that his situation was hopeless without divine intervention. At other times, David took forthright action in the face of extreme difficulties. The balance between passivity and activism can be seen in the story of David and Goliath. Fully aware that without God’s help he had no chance against the Philistine, David equipped himself with his sling and five smooth stones.
The same combination of passive reliance and active assertiveness can be seen in the life of Jesus. Faced with imminent arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus retreated to the garden of Gethsemane. Distressed and agitated, he told his disciples that his soul was “deeply grieved, even to death” (Mark 14:34). In his despair, Jesus prayed to his Father, “Remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (v. 36).
It is important to recall that this very same Jesus had previously gone into the temple and assertively driven out the moneychangers. Enraged at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he called them whitewashed tombs, snakes, and a brood of vipers. His language was equally severe when he called Herod a fox, unreceptive audiences swine, and false prophets savage wolves. He did not refrain from taking direct action against the social evils of his day.
Christians need an able response to crisis. An unavoidable part of living in a fallen world, stress should be approached as a time to draw especially near to God and others for support. Although God has not promised an escape from stressful situations, he has promised to be our “refuge in the time of trouble” (Ps. 37:39).
Stressful events often shake up the family system in a way that disrupts the stagnant comfort of routine life. This can be an occasion for growth as Christians. It can also be a time of increased intimacy among family members and with the body of Christ as a whole. When people are vulnerable, they are often more receptive to the support and love of others. It is essential, then, in periods of adversity to choose a direction that, with God’s help, will lead to deeper levels of intimacy, commitment, forgiveness, and empowerment. To
help achieve and maintain a balanced perspective, we might also keep in our hearts the simple yet profound prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr (1987, 251):
O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Divorce and Single-Parent Families
Families are amazingly resilient. Even in the face of challenging external pressures and intense internal conflicts, they are often able to adapt through a built-in survival mechanism. From an outsider’s point of view, a given family may face insurmountable challenges, and yet the members consider the family their primary source of identity and security. The basis of this support and identity is the stability of the parents’ relationship. Waite and Gallagher (2000, 323) conclude, “There is substantial evidence that, on the average, being in a satisfying marriage enhances the physical, psychological, social and economic well-being of adults, and that divorcing may involve considerable risk.”
There is a concerted effort to emphasize the benefits of marriage even when trouble exists between spouses. In a study released in 2002, Waite and five colleagues analyzed data from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Family and Households. They discovered that adults who said they were unhappily married and got divorced were on average still unhappy or even less happy when interviewed five years later, as compared to those who stayed in their marriages. Most of those who stayed in their marriages had on average moved past the bad times and reached a happier stage. After controlling for race, age, gender, and income, the researchers found that divorce usually did not reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem, or increase a sense of mastery over one’s life. These findings have been reinforced since 2002 (Kalmjin, 2015). The general conclusion is that divorce does not make unhappily married people happier.
A point does come, however, when spouses divorce because life together is no longer a viable option. This often occurs after a fairly long period of disillusionment or denial, when spouses have ignored or exacerbated their
problems. Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night provides a good look at a family engaged in collective denial. They keep talking about each other in totally unrealistic terms. Such defense mechanisms deflect debilitating conflict for the time being but ultimately keep the family from instituting needed change. When built-up anger and bitterness disrupt into violent, abusive interactions, marriage is no longer a safe haven. Without help, the spouses will likely divorce.
Demographics Among developed countries, the United States has one of the higher
divorce rates. The annual divorce rate in the United States steadily rose from a low of 1 divorce for every 1,000 married couples in 1860, to a high of 22.5 in 1979. Immediately following World War I, the divorce rate rose noticeably; similarly, following World War II there was a dramatic rise in the divorce rate. These increases reflect both the stress placed on marriages by forced separation and the large number of unstable marriages contracted during the wars. The drop in the rate during the Depression years reflects the costliness of legal divorce. The most dramatic rise in the divorce rate occurred between 1965 and 1979. It was especially pronounced among people under age forty-five. Since that time, the rate of divorce has declined moderately to an estimated rate of approximately 17 divorces for every 1,000 married couples in 2013. This trend has roughly remained steady through 2019 (US Census Bureau 2021).
Since 2000, the rate of divorce has dropped from roughly 4.0 per 1000 to approximately 2.7 per 1000. This reflects a drop from 944,000 divorces from states that report divorce and annulments in 2000 to 746,971 in 2019 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.). The best estimate is that approximately four to five out of every ten current marriages will end in divorce, with the likelihood of divorce being lowest among those who have been married the longest. The average length of marriages that end in divorce is seven years; the rate of divorce is highest for marriages of two to three years’ duration.
Although the decline in the divorce rate since 1980 is encouraging, it should also be noted that the number of people choosing to cohabit rather
than marry explains this trend in part. Although a high percentage of cohabiting couples separate, such breakups do not affect the divorce rate. The later age of first marriage (twenty-six for women, twenty-eight for men) also contributes to the declining divorce rate. Although it is hard to document, we believe that the positive marriage movement emphasizing the importance of premarital counseling and marital enrichment also accounts for the declining rate of divorce.
Although there is no sure way of predicting whether a marriage will succeed, research has found correlations with a number of demographic factors, such as ethnicity, income, occupation, social class, and level of education that may have a bearing. In 2001, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 20 percent of first-marriage divorces now occur within five years. Those who marry young, especially in their teens, are much more likely to divorce than those who marry in their twenties. A number of interrelated factors may also be at work here. Couples who marry young are typically from a lower socioeconomic class (which increases the probability of financial difficulties), and they marry after a very short engagement and perhaps because of a pregnancy. Given their stage of individual development, most teenagers are socially and psychologically unprepared for a relationship as demanding as marriage. These trends have continued through 2021.
Next to teenage marriages, the most unstable marriages are those of people who marry after age thirty. Among these divorces, the most common complaints are a lack of agreement and the tendency of the spouse to be domineering and critical. The underlying dynamic here is perhaps that those who marry late in life have become set in their ways and have a hard time adjusting to the expectations of a spouse.
The divorce rate is low among men with little education, increases among those who have had some high school training, and declines among men who have a college degree. In terms of ethnic differences, the divorce rate is highest among Blacks, moderate among Whites, and lowest among other ethnic groups, particularly those of Far Eastern origin. In terms of religion, divorce rates are lowest among Jews, moderate among Catholics, and highest among Protestants. Divorce is more likely when there is a sizable age gap or differences in religion, social class, or ethnic origin.
There is no single cause of divorce. The reasons are multiple and complex. Some relate to the idiosyncrasies of the individuals; others involve social and cultural factors, such as the demographics we have just noted. Other things being equal, the lower the quality of the marriage, the greater the likelihood the couple will divorce. In other words, low levels of marital satisfaction usually translate into divorce. Therefore, absence of any of the requisites for a strong marriage (e.g., commitment, family support, differentiation, adaptability, forgiveness, mutual empowerment, and intimacy) discussed in prior chapters could contribute to marital failure. Couples who learn conflict-management skills are more likely to work out their differences and stay married.
A seminal work by John Gottman (1994; Gottman and Levinson 2000) projects which couples will likely divorce based on one interview. Gottman tells us divorce is more likely to occur should partners engage in four types of negative communication strategies: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Couples that use these negative communication strategies are significantly more likely to divorce. Further, these result in negative affect, which lowers marital satisfaction; lower levels of positive affect also contribute to divorce. This means that couples who divorce tend to experience low levels of positive experience and higher levels of negative communication.
The most frequent motives given for divorce center on relational issues, behavior problems, and problems about work and the division of labor in the home. A recent study in Denmark confirms that similar factors lead to divorce across cultures: lack of love/intimacy, communication problems, lack of sympathy/respect/trust, and growing apart (Strizzi et al. 2020).
A number of factors at the sociocultural level may contribute to a culture of divorce and a divorce-prone society. Based on their research on divorce in the Netherlands, deGraff and Kalmijn (2006) observe three important trends in modern societies: the normalization of divorce, the psychologization of relationships, and the emancipation of women. Other factors contributing to a culture of divorce include a decline in viewing marriage as an unconditional commitment, a decline in the social stigma of divorce, the liberalization of divorce laws, increased opportunity for males and females who work together to become romantically involved, and changing gender roles that make wives less dependent economically on their husbands.
When it comes to those who identify as Christian or non-Christian, there seems to be little difference in the prevalence of divorce. However, it does seem to matter when it comes to how devout these people are. A study of over fifteen thousand subjects in Great Britain found that “frequent Christian attendees were 1.5 times less likely to suffer marital breakdown than non- affiliates, but there was no difference between non-attending Christian affiliates and those of no religion” (Village, Williams, and Francis 2010, 327). Bradford Wilcox (2010b, 687) found that “individuals who embraced norms of marital permanency and gender specialization and were embedded in social networks and religious institutions enjoyed high-quality stable marriages.” He also found that “couples’ in-home family devotional activities and shared religious beliefs are positively linked with reports of relationship quality” (2010a, 963). In her article “Research Disputes ‘Facts’ on Christian Divorces,” Adelle Banks (2011) pulled together research evidence indicating that the rate of divorce among Christians is significantly lower when persons attend worship regularly. Couples that regularly pray and worship together tend to have more stable and satisfying relationships.