Divorce and Faith: What Do Religions Teach?
In recent weeks, we’ve shared information on the Wevorce blog that highlights how culture and history contribute to certain societal stigmas about divorce and marital separation. Today we examine the implications of religion’s role in divorce.
Most Christians believe marriage to be a sacred lifelong union and that God hates divorce. These views are based on biblical sources (Deuteronomy 24:14, Malachi 2:16, Matthew chapter 19, etc.) and allow for only two reasons for divorce: infidelity or abandonment by a spouse. And most protestant faiths allow for remarriage after divorce, but a Catholic divorce makes remarriage within the church impossible (except in the case of an annulment, which is only possible in some circumstances).
In 1903, the Inter-Church Conference on Marriage and Divorce was held with the intent to use religion to keep divorce to a minimum. However, societal and moral views toward divorce became more relaxed, and with the onset of feminism, the practice still gained traction. But Christianity isn’t the only religion with rules about divorce.
Here is a quick outline of what other major religions teach on the subject.
Like Christians, Hindus believe marriage to be a sacred, divine covenant and a sacrament. Historically, women in Hindu society had few, if any rights to divorce. They were viewed as possessions and could be bought and sold, abducted, married against their will, and forced into slavery. Women who left their parents’ homes were at the mercy of their husbands and husbands’ family.
However, Hindu ideas related to marriage and divorce have undergone some changes. For one thing, a woman’s position has changed slightly, so she is less dependent. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 even states that “both parties to a marriage may seek lawful separation by joint consent.” Grounds for divorce include adultery, cruelty, religious conversation, venereal disease, leprosy, and a lack of communication for over seven years. But, as with most religions, there is still a stigma associated with divorce and it is viewed as a couple’s last resort.
Buddha’s teachings neither explicitly address the topic of divorce, nor do they prohibit it. So, in Buddhism, even though most teachings are pro-marriage and pro-relationships, husbands and wives have the freedom to separate and/or divorce. Buddhism even teaches that separation is to be preferred over a lifetime of misery.
In the Quran (Islam’s holy book), there are over 100 passages that pertain specifically to divorce. That said, divorce is allowed but not encouraged. This step is often seen as a last resort, and most Muslims will first seek counseling as an effort to avoid it. However, if divorce is deemed to be in the best interests of all parties involved, there are three kinds of divorce, each with its own rules and conditions.
- Talaq. The procedure involved when a husband has initiated a divorce.
- Lian. When a man accuses his wife of adultery, but there are no witnesses and the wife denies the claim.
- Khula. This is when a wife initiates a divorce.
Religion’s Role in Divorce
As with cultural and historic influences, there is still a stigma associated with divorce in many religious circles. Despite progress in many areas of modern society, some believe religion’s role in divorce is rooted in archaic laws — laws that preserve the sanctity of an institution rather than the well-being of an individual. And still others believe such laws are crucial to a functioning religious society and in place to ensure respect to a higher power and serve as a long-term benefit to all parties.
To gain a better understanding of these issues, we spoke with two Wevorce community members, asking them for their experiences during divorce while being affiliated with their respective churches.
Before Kirk*, 44, announced his divorce, he struggled with internal guilt and shame for years.
“I prayed for years to overcome my unhappiness in my former marriage. I tried to convince myself that I simply needed more faith, so I threw myself into church and family activities, but the harder I tried to fix myself, the more depressed I became,” he explains.
“As difficult as it was,” he says, “I eventually had to put aside my religious pride and admit the truth: I was miserable and I was making my wife miserable, too (even though it took her years to admit). Making the decision to get a divorce was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done, but scriptures aside, I knew it was right for both of us. I couldn’t live with myself or stand before God knowing I was a whole-hearted father to my daughter but only half a husband to my wife.”
The Loss of Friends
As with most divorces, Kirk’s decision affected the couple’s social and religious ties.
“Since our pastors never minced words when it came to what the bible says about divorce, I knew what to expect when I announced my decision,” he says. “Most of our friends in the church were understandably curious (and often meddlesome). They didn’t want us to “fail.” Initially, it seemed their intent was to help keep our marriage together, but when it became clear that our divorce was inevitable, the gossip became ruthless. It was a tough time. While most of our friends rallied behind my wife to show her support, a few others extended their compassion to me, and that meant a lot.”
Vanessa*, 39, experienced a similar breakdown of her religious and social support system.
“People tend to take sides when their friends get divorced, but when I filed papers, I also felt betrayed by my church,” she says. “Over the years, I confided in a few close friends (also members of the church) about serious marital problems and how frustrated I was, so I assumed people would be gracious and understanding. How wrong I was! Almost overnight, people I thought were loyal friends became curt, unkind, and mercilessly critical — all in the name of defending doctrine. Love for one’s neighbor is the second greatest Christian commandment, but that was suddenly missing from my life when I filed for divorce.”
She continues, “My divorce was painful enough, but the treatment I received from my church was devastating. Christian faiths also often talk about lost sheep, and during that time in my life, I felt more lost than ever. But in an effort to save my marriage, the most prominent members of my church chose not to save me. By attempting to preserve the institution of marriage, it felt like they discarded my soul in the process. It’s sad to admit, but I don’t know if I will ever feel comfortable in another church again. I still believe in God, but I don’t understand how his supposed followers could be so harsh and unrelenting toward someone they may not agree with.”
A few years after his divorce, Kirk has been able to reflect upon his experience and move forward, as he says, “without bitterness.”
He explains, “I’ve since left my previous church, but I am still close with the pastor and the few friends who showed mercy during my darkest hours. My ex-wife and I are both remarried, and we are free of the serious problems that affected our first marriage. Although co-parenting our daughter has had its challenges, our lives and new relationships are fulfilling and joyous (which is what I assume God always intended for us). We have even started to rebuild our friendship with one another. I’m a three-year-long member at a new church, and it’s a place where I feel loved and accepted, despite my divorce. I feel like we have been given a fresh start and the chance at happiness we deserved all along.”
Divorce and Religion: A Complicated Relationship
It’s apparent that religion has a powerful influence on how or even if couples divorce. But how is divorce affecting religion?
A study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that children of divorced parents who are religious are less religious than their peers. “Previous research has shown that family stability—or instability—can impact the transmission of religious identity,” cites the study. “Consistent with this research, the survey finds Americans who were raised by divorced parents are more likely than children whose parents were married during most of their formative years to be religiously unaffiliated (35% vs. 23% respectively).”
Divorce also affects rates of religious attendance. According to the study, “Americans who were raised by divorced parents are less likely than children whose parents were married during most of their childhood to report attending religious services at least once per week (21% vs. 34%, respectively). This childhood divorce gap is also evident even among Americans who continue to be religiously affiliated. Roughly three in ten (31%) religious Americans who were brought up by divorced parents say they attend religious services at least once a week, compared to 43% of religious Americans who were raised by married parents.”
Professor Andrew Root, quoted in The Washington Post article, How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion, isn’t surprised by the connection. “Everything in divorce gets divided. Literally everything. Parents’ friends get divided. Relatives get divided. Everyone takes sides. The church gets divided. Dad leaves Mom’s faith, or vice versa. Negotiating those worlds becomes difficult,” he says.
“Churches are not doing enough to speak directly to the concerns of children in those situations, so the kids lose faith in the ability of the church to help them,” says Root, adding that when the divorce rate climbed in the 1980s, many members of the clergy, especially mainline Protestant pastors, stopped speaking out against divorce so as not to alienate struggling congregants. “But by going silent on the subject, they didn’t offer any comfort to the kids.”
Root believes these same people doubt the church will sympathize with them in adulthood. “They’re now thinking, ‘I’m dealing with depression.’ Or, ‘I’m dealing with my own marital troubles.’ The church must not have anything to say to me, because when I was 8 and dealing with divorce, my Sunday-school teacher didn’t even say, ‘Man, Amanda, that must be really complicated for you’,” Root says.
The Path Forward
If we are to acknowledge religion’s role in divorce — and in Vanessa’s case, its role in her abandonment of church altogether — we must also acknowledge how a person’s spiritual beliefs affect their views of marriage. Could it be our beliefs and tendencies related to how we form marital partnerships are flawed? Is it possible that sometimes marriage begins hastily or is encouraged in partners who are too young to make such a serious decision — all in the name of religion or because of religious pressure?
“It was difficult to admit that marrying my husband had been the wrong decision, but we were young and pressured by our church,” says Vanessa. “We felt like we were doing God’s will, even though there was so much more in life we both needed to experience before we got married. In my opinion, this pressure and the strict rule to remain pure before marriage is what caused me so many problems in the first place. I’m now in my late 30s, and many of my religious friends who married at a young age are also divorced for some of the same reasons I am. A lot of us feel like we missed out on valuable experiences in life because we put our religious beliefs before what we knew would benefit us individually.”
Whatever religion’s role in marriage and in divorce in centuries past, it’s clear that perceptions about these most sacred relationships are continually evolving. And as we gain a deeper understanding, it’s important to know the effects of religion, culture, and history upon divorce trends, so we can embark on a path forward that values both society as a whole — and the individuals therein.
We want to hear from you. If you would like to tell us how religion has played a role in your divorce or if you have a story to share, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*names have been changed.