A Christian divorce? How to do it well
Break ups are always difficult, but they don’t have to bring out our worst selves
Every Christian who gets married hopes their commitment to the other person is for life. “What God has joined together,” said Jesus, “let no-one separate.” Would that it were so; but the reality is that some Christian marriages do break down. It only takes one person to want to leave the relationship, and there is not much the other person can do about it, in an age of no-fault divorce.
Separation often brings out the worst in us.
Divorce is typically a terrible time for people. Sometimes the decision to end the marriage is reached mutually after a long period of difficulty or growing far apart but, very often, there is a “leaver” and a “left”. The “leaver” is the one who decides the marriage is over, or effectively walks out of the marriage by having an affair. The “left” is the one for whom the breakdown of the marriage is not a choice or is, at best, a choice made to accept the inevitable. For some, the partner’s decision to walk out of the relationship can come as a real shock, even if things have not been happy for some time.
…separation is not the best for a Christian, though it may sometimes be necessary and justified in cases of violence, abuse, persistent cruelty, addiction or where the other has broken the marriage covenant and remains unrepentant.
When people separate, there can be a whirlpool of different emotions and reactions – anger, blame, depression, self-justification, feelings of betrayal or of failure, shame, embarrassment, fear for the future, even a desire to see the other one suffer. Separation often brings out the worst in us.
Of course, separation is not the best for a Christian, though it may sometimes be necessary and justified in cases of violence, abuse, persistent cruelty, addiction or where the other has broken the marriage covenant and remains unrepentant. The Christian calling is to try to work most difficulties through, to remain faithful to our marriage vows to the extent that it is in our power. So, in light of all that, is there a Christian way to separate? There are plenty of “un-Christian” ways to separate! And there are plenty of ways that will cause a great deal of distress to children, waste large amounts of money, or otherwise make things worse over time. There is much that estranged couples can do to separate sensibly – if not amicably – if they get the right kind of help. Here are some of them.
Prioritise the needs of the children: That is much easier said than done. It requires a lot of maturity, and may involve sacrifice for one or both parents. In most cases, unless a parent is violent, abusive or utterly disinterested, children will do best if they have the active involvement of both parents in their lives. That doesn’t mean equal time – that works well for some children but not for others – but it does mean that the parent who is living elsewhere needs to try to remain as involved as possible. That in turn means that it is better if the parents do not live too far apart. It may be optimal also if the children can stay in the same house or, at least, the same school, for a while. They have enough to cope with in the separation without every aspect of their lives being turned upside down.
Children should never, under any circumstances, be used to hurt the other partner.
Giving priority to the children also means: Not involving them as messengers in a conflict or asking for reports on what the other parent is doing; not denigrating the other parent; not undermining the other parent’s authority; and doing everything possible to support the children’s relationship with the other parent. Children should never, under any circumstances, be used to hurt the other partner.
Negotiate workable parenting arrangements: Knowing that the goal is to keep both parents involved, work out practical arrangements for this that are focused primarily on the children’s needs, while the parents maintain respectful boundaries. There are government-funded Family Relationship Centres across Australia which will help parents work out sensible parenting arrangements using mediation.
Judges usually aren’t child-development experts.
If the parents cannot agree, then one option is to get a referral to a child psychologist who can give them independent advice on what would be best for the children.
Lawyers will be able to assist if the parents cannot agree, especially if there may be a need to go to court; but legal representation is expensive and it can take two years or more to get a judge to hear the case, so court should be avoided wherever possible. The judge will decide what he or she thinks is best for the children, but judges usually aren’t child-development experts. So, after spending a lot of time and money, the outcome may not be all that different from the compromises parents could work out for themselves, with assistance from mediators and psychologists.
Use professionals to help negotiate the division of property: Dividing the property can be one of the hardest things. It is important to get legal advice, but putting everything into the hands of lawyers can be expensive. There are basic things each person can do to save a lot of time and money before involving lawyers:
– Both spouses need to know about all their income and assets.
– Draw up, and try to agree upon, a comprehensive list of assets and liabilities (with estimated values).
– List any significant assets owned before marriage or received by inheritance.
If people cannot quickly reach an agreement, arbitration offers a much better way for many people than going to court. The division of property can be resolved by a senior lawyer or retired judge at a fraction of the cost of a court hearing.
Paul taught that Christians should take disputes to those qualified to resolve them within the church (1 Cor 6:1-6). There may be Christian family lawyers who pastors can recommend. The Alternative Courtroom offers an arbitration service, and the Australian Institute of Family Law Arbitrators and Mediators also is helpful.
For most people, life does get better after separation – eventually – but it is a tough time. How people behave can make a big difference to their future.
Prof. Patrick Parkinson is a Professor of Law at the University of Sydney and a former President of the International Society of Family Law. For further help, go to his website or to Family Relationship Centre.