Jasmine was sitting on the couch in my office, leaning forward with her elbows resting on her knees, and talking through her hands, which were covering her face: “I just don’t think God ever wanted me to go through this,” she said. “I mean, I take my vows seriously, but I had no idea how ‘worse’ things could get.”
She always thought that if her husband ever cheated on her, his bags would “be packed and waiting” for him on the front doorstep. But with the recent news of his three-year affair, her marital vows were being tested to their limits. She was tormented by the fact that everything she thought about her marriage was now “a lie.”
Jasmine wanted to leave her husband because of how hurt and betrayed she felt. She wondered if she could ever trust him again. But she was also a religious person and wanted to honor the vows she took to stay married “for better or for worse.”
Jasmine is not unlike so many others who make marital vows before God and their family, friends, and religious community and view their marriage as a sacred, covenant relationship. But the crucible of marriage and the reality of committing one’s life to another person can really test one’s convictions to stay married.
As a clinician, I’ve seen men and women alike wrestle with the decision to stay married for religious or spiritual reasons when everything inside them was screaming to leave the marriage. In our research with the National Divorce Decision-Making Project, we found that religion and spirituality were on the minds of many of the divorce-minded men and women we interviewed. In fact, it was so much on their minds that without prompting from us, almost half (14 of the 30) shared that religion, spirituality, or their relationship with God, was a major factor in how they were thinking about the future of their marriage.
After reviewing the data, we discovered four specific themes related to how religion, spirituality, and a belief in God influence the divorce decision-making process.
“Staying married is the right thing to do.” When confronted with the realities of a difficult marriage, many of those we interviewed felt as though staying married and honoring the marital commitment to stick together “in sickness and in health” and “for better or for worse” was the moral thing to do. A 43-year-old mother of five, married for 22 years, summed it up this way:
“I believe it is the right thing to do (to stay married). I believe that’s what God wants me to do and… that it’s the morally right thing to do… to stay in a commitment.”
The dilemma of religious beliefs. The second most mentioned theme in our interviews was based on an analysis of a variety of dialectical statements interviewees made. They talked about the tensions they experienced between their religious beliefs as a reason to stay married on one hand, and a competing belief that God would also want them to be “happy” and that the current health of their marriage was an impediment to that. In essence, their religious beliefs compelled them to stay in the marriage, but their desires to be out of the marriage caused them to engage in an intellectual “back and forth” process of trying to reconcile these competing views and feelings. A 40-year-old father of one married 11 years, said,
“I had some religious convictions (against) divorce, and at the same time, I’ve come to the conclusion that God wouldn’t want me to … be a doormat … or to continue to be treated this way.”
Religious social network. But the decision-making process wasn’t just a struggle between knowing God’s will for one’s personal happiness vs. understanding that religious doctrine was against divorce. Sometimes, the decision to divorce was “heavily influenced by the religious social network” to which the participants belonged. These concerns seemed to go in two different directions.
People were concerned with the judgments they would receive for proceeding with a divorce and the potential to be ostracized. One man suggested it would be easier for him to be accepted in his religious community if he were to rob a bank than to be someone who divorced his wife.
Participants were also concerned with the impact their divorce would have on the religious community. Many worried that their friends and close associates would suffer or feel uncomfortable, and ultimately that these friendships could be lost due to a divorce.
Religious practice. Finally, it was also clear that participants’ religious practices informed their decision-making process. These practices included prayer, forgiveness, and regular church attendance.
Prayer was especially important. As one 48-year-old woman, married seven years, put it: “I know [God] answers prayers. He’s answered mine and saved my neck a number of times.” Another, a mother of three, married 12 years, said,
“Honestly? When I’m faced with a difficult decision, I just stop and pray about it and pray for direction. I can talk to [God] any time of the night, any hour.”
Forgiveness, as a practice, also helped provide some grounding in favor of staying married and was presented as a crucial ingredient toward reconciliation. “I think forgiveness has a lot to do with whether we stay together or not,” a 30-year-old mother of one, married nine years, told us.
Finally, regular church attendance was presented as something that helped strengthen individuals struggling with a tough decision in their marriage. One 38-year-old mother of three, married 12 years, said: “Going to church…that’s definitely where I find my strength. I feel like I come out a better person.”
It is important to note that not all 30 people we interviewed presented themes of religion, spirituality, or deity as being instrumental in their divorce decision-making process. So, we should not assume that faith is important to everyone who is considering a divorce. At the same time, it was clear from our interviews that these concepts—and the strong feelings many associate with them—are in play for many individuals who are considering the future of a marriage, simply because half of our sample brought these up specifically without being prompted.
Surprisingly, when we followed up with our participants a year after the first round of interviews, one man, who identified as being currently agnostic but who had grown up in a divided religious family (he attributed differing religious ideas as the root cause of his parent’s divorce), said he was surprised that we were not more specific in talking about the role of religion in divorce decision-making. Perhaps his observation can serve as a mild call to repentance for other family therapists and researchers to intentionally seek out how thoughts, beliefs, and manifestations of the divine influence the decision-making of couples on the brink of divorce.