Marriage, No-Fault Divorce, and Children

Last month, Matt Krause, a state representative from Fort Worth, introduced a bill to ban no-fault divorce in Texas, “a process that now lets a couple end their marriage without assigning blame to either spouse.”[1] Now, in Texas, it takes only one spouse to divorce, based upon “insupportability” of the marriage, with limited cost or exertion. Krause’s is not the first or only such effort by lawmakers across America to close this door.[2]

In a recent Theological Matters column, I bemoaned the fact that it was Ronald Reagan, then-governor of California, who signed the first no-fault divorce law in 1970, setting off a chain reaction that, in less than 15 years, led to a vast new experiment with disposable marriage all across America.[3] Prior to that revolution, marriage carried at least the force of a simple contract. Today, in most states, one party may break a marriage “contract” even in contradiction of the desires of the other party, giving the marriage certificate a uniquely irrelevant texture in the law.

Yet the purpose of this post is not to delineate the history and the nearly criminal costs to our culture and society of no-fault divorce.[4] Rather, in this brief space, the object is to call the reader to engage a biblical view of marriage and to place children in biblical perspective relative to the parental relationship.

In 1994, a woman named Karen stopped by to see Dr. Judith Wallerstein. Wallerstein, as a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley from 1966-1991, had produced research that asserted that “divorce is difficult for children, but in time, they’d adjust,”[5] providing support for the divorce revolution by comforting divorcing parents and no-fault divorce legislators. But according to Wallerstein, Karen’s visit “was to entirely revise my understanding of divorce and how it has changed the nature of American society.”[6]

Karen had been part of a study begun by Wallerstein in 1971 that resulted in a best-seller, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce.[7] As the book’s title indicates, the book showed that children cope with divorce, and that its major impact is temporary. Karen taught Wallerstein differently. As a result, Wallerstein revisited the children, now adults, in her study and discovered two key myths that had been believed about divorce.

First, Wallerstein discovered that the belief, “if the parents are happier the children will be happier, too,” is not true. A child’s happiness is not dependent upon the happiness of the parents. According to Wallerstein, children generally “don’t care if Mom and Dad sleep in different beds as long as the family is together.”[8]

Second, Wallerstein exploded the myth that “divorce is a temporary crisis that exerts its most harmful effects on parents and children at the time of the breakup.” Rather,

It’s the many years living in a postdivorce or remarried family that count … feeling sad, lonely, and angry during childhood … traveling alone on airplanes when you’re seven … having no choice how you spend your time. … It’s worrying about your mom and dad for years. … And most tellingly, it’s asking if you can protect your own child from having these same experiences growing up.[9]

Given the damage we know divorce does to children into adulthood, marriage, and the parenting of their own children, the church must consider seriously its response to widespread divorce, even within its own congregations. Yet, I do not believe that responding to divorce is the church’s primary and best help for children. The church must understand, teach and obey biblical instructions concerning marriage.[10]

As Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her, seeking her holiness, so must a husband love his own wife and seek her holiness.[11] Can you imagine a husband who loves his wife this way, seeking her holiness above his own comfort and preferences, filing for no-fault divorce? Doing so is an immediate admission of disobedience to our Lord. Could a wife who lives a life in submission to her husband, praying for him and loving him, file for no-fault divorce?

And in no way can no-fault divorce be reconciled with Scriptural teachings on marriage or on divorce except in the most tortuous and strained bending of God’s Word. But more, when a couple stands in front of a congregation, who are witnesses with God, and vow to God and to each other to keep those vows until death, can the congregation, can the pastor, simply wink when those vows are shattered outside any biblical sanction?

America will not change until the church allows Christ to demand through each church that the biblical standard of marriage be upheld, that husbands obey the command to love their wives, that wives obey the command to reverence their husbands, and that they both sacrifice their own desires in love for their children.[12] So long as we do not obey God’s Word ourselves, the world will not respect us or it, and the children always will be the ones who pay.


[1]http://www.star-telegram.com/news/politics-government/article126493459.html
[2]See, for example, http://www.businessinsider.com/iowa-republicans-divorce-women-2013-3.
[3]http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce. Interestingly, Illinois (1984) was almost last, followed only by South Dakota (1985) and Utah (1987), in establishing no-fault divorce, the application of which has varied widely state to state. See http://content.csbs.utah.edu/~fan/fcs5400-6400/studentpresentation2009/04DivorceReadingVinsky.pdf.
[4]See http://www.albertmohler.com/2006/06/09/no-fault-divorce-the-end-of-marriage-2/ and http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce for an introduction to that.
[5]http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-judith-wallerstein-20120703-story.html
[6]Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A Twenty-Five Year Landmark Study. (New York: Hyperion, 2000), xiii.
[7]Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan B. Kelly, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce. (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
[8]Wallerstein, Unexpected Legacy, xxiii.
[9]Ibid., xxv. These findings have been confirmed and affirmed. “Sociological studies have shown that people who experience parental divorce as children, compared with individuals who grow up in continuously intact families, have lower educational attainment (McLanahan, 1985), earn less income (Hill, Augustyniak, & Ponza, 1987), and are more likely to be dependent on welfare (McLanahan, 1988). They are also more likely to bear a child out of wedlock (McLanahan & Bumpass, 1988), get divorced (Glenn & Kramer, 1987), and be the head of a singleparent family (McLanahan, 1988). These problems for adult children of divorce, in turn, may be associated with decrements in psychological well-being (Amato, 1988; Glenn & Kramer, 1985). A recent review of the literature on adult children of divorce has found broad support for the notion that parental divorce has lasting implications for children’s life chances (Amato & Keith, 1991).” http://slatestarcodex.com/Stuff/divorce_paper.pdf. See also, http://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/divorce-and-infidelity/should-i-get-a-divorce/how-could-divorce-affect-my-kids; Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000); Elizabeth Marquardt, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005); Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). For a longer, sociological view, see James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Culture Has Weakened Families (New York: Harper Collins, 2002).
[10]Beyond divorce, the church’s lack of visible and unabashed commitment to a biblical practice of marriage certainly has reduced friction against America’s move toward the exaltation of fornication and ultimately homosexual “marriage.”
[11]Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1-7; Titus 2:1-6.
[12]Romans 12:1-2.

Waylan Owens

Waylan Owens

Dean of the Jack D. Terry, Jr. School of Church and Family Ministries and Associate Professor of Church and Family Ministries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Owens teaches in the School of Church and Family Ministries and serves as Dean of the Jack D. Terry, Jr. School of Church and Family Ministries. He is married to Betsy and has four children - Blayne, Joshua, Grace and Mary.
Twitter: @WaylanOwens
Website: waylanandbetsyowens.com
Waylan Owens

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