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Is It Really "Till Death Do You Part?"

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.


Chris Grace: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. I'm Chris Grace.


Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm Dr. Tim Muehlhoff.


Chris Grace: And we get to come to you here and talk about all things relationships, and Tim, in so doing, one of the topics that you and I have talked about a lot, and you do a lot of marriage conferences, and so do we, and we speak to different groups, but one of the most painful realities that couples face today that are married are times in which divorce becomes a topic for them, simply because of a number of reasons. Maybe infidelity, or whatever it is, and they're navigating this. We've had a friend, recently, that we were counseling, and she discovered that her husband has been unfaithful. She did not know that. They have two young children, and I think she's struggling with the fact that he denied this for many years, even though she suspected it, and then all of a sudden now it comes to light that he was caught. Tim, that becomes a painful reality for too many couples, so let's talk about how do you navigate a relationship, in this case a marital relationship, in which divorce is now something that is on the table.


So you know, when we think about causes of divorce, I always think about the studies that ask divorce lawyers, why are people in your office? I mean they keep track of these things, and they have noted that if it's in the first couple of years of marriage, let's say the first five years of marriage, almost always couples will say that what's leading them to this point is that their conflict is mismanaged. There's too much conflict, they don't handle it well, and it's just too much. After they've been married for longer than that, let's say 10 years or longer, they then report both the fact that conflict had been mismanaged, there was too much conflict, but it's now associated with this deterioration or loss of intimacy, and loss of connection. So in fact, there's a statistic that mentions those are in mediation, right? 80% of those people say that getting a divorce, the reason they're getting a divorce is because, a loss of intimacy. It's just simply deteriorated. Is that a reason to get a divorce? Well we would say, from an explicitly Christian, biblical standpoint, that that's not valid reasons, and-


Tim Muehlhoff: With a truckload of compassion. I think you and I would both say that is a tough, tough place to be, in a marriage, right? And especially if this has gone on for years and years. So in this podcast, we want to be compassionate, and I would really feel for a couple that feels like there's just no intimacy left, and this is just brutal, right? So with a truckload of compassion, and we've seen couple change that, right, Chris? You and I have seen couples turn that around, which is great.


Chris Grace: Yeah, there are studies that have actually shown that, that couples that are unhappy in marriages, over time, if they stay with this, can actually get to a point where they say we're reasonably happy, now. There's a third reason why, besides lack of commitment, or loss of intimacy, and maybe too much conflict. Infidelity is another one of these, is one of the big reasons. Tim, do you remember John Gottman's studies, in which he could predict the likelihood of divorce, with up to 90% accuracy, by watching the way couples interact with each other, and in so doing, he sees that couples that have these harsh startups, right, and they show the four horsemen, remember we've talked about that on this program, criticism and contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Well that's all great when you're in these relationships that maybe are early enough you're catching some of this, but once this takes root, and now you're living in this painful world, and painful reality, I think, like you said, the compassion has to be there for anybody that's in this situation, because it is so, so painful, and it's hard to walk in that journey, so Tim, let's talk about it.


Tim Muehlhoff: So if you're a Christian couple, and you both agree that the scriptures are something that are authoritative, right, we allow the scriptures to guide us. We're gonna find that the bible is very stingy on conditions by which a couple can divorce. Now, for a second, before we talk about those, and that'll be the kind of controversial part, is why is the bible stingy? That's because, and we've done podcasts on this, Chris, that the theology of marriage is that marriage is supposed to communicate something to other people. Ephesians chapter five says that when people look at a Christian marriage, they should see something of Jesus's love, and they should see something of the trinity, is what the ancient church taught, right? The love of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. So if you divorce, what happens is you mess with the metaphor. If you divorce, what are you communicating? Well, that the trinity could actually break up, if you divorce, you're messing with the metaphor that Jesus's love could eventually end. So that's why Christians take marriage very seriously. It is not a light decision to go into, because we do believe it's for life. We do believe this is a lifetime commitment between two individuals, so take it very seriously, 'cause God takes it very seriously.


Chris Grace: He does, and I think that's even Jesus's statement, right, that when he refers back to Genesis account, when asked is divorce ever okay, he draws right back to the very beginning, and said "This is exactly the way God intended it to be," so I think when he pointed back to something fundamentally even deeper than what we decide, maybe there's something there, Jesus pointed back and said this was what God designed.


Tim Muehlhoff: The one flesh relationship where God has brought together, let no man rip asunder, okay, but let's say this, Chris. Okay, so a couple comes to us, a Christian couple, or one of them comes to us, and says, "I have grave concerns about my relationship, and I am seriously contemplating separation or divorce. I need your input, and I need to hear what the scriptures have to say," and again, you and I can talk about this, so here's where I think we're on safe ground. I think we're on safe ground when in Matthew, chapter 19, Jesus says that sexual immorality, unfaithfulness, is a condition by which you can get a divorce. Now hear what Jesus is saying. He's not saying you should get a divorce. He's saying I think, the door has been opened for that possibility. Again, it's not get out of jail card, it's like, no, Jesus, most likely, wants you to really work on this marriage, but he understands that sexual infidelity is of such a grievous nature that Jesus himself says, "I understand this," and Matthew 19 seems to suggest that the door has been opened.


Chris Grace: I think that's right. So what you're saying is, Matthew 19 isn't saying that divorce is mandated, or even encouraged-


Tim Muehlhoff: Right, oh good point.


Chris Grace: It is just ... and in fact, we take all other scripture that forgiveness and reconciliation should be pursued if at all possible, right? But that divorce is, ultimately, allowed-


Tim Muehlhoff: It's an option.


Chris Grace: Especially if the person continues in this adulterous relationship, or continues and then it's allowed.


Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, so I think we're on safe ground. Let's give another one that traditionally is given to be safe ground.


Chris Grace: Okay, First Corinthians.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, First Corinthians, seven ...


Chris Grace: Whatever, yeah.


Tim Muehlhoff: Paul says this. "If the unbelieving one leaves," now again, there are clear indications in scripture that you are to be equally yoked. That you are to marry a Christian. And again, you and I have seen this be violated time, after time, after time, but this is why we do pre-marital counseling, right? You want to see that these commitments are equal. So two Christians are to marry, but Paul acknowledges that this may not always be the case. One person may have come to faith, and the other one didn't. So when he says, "If the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave, the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases." So the unbelieving spouse has left. I think, again, that he isn't encouraging it, he isn't saying you have to, he's saying, "But I'm telling you, no, you're free if you so deem," after Godly counsel, going to see experts, and saying pastors, what should I do, but the person has left. There is, again, the freedom there, I think what Paul is conveying, is that divorce is an option.


Chris Grace: Yeah, I think that's accurate, and I think we're on safe ground to say that. When Paul adds that exception, he is saying that in abandonment, when the unbelieving spouse abandons the marriage, then he would say that is also grounds, right?


Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. But now, okay, so I think that's great, I think some listeners are saying okay, that's helpful.


Chris Grace: Here's the question. Now-


Tim Muehlhoff: Here's my situation.


Chris Grace: What about domestic abuse?


Tim Muehlhoff: What about domestic abuse?


Chris Grace: Is that the question?


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and I think that's incredibly important that we address this kind of an issue. So we have to be clear about our terms. A couple years ago, I wrote a book called Marriage Forecasting, which was a way for you to assess the health of your marriage, and in it, I felt very strongly I needed to include a chapter on abuse. I went and interviewed some of the top marriage counselors on what are the different types of abuse, so I think we can get physical abuse, right? Physical abuse is hitting, punching, grabbing your spouse, throwing him or her against the wall, throwing that person on the ground, and not letting that person up, slapping that person, right? Okay, yeah, that's physical abuse, right?


But there's also been identified by marriage counselors, and even the courts, other kinds of abuse. Like, for example, verbal abuse. So Patricia Evans is one of the experts when it comes to different forms of abuse, and she said basically, verbal abuse is meant to psychologically hurt the other person, right? I'm calling you names, derogatory names. I'm saying the meanest things possible to you. I'm degrading you. I know your weaknesses, because you and I have lived together, and I am purposely bringing up your weaknesses, I'm shaming you, I'm seeking to under ride your confidence. So Chris, we're not saying this is an argument between two spouses, and my voice raises sometimes. Sometimes I say a word that I didn't mean, I shouldn't have said that, and I quickly apologize for that, right? We're not saying that's verbal abuse. By the way, all of us have had a moment where something got away from us, and we apologized, we recognized it.


Patricia Evans is saying this is habitual. This is a regular pattern. Verbal abuse can be overt or covert, right? It can be overt, like I've heard people say, "Sometimes I call my wife this, sometimes I call my husband this," and I just shudder, Chris. Book of Proverbs says life and death is in the power of the tongue, and these people are regularly speaking death to each other. That, to me, habitual verbal abuse, is an issue. It's a reality, and it has to be dealt with.


I would add one more to this, Chris, and I would add emotional abuse. Now emotional abuse, as Patricia Evans would say, is that you're trying to, again, degrade the person, but you're not necessarily using words to do it. You can use words to do it, but emotionally, I'm trying to strip you of dignity. Emotionally, I'm trying to shame you, continually. Here's one form of emotional abuse, is what we call symbolic violence. So this is what happens in an abusive relationship. I say to you, "Hey, I want you to make dinner, and I want you to clean up this house," and you say, "Listen, I'm kind of busy, work's been busy, and I just don't know if I can get to it," and he goes, "Listen, you get to it or else," and it's like, what's the or else? If he hits her, that's physical abuse.


Symbolic violence is this. We all have kids make something for us that is just unbelievable, priceless, 'cause you can never get it back, right? They made it for you in elementary school, or whatever. Suddenly, the next day, you say to your spouse, "Hey, excuse me, where is the picture Tommy and Cindy did for me, for Mother's Day?" And your spouse looks at you and says, "Oh, I have no idea where that picture is. Now, what time's dinner gonna be?" And you go, "What?" So again, it's purposely emotionally destroying things that are of the utmost value to you, and really trying to psychologically damage another person, verbally or non-verbally, and again, the key word is habitual. So if those things are present in a relationship, Chris, we have to ask the really, really hard question. What do we say about it? Are those grounds for divorce?


Chris Grace: Okay, right. So before we get there, let me just clarify what I think you're saying, and because this is a difficult, controversial area for some people. So Tim, there is a difference, we would say, and I think you're trying to draw this, between let's say a difficult marriage, in this way, or even just a disappointing marriage. So in other words, you might, and there's a difference between a difficult or disappointing and a destructive marriage.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, yes.


Chris Grace: So you're drawing what are the reasons or characteristics of a destructive marriage. This isn't, if it's in a difficult, disappointing marriage, right? Maybe somebody's not living up to expectations, and so you've tried to draw the difference between-


Tim Muehlhoff: Physically destructive, emotionally destructive, and the vehicle could either be words, or symbolic violence.


Chris Grace: And then this idea of destructive, it probably points back to something the other person is doing in the relationship that is chronic, that points out to a hardness of heart, but it also does require that there is at least been some opportunity for repentance, for time away, for a chance to change.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, good. Yup.


Chris Grace: And it's implying that the other person, the spouse, is unable. So in a destructive relationship, it's both those behaviors, those destructive behaviors, in addition to the lack of repentance, or a continual, chronic-ness of it, would you say?


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and Chris, so if a couple came, if one person came to us and said, "Listen, I've had arguments with my spouse before, but lately, I don't feel safe." Again, our first response is gonna be, "Okay, we need to get you safe."


Chris Grace: Get safe, right.


Tim Muehlhoff: "So you need to stay at a friend's house-"


Chris Grace: Separate.


Tim Muehlhoff: By the way, the most dangerous time for a woman's life, and police officers dread this time, is when the spouse moves out, and gets separation. That's a very dangerous time, and that's when people get hurt. But again, if a person comes to us and says, "Hey, it isn't chronic, but just the other day, we had an argument, and my spouse said something," it can be tone of voice, right, Chris? If a spouse says to another spouse, "Do the dishes now!" And you think, oh my, what would have happened to me if I didn't do that. I think we would say, okay, hey listen, first, let's get an intervention. Let's sit with you and your spouse, but by the way, if you feel unsafe, you need to get out, right? So we would say that.


Now here's when I'm gonna make an argument that some theologians have made, and again, I think we need to think about this. Whether we go with it or not, we need to at least think about it, and here is what they call it, Chris. They call it constructive desertion. This occurs when one partner's evil conduct ends the marriage, but it causes the other partner to leave. In other words, we would say, if a person's in an abusive relationship, they're gonna technically leave, but the other person has forced that person to leave, so they are the one who are deserting the marriage, not the person who actually physically left. But it's the abuser who's to be construed as the deserter, not the victim.


So then let me make one other part of this argument that I find compelling. So let's ask this question. Is the unrepentant abusing spouse, should that person be considered a believer? So let's say we have a scenario where a person loses his or her temper, says something that was inappropriate, made the other person feel unsafe. That person comes to you and me, you and me then go and we sit down with the spouse, and we say, "Hey, listen, this happened, and your spouse felt unsafe, and that man, let's say, says, "Hey, man, I'm really sorry, and I agree, it got away from me, and I'm really sorry, that really breaks my heart, and maybe I need with help with my anger." We'd be like, okay, let's get you help, let's hook you up with a church that has courses on anger, and stuff like that.


That's not what we're talking about. That's a guy who clearly recognized, I went too far, I'm repentant, I may need help. I think we'd say to the wife, "Listen, we need to monitor the situation. By the way, if you don't feel safe, as he's getting help, then you need to go stay with a relative, or a friend, but he has agreed to get help. Let's allow him to get help. Let's give it time for that to happen." That is not what we're talking about. Here's what we're talking about, Chris. You and I go and talk to him, and he says, "Hey man, butt out of my marriage. Butt out. Not your business." And we're like, "Hey, your wife feels unsafe."


"One, it's not your concern, second, she ought to feel a little unsafe, 'cause I run this house." And we say, "Okay, brother, we're gonna come back." This time, we're bringing church authority. We're bringing elders, we're bringing a pastor. We sit down again, and we say, "Hey, we really think this is inappropriate," and he goes, "Again, who asked you? I'll treat my wife any way I want to." Now at that point, listen to what Jesus says about that person. So in Matthew, chapter 18, verse 17, once two or three believers have confronted a person, and it doesn't work, Jesus says this, "If he refuses to listen, even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan." Right?


So I think, at that point, I am not assuring that person is a believer. Look what Paul says, in Second Corinthians 13, verses four to five. He says this. "For he, Jesus, was indeed crucified in weakness, yet Jesus lives by God's power, and though we, Christians, are weak in him, yet by God's power we will live him to serve you." So I admit my weakness. But if that doesn't happen, then Paul adds this really interesting phrase, in verse five. "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. I want you to test yourselves."


So Chris, I'm speaking for myself, and again, I'm not speaking for you. If I sit down with a man who is habitually abusing his wife, physically, verbally, or emotionally, and we sit, you and I, or elders from the church, and he doesn't give an inch, he doesn't want help, and quite frankly I'm gonna continue with the abuse, I'm gonna say to him, "Brother, you need to really, seriously consider whether you're in the faith or not. Second, that woman is not coming back in this house until you get help, and demonstrate a track record of help," and if he never does that, then I think we have evoked First Corinthians seven nine, "If the unbelieving one leaves, you have the freedom, in fact, to leave, yourself." And that's where I would make the argument that abuse can be a precursor to Christian divorce. Thoughts, comments, reactions, rebuttals?


Chris Grace: Well yeah, no, I think we have to start with some of your, go back to your assumptions that are critical, here. First of all, we're going to have to make sure that the person who is in that type of relationship is safe, and protected. I mean that's just simple justice. That's just simple, and so if that requires time away, separation, whatever we're going to, but if this is, again, to the point of chronic and destructive abuse in which some of the ways in which we have now approached the person taking two or three witnesses, and there's clear, demonstrated, unrepentant-ness, and there is no desire to change, well there are very few options left to this individual. They can pull and separate away, they're going to have to do that, but divorce, I believe, in this case, is on the table.


Now that's what you're saying, and it all comes down to definitions, and timing. Definitions of abuse, definitions of, or levels in which this person is not showing any repentance, and then for how long? The chronic-ness of this. So you're saying [crosstalk 00:22:34]


Tim Muehlhoff: Well, let me, yeah, and Chris, I love what you just said, and I think this is a point I hope the listeners are hearing, is get the church involved. Don't do this by yourself. Go get help. Get trained help. Go to the elders, go to the pastor and say, "Listen, this is happening, and I just flat out need help," and I think as a church body, we've got to ... so go get help. There are some things that don't need to be chronic, right? If your spouse just flat off hits you, if your spouse chokes you, guess what? That doesn't need to be chronic. You only get one bite of that apple, and then that man is in therapy, or that woman, again, and it does happen female to male, but-


Chris Grace: Either one are going to be in therapy, and-


Tim Muehlhoff: Guess what? It doesn't need to be chronic. If they hurt the kids, doesn't need to be chronic. So then, immediately, we step in, and I think ... so let's say the man punches a woman, or chokes her, and then says, "I promise, I'm gonna get help." It's like, "Brother, you need to get help regardless." Now we're gonna talk later about the marriage, but I would say to that woman, "You need to get safe. There's now gonna have to be a track record," which means there's gonna have to be supervised visits, Chris, because this is not a safe situation, and again, in the book, Marriage Forecasting, I recommend a bunch of sites to go to, Christian and non-Christian, about how to actually do this, in a safe environment, so that you can judge whether this person actually has made lasting indications of change. But again, this is a slow process.


I just don't want Christians to come across as hard hearted, which means, well I'm sorry, he hasn't left you, and he wasn't unfaithful. Sorry, you're stuck. And I don't think the scriptures are suggesting that. Go ahead, share your thought, and I want to share one other passage I find interesting.


Chris Grace: Well, no, I think what you're getting at is we have to avoid two extremes, right? That extreme of legalism, pressuring our Christian brothers and sisters to stay in something, stay in a marriage that's clearly destructive, and unsafe, is unwise. And I think now you're falling into this category of this idea of legalism that you're ... but keeping in mind, also, that the high value that is placed on marriage, and the marriage commitment, also means there are just some who counsel for divorce too hastily, and so neither extreme needs to be there, and so that means there's just really no good answers in some of these. There's no one perfect way.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Remember we did the podcast on how to break up well, and we were talking about dating couples, and we said, "Hey, it's totally natural for you to go your own ways. Things change over time." Well guess what? That doesn't apply to a Christian marriage.


Chris Grace: That's right.


Tim Muehlhoff: It's like, okay, I no longer am fulfilled by this marriage, I no longer love my spouse, right? Again, with a truckload of compassion, that's a hard place to be, but God would say no, the theology of marriage, the purpose of marriage would say, stay in this. I can help, I change you. We're talking about the really hard situations in a marriage. Let me mention one other thing that Peter says, that I think is really valuable. Women lived, Chris, as we know, in really abusive times. They had no advocate. There was no welfare system, there wasn't even a court system that they could appeal to, right? So Peter says a really interesting thing. He says, in first Peter, chapter three, verse seven, he says this. "Husbands, you are obligated to be considerate and respectful to your wives, because they are a weaker partner," or some use, "A weaker vessel."


Now in the Greek, he's talking about physically weaker, and again, we know from studies that generally speaking, men are just physically more powerful, and again, there's noted exceptions. Ronda Rousey, UFC, I'm not gonna fight her. But generally speaking, men are stronger. Now Peter's acknowledging that, and notice what he says. If you abuse that weaker vessel, this is what he says, he's telling husbands, listen, do not think, for a second, your prayers are getting to God, and do not think, for a second, that your relationship with God hasn't been marred. I think what he's suggesting is you need to go back to what my friend Paul said. If you are hurting this weaker vessel, you need to check your faith, brother, 'cause I'm not sure you're in the faith, if you are habitually hurting your spouse like this, 'cause she's a weaker vessel, and needs to be respected.


So again, I want to give people hope that aren't in ... both in sad marriages, but people that are in abusive, detrimental, hurtful marriages, there is hope, and God hasn't turned your back, and I do think the scriptures speak to it, they just don't do it as directly as we would hope, in some situations, but I do think it's there, and we can piece it together.


Chris Grace: Yeah. We are simply called, Tim, to protect the vulnerable, to protect the mistreated, to protect, and so, while still honoring what is this amazing, high view of marriage, right, this lifelong commitment. So, Tim, I think you've pointed out to some resources that are available for people in this situation, and there are, as you mentioned in your book, there's also ways that we have, if you're in a position to do this, some other resources at CMR.Biola.EDU. What else you got?


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, there's great, we have great blogs. We do a whole bunch of different topics, and I did a topic on what is commonly called the cycle of abuse, and scholars have studied this, communications scholars, marriage family therapists, so go, if you're wondering, I just wonder what I'm in right now, and I have concerns, just go to our website, look in the archives of our blogs, under the cycle of abuse, and again, know what the cycle is, get help to understand if you're in the cycle, but just be aware that there are some telltale signs that think this is not normal, this isn't an average disagreement.


Chris Grace: Right, yup, yup. Well, I think we need to end here. This is a topic that we can continue for a while. We just simply know that it's hard for many people, and we do not take this lightly, and-


Tim Muehlhoff: And talk to somebody. Don't stay silent out of embarrassment, don't stay silent because my gosh, everybody thinks we're a great Christian couple, and I just have fears. Go grab somebody, and talk to somebody [crosstalk 00:28:58]


Chris Grace: Usually this requires a lot of professional intervention and help, and so we also have some great referrals for that as well, because in this area, you're going to need somebody to walk with you on this journey.


Tim Muehlhoff: Absolutely.


Chris Grace: Well, Tim.


Tim Muehlhoff: Tough topic, but good. It's good that we talk about this.


Chris Grace: It was good. All right, good visiting with you.