Structured Separation: Because Time Out Can Prevent Divorce

We’ve heard her story: A Christian wife caught in the jaws of an abusive marriage, held fast by church teaching prohibiting divorce and commanding submission, suffering bruises, broken bones, and even death as the cry ascends from saints, martyrs, and loved ones, “Why, God? Why don’t you approve of divorce in the case of abuse?” If those of us attempting to follow the Bible are honest, we’ll admit to at some point wondering the same thing.

Workarounds abound, but my purpose in this blog is not to take on the divorce question, but to present what I believe to be an important third alternative to the two options of, one, staying in an unhealthy relationship and two, terminating that relationship forever. I admit up front that poverty, lack of support, need for safety and other circumstances may rule out this third option for some, but for many it more closely reflects the tension between God’s grace and law, or self-giving and boundaries than the other alternatives.

First, let me give a theological basis for my proposal: Marriage is sacred. God uses it as a metaphor for Christ’s love for His bride, the church. The light of God’s covenant love shines through His patient dealings with her. No spouse has ever been more unfaithful or abusive than God’s spouse, who anciently lapsed into idolatry and degrading evil over and over. Through the prophet Isaiah, God cries out from His back-and-forth struggle: “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Is. 53:7). The melodrama of God’s relationship with the Old Testament church pales in comparison with the churning distress created by the modern church, Laodicea, whom He loves yet rebukes and threatens with dire consequences (Rev. 3:15-21). Yet in Revelation 19 we see the Lamb’s wife busting out in “fine linen, bright and clean,” righteous and pure, the love of His life, finally returning to Him the love He has poured into her for centuries (vs 7-8). In other words, in God’s troubled marriage, love wins in the end.

Sold-out commitment coupled with appropriate consequences creates an environment of growth for God’s bride. Human psychology is such that we individually grow and change only as our roots firmly tap into the soil of unshakeable love. But just as a vine must be trained, sometimes committed love must erect boundaries and issue ultimatums. In the case of an abusive marriage, remaining proximal to one who endangers health and safety is bad for both the victim and the abuser. It’s not love to lie, pretending everything is fine. It’s not love to clean up after someone who needs the sobering effect of consequences.

But given the complexity of each case, divorce isn’t always the best choice. Perhaps the reason God hates divorce is because of its finality; it closes the door permanently on a relationship. It says, in effect, “This love is a lost cause.” In at least some cases the relationship could be salvaged if wise, careful plans were made. I call one such approach “structured separation.”

Structured separation entails consequences within the context of commitment. The aggrieved spouse first expresses love for the partner, then clearly identifies the unacceptable behavior, then explains the consequences, and finally outlines the changes that must be made, agreeing to reunite on that basis. These steps could be boiled down into 1) commitment; 2) confrontation; 3) consequences; 4) conditions for reuniting. In much separation, this love and commitment element is missing, and as a result it conveys only the “law” part of the grace and law symmetry, depriving the offending partner of the demonstration of love that creates a relational environment conducive to change.

Before you chalk up structured separation to another cop-out, take note of the fact that the godly Christian author Ellen White separated from her husband James for a time. Apparently his multiple strokes affected his behavior, making him jealous, possessive and controlling of her. She chose to live separately. In a series of letters she reveals the basic steps I’ve outlined above. Working from a basis of deep love and commitment, she makes clear that she can’t accept his relationship-violating behaviors and will live separately from him until he can make appropriate changes. “I long for perfect union, but I cannot purchase it at the expense of my conscience,” she says, “I must be free to follow the leadings of the Spirit of God and go at His bidding, relying upon the light and sense of duty I feel, and leave you the same privilege. When we can work the best together we will do so. If God says it is for His glory we work apart occasionally, we will do that.” Ultimately she goes beyond temporary separation, saying, “If we have to walk apart the rest of the way, do let us not seek to pull each other down. I do believe it is best for our labors to be disconnected and we each lean upon God for ourselves.”

Separation is no small matter. There is safety in a multitude of counselors, so seek appropriate guidance to apply these principles to your specific situation. But be diligent to move forward in a redemptive direction. I have seen many a marriage follow a basic trajectory of tolerating an untenable abuse situation until bonds were damaged almost beyond repair. Many of these marriages might have been saved if the abused spouse had found the courage and support to separate earlier and with a redemptive purpose.

A man I know fell into a pattern of unhealthy interaction with his wife. For several years a subtle form of spiritual abuse hung in the air. The wife finally wrote her husband a letter following the four simple steps of commitment, confrontation, consequences, and conditions. During their time of separation the husband stumbled onto some reading material that challenged his imbalances. When they reunited, his views and attitude had changed radically. The wake up call of the separation probably saved the marriage. A wise person said, “Men don’t hear what women say, they hear what they do.” Often an empty space will speak louder than a thousand words.

Structured separation, the practice of redemptive love toward an offending spouse, can shock a relational system back into sinus rhythm. To use another analogy, an arborist braces a tree before removing a diseased branch. Held fast by longsuffering love, a spouse’s relationship-killing habits may be cut off at the base and the tree regrown in strength.

“The goodness of God leads to repentance,” Romans 2:4.

What do you think? Feel free to reply.

This fall is a whirlwind! I’ll be out of the country this week, then:

Sept 29-Oct 9- Tour with Lesser Light Collective in New England (piggyback concerts welcome! Hit “reply”)
Oct 13-14- Nova Scotia
Oct 20-21- Mansfield, TX
Oct 27- Orlando, FL “The Vineyard”
Abide Place Farm is working on several dates for Wellness Weekends. Tentatively we have Nov 4 and Dec 2 scheduled. Let us know if you’re interested in a low-cost recovery retreat experience. We’re also working on an Abide Helper Training at the end of this year. Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “Structured Separation: Because Time Out Can Prevent Divorce

  1. Dorothy Waweru Reply

    Separation is risky business. Some spouses will be shocked into action while others will let go and not fight for reunion of marriage.
    Recognizing one’s own faults, in this scenario abusive actions, requires humbleness. In my familiarity with emotional abuse, pride reigned at the height of the abuser’s personality. Therefore, preventing reconciliation.

  2. Dan F. M errill Reply

    Excellent counsel! I’ve copied the article, with Jill’s name as the author, and distributed it. I know there’s a lot of couple’s out there that would like this great help! It’s so refreshing to get some really good solidly sound guidance while relationships are stressed.

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