How Can Marital Separation Save a Marriage?

Some things in life are best described as “counter-intuitive.” For example, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Give up your life in order to live? That sounded like a lot of nonsense to His hearers until He defined His terms. “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?” (v. 25). Astute listeners recognized that Jesus wasn’t asking for ritual suicide or foolhardy martyrdom. He was describing His Father’s life-exchange program. He said, in effect, “Stop your futile pursuit of life on your own terms, which inevitably leads to eternal death; accept in exchange a brand-new kind of life from Me, which can never end.”

Sometimes, a marriage has to come to a kind of death before it can really begin living. Sometimes, a failing marriage brings a couple to a crisis point at which the Lord offers His marriage-exchange program: “Stop trying to make this marriage work on your own terms, and accept in exchange a brand-new marriage made by Me.”

Unfortunately, many couples rush to the courthouse to sign the marital death certificate (otherwise known as a “decree of divorce”) and then pull the plug while the potential for recovery still exists. Then, after they’ve had time to rest, deal with their own personal issues (hopefully, but not always), reflect on their own contributions to the breakdown of the union, and face the future, they wonder if perhaps they acted too hastily. But, by then, the pain inflicted on one another during the divorce process overshadows any hope of restoration, so they console themselves with a solemn oath to do better next time.

Divorce recovery experts will affirm that a major obstacle to moving forward is a nagging sense of doubt about the past, compulsive second-guessing, reconciling the present with the possibility that past decisions were made impulsively or under duress.

Once Charlene decided to break away from her abusive husband, she began a healing process under the guidance of her divorce recovery group.

This study at a local church became a catalyst for deeper healing, which helped me to humble myself and go to my husband and apologize for how I had participated in the destruction of our marriage. Something broke inside of both of us through this process. I had been rejected since birth. He had been abandoned by an absentee father at an early age. Amazing that we had these issues staring us in the face for so many years after conversion. We needed healing. I took a strong stand for myself—a cry for help—that became God’s intervention  . . . for both of us. We are different people as a result of this journey of healing.”

Charlene and her husband are now in the process of reconciling and restoring their marriage. Not merely “getting back together,” but building again on a whole new foundation. They have long way to go and a lot of work to do. Rebuilding trust is a difficult, sometimes perilous journey, and they are not assured of success. Regardless, their separation gave them an opportunity to turn hopelessness into a bright, hopeful future.

Their story illustrates the great potential we have to join the Lord in His work of reconciling and restoring dysfunctional marriages. We have an opportunity to become agents of His marriage-exchange program. Imagine the impact if someone approached Charlene and/or her husband with the following offer: “If you will agree to a structured separation, complete with court-enforced ground rules, a reasonable cooling off period, and individual counseling, we will provide legal services at a substantial discount.”

This is the vision of Redemptive Heart Ministries. We need your prayers and your encouragement as we are blazing a new trail into uncharted territory. We also need your tangible support. Anything you can provide, however small it may seem to you, will be greatly appreciated and used wisely.

Will you join us?

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7 thoughts on “How Can Marital Separation Save a Marriage?

  1. When I separated, I was hoping for a fruitful time of therapy for the both of us. It was not to be, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was a long-standing abusive relationship, where he was a master manipulator and hoodwinked me any time he felt me pull away. I had tried very hard all through the marriage and always confessed my part in everything, as encouraged by books by Cloud and Townsend, eg. I used many Christian books as blueprints for restoring our relationship. Everything I did to engage graciously and enforce boundaries served to expose me to more danger, and eventually I chose to divorce him. He is now seeking counsel and professing to be a changed man but I now see the Scriptures afresh and do not see the entitlement to never-ending promises as being Biblical. There has to come a place of “No more!”. Unfortunately, most Bible-believing churches’ belief in transformation means that Christian leaders are still giving him chances (he’s had over 20 years of them). What would I have done differently? Protected the family by leaving sooner, knowing that he had all the signs of a disordered person, regardless of what he professed his intentions to be. Simply wanting God to change you is never enough. The risks of living with an evil, abusive person are too great to overlook just because of a few Scriptures about divorce, which are misinterpreted anyway. I think God values the lives of children more than He does the institution of marriage.

    1. Thank you, Lily, for your candid, deeply honest response. What you have described is a growing concern of mine. As I say in Redemptive Divorce, “allowing habitual, unrepentant sin to continue without consequence does not honor marriage; it profanes the one-flesh union God ordained.” Also, “The permanence of marriage was never intended to insulate the unrepentant sinner from the consequences of his or her sin. On the contrary, the loss of one’s family can become a powerful motivation to turn from sin and do what is right.”

      As I have seen the redemptive divorce process play out in dozens of cases, I have found churches to be the greatest impediment to the healthy restoration of these marriages. (I should clarify: Christian counselors working in churches get it; many lay leaders do not. And, unfortunately, pastors often answer to lay leaders, which clouds their judgment.) For whatever reason, churches sacrifice justice in the interest of mercy, they set aside what is good for the victim to benefit the perpetrator. They do this because they have a skewed perspective of grace. Throughout the Bible, the offer of mercy applies only to the genuinely repentant, never to the stubborn rebel. God applies negative consequences to the rebel to bring him or her to repentance. And if that person remains hardened in his or her sin, death leads to everlasting torment.

      While I do not favor divorce, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that God is pleased when we encourage sin for the sake of a piece of paper at the courthouse. If a marriage is fatally ill, let’s admit the truth and see what might be done to restore health to BOTH partners, not just the hardened perpetrator of ongoing, unrepentant sin.

      Stand strong!

  2. Thank you so much for your validation. To be fair to my church, a very evangelical, fast-growing, community-serving church, the leaders would probably agree with what you say. The problem comes when he hoodwinks them into thinking that he has genuinely repented.

    When I tell a leader my story, your response is what I normally get. Then, my ex would hear about it and get into the ear of that person and suddenly the demeanor of the person changes. From initially telling me not to answer the phone, they start passing messages from him to me, trying to arrange a get-together. My Christian counselor talked to me about safety and boundaries when I first saw her alone. But when he got to her, she felt sorry for him, and asked us to see her together. It didn’t work and I stopped. He pressured her, so she asked me to see her with him again, and this time, instead of prioritizing safety, she said she was worried about our marriage. I gave in and the next few joint sessions proved to be open sessions of verbal abuse.

    All he has to do now is to say the right words (like “I want to be a different man; she deserves so much better; God is working in me as I walk with Him, etc) and they feel like they have to work with him and not apply Matthew 18. What they don’t realise is that he has had 20 years of warning, with one crisis after another. The latest that they come across is NOT the “rock-bottom, turning point”, and THEY are not the heaven-sent agent who will do what no other person has been able to do, and that is offer him truth with compassion. Every other person has tried it, and the next eager rescuer-transformer is simply the next in line, pouring their energies into supporting a broken man who is apparently on the mend.

    Meanwhile, behind their back (because they don’t try to match his story), he continues to torture us, quoting their words and playing on their sympathies. If I raise my concerns (as I have from time to time) I look like the unreasonable one who can never be pleased, which matches his story of having a wife with judgement clouded by bitterness and lacking in grace. Eventually, I detached, not only from him, but also from the church and found another one to attend, where the pastor has assured me that I will find support and safety.

    Sorry for pouring out part of my story. It is indeed a travesty that in the church family, an ideal vehicle for healing and support, one encounters a replication of the dynamics of the abuse so familiar in the home. Thanks for listening again!

    1. I’m sorry, Lily. You are experiencing another difficulty in the complicated realm of relationship restoration, another area in which our evangelical tradition has become confused. (I identify myself as an evangelical, so my criticism is intended for self-correction and reproof, not to condemn our peers.) Your church leadership and counselor mean well, but they have intermingled two issues that are distinct and should be addressed separately. They have fused reconciliation with restoration.

      Reconciliation deals exclusively with the past. Reconciliation occurs when apology (admission of wrongdoing and a desire to atone) and forgiveness (a willingness to let the other person off the moral hook for past offenses) come together. You are reconciled with an offender when you both agree that a wrong has been done and have decided to leave the past in the past. Where you go from there, however, is another matter entirely.

      Restoration deals with the future. Whereas Jesus commands us to reconcile, He does not command us to invest ourselves further in a relationship that is likely to cause further harm. Restoration is a matter of trust, which is not the offended person’s responsibility. All the offended person can do is agree to keep an open mind. Rebuilding trust is the offender’s responsibility.

      Let me apply this to your circumstance. Jesus Christ commands you to forgive your husband’s past wrongdoing, and it appears you have done that. You don’t hold his past against him and you aren’t seeking justice or restitution or retribution or anything else. Well done! You have done as Christ has commanded. The Lord has not commanded you to reinvest in the relationship without reasonable assurance that your husband will not cause further injury. In other words, you need your husband to rebuild trust before you can even consider restoration. But you cannot manufacture trust. He must show himself trustworthy. Words are a good beginning. A great apology is a strong step in the right direction, but it is only a beginning. Deeds must reinforce words. That takes time. Trust requires consistency. He has dug a deep hole in your trust, so it will take a lot of time and consistency for him to fill it back in.

      And that’s okay. You are not wrong to expect this.

      I really do think your advisers mean well, but perhaps their eagerness to see resolution has them looking for shortcuts. Unfortunately, in relationship rescue, shortcuts do not exist.

  3. So in my case I was the offender, 30+ years of an addiction (being male you can guess). My wife knew of it before we got married. I did well at times, but the beast always came back. So for 14 years she begged and pleaded with me to get help. I would lose a job but get a better one; we would have a setback but be blessed with something else. Then I got my dream job and things were going well, till they were not. I had a chance to take a position that would put me ahead of my peers. Because of the mistrust I did not take it and subsequently lost that job. Knowing that I was in a very bad place spiritually, as I am a Christian, I allowed Satan to beat me up with shame and guilt. I unashamedly used scripture and manipulation to throw off any outsiders but my wife knew the real deal. After the last job loss she had enough and threw me out. (Full disclosure she said she was changing the locks and that I should see if my parents could help me find a place in the state we were at, I ran) I moved to another state and she quickly sent a separation agreement and demanded I forfeit my rights as a dad (because I left), among other things like the requisite counseling and therapy warranted for that addiction. (I had months prior floated a question, that had I truly understood what it all entailed in my own mind I would have never mentioned it). So she laid out three distinct accusations. Deceit, Addiction, Financial insecurity. I refused to signed it because of the rights issue but would be compliant in her other requests
    I own all of these and am seeking and receiving help because that which was in darkness was now in the light. I honestly felt relieved when the whole family knew because I was free of the lies and ready to move onto the next phase. Unconfused sin can mess you up.
    However 106 days later I have not talked to my daughters, I have not communicated with my wife in any form other than terse emails. I really think that with hard work, the community of believers we apart of, counseling and brutal honesty we can turn the tide.
    I identify with Lilly because I was that guy. But the rock bottom moment came when I realized that how many blessings God had removed from my life and that only through repentance I could even hope to move forward with my family. I do not want to go to couples counseling till she is able to get some for herself. I say this because I want it to be her decision borne out of her desire, not because I have been in support groups and counseling 30 days after I was told to leave.
    Again, let me be clear, I was a manipulator as well, but I also want my marriage to work. I do not want this out of vain conceit but to not let Satan have a victory over one more couple falling short. God blessed me with this woman and 2 wonderful daughters; I want to succeed so that God will be glorified. Because I know that if it is to work out it is because of him and only him because the best I can do is like filthy rags to him.
    Lilly thank you for writing because I think my wife would have written something very similar. Thoughts?

    1. Thanks, Joel, for your candid and transparent response.

      Obviously, every troubled marriage has two sides, even when the fault weighs heavier on one side than the other. If you wife has any hope of owning her stuff, it will be with the help of the Holy Spirit and the loving encouragement of her family and friends. It cannot and will not ever come from you. If you go there, it will only further alienate her and shatter any hope you have of restoration.

      Where things stand now, you can only do you. Continue to own your stuff and leave hers out of any conversations with others. Instead, take those concerns to God and leave them in His hands.

      Here is an article you might find helpful:

      I pray the Lord will restore you, heal your wife, comfort your children, and redeem your marriage.


  4. My husband has been unfaithful throughout our marriage but the last two years have been the worse with numerous women at the same time. He is not a Christian, but I am and I know that I am suppose to forgive him. He has apologized for his infidelity and says that he has struggled both financially and with a number of projects to generate income over the years and uses infidelity as a mere distraction. He keeps saying that it was never meant to hurt or affect me, yet his actions hurt me deeply. Not once has he indicated that he would stop seeing other women, but maintains that he does not want a divorce. I love God and take my marriage vows seriously, but this relationship is destroying me.

    While I do not wish to break up my family and I still love my husband, I am seriously considering divorce after 24 years of marriage because my husband is totally unrepented about his infidelity and continues to be sexually involved with numerous women. Is there any advise or guidance that you can offer me?

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