Divorce and Happiness

by Glenn Conjurske

That happiness is to be found in marriage is the persistent belief of the whole human race. This belief is endorsed by the Bible, for though God created man single, he created him with all the capacities for all the delights of marriage, and with the need for them too, for God himself soon declared, “It is not good that man should be alone—-though he was in fact alone with God. The Lord surveyed the whole of his creation, and pronounced it all “very good,” yet man’s single condition he declares to be not good. He wanted a wife. His whole existence was incomplete without her. And this is known and felt by the whole human race. Man believes that his earthly bliss is to be found in marriage, as it can never be found in anything else.

And yet many marry and fail altogether to find that happiness which they expected. Some find positive misery, while many others find nothing more than disappointment and drudgery. This is the common experience of men—-so common, indeed, that when the disciples hear the Lord forbidding divorce and remarriage, they immediately respond with, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” (Matt. 19:10). “If the case of the man be so with his wife”—-if he is bound to her by an indissoluble tie, if he cannot put away an unsatisfying woman and put an end to an unhappy marriage—-”If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry” at all. This response of the disciples indicates that they well knew that a happy marriage was a rarity, while those of the unhappy sort were the common experience of humanity. And yet, in spite of the common failure of the race to find happiness in marriage, the belief persists, as strong as ever, that it is in marriage that happiness is to be found. The myriads of men and women who fail to find it, or who find misery or drudgery in its place, yet remain firm and unshaken in their belief that marriage is the way to happiness. They never dream of impugning marriage as such: it is only their own marriage which is bad, and they universally suppose that if they could but have a different partner, they would find that happiness which their own marriage has failed to give.

This was evidently the belief of Christ’s disciples, and this belief is not only universal, but true also. Yet I have heard it affirmed, by a very hyperspiritual teacher, that “The people of the world marry the one they love. We as Christians love the one we marry.” But such a statement betrays the most lamentable ignorance of the nature of love and marriage. Of course we as Christians love the one we marry, as God commands us, but that such love can ever take the place of the romantic sort, or ever bring marital happiness to the parties involved, is a mere delusion. The belief of such a proposition can only browbeat the unfortunate sufferers—-as hyperspiritual notions usually do—-and require them to blame themselves for what they cannot help. And it is a plain fact that many who could not find happiness in one marriage yet do find it in another, and those who have failed to find it in three or four marriages yet may find it in another. The woman at the well had had five husbands, and found nothing but disappointment and unhappiness in all of them, yet her belief remained as firm as ever that it was in union with a man that her happiness was to be found, and so, when disappointed in one, she always proceeded to another. She has a myriad of followers in the present day, for the belief is universal among the sons and daughters of men that earthly happiness is to be found in the right sort of marriage, and this belief is as true as it is universal.

But here a great difficulty arises. God forbids us to end a bad marriage in order to seek a good one. What then? Does he care nothing for the happiness of his creatures? So unbelief would suppose. Faith knows better than this, and yet faith itself may often be severely puzzled as to how such prohibitions of the Lord can consist with his care for the happiness of men. How can he desire their happiness, while he denies them the very thing which would make them happy? There is nothing impious in raising such questions, though God yet expects us to trust in him, as well when we cannot understand his ways, as when we can. Here lies the most honorable occupation of faith. Yet it is honorable also to get understanding with all our getting, and nothing is more honorable nor more profitable than to get understanding of God.

In the first place, then, it plainly appears that if God in certain cases forbids the very thing which would make his creatures happy, he has something else in view than the present happiness of every individual. It may be he aims at the ultimate happiness of all, or the greater happiness of a greater number, or both, but it is evident that if he aimed at nothing more than the present happiness of all who seek it, he must allow divorce and remarriage in a myriad of cases where he now forbids it.

Yet it is certain that whatever desires God may have for the present happiness of his creatures, however his heart may be touched by the griefs and longings of every individual, he is not willing to grant that happiness regardless of the cost. He is not willing to grant it, for example, at the expense of the happiness of others. To take one of the most common situations on earth, here is a man, and there a woman, both of them unhappily married, both of them languishing of course for that love which the whole human race stands in need of, and which neither of them can find in the marriage which they have. They likely both entered the married state when they were young, when they had no understanding of what that love was, and so married without it. The lack of it, however, has taught them its nature, and taught them also the depth of their own need for it. Now it is perfectly evident—-it would seem that none but those who willfully close their eyes could deny it—-that in a myriad of cases, if these two unhappy souls could leave their present spouses, and be married to each other, they would find that love and that happiness which they cannot help but crave. But at what cost? At what cost of suffering to others? Suppose they each have two or three children. Will those children also find happiness, in being torn from a mother or a father who loves them, and in having a new parent thrust upon them, whom they neither know, nor love, nor trust? The real fact is, such children will be confused and unsettled, perhaps embittered, and so deeply wounded in numerous ways that their scars may remain while life shall last. And who would suppose that God would thus secure the happiness of two, at the expense of the happiness of five or six?

And what of the spouses who were left? Who has not seen the devastation which falls upon a woman when her husband leaves her for another? No doubt her marriage was unsatisfying before—-for no man who would leave his wife for another woman could make her happy while he remained with her. Yet unhappy as her marriage must have been while it continued, “Something is better than nothing,” as the proverb affirms, and a woman is almost certain to find more happiness in being cared for by a man who is unhappy with her, than in being abandoned by him for another woman. The former may fail to satisfy her heart, but the latter is a deep thrust at the very springs of her nature. The unsatisfied woman may mourn in secret. The abandoned woman must bear her rejection before the eyes of all the world.

But these cases obviously fail to exhaust the subject. There may be no children to hurt, and even a wife who is devastated by her husband’s departure may yet find greater happiness in the end, in a man who loves her. The Lord’s reasons must evidently lie deeper than this.

We must further consider that while the Lord’s prohibitions, coupled with the careless manner in which many enter the married state, may debar many from ever attaining marital happiness at all, yet these prohibitions may also contribute to the greater happiness of the greater number over all. In the first place, there is probably nothing which could contribute so much to a wholesome caution in uttering the vows of marriage as the certain knowledge that those vows must stand, “for better or for worse.” On the other hand, there is nothing which could contribute so much to the throwing of all caution to the winds as the supposition that those vows may be broken at pleasure. I was told of a cousin of mine who married, not “till death do us part,” nor “while life shall last,” but “while love shall last”—-not that these young folks knew what love was, or had it, when they uttered their cautious vows. But be that as it may, they had no sense of the permanency of marriage, and no intention to make it permanent. Such a view of the matter can hardly help but dispel all the solemn caution with which men ought to marry. Thus the free license to divorce must work directly to the multiplication of bad marriages, and so far contribute to the greater overall unhappiness of the race—-for not all who carelessly enter ill-matched marriages, under the belief that they may end them when they please, will feel free to do so when the occasion calls for it. There are many constraining reasons for maintaining an unsatisfying marriage, even where folks believe themselves free to end it, the good of the children being the most compelling of those reasons.

But more. Love comes in a thousand different degrees, and marriage therefore exists in a thousand degrees of goodness or badness. Every marriage which is not perfect is not therefore miserable. A man may have a good marriage, which is yet less than the epitome of bliss. Yet the supposition that he is free to end that marriage, in order to seek a better, will tend directly to breed dissatisfaction, even with marriages which are essentially good, though less than perfect.

But we know that many marriages are not essentially good. Their very existence stands as a bar to the happiness of the parties involved. They are not in love, and never can be, for all their trying. We will not pretend that making the best of an uncongenial mismatch will ever bring marital happiness, or make a bad marriage good, but it may after all be conducive to more happiness in general than a free license to divorce. We shall have more to say of that further down.

Yet in spite of such considerations as these, the belief persists that wherever an uncongenial marriage exists, divorce and remarriage are the way to happiness. It was doubtless on the strength of this belief that God of old granted permission to Israel to divorce and remarry—-for who would avail themselves of that permission for any other reason? Some there are who teach that the Bible, New Testament as well as old, condones divorce for mere lack of love. Nor is this doctrine a new one, hatched in the present permissive age. Perhaps the strongest treatise in existence on the subject comes from the pen of old John Milton, a seventeenth-century English Independent, or Congregationalist, and the author of “Paradise Lost.” He contends with a great array of the most compelling reasons that love itself must compel the separation of spouses who cannot love each other, and that therefore “the true church may unwittingly use as much cruelty in forbidding to divorce, as the church of antichrist doth wilfully in forbidding to marry.” With great force of reason, and great powers of eloquence, he describes the hopelessness of an ill-formed marriage, and predicates to marriage without love a great host of great evils. And in fact we quite agree with him. But his reason and eloquence are evidently misapplied. He cannot maintain the strength of his reason when he deals with the prohibitions of Scripture, but must stoop then to strong assertion or weak sophistry. His powerful pleading, though it move us to tears and sobs for the plight of the mismatched, and though it burn into our very souls the truth of the old saw, “Better half hanged than ill wed,” yet it leaves us just where we were with regard to the prohibitions of the Lord. We knew all that Milton says before we read him, and deeply felt it too, yet we hardly dare employ those powerful reasons to set aside the prohibitions of Scripture. We do not pretend to know everything on this subject. Indeed, we do not pretend to know much. We have many unanswered questions, and we feel most deeply the difficulties involved in the matter. But this much we can say: If those Scriptural prohibitions are to stand, those powerful reasons are evidently not to be used to separate the mismatched, but to prevent their ever joining themselves together in the first place. This much is safe. Let us employ all the little powers we have to prevent bad marriages, and we know that we do well. The divine prohibitions of Scripture, coupled with the prevalence of marriages without love, ought by all means to be used to inculcate the utmost caution in marrying, but when parents and pastors, when church and society, have failed to cultivate that caution—-when the carnal and the hyperspiritual alike have made marriage a blind lottery—-it is no remedy to throw to the winds the very thing which will work most powerfully to return men to sanity, and to secure that caution.

But modern society has no regard for the prohibitions of Scripture. It needs not labor, as John Milton did, to prove those prohibitions misapplied, or misinterpreted, or inconsistent, as commonly interpreted, with the goodness of God. Modern man has found a shorter way. He simply casts away the cords of the Lord, and breaks his bands in sunder. With one sweep he frees himself from the galling yoke which requires him to eat the fruits of his ignorance or his carelessness, and so paves a broad way for the whole race, to be as careless as it may please in uttering the once-solemn vows of matrimony.

Thus the effects of a free license to divorce are no longer a matter of speculation, but of actual experience. The experiment has been tried. And with what result? Has the happiness of modern man been increased by this freedom? We have no doubt that many individuals have been made happier. So far as this life is concerned, many who would have been locked up in uncongenial and unsatisfying marriages have found love and happiness by divorce and remarriage. No unprejudiced man could deny this. But still we ask, Has the happiness of men in general been increased? And here we can only say, we very much doubt it. To say nothing at all of the confusion and tears which have been thrust upon a myriad of children, the newspapers are full of advertisements from divorced persons who languish yet for love, unsatisfied in a former marriage, burned and stung by a bitter divorce, hoping to love and trust again, yet fearing to do so, and now having—-—-nothing. No husband, no love, no companionship, no security, no father for their children, but only aching and burning and languishing—-as firm as ever in their belief that happiness is to be found in a good marriage, but unable to secure even a bad one, lacking now the physical beauties of youth, cumbered with children and debts and cares—-and, as I have heard from some, unwilling to go to a tavern to find a husband, and yet not knowing where else to find one. Modern society is filled with a myriad of such souls, male and female, who have gained nothing by the modern permissive divorce laws but languishing and loneliness. It may be—-it no doubt was—-that the marriages from which they have departed left a great deal to be desired, but certainly in many of those cases something was better than nothing. The little which they had before was better than the nothing which they have now. Not only so, but the little which they had before may very likely have been made better, if they had committed themselves to so doing, instead of rushing to the divorce court. Now they have nothing.

We are of course well aware that there has always been a small amount of such unhappiness on the earth—-perhaps five in a hundred who have never found a mate at all, and a number of others (though mostly among the aged) who have been bereft of one by death. It seems evident, however, that the loose laws of divorce have greatly increased that number, and so greatly increased the unhappiness of the human race. That freedom from the bands and cords of the Lord, by which men promised themselves greater happiness, while it has no doubt secured that happiness for some, has actually wrought in the opposite direction for a far greater number. They now languish alone, with all of their marital desires unsatisfied, while those desires are continually stimulated and sharpened and strengthened and inflamed by the literature on the news stands, by the programs on television, and by a constant barrage of love songs on the radio. Such is the wisdom of man.

Glenn Conjurske