Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Marital Separation's (Lack of) Virtue

Christianity Today ran an interesting article last week regarding Al and Tipper Gore's separation and how separation can be pro-family. The author, Glenn Stanton, is the Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, so the perspective is definitely from the value of not getting divorced, which is something I also value and would advocate for.

Before I read the article, I was expecting it to be something about how separation is acceptable because the couple is not actually getting divorced, so they're technically still married and following God's law. This kind of perspective is a really lame cop-out and a step into legalism, I think.

In many cases, the only difference between separation and divorce is piece of paper from the courts.

This was not the point of the article, but I have a feeling this was an underlying message. Stanton's point is that marital separation can be a sort of "pause button," allowing the couple space to breathe, re-evaluate their relationship, and then reconnect in a healthier way. While I could see this happening (Stanton said that happened to his marriage), I'm not convinced that's the reason anything near the majority (or even any semblance of a significant minority) of people separate. Rather, the article felt more like Stanton feeling the need to defend his own past separation.

From a psychological perspective, I could see pros and cons of marital separation. Looking at Stanton's argument, sometimes people do need space in order to reconnect. However, there are much better ways than separation. People definitely need to address the problem earlier (although this is not common--most people only seek marital counseling when they have basically already decided to divorce).

The best point Stanton makes is that separation brings the couple's community together, letting everyone know there is a serious marital rift and that they need help. Community is important. But if it takes formal separation to get people to help, it's not much of a community...

I also think separation from Stanton's perspective can actually be more damaging than helpful. I would think people more often will use it as an excuse to get separated to make themselves feel less guilt about the separation. They will "try" to reconnect, show it didn't work, and then use that as a theological excuse for divorce.

And then there's the issue if there are children. Much research has shown that divorce definitely causes problems in kids. However, it also consistently shows that a constantly feuding couple who remains married does MORE damage to the kids than if the two divorced. Separation could be seen as a way of having a balance between marriage and lack of feuding. However, I don't think it does this well.

In fact, I think separation would be worse than divorced because of the ambiguity involved. Are mommy and daddy staying together? Are they separate for good? Kids don't do well with ambiguity, particularly when it comes to their families and living situations. Our treatment team at work often tells parents not to tell kids of major plans unless they are sure it will happen. If there's a chance it won't, the rollercoaster of expectation and anxiety just causes more problems.

So in summary, "separation" sounds nicer. It's more theologically friendly, as we haven't sinned by getting "divorced." But this is really more of a legalistic view. In many ways, I think separation is more dangerous and damaging than divorce. This is not always true, as in Stanton's case. But it needs to be approached cautiously, in my opinion.

What do you think?

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