Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Focus on the Dysfunctional Family

I was talking with a friend yesterday and we were pondering the reasons why Christian marriages are statistically as strong or weak as marriages among people with no faith. I wonder if you any of you know whether research has been done in this arena that's available, either a commercial book or a thesis? If so, I'd be grateful to hear about the resources.

Lacking such resources, we were pondering that the Christian marriage has a lot going for it on the positive side, in that the believer's marriage is a vocation from God to display Christ and church, and it's a covenant, intended to permanent. They also have at their disposal the power the resources of revelation from the Scriptures, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally, they have this calling to live as people of grace, forgiving one another as they've been forgiven in Christ.

In light of these pluses, why would Christian marriages be as likely to fail as non-Christians? The only thing I can imagine is that these positives are either unappropriated by the Christians, or that there are some negatives in the Christian mindset/culture canceling out the positives. Here are some of the possible negatives I see in my pastoral world:

1. We're less grace filled than we ought to be. Depending on the denominational flavor, Christian communities can often be, of places, the place most terrifying to be authentic with struggle and failure. Since our message is that God transforms lives, there's a subtle pressure to always be displaying the upside of our transformation: "Yes... I was a failure, I previously struggled with addiction, lust, anger, greed -- but that done now because of Jesus" This can be a tempting declaration or persona, even if it's not true, because admitting one's failures can make one the subject of gossip.

2. If we're less grace filled than we ought to be, then in our lack of authenticity, we become more isolated, and our isolation cuts us off from the relational resources we need in order to sustain our marriages.

3. The misunderstanding of gender roles in marriage (I'll not tackle this today... too many meetings) leads to domestic violence in marriages, and woman's loss of authentic identity. Just as male headship has been abused, and unhealthy reaction to that abuse has also created a pendulum swing, so that our spiritual vocation as husband and wives is drowning in a sea of social confusion.

4. We don't actually appropriate the resources of God's truth and the Holy Spirit's empowerment that I listed as assets above. Lacking these resources, we only have the higher call, but less tools to get us there, resulting in more failures!

I could go on, but I'm running late this morning. I'm wondering if some of you might help me by offering your own thoughts and resources to the conversation. I'll contribute first by encouraging you to read this article in the NY Times, and this page offering a host of tools and practical advice for marriage improvement.


At 1/7/09 07:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A simple anecdotal observation... As a lifelong believer I have known very few Christian marriages that have failed compared with the secular population. Yes I can think of several stunners, but if the divorce rate in the general population is in the 50% range as we constantly hear, that has certainly not been my experience. It might be interesting to know the rate broken down by something more than the world's definition of "Christian". Even as I consider the failures that come to mind, more incite into what I know of one or both individuals often reveals details showing a lack of genuine Faith, i.e. unequally yoked shall we say or questionable belief for both. Never have I known a couple I would consider solid in their faith failing in their marriage. No doubt it occurs, but it would certainly raise the questions you pose if that were a norm.

At 1/7/09 07:52, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

I agree with your anecdotal observation and would quickly add that our own congregation reflects this same relative 'rarity' of marriage failures related to this common statistic. Of course, there are lots of ways to slice stats, and one of the realities is that people with higher education (like our church) tend to have greater success in marriage.

It also seems that what you're saying reinforces my point that marriages are more likely to fail is people of faith fail to appropriate the ethic and resources provided by the gospel.

At 1/7/09 12:04, Anonymous Geoff said...

Hi Richard, while I don't have any scholarly data available in the form of journal articles, etc, I'm sure I could find some. In the meantime, this overview may be helpful?

Also, reflecting upon these comments from the NYT article:

"... many couples today are delaying marriage.... The data suggest that the weakest relationships, which years ago might have resulted in a marriage followed by a divorce, are now ending before the couple ever heads to the altar... In short, marriages appear to be stronger from the beginning.

The culture itself has also become more clear-eyed about the costs of divorce... divorce, while sometimes necessary, financially drains families and is often tough on children. Many therapists now counsel couples coping with infidelity not to act rashly, to work on reconciliation for at least six months — divorce, almost always, is for good."

So, it would seem that pragmatism, rather than covenantal commitment, is becoming the basis for marriage today. If this is so, then it might be useful to understand and respond to pragmatism with regard to marriage.

While pragmatism certainly has its good side, if Christian marriage fails to reflect anything more than what is possible via simple pragmatism, then the institution of Christian marriage has less to offer the society. This, I assume, should be viewed by Christians as a problem. (stating the obvious, I know)

At 1/7/09 19:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this and did some googling to see what I could find. One thing that was probably the most thought provoking was a study which implied that Christians marry young, and in some areas VERY young, which makes them more likely to end in divorce. As Geoff was saying, if non-christians are more and more never making it to the altar, this could help explain the comparable rates as well. My thought trail led me two two reasons that I would venture to say are the greatest reason our rate (as believers) is so high
1) I absolutely second lack of commitment. Our culture is full of memberships and clubs that are all to easy to jump in and out of. The term falling in love has become the catch phrase and end all, which is based on feelings rather than commitment. I think even believers fall prey to lack of commitment where as in my grandmother's generation there was no plan B, no matter what.

2) I wonder if some believers deep down believe the lies that another person can fulfill them in a way that only God can. When the relationship falls short of this unrealistic (usually unrealized) hope, infidelity and bitterness may set in, leading to divorce.

At 4/7/09 08:49, Blogger Kristie Vosper said...

great conversation. I like what you said about gender rolls. Been encouraging women in my sphere to read "Ruby Slippers" to unpack and understand their femininity in a good theological context...but giving freedom while celebrating what it means to be uniquely female. If you haven't read it, I'd really really recommend picking it up. Men and women should read it.

Further, I thought of a conversation I shared he other day with a friend of mine. She was talking about all of the miserable people we know who got married out of college and are sort of caged in their marriages and very unhappy. Seems their marriages don't allow for exploration of the world, freedom, and shared adventure. They are about a certain "thing" that marriage is "supposed to be". They very early in life aquired the house, the kids, the SUVs, the jobs, the extra rental properties and are faced at age 30 or so with "now what?"

Seems christian marriage isn't immune to the culture's American Dream myth. "If you GET all of THAT you'll be HAPPY"

We also talked about the pressure to stay sexually pure encourages couples to marry young so they don't "burn with lust". Their idolatry of sex creates an unhealthy expectation that all pre-marital problems are because they "aren't able to connect and have sex yet".

In the listening I do in my job, it seems that people just don't have the time in their schedules to build a good marriage. The assumption is that it's just supposed to be easy...and when it isn't...the thought becomes 'would it have been easier with someone else?"

Perhaps, but maybe it comes from this misunderstanding of our fallen sin nature, and included in that is a convoluted understanding of our gender identity...and all swirled together with the pressures of our culture...we find couples...and individuals...lost...alone... isolated.

And perhaps they thought marriage would fix this inner isolation...and after the Crate and Barrel boxes are counted...the thank you notes's still two broken people...expecting a quick fix on their souls...and sadly in most cases...each one was looking for perfection in the other...when Jesus was hoping for some mutual grace and love to exist here.

At 18/8/09 07:16, Blogger Shannon said...

It really wound not be a good thing to see many Christian marriages fail. I think if one were to put the statistics under the microscope, those whose marriages are in crisis or has failed most probably were not so "steeped" in the faith. I think the general rule applies to everything, even marriage. Discipline works; going to church and reading the Bible regularly, attending marriage workshops and enrichment seminars, keeping oneself healthy and always thinking positive. If one lives like this he/she can't go wrong.


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