During our 16-month separation I had many opportunities to think about and make decisions for myself about separation, dissolution, or divorce from a theological aspect, a personal aspect and a legal aspect. For those of you who are facing similar decisions I want to lay out what my thoughts were during that time in more detail so it may help you to think through your situation very thoroughly and make some wise decisions. If adultery is involved in your situation or you have been abandoned by a non-believing spouse, you have even more issues to think about but this post is not primarily about those situations.
From the beginning of our separation Sharon was unwilling to promise absolutely that we would reconcile, but for awhile we did go to counseling to try. Eventually we came to a point where she said, for various reasons, “I am getting a divorce.” I then informed her that Jesus had said, “Let no man put asunder what God has joined together,” so I refused to give her a dissolution.
From a biblical standpoint the two reasons that are most commonly accepted in the Christian community for divorce are adultery or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Neither of those situations applied to us. Neither of us was committing adultery and both of us were actively attending church and involved in Bible studies. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul counsels against separation, but if it happens between two believers he makes clear that the goal is reconciliation. So from my understanding of scripture we had no Biblical justification for divorce or dissolution of our marriage.
From a personal standpoint I had made vows to Sharon “for better or worse till death do us part”. I decided that having a wife who said she had no feelings of love for me as a husband and who wanted a divorce must be part of the “worse” we talked about in our vows. However, I had promised “till death do us part”, so I was determined not to give up. I realized that I had not every day perfectly fulfilled my vow to love and cherish her, but just because I had failed on any given day, didn’t let me out of continuing to learn to fulfill those vows. Just because you miss one car payment doesn’t mean you get out of a car loan scott free.
From a legal standpoint I could sign a dissolution. However, that would violate my moral conviction as per Scripture above. I also realized that I had been in a court room in Ohio and witnessed a voluntary dissolution by two people I cared about. One of the questions the judge asked them was something like, “Do you want me to dissolve your marriage?”. I realized if I took an oath to “tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth” I could not truthfully tell a judge that I wanted my marriage dissolved.
At some point in time Sharon calmly mentioned to me, “If you really loved me you would give me what I want which is a dissolution.” I thought this through. I realized that if my child had made a commitment to a bank for a car loan and then came to me and said, “I don’t like my car. Maybe I should just not pay the loan. What do you think?” I would probably tell him or her, “You made a commitment. You need to keep your commitment. I know it maybe tough, but God will honor you for keeping your commitment.” I don’t think it would be the loving thing to tell them, “That’s okay. You don’t like your car so you don’t keep your commitment to the bank to pay off the loan.”
I felt like Sharon was asking me to sign a voluntary dissolution to let her out of her commitment to me to show her that I loved her. We had both been in agreement before marriage that marriage was for life, and we had both said vows that publicly affirmed that belief. With all of the negative statistics I know about how children fair with broken homes, and how couples fair individually after divorce I did not see how letting Sharon out of her commitment to me would be the loving thing to do for her or our kids.
Since I knew that Sharon was making plans for divorce, I begged her to try mediation before she filed any divorce paperwork. I wanted to mediate a reconciliation. Sharon absolutely would not mediate a reconciliation. She wanted to mediate a dissolution. I absolutely would not mediate a dissolution of our marriage. Our only option left to mediate was a legal separation. I did not want to do this but I felt like it was the best option in the situation. It would keep us from having a divorce or dissolution at least right then, and it would leave the window open for reconciliation down the road some day.
One legal issue of semantics that confused me at first is that regardless of whether you have a dissolution, a legal separation, or a divorce, the agreement of how everything gets split up – child issues and support, alimony, etc., at least in Ohio, is called a separation agreement.
We did in good faith mediate towards a legal separation. Eventually those talks broke down and we went into a time of mostly minimal communication with each other about the farm and the kids, until we went to a PAIRS workshop where we had a major breakthrough towards reconciliation.
Had Sharon filed for divorce my plan was to review whether I wanted to represent myself or to hire an attorney. I figured I would probably use whatever the maximum days were to file a response – since I didn’t want a divorce I couldn’t see why I should speed the process along. I would have reviewed the Ohio law more closely about asking the judge to order counseling. He might or might not have granted my request, but I figured it would be worth a try. I even thought: “We have had several Christian counselors who we have faithfully used but we have hit impasses. Maybe a good old secular counselor appointed by the court will someway, somehow help us get us unstuck.”
If we had gone through the whole court process and gotten divorced by order of the court, my plan was not to remarry but to continue to hold out hope for reconciliation. Sharon was very clear that she had no plans to remarry.
It so happened that we were also having financial problems at the time of our separation. I kept thinking of the U.S. and the Soviet Union’s nuclear policy from when I grew up that was referred to as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Our situation was fairly complex. We owned a farm business that was having major financial issues and there was a good amount of our property that was inherited before our marriage which added complexity to a divorce. Bottom line, if Sharon had decided to pursue divorce it could easily have been very expensive for both of us. Even our mediator said that we couldn’t afford to get divorced.
Since I didn’t hire a family law attorney I really didn’t know all the twists and turns a divorce case could take. I just had a general overview from reading and from informal conversations with our mediator. I figured we would either reconcile, we would eventually legally separate, or if we did divorce, we would financially be worse off than we already were.
I had determined in my heart that I was not going to sign a dissolution. I kept thinking of this sentence from the Declaration of Independence, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” I thought that if our Founding Fathers were willing to risk all their fortune for freedom from a king, I should be willing to risk everything I had to save my marriage.
One reason I did not hire a family law attorney, even though I knew Sharon had one, was that I suspected they would read me the riot act and think that I was crazy to still have Sharon as an authorized signer on all of our joint bank accounts, to have her paying all of our bills, and having my power of attorney allowing her to buy and sell land, mortgage property – basically do anything with my financial affairs – and I was not living in our home, which happened to be on the farm that had been in my family for generations.
I suspected that any lawyer would push me hard to start protecting myself by separating finances and canceling any of Sharon’s authority I had given her. That would be the exact opposite of the message that I wanted to send her which was: “We are still married, you are still my wife, and I still trust you with everything I have, and I am planning for us to be together for the rest of our lives.”
Because I absolutely would not sign a dissolution and because a divorce would be so expensive I was hoping that Sharon at some point in time would eventually be open to going to a marriage intensive in an effort to reconcile, or that we would do a legal separation which would mean the door to reconciliation would be open long term since neither of us could remarry.
From the little I understood about property division in Ohio, even if a judge did order a divorce, most likely our property would be split where we each would get about half unless it got complicated by property inherited before marriage. Who knows what he would have ordered on child support. Child support usually is calculated off of income so how that would have worked when my income was from the farm and it had been negative for several years I am not sure.
The ultimate long term goal for our property is to have something to pass on to our children so we actually had that as a common goal to someday help us think straight and draw us together so it didn’t all go to lawyer’s fees.
I know my strategy or stance of saying absolutely no to a dissolution even though a determined spouse can eventually at some price get a divorce may seem very risky or unusual but I truly did not see how I ever could swear truthfully to a judge that I wanted my marriage dissolved.
I guess that is partly why our ministry is called Stubborn Pursuits. Sometimes to save a marriage, you just have to get stubborn about that objective and never waiver.