It happens all the time. My eyes follow the familiar path to skim the guy’s dating site profile. John Doe is from Anywhere, USA. He has a degree and career. He is thankful for God, family and friends. We like some of the same TV shows, movies and authors. His pictures show a nice smile and that he’s involved in a church and has done some missions work.
My gaze drifts to the small print: “Relationship status: Divorced.”
An Uncomfortable Truth
In my early 20s, being divorced was a deal breaker when it came to potential dates. And why not? There were plenty of fish in the sea — about 88 percent of men and 78 percent of women in their early 20s were single.1)”Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009,” United States Census Bureau, May 2011, https://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p70-125.pdf. I was optimistic about finding Mr. Right, and I wanted to do my part to build a healthy relationship. I believed in the permanence of marriage and wanted to avoid baggage in a potential mate.
I didn’t know that by the time I reached my early 30s, the dating pool would shrink drastically — statistically, there’s less than half as many single people.2)”Number, Timing, and Duration.” And at this point, everyone has baggage. Some, such as being divorced or a single parent, is more obvious. Other baggage is more difficult to discern. Dating relationships gone wrong leave us broken despite the best intentions to guard our hearts. Sexual sin, including pornography, is rampant.
While I still desire a healthy marriage, I have become less obsessed about a person’s past and more interested in his practices of the present. It seems foolish to turn down a divorced man who tried to save his marriage in favor of a never-married man who’s squandering his young adult years with go-nowhere relationships. All people in our fallen world carry some baggage — whether from past relationships, childhood trauma or our families of origin. Divorce can be a weighty sort of baggage on top of those things, but what matters most isn’t a perfect track record (or the appearance of one), but finding someone who has turned his life over to God and has sought healing and growth from his past mistakes.
Considering a Relationship
So, you meet someone who is divorced. How do you know if he or she is ready for a new relationship?
Wanting an answer to this question, I spoke with Stephen Bell and his wife, Tracy, who are both experts in family studies. They teach at College of the Ozarks and serve with Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored. Though they appear to be one of those picture-perfect couples for whom everything just went right (married for nearly 14 years, have four children and work and worship together), in reality, they are a sign of God’s grace and work through life’s difficulties. This is Stephen’s second marriage — living proof that God can work all things together for good.
As the Bells shared their experience and expertise, several themes emerged. Before you get serious with someone who has been divorced, make sure you have answers to these five important questions.
1. Why did your date get divorced?
Does your date know what went wrong in his marriage? Can he explain it to you? This is an important question because, without the right answer, it is unlikely that your date has been able to pursue proper healing and growth.
Does he answer, “Well, you know what, we just never were in love”? If that’s similar to your date’s answer, Stephen said, “I would run for cover. I would not date that person. That would be maybe the biggest red flag.”
This sort of reasoning shifts the responsibility for the divorce off of the parties involved. In reality, divorce happens because of sin. As a Christian, your date needs to be able to identify his own sins and character traits that contributed to his marriage breakup, even if his ex was primarily at fault. If your date shifts blame and can’t take responsibility for his part in his failed marriage, it’s a sign he may need to do more work.
This question is also important because you need to know whether or not your date’s divorce is biblically valid. In Mark 10:9, Jesus states, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Marriage is meant to be a life-long covenant before God and others. But because of sin, even Christian marriages fall apart. Scripture allows for divorce in three instances: adultery (Matthew 19:9), abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15) or when the divorce occurred prior to salvation (2 Corinthians 5:17). But individual situations can be very complex, so it is important to involve trusted pastors or spiritual mentors in your discernment process.
2. How long has your date been divorced?
It’s important that your date has spent significant time as a single recovering from her divorce. Stephen offered a ballpark figure: “Depending on how intentional the person is, usually I recommend around two years.”
Keep in mind, time is not enough by itself to let you know if your date is ready for a relationship. Psychologist and author John Townsend put it this way: “I know people that if they don’t do the right kind of healing, they can be 80 before they qualify for marriage again.”3)John Townsend, Video Advice Dating Channel, Cloud-Townsend Resources, accessed March 1, 2018, video, 0:15, https://www.cloudtownsend.com/video-advice/channel/Dating/townsendA1127/.
But this question is a good starting point. If it’s only been a matter of weeks or months since her divorce, it’s likely your date isn’t ready for a new relationship.
3. Is your date open about his experience?
In order to know if your date is a good candidate for marriage, you have to really know his story.
Dialogue is important. Does your date say some topics are off limits? Stephen said that’s a red flag.
When Stephen and Tracy were dating, Stephen would occasionally tell Tracy, “OK, ask me anything you want.” Stephen’s open attitude helped Tracy know she could trust him.
“I felt like somebody in her shoes deserved to know,” Stephen said. “If she is going to take the risk to date me, then I ought to be open enough and willing to be vulnerable enough to answer whatever questions she has.”
For the Bells, Stephen’s story of his divorce became a vehicle for them to grow closer.
“It was almost a blessing,” Tracy explained. “Because it created a context where we were forced to become intimate around those subjects before jumping into marriage.”
If your date has healed and grown from his divorce, he should be able to risk this sort of vulnerability with you.
4. How has your date entered into the healing process?
A divorce is a traumatic event. It’s not something a person can just shrug off. Healing can and will look different depending on your date’s personality and situation, but your date should be able to give you practical ways she’s entered into the process. It might be counseling with a therapist, joining a divorce recovery group, spending intentional time with trustworthy friends, reading books about relationships, or scheduling regular meetings with a pastor.
In your interactions, you should be able to tell that your date’s divorce is a past rather than a present event. Your date should be able to relate to you as an individual, without comparing and contrasting you with her past spouse. Also, notice your date’s attitude toward her ex.
Stephen suggests watching your date when she does tell a story, looking for signs of bitterness and anger. He said that a lot of bitterness and anger means there’s still much healing and growth needed.
But healing doesn’t have to be perfect in every area. “Somebody can be healed but still have some residue,” Stephen explained. People have wounds and you may run into those in a relationship, but these instances should be in the minority.
If you sense that your date still has a lot of angst, especially if you feel like you are taking the heat from her old bitterness, that’s a sign that healing is incomplete.
5. How has your date grown since his divorce?
Your date should be able to tell you how he has grown because of his divorce. As he has reflected and confessed past sins associated with his marriage, this repentance should have resulted in real, positive character change.
“Healing and growing,” Stephen emphasized. “It’s not just healing. A lot of people just focus on the healing, but man — you should have grown a lot from your experience, no matter what that experience entailed.”
Healing without growth is “like pulling weeds out of a garden but not replanting it,” said Tracy. “It’s not going to be beautiful.”
Make sure your date has taken the initiative to enter into the growth process. Otherwise, you risk repeating history. Second marriages have a higher divorce rate4)”Marriage & Divorce,” American Psychological Association, accessed March 2, 2018, http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/ because, as Stephen said, “Everybody points the finger and doesn’t want to take inventory.”
Ask your date how he’s grown because of his divorce. If he can’t answer that question, that’s another red flag.
Not a Deal Breaker
Just like any hardship, God can use divorce for good in the lives of His people.
Stephen explained that divorce shaped him to be a better husband and father. Tracy agreed, acknowledging that it was unlikely she would have ever dated the pre-divorce Stephen. But she met him after his divorce, and while she said she initially didn’t see herself dating someone who had been divorced, Stephen’s character made an impression.
“The more I got to know him, I was like, ‘Man — there is something different about this guy,'” she said. “And I think it’s because I could tell he had done the work. I think that’s what drew me to him. He probably was more ready to date than I was because I wasn’t asking those questions. He had already worked on himself and despite the fact that I had not been married, I hadn’t done the personal work because I had never been forced to.”
As human beings in a fallen world, we all have personal work that needs to be done. Though I haven’t been divorced, I have had relationships that didn’t work out. I need to heal when my trust and heart are broken. I have to confess mistakes and pursue growth in the wake of relationships gone wrong. Even without having experienced divorce, I have to with God’s help work to keep my baggage down to a manageable carry-on as I return again and again to practices that keep me whole and healthy.
These days, I take divorce seriously, but I don’t see it as an automatic deal breaker. Instead, I ask questions and listen to stories. I look for someone who is humbling himself before God and doing the work, regardless of his relationship history.
Copyright 2018 Candice Gage. All rights reserved.
|↑ 1.||”Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009,” United States Census Bureau, May 2011, https://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p70-125.pdf.|
|↑ 2.||”Number, Timing, and Duration.”|
|↑ 3.||John Townsend, Video Advice Dating Channel, Cloud-Townsend Resources, accessed March 1, 2018, video, 0:15, https://www.cloudtownsend.com/video-advice/channel/Dating/townsendA1127/.|
|↑ 4.||”Marriage & Divorce,” American Psychological Association, accessed March 2, 2018, http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/|