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Divorce and Christianity: Should we pull asunder what God has joined?

Gloria Muliro on stage in a past Groove Awards performance [Elvis Ogina, Standard] 

Divorce in church, it appears, carries with it a heavier burden.

The stigma, shame, regret and lasting mental scars associated with it are lighter compared with couples who divorce after civil, traditional and come-we-stay unions.

The latter has an easier exit latch for either party wishing to bolt. Divorce in church has heavy religious overtones of offending both God and man without waiting for ‘till death do us part.’ The divorce is even harder for born again celebrities and church shepherds like pastors and bishops, owing to their positions in society and as poster couples for their sheep.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw the shutting down of church attendance and religious gatherings, eroding the income of pastors, bishops and church employees with domestic repercussions.

This led to the mushrooming of prosperity gospel churches led by pastors with secular leanings in dress and lifestyle, leading to many people, especially men, being caught in compromising situations.

Divorce cases have been rising after the High Court lifted the three-year ‘Judicial Separation’ clause in December 2019.

Yet, the effect of divorce on mental health, with men suffering the most, cannot be gainsaid. Besides depression and other psychological complications, divorce only worsens suicidal tendencies, diabetes, hypertension, ulcers, weak hearts and other underlying health conditions.

Common reasons for divorce are a lack of intimacy, desertion, adultery and cruelty. Other factors include how long the couple has been together, partners’ education level, religious beliefs, urbanisation and territorial distribution of families.

Gender-based violence is also becoming a leading factor.

An example would be Kenyan gospel singer Gloria Muliro. She married Pastor Eric Omba in a colourful church ceremony in 2009, but the marriage ended six years later.

Muliro later urged women to quit abusive marriages. 

“Don’t wait to die! Thank God I’m alive, happy and loved.”  

Though reluctant to share what happened, she said, “The most important thing is that God gave me the strength to walk through the fire and come out stronger. I wouldn’t want to talk about what happened back then. That is behind me now.”

She was often asked why it took her five years to leave an unhappy marriage and she said, “I was determined to make it work. I am not saying I tried my best, no. I did my best in fact.

“I was trying to hide it all to protect my husband as a servant of God till I could stand it no more.” 

Muliro later remarried Evans Sabwami six years later, which she says was time enough “to heal the scars”.

“It wasn’t easy having the whole world watching, with some judging and others comforting,” the songbird said during an earlier interview in 2021, just before her wedding to Sabwami in the US.

Pastor Joan Wairimu took to YouTube to narrate her 17-year experience.

Pastor Joan Wairimu during an interview with The Standard in 2017 [Beverlyne Musili, Standard]

She explained in an interview that she stayed out of the fear of being judged seeing as she is a public figure.

Wairimu says she stayed “for the sake of people who know you as a role model, and the congregation. It was hard for me to walk out. I would smile and pretend all was okay, but it wasn’t.”  The Pambazuka na Yesu hitmaker exchanged vows with her then fiancé, a bishop, in a church wedding full of pomp in 1996. But signs of dysfunctionality appeared about five years after the wedding.

“It was not once, nor twice, that I was threatened… there are many times he carried a knife into the bedroom.”

But Wairimu loved her ex-husband, stayed, but finally walked out when denial of paternity for their three children involved them being subjected to DNA tests. She said it was hard having to explain it to the children.

Eventually, the marriage was dissolved in court and Wairimu resettled in Canada in 2013.

Pauline Gikanga, a marriage counsellor and therapist, says red flags in a dysfunctional union are rarely visible but become pronounced after couples settle down.

It is, however, harder for staunch Christians as the Bible discourages divorce.

“Divorce is an uphill task to Christians,” says Gikanga, as most can hardly reconcile preaching about happy families yet they have none at home and area about to do what they believe God hates.

Such people would rather die in the marriage considering they vowed ‘until death do us apart,’ yet spirituality aside, “some marriages are dead, but couples hold on, with some getting into depression.”

She adds: “Some spiritual leaders suffer abusive marriage in silence because they are the ones who help solve disputes. They are forced to stay.”

Gikanga argues that couples stay in abusive marriages for societal expectations, guilt, lack of a support system and hoping even narcissist partners, will change. But “abusers do not show their side of abuse when with other people.”

Archbishop Anthony Muheria, head of the Nyeri Archdiocese, said the Catholic Church is “extremely merciful to people in family distress, domestic, physical abuse and also divorcees. But its attitude of mercy does not compromise its conviction of marriage as a union for life; one-for-one for life.

“But the Church allows separation for the sake of one’s health and children, but not remarriage since separation is a couple living separately, but still married.”  

Bishop Muheria added that the Church encourages divorcees to be useful separately within their family, the Church and society “as they’re not rejects.”

In a previous interview with Health & Science, Dr Michael Mbiriri, a clinical psychologist, said the mental effect of a divorce can either be positive or negative as there are couples who become relieved when a relationship which was peppered with physical and emotional abuse and misunderstandings, goes south.

“It is advantageous as the psychological well-being of some ends up improving,” said Dr Mbiriri. But the same cannot be said of born again couples divorcing.

While a secular partner can drown their bread of sorrow in alcohol, a divorcing pastor can mostly wallow in insomnia and low-self-esteem.

Dr Mbiriri cites depression and stress as catalysts of underlying medical conditions “because of low immunity which is susceptible to opportunistic diseases.”

Dr Mbiriri lists ulcers and high blood pressure as top conditions for women going through divorce.

Men, who mostly zip up problems, suffer loneliness and social isolation which can be tough on say, a pastor, choir leader, church pianist, usher, Sunday school teacher, Catechist, and members of the Women’s Guild and ‘Jumuiya’ for Catholics.

Other conditions for men, said Dr Mbiriri, include clinical depression, hypertension and heart attacks. 

Jane Wachira, a Christian and marriage coach, said: “I only got to enjoy marriage for the first five years, but afterwards, it was a battlefield.”

She would later be treated to holidays as an apology, but the real issues were never resolved.

They separated three times hoping to iron out their issues to no avail. Family and friends noticed the cracks “but I would pretend. I really wanted to fix my marriage through endurance.”

The mother of two children aged 12 and 21 remained optimistic considering Proverbs 14:1 which says, “The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down”.

Wachira said, “I literally fought for my marriage. I would rather have died in my marriage than leave the house for someone else.”  

Stressed up and anxious, she shared her marriage troubles with the church despite facing open stigma.  

But domestic violence caused her depression, which led to the loss of a 32-week pregnancy. “Seeing the body of my baby removed from the womb was the most difficult tribulation I ever went through.”  

She walked out of the marriage 12 years later.    

Psychiatrist Dr Edith Kwobah says, “A happy marriage is where no one is hurting, whether physically, or emotionally. There is mutual joy, respect and satisfaction as well as capacity to solve conflicts peacefully.” Dysfunctional marriages majorly suffer communication breakdowns from both parties.

“Healthy communication is the core of a working marriage,” she says, adding that separations result in mental health issues irrespective of how strong they are. Dissolution of a marriage “causes pain, blame and regrets.”

Dr Kwobah, who is in charge of the Mental Unit at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH), lists signs of mental disturbance in marriage as including anxiety, worry, fear, restlessness, insomnia, depression, sadness, low energy and hopelessness.

Children also develop anxiety during separations. The Mental Unit handles three such cases every month.

Besides therapy from professionals and intervention from in-laws, Dr Kwobah advises couple who wed in church to also seek guidance.

Faith Nafula Atsango, a counselling psychologist, reckons that women cope better than men as they easily talk, share out their feelings. Gikanga, on her part, says nobody signs up for divorce and that “anything that gives someone sleepless nights means something is amiss and it is time to quit.”