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Marital Separation

by N. Bruce Rogers

We have seen in the twentieth century a growing public tolerance and even approval of divorce. Legal grounds for it have been multiplied by various legislatures in a number of states and countries, and there is now a movement toward "no fault" divorce like that toward "no fault" insurance. Marriage is more and more often viewed as a merely civil contract which should be terminable as easily as it can be entered, and the wish to divorce is therefore taken as sufficient cause in itself to allow it.

With this the natural man in us can have some sympathy. Why should a woman be forced to continue a relationship with a man who has become odious and perhaps even dangerous to her and her children? Why should a man have to put up with a nagging and interfering wife, whose beauty has perhaps proved a fleeting thing, her unremitting demands a liability? Is it not only fair that a person trapped in an unhappy marriage be permitted to try again?

But marriage is not simply a natural institution. It is, in fact, a Divine institution. There is more at stake than merely the personal happiness in the here-and-now of those individuals involved in it. For society's sake, for the sake of the spiritual welfare of mankind, indeed for the sake of heaven on earth, the institution itself needs preserving and protecting.

Because of this, the contemplated termination of a marriage needs to take into consideration Divine law as well as civil law. It is not enough to say, "But civil law permits it." Divine law proceeds from Divine wisdom, which is infinitely superior to that of any human court or legislature, and it looks to eternal ends which transcend the inevitably limited view of merely human judgments.

In this pamphlet we present a review of the Divine law as regards marriages that seem no longer viable. It will necessarily be a brief treatment of a complex subject, but the hope is that it will indicate what is Divinely permissible and what is not. The end in view is not censure of whatever mistakes may have been made in the past; the end is to provide some sort of balance to the kinds of attitudes with which we are surrounded from the world, that there may be wisdom in the future.

The General Law of Marriage

The general law of marriage is that it is to continue to the end of life (CL 276). This, therefore, may be expected as the norm in New Church society. Even when original affection has departed, love is yet to be affected and the marriage maintained (ibid.). With good men this is not a matter of hypocrisy but of spiritual honor (CL 279, 280), for the sake of the marriage covenant and for the sake of domestic uses and needs (CL 282-285). Divine law so teaches, and rational law so confirms (CL 276), if it results only in common decency to the partner who has every right to expect at least an outward fulfillment of the commitment made at the time the marriage bonds were entered.

The simulation of love, friendship and favor in courteous treatment and mutual aid even so that the love, friendship and favor seem genuine to all outward appearances, even before one another in the privacy of one's home, is nothing more and nothing less than Christian duty (CL 279e), and it is so viewed by spiritual men and women (CL 280). Certainly it seems clear that the breakup of marriages is one of the really destructive elements in our modern society, and this whether formalized in separation or divorce, or kept in a festering state of wrangling strife and internal enmity.

The Law on Divorce

Nevertheless there are occasions when separation or divorce may be permitted. Adultery on the part of one partner "from set purpose" is legitimate grounds for divorce on the part of the other partner (CL 255). So too are open and manifest approaches to adultery to the point of utter scortatory shamelessness, and also malicious desertion for no just cause when it leads to adultery by the deserting partner, whether from "set purpose" or not (CL 468). The reason given is that adultery is so diametrically opposed to marriage that the two cannot in the least co-exist together (CL 255, 468).

But there are no other legitimate grounds, not for divorce, by which is meant "a plenary abolition of the conjugial covenant and thus plenary separation and entire liberty thereafter to take another [partner]" (CL 468). According to the civil law of most states and countries, there are other legal grounds, but from the point of view of the Divine law and heaven, there are no other legitimate grounds. To some this has come as a hard saying, and even the Lord's disciples on hearing it replied, "if the case of the man be so with a wife, it is not good to marry" (Matt. 19:9,10). Yet it remains a Divine law of religion, given by the Lord in His first advent (Matt. 19:9, cf. 5:32; Mark 10:11,12; Luke 16:18) and confirmed in the Heavenly Doctrines (CL 255, 468), so that despite mortal weakness it is one altogether to be observed and done.

The Law on Separation

There is, however, a middle course, and that is separation. The distinction between divorce and separation is that divorce - if undertaken legitimately - carries with it the right to remarry, while separation does not (CL 255e). By separation is meant either separation from the bed or separation from the house (CL 251), but in neither case is there the right of remarriage. It is not a plenary separation but only a physical one, and the marriage covenant is not thereby entirely abolished (cf. CL 468). If abolished by civil law, it is nevertheless not abolished by Divine law, and a partner who remarries after such a separation commits adultery (CL 255e; Matt. 19:9, cf. 5:32; Mark 10:11,12; Luke 16:18).

For one who does so remarry, the degree of guilt will of course vary according to knowledge and intention (CL 485-494, 530). All cases of adultery are not of equal severity (ibid., esp. CL 487, 489, 491, 493, 494, 530; also 479, 480, 482, 484). Men and judges can only examine acts and make their judgments according to law and rational conviction - which they have every right to do and must do; "but after death everyone is judged according to the intentions of his will and the consequent intentions of his understanding and according to the confirmations of his understanding and the consequent confirmations of his will" (CL 485). One who therefore may be held guilty in this world may be absolved in the next (cf. TCR 523, CL 453). Nevertheless this still does not take away from the law itself, which is that following separation - save for the cause of adultery - there shall not be the right to remarry.

Grounds for Separation

Legitimate grounds for separation (but not for divorce) are classified under three general headings: blemishes of the mind, blemishes of the body, and impotence before marriage (CL 252-254, 470). Again, according to civil law there may be other legal grounds, but according to Divine law there are no other legitimate ones (cf. CL 251). Conversely, however, in cases of separation, there may be legitimate grounds when legal grounds are lacking (cf. CL 252e). The judgment is then left to the person himself and his conscience as to whether he has just and legitimate grounds (CL 470).

Blemishes of the Mind

Blemishes of the mind are legitimate grounds for separation from bed and house because conjugial love is a conjunction of minds. If the mind of one partner therefore becomes so estranged from that of the other that no conjunction whatever is possible, either through mental failure or surrender to evil, then separation may be legitimately permitted (CL 252).

Examples given of mental failure are madness, mental illness, insanity, actual foolishness and idiocy, loss of memory, severe pathological hysteria, and extreme simplicity so that there is no perception of good and truth (CL 252, 470e). To these are added, as examples of evil, "weighty" grounds which if real may also be legitimate: the height of obstinacy in not conforming to what is just and equitable; the utmost pleasure in gabbling and in talking of nothing but trivial and insignificant things; unbridled desire to make secrets of the home public (cf. CL 286); unbridled desire also to quarrel, to strike blows, to take revenge, to do injury, to steal, to lie, to deceive, to blaspheme; neglect of infants; rejection of infants; lack of self-control; real wastefulness; excessive extravagance; drunkenness; lack of cleanliness; shamelessness; internal dissimilitude resulting in antipathy on the part of the other partner; unrestrained demands on the part of the wife for her conjugal rights making the husband "a cold stone"; resorting to magic and the occult; extreme impiety; and other things like these. (CL 252, 470e, 472)

Blemishes of the Body

"By blemishes of the body are not meant accidental diseases which befall one or the other married partner during the time of their marriage and which pass away. What are meant are incurable diseases which do not pass away. Pathology teaches what these are." (CL 253) Those that may become legitimate grounds for separation are distinguished into three general categories: contagious diseases that may become fatal, illnesses which make consociation either actually impossible or so repugnant as to become virtually impossible, and miscellaneous other illnesses which make relations either medically undesirable or dangerous (CL 253, 470).

The lines, however, are not clearly drawn in the examples given, nor does it seem useful to list them here as pathology does indeed teach what they are. Besides, modern medicine is able to effect cures unheard of in the day when the Writings were written, and many of the examples here seem clearly out of date therefore. Nos. 253 and 470 in Conjugial Love are the passages that give them, but it is the principle rather than the example which has weight. Cancer (probably a suppurating ulcer of the skin), for example, is listed as a contagious disease, yet medical evidence today is to the contrary. Venereal diseases are also listed as contagious, which indeed they are, but they, like many of the other diseases listed, are for the most part now curable. And it is to be remembered that blemishes of the body (and no doubt also blemishes of the mind) which may become legitimate causes of separation are incurable diseases, and not curable ones (CL 253).

Impotence Before Marriage

By impotence before marriage is meant sterility or physical inability on the part of the husband which he was aware of prior to marrying and which he concealed from his intended bride. "The reason why this is grounds for separation is because the end of marriage is the procreation of offspring, and with the impotent this is impossible; and since they know this beforehand, they purposely deprive their partners of the hope of it, a hope which nevertheless nurses and strengthens the conjugial love of women." (CL 254)

To this may be added on the same principle any knowledge on the part of either partner previous to marriage of an inability to procreate offspring which is purposely kept from the proposed spouse. The principle is not the impotence but the deception. On the other hand, obviously not to be included is infertility; sterility or impotence developed later after the marriage has been properly consummated, or that which was unknown beforehand; for in these cases there has been no intention to deceive, and there is no impediment to an otherwise happy consociation.


Concubinage is not generally a socially acceptable part of the cultures in which the New Church now exists, and to many the very idea is repugnant. It would be dishonest, however, not to say a word about it here, because the Writings not only mention it in connection with marital separations but say "that concubinage in separation from the wife, when engaged in from causes legitimate, just and truly weighty, is not unlawful" (CL 467).

By concubinage is meant the conjunction of a married man with a woman other than his wife with whom an agreed arrangement has been made for this purpose (CL 462). The chief stricture is that it shall not be entered into conjointly with the wife but in a state of separation from her; otherwise it is adultery and a particularly awful form of it (CL 464466, 476). A second stricture or admonition is that it shall be with one and not with two at the same time (CL 476, cf. 459, 460). To this may be added, by analogy with pellicacy, that it ought not to be with a virgin, nor with a married woman (CL 460, 459:5); that it ought to be kept separate from conjugial love by maintaining the relationship as a purely external one without deception as to its nature and purpose and without thought of eternal love (CL 460, cf. 475); and that it ought not to be entered into except by those who cannot otherwise restrain their lusts and moderate the heat of their desires (CL 450, 459).

Legitimate grounds for this kind of concubinage are the same as those for divorce when yet the adulterous wife is kept at home but without conjunction (CL 468, 469). Legitimate grounds for this kind of concubinage are also the same as those for separation, whether from house or only from the marriage bed, provided that the grounds are truly legitimate (CL 470-474, 467). The latter is no doubt an accommodation permitted for those who cannot live in a state of celibacy and because separation does not carry with it the right of remarriage. In all other cases, however, concubinage is not legitimate and may not be legitimately entered into.

(It has often been asked whether the same law on concubinage applies to a wife who may legitimately have separated from her husband, that is, whether she may be permitted to take a lover. The answer seems to be not. Though there is an entire chapter on concubinage in Conjugial Love, there is not a hint or a whisper of the same law's being applicable to the wife in it or anywhere else in the Writings. Rather concubinage, like pellicacy, seems to bean accommodation to the peculiarly masculine nature of men (cf. CL 444a & ff., 462 & ff.). Wives, we are told moreover, do not come into the same state of arousal as men (CL 219), despite current assertions to the contrary, so that there may not be the same need; and though the state of a widow, again we are told, is more grievous that that of a widower, one reason given is that a widow has no one to receive the love in which she is innately as a woman (CL 325), which, since this love is innately conjugial (CL 393, 409), may indicate that women unlike men are unable to separate sexual love from conjugial love, a separation which nevertheless seems to be a requirement of concubinage. But further discussion of this subject needs its own forum.)


None of these grounds given in the Writings as legitimate causes of separation are intended to encourage either separation or concubinage. Rather they seem to stand as accommodations to human weaknesses and human conditions in order to avoid divorce for any other reason than that of purposeful adultery (cf. CL 255). The ideal is love truly conjugial, and failing that, a marriage of apparent love and friendship (see CL 271 ff.). But when even apparent love and friendship are impossible, or when a wife can no longer be a wife or a husband a husband, then separation - and perhaps even concubinage - may be permitted when the grounds are legitimate and serve the cause of justice.

In distinguishing these grounds in actual life, there is no doubt room for honest human error. Yet we are warned that not all grounds are of equal weight, and the consequences may not be the same. Cessation of childbearing with the wife due to advanced age, for example, and hence a refusal of relations while ardor still continues with her husband, is, we are told, a real weighty cause for separation from the bed and perhaps concubinage; but it is not grounds for separation from the home (CL 473). The same may almost certainly be said also of most blemishes of the body and many blemishes of the mind.

Furthermore, not all grounds that may appear justified are real. Transitory illness (mental or physical), for example, or periods of abstinence required after childbirth, or arguments contrary to true religion, may be mistakenly taken for grounds of separation; yet these and other like causes are of no validity at all when viewed from justice. "They are causes made up by men after cold is contracted and unchaste lusts have deprived them of conjugial love" (CL 474). "Weighty causes are real when based on what is just" (CL 472), and they "are unreal when not based on what is just, even though on an appearance of it" (CL 474).

And one might add, as a general principle, that it is the partner who suffers who may legitimately consider separation, and, if necessary, concubinage, and not the partner who has caused the suffering. Let him who has caused it seek reconciliation; or if reconciliation be actually impossible due to divorce and remarriage or to permanent blemish of mind or body, let him consult his conscience and, resigned to his circumstances, conduct his life as best he can according to the Lord's Word. For what is done is done, and "deeds follow the body into the tomb; but the mind rises again" (CL 530e).

-Rev. N. Bruce Rogers, Marital Separation (General Church Publication Committee, 1978)

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Marital Separation

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