A long ‘un:
I posted two days ago about the coming republication of my August 2005 post on "The Good Divorce". Some of my more conservative readers, while stopping short of condemning my current marriage, have disagreed vigorously with my original thesis that in certain instances, a loving divorce can be a good outcome. Sean writes
I am glad your divorce was amicable. But I will make two points.
The first is that my comment is aimed at the idea that only in America do we so regularly glorify failure in marriage. Almost everyone I know who has gone to a marriage counselor has found that the counselor has been divorced at least once. I love to hear the complaint that a Catholic priest can’t counsel a married couple because of his lack of experience in marriage, but some one who has failed once or twice is an expert. For every 10 "sage" observations printed about marriage from the perspective of a divorced person, I doubt you’d find one written by someone married for, say 20 years. It’s nuts.
Second, divorce is in and of itself a social evil – perhaps necessary, but still bad. Yours may be happy, but next month I am helping a dear friend move from her home into a shabby duplex with her teenage son because her husband of 19 years needed to "be happy" – of course with a new girlfriend. Her life, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and financially is a wreck. That, in my experience is the face of divorce.
I hope the best for you and your new bride, but were I a betting man I wouldn’t lay odds on a long life together – sorry, but those are the stats.
Celebrating a happy divorce is like bragging about the weight you lost in chemotherapy.
I’ll ignore the last line; my father died five weeks ago today, his body emaciated by stomach cancer. I’ll also try and ignore the crack about the "odds" of my marriage surviving. I’m sure Sean was just being helpful, perhaps believing that I am blissfully unaware of contemporary statistics about serial marriage and divorce.
I’ve mentioned that I’m spending a lot of time in a men’s group this summer. We’re a mixed bunch of guys from a variety of religious backgrounds — I’m the only evangelical, but I have a good buddy in the group who’s a Congregationalist and another who’s Roman Catholic. But one of our members is a rabbi, and he said something remarkable the other day: "I’ve come to realize that sometimes divorce is a mitzvah". (A mitzvah, of course, is an act of sharing, a profoundly good deed.)
When I heard my friend the rabbi say that, I perked up pronto! I haven’t had a chance to talk with him further about what he meant; my knowledge of Jewish teaching on divorce is quite limited. I’m hoping that he and I can chat soon in more depth about the experiential, psychological, and theological foundations of his conclusions that divorce can sometimes be a mitzvah! But from what I can gather, it sounds an awful lot like what I was talking about in my post approximately one year ago.
What I have been doing is thinking more and more about the purpose of marriage. I’m not an expert on marriage, nor do I claim to be one. Sean complains: For every 10 "sage" observations printed about marriage from the perspective of a divorced person, I doubt you’d find one written by someone married for, say 20 years. I defer to his no-doubt superior knowledge of the contemporary secular and Christian literature on marriage, though I’m not at all certain he’s actually right. But if he’s trying to make the case that those of us who are multiply divorced cannot claim to be experts on what makes marriages work, I’ll ruefully agree! I’m something of an expert on weddings, and buying diamond engagement rings; few men I know have been through those experiences four times before they’re forty! I’m also, sadly, something of an expert on divorce.
I do not write here as a marriage counselor. Though I have various book ideas percolating in my head, I promise I’ll hold off on trying to write the marital handbook until my wife and I have celebrated many more anniversaries together. But while experience is not always the best teacher, it is a teacher nonetheless — and I’ve learned one or two things along the way.
Marriage has meant different things in different time periods; almost everyone knows that. Marriage has been as much about property, security, and male control of female reproduction as it has been about romantic companionship. Indeed, the idea of "companionate marriage", as anyone with a background in social history knows, doesn’t become widespread until the middle of the nineteenth century at the earliest. As any seminarian who spends much time on the New Testament soon discovers, the Pauline ideal of marriage is hardly an elevated one: 1 Corinthians 7:1 is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the institution! Marriage, in the early Christian world seems to be more of a concession to human frailty than a particularly blessed sacramental state.
In our world, where so many men and women have access to sex and financial security outside of marriage, the old rationales for marriage seem insufficient. I may be an evangelical with (privately) an intensely conservative sexual ethic, but I did not marry either for sexual fulfillment or for economic opportunity. I believe that the best reason to marry, for Christians and non-Christians alike,is that monogamous marriage has the potential to be the most extraordinarily successful vehicle for personal growth. One of my old Twelve Step friends used to say: "Being married is like having Miracle-Gro poured on to your defects of character, every single day." Marriage, at its best, is a mirror that reveals to us our flaws and our shortcomings, and challenges us like nothing else to overcome them and transform. To borrow biblical language, to be married is to "know" one’s spouse on several intensely intimate levels — spiritually, emotionally, sexually. Only someone with that kind of intensely intimate knowledge can accurately identify where it is that we still have room to grow, and only someone we love that much can push us that hard without fear.
No serious Christian can say that marriages today, even the best and most faithful ones, are in significant ways similar to those contracted in Jesus’s day. What marriage was in first century A.D. Palestine, what it was in twelfth-century France, what it was in eighteenth-century Holland, what it was in twentieth-century Nigeria,and what it is in twenty-first century America are all very different things — even if all of the marriages in that litany were between two believers in Christ! That doesn’t mean that certain essential truths about marriage don’t survive across two millenia. It does mean that we can be damn sure that no one in Galatia in 280 AD, for example, read 1 Corinthians 13 at their wedding ceremony! Those overused and misquoted lines of the Apostle may show up in innumerable contemporary services (I had ‘em in my first wedding, a Catholic one), but they weren’t intended to describe marital love when written twenty centuries ago.
God’s love is immutable and unchanging. The truth of Scripture is as relevant today as it ever has been. But how we understand God’s love is always changing, and how we read His word is always evolving. God hasn’t changed — but we have. We still may see through a glass darkly, but time and human progress have cleared at least some of the mist that fogged the pane. And one way in which we have evolved is to new understandings of the meaning of marriage. I suggest that one model for contemporary marriage, Christian or not, is a model that places the individual growth of the two parties to the marriage front and center. Once children come into the picture, the model becomes triangulated — the continued spiritual development of the parents remains essential, but the nurturing of the little ones assumes equal importance. But always, the focus is on love, forgiveness, and transformation.
I do not boast of my three divorces. I do not believe that everyone "ought" to go through a divorce in order to grow. But particularly in the Christian world, we are too quick to pathologize and condemn divorce. Persistence and tenacity are important Christian virtues, but they are not at the summit of Christian ethics. A willingness to stick it out is admirable, but not to the point of mutual destruction. Only a fool gets off a boat when it first shows signs of leaking, but he is also a fool who continues to bail pitifully after the waters are up to his chin. The trick is knowing the difference between what is salvageable and what is not. Saying "God can salvage any marriage" is a comforting thought, but it’s based on the assumption that God thinks every marriage worth saving. I’m not at all sure that’s the case. Last year, I quoted Hall and Oates, and I quote them again:
"It ain’t a sign of weakness girl, to give yourself away
Because the strong give up and move on
While the weak, the weak give up and stay"
Yes, sometimes third-rate Seventies love songs contain valuable Christian truths. And sometimes, strength means having the courage to leave a marriage where the room for growth is limited for a marriage where the chance to transform is far greater.
When my third wife asked for a divorce, she told me that someday, I’d thank her. "I can’t love you as you deserve to be loved, Hugo", she said, "we can’t help each other grow anymore." At the time I protested that she was giving up too soon, but over time, I came to see she was right. To borrow my friend the rabbi’s language, my third ex-wife did me a mitzvah. My growth curve following our divorce was exponential, and I am in a marriage today that is far richer and more challenging than any I have known. Had I had my way, my third marriage might never have ended and I would have missed this extraordinary opportunity with which I am now presented today. In a public forum, I can say today to my ex, "You were right. Thank you."
My conservative friends will accuse me, to paraphrase Paul, of endorsing sin so that grace may abound more fully. (I’m reasonably good at anticipating my critics). But I’m not so sure I accept that divorce is inherently sinful. Divorce is never the best of all possible options. But it is a reality in a fallen world, just as death is. We all want perfect health, but we know that our bodies will change and die. We all want wonderful marriages, but sometimes marriages die just like bodies. Quitting at the first sign of trouble is the sin of weakness, no doubt — but continuing to remain in what is loveless and lifeless is the sin of pride and stubbornness. After a reasonable and concerted and prayerful effort to solve the problems that are killing a marriage, it is indeed a mitzvah to let one’s spouse go with love and in peace.