“Sometimes divorce is a mitzvah”: more reflection on marriage

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.

35 thoughts on ““Sometimes divorce is a mitzvah”: more reflection on marriage

  1. Hugo, as someone who’s only been married for nine months, I have no great insights here. But amid your controversial-but-thoughtful points, this one more than any other raised red flags and got my warning klaxons bellowing:

    “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.”

    It’s not about us, Hugo. Yes, positive personal growth may well be a byproduct for us, but is that the best reason for marriage, and should it even be a consideration? Marriage is perhaps primarily a call for us to sacrifice ourselves for another person’s good, and to put ourselves after that other person. For Christians, it’s a call to reflect the image of Christ and the church.

    And, Hugo, for Christians, whatever state that we are in at a given time, married or single, *if* we are submitted to God, can be “the most extraordinarily successful vehicle” for growth in godliness — for becoming more like Jesus. This is true even if you’re single but don’t have the gift of celibacy. As I tell insecure single friends, married couples are not more blessed by God than singles — we’re just differently blessed.

    Peace of Christ,
    Chip

  2. Chip, your first point is quite fair: let me clarify. We don’t marry merely for our own personal growth but for the opportunity to play a vital role in another’s transformation; in that old paradox, the more we share and give the more we receive. At least, that’s how it is supposed to be.

    And you’re right that marriage is not a particularly blessed state. I should have made it clear that the best thing about marriage is what it offers us the chance to do for ourselves and for others. Is it going to be the “best vehicle” to accomplish that for many people? I think yes. For everyone? Absolutely not.

  3. Thinking of a mikvah. In one of his books, John Shelby Spong says we as Christians should create a liturgical, theologically sound ceremony of divorce. He suggests that this ceremony would be a time during which we as Christians gather round a couple going through divorce and honor them, provide for them a true demonstration of our support for them, provide them a spiritual space in which to honor the pain of the divorce, to bless them as individuals as they reconstruct their lives. At the time, I read it, I thought it was a tremendously good idea. In my experience, my more conservative friends react with horror at the suggestion, as if we are blessing divorce rather than the persons going through it.

    Having recently ended my relationship of 6 and half years, I have experienced tremendous personal growth and transformation in the last few months. My congregation has sustained me with an amazing support network and active Christian love. Although seeing my ex at church would be painful, I also wish for him that he were able to participate in this amazing and loving community. There are times that a relationship has to end – it simply no longer functions. It becomes damaging to the persons involved. Ending such a relationship is certainly painful, but I cannot believe it is a sin. I do not share the common Christian view that suffering is good. I do not believe God has called us to suffer but rather, God has called us into the world to be the glory of God. The old latin phrase: Gloria Dei, Homo Vivens.

    If a relationship is interfering with our full life, then something must be corrected. You can’t give up at the first sign of trouble, by the same token, staying in a completely broken relationship is not virtue. In the end, ending a relationship is painful. It can free us to move on, to see more deeply into our souls. In my journey, I have found that though I dreadfully and deeply miss my ex, that there are days I want nothing more than to call him and hear his voice, I also have experienced life more fully since the end of our relationship. I believe in liberation through Christ and the gift of Christ is the Presence as I struggle to reconstruct my life, not the Presence as I struggle to stay in a relationship that was broken. Truly, the idea that divorce can be a mikvah is not difficult at all for me to understand.

    Thanks, Hugo.

  4. Glen, excellent points. Thanks for sharing. I would point out, however, that a mikvah is a ritual cleansing bath; a mitzvah is a righteous act. Not quite the same, though in some sense I suppose you could argue divorce could be both!

  5. (smacking head against keyboard)

    I’m usually more careful with language than that. I meant a mitzvah. I apologize.

  6. Hugo, having just (finally) read Hendrix’ “Getting the Love You Want,” the concept of a relationship as a growth vehicle makes perfect sense to me. No, of course, that’s not the only purpose for marriage, but it is, undoubtedly *a* purpose. Since I’m not currently part of a couple, the book isn’t a tool for working on my marriage of course — but it really highlighted for me some of the reasons I’ve had certain issues in past relationships. When/if I get involved with someone again, I hope to do so much more mindfully.

  7. I have noted that I am not alone in a group of people who once got married in order to get a divorce. When I was very young, barely a teenager, I started dating a boy who I then married at 21. We got divorced six or seven months after our marriage: frankly, with that kind of history we were more like siblings than like partners, and the relationship was tumultuous. Yet, we were clinging to each other – kids in a scary world – and we tried to use marriage to strap ourselves together when we were obviously coming apart. The marriage and the divorce were both rituals that allowed us to end our dependence with a weight of feeling that better represented our 7(!) years together. A third of our young lives.

    I am so utterly thankful that we did get divorced. We were bad for each other; different approaches to life entirely, and we kept trying to force each other into molds that didn’t fit. Now, I’ve been with my husband for 9 years – I had a very short but incredibly important time as a single person, in which I decided I needed to be happy single before I’d consider making another relationship – and we’re an incredibly good fit emotionally, spiritually, ethically, and in terms of lifestyle choice. It would be the greatest of all tragedies if I were still with my first husband – for me, and for my ex – because we are both far better suited to where we ended up. The thing that strikes me about my first marriage is that it may have worked if one of us had forced ourselves into the mold of another. Fortunately, I like strong people – I’m not sure I could have ‘killing my partner’s enjoyment of life’ on my conscience.

    I am not the only one with a similar story: this I find most interesting. I’ve witnessed it with a number of couples and heard many similar stories: getting married to get divorced, although, of course, you don’t see it that way at the time. The marriage is created as bondage out of need, because you become panicked about making it on your own.

    So yes, divorce can be a mitzvah. And marriage can be a panicked act between people who need to grow; beautiful and human and erroneous and needy.

  8. My spouse and I are fast coming up on that 20 year mark your poster mentioned. Well, bully for us.

    Frankly, I’ve always felt we were more lucky than possessed of any particular virtue—we both had (and continue to have) parents who remained married, and thus a good model; I at least was *taught* how to choose a marriage partner, something none of my friends claimed their parents did for them; and we were encouraged to (and in fact) waited till we were relatively old (mid 20s/early 30s) before wedding. Oh, and my spouse had a critical understanding of the absolute necessity to keep our lines of communication open.

    In a lot of ways the long-standing business relationship I’ve had with my partner has been harder, though that too is now of some decade’s standing (the friendship’s past the quarter century mark.) Both have been, if you like, important factors in my `personal growth’ (ugh. sorry, I find that a horrid phrase.) Yet if the partnership were to fail, it would merely elicit a “oh, too bad” as opposed to the moralizing that accompanies divorce, though I think it would be nearly as devastating to me personally…makes me wonder if way too many people get bent out of shape about what bits of flesh are rubbing up against what other bits.

    I suppose one could throw the `think of the children’ argument in support of divorce being so much more immoral than the breakup of other kinds of relationships, but I don’t buy it. Any close relationship deserves support; and the failure of any such—whether we call it marriage, civil union, friendship, or even a fruitful business partnership—is often grievous, but not, I think, necessarily an evil.

  9. 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.

    I’m not sure either a never married Catholic priest or a divorced person should be ruled out as being able to give effective marriage counselling. If the friend with the marriage of 19 years were trained in marriage counselling, I don’t think that it would invalidate all her knowledge, or that she would need to abandon her profession, because she nevertheless found her husband walking out on her.

  10. Lynn – I’m sure lots of people going through divorce feel the need for a special cleansing ritual . . .

  11. Hugo,

    Have you read Mark Jordan’s “Blessing Same-sex Unions”? He says some of the same things regarding break ups and “divorces” among same sex partners and even of divorces of opposite sex partners. That we need rites of divorce that continue to witness to the care of each partner by the community beyond the marriage and that divorce rites would witness to the Resurrection in the midst of death, in this case divorce. What you offer here is further reflection beyond much of what is being thought as Christian marriage these days that really is more a reflection of cultural and advertisement matters.

    I think at the heart of marriage or unions is ascesis, or learning to become a better Friend of God by being a better friend to one’s sister or brother in Christ and if there be children, to sisters and brothers in Christ. But that’s actually a radically traditional understanding of unions and marriages related to monasticism in some ways.

  12. Perhaps I’ve not been in conservative enough circles in my life (which I actually find quite hard to believe), but I get the sense that most conservatives wouldn’t consider divorce a sin, but that they will often consider re-marriage to be adultery. This is primarily b/c they see marriage as a covenant which lasts for life; in their view, one simply can’t get *spiritually* divorced, though a legal divroce is usually permissible. (An interesting consequence of this point of view is that if two people get divorced and one of them subsequently dies, the remaining (ex-)spouse is then freed again to get married without sin; one can only get re-married if one’s ex dies, which certainly can’t help but increase enmity between separated couples.)

    As for how I approach this issue, I’m still not exactly sure. I don’t want to judge people who are currently living in a post-divorce marriage (and I certainly don’t think they’re “living in sin”), both b/c I tend to be a good liberal American Christian but also b/c I think that God’s grace can work wonders beyond standard fundamentalist conceptions of morality. But I also, as some commentators have also noted, see marriage as a convenantal bond and as a profoundly more-than-symbolic representation of the relationship b/t Christ and the Church, and I’m not sure how to square that conception of marriage with re-marriage.

    P.S. This might be an unrelated tangent (perhaps inspired by Arwen’s comments but not to be considered an answer or rejoinder): I am an unmarried 27 year old, and I’m actually on record for saying that people should wait much, much longer to get married. Inspired by the hyperbole of Stanley Hauerwas, I once, only half-jokingly, suggested a ten year moratorium on new marriages in the Christian church, an idea that at the time I figured I would probably not fulfill; but hey, I’m already half way there now…. I still regularly (and without any real envy (I think), and still half-jokingly) tell my friends who are younger than me (even if just by two weeks, as recently happened) that they are too young to get married. Don’t the statistics suggest that those who get married later have a better chance of staying together?

  13. 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.

    What were the matters the corinthians were asking about? It seems to me, on the topic of marriage, the answers given regard specific situations of human frailty; however, these same answers may not apply for marriage in general.

  14. Hugo,

    Since it was my comment you started with, let me briefly – because I need to go to bed – elaborate on a couple of things.

    First, I am very sorry about your father. The point I was trying to make with the analogy is that divorce is bad – period. By which I mean it is a social ill and an objectively bad thing. Perhaps I should have said – like putting lipstick on a pig. There is not getting around the new testament scripture’s at least dim view (or as I believe condemnation) of it. We look through scripture for loopholes and exceptions, but basic Christian doctrine condemns it.

    I think most people in what I suppose you would call successful, long-term marriages understand that marriage is not principally a personal relationship. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Through the sacrament, the married couple have brought into being a new, beautiful and sacred entity. Divorce kills it. Divorce is death. Divorce is evil.

    This does not mean some people can’t have amicable divorces or even good relationships after divorce. Indeed, when a divorce occurs, that’s better than the alternative. But that still doesn’t make divorce a “good” thing or a mitzvah, or a blessing, or a grace – which was the import of your essay. Even in cases where there is abuse or adultery, separation, and even legal separation through divorce, may be necessary but it is still not a good, but a necessary evil.

    On a more practical level, the perfectly amicable divorce is, in my experience, the exception – I won’t say rare, but certainly the exception. For every life that is made better by a divorce, I think 2 or 3 are made worse or even ruined – particularly if you consider the children. Earlier in my career I worked doing, for lack of a better description, legal clinic work, and in that time I dealt with about 200 clients involved in divorces or their aftermath. That was my experience. I believe you will find statistics on suicide, poverty, mental illness, and crime all bear this out.

    The ironic thing is that where both spouses don’t see the marriage principally as a personal relationship, the relationship part is better. I was truly heartened by Chip’s post. Married 9 months, and he gets it. I have been married 22 years, and it took me 15 to start to understand it. Good for him.

  15. Sean, I apologize for taking a rather cheap shot by raising my father’s death. You aren’t a regular reader of this blog and couldn’t be expected to know that. My bad.

    I’ll agree wholeheartedly that most divorces are pretty ugly. But perhaps that is less because divorce is so inherently awful, and more because of the huge stigma we attach to it. And you’re right as well that many people do “divorce badly.” The fact that so many do it badly doesn’t mean it can’t also be done well; the fact that it is so often done with malice and selfishness doesn’t mean that those are inherent attributes of the process.

    We can enthusiastically share an opposition to betrayal, selfishness, cruelty, and stupidity. But those are not part and parcel of all divorces.

  16. Gotta see your Hall & Oates reference and worsen it with a Barenaked Ladies reference:

    The bravest thing I’ve ever done
    was to run away and hide
    but not this time
    the weakest thing I’ve ever done
    was to stay right by your side
    just like this time and every time

  17. 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.

    While marriage can be a vehicle for personal growth and a wonderful experience that leads two individuals to meld into a unified couple intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I proffer the age old reason to marry is to procreate and propagate the species. Is that not a reason any longer? Is it only the me, me, me reasons that we look for and try to justify? With that said, is there any doubt why so many marriages end in divorce when entered into for self reasons?

  18. re 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.

    Sorry, but no. Or at least not necessarily. It may very well be that continuing to refrain from love and life in a marriage represents an unwillingness to change or modify oneself for the good of the other. What I have observed in marriages and found in friendships is that people change and relationships in order to keep growing have to be flexible enough to change as well. In marriage or in enduring friendships the parties commit to remain in one another’s lives even as their partners change and grow and even as remaining there requires they change and grow.

    Wonderful marriages or lasting friendships have times when they have enormous difficulties and terrible problems. What makes them wonderful and lasting is that both parties remain committed to one another through those problems so that they, as spouses or friends, can get to the other side of whatever challenges the problems brought. Perserverance, it seems to me, is the great unsung and too often ignored virtue required for marriage or lasting friendship. That and forgiveness.

  19. David, what you describe is the happy phenomenon of two people growing together; that is often but not always the outcome of the maturation process. Sometimes, alas, growing apart happens as well. That’s not a moral failing, but a simple reality.

  20. Sean H. says:

    For every life that is made better by a divorce, I think 2 or 3 are made worse or even ruined – particularly if you consider the children.

    Of course, sometimes divorce is something parents SHOULD do for their children. When I was growing up, I would have given anything for my parents to divorce. I think many children suffer terribly for their parents’ misguided belief that they should stay together “for the sake of the children.”

  21. from the perspective of a secular woman in a long-term relationship who is contemplating marriage, i found these questions posed by cary tennis (who can be insufferable sometimes, but sometimes gets it right) to be really thought-provoking:

    Is marriage magically transformative? Is it transformative at all? Does it confer on the individual any new life understanding, or any new ability to cope? What existential problems does marriage solve, and what ones does it create? Does it help or hinder our development as people?

    as someone not considering the religious aspect of a marital union, these questions seem pretty paramount to me.

  22. My parents were married 40+ years. The secret to their success? They spent the last 20 years living on different continents and my father had a mistress 20 years his junior as his “little wife.”

    The reason they didn’t get a divorce? My mother was convinced that divorce would bar the entrance to Heaven.

  23. Hugo, I’ve been reading your blog every so often for several months, but have never commented before.

    It frustrates me that people see divorce as an inherently negative thing. While I wouldn’t say it was desirable per se, sometimes it is a helpful tool for making lives better.

    I truly feel that children are better off with parents who chose to live apart than with parents who are abusive to one another or don’t love each other or don’t like each other or who want different things in life or who simply make do with one another. What message is that to send kids? Certainly not a positive one about marriage. To divorce is often to recognise that marriage is too important to be kept when it is broken beyond repair.

    I also feel, like David Morrison who comments above, that people change and so a marriage must be flexible to allow that, but agree with you that sometimes that means people grow apart. A marriage is an ever-changing dynamic and that is part of what makes it so precious.

    Here in the UK, there is talk of laws changing to make divorce more difficult. I think this is outrageous. Is divorce not difficult enough as it is? Must we make people suffer more? If people are mature enough to decide to marry in the first place, then their decision to divorce should be respected equally. Children are not served well by this meddling either, which will prolong the agony and put extra stress on everyone.

    For the record, I am not religious, but regard marriage as a positive and precious thing. I adore my husband and hope to grow old with him. We have 3 wonderful children. If we ever did divorce, though, I would be saddened at that fact, but happy to have had the marriage at all. I married impetuously at 22 after just nine months of dating (friends and family were shocked to find I wasn’t pregnant!) I don’t think anyone took us seriously when we married, which was reflected in the fact that no one seemed to get a new outfit for the event! I had had long relationships of 2 years plus before. To be honest, I don’t know what was different this time, I just thought “What the hell!” and proposed to him. We are the best of friends and great together in just about every way. We are good team. In November we’ll celebrate our 9th anniversary. On our last anniversary I wrote in his card, “Shame on them for not buying hats!”

    I wish you luck in your marriage, but you sound lovely so I’m sure good fortune will not be necessary. Just to pick up on one phrase in your post where you say “my current marriage” ~ I am no expert, but from a woman’s point of view, if there is one thing guarenteed to make your union shaky, it’s refering to your spouse as “my current wife”!!

  24. Divorce can be a good thing in some relationships. Sometimes, couples marry and they think they are a great couple but the pressures of everyday life make their relationship disintegrate. Sometimes, two people who were once a couple realize they are living a life of friends and roommates without any level of intimacy, causing deep unhappiness because of the lack.

    Marriage is a good and positive state where two people still are surviving all the various struggles set within society. I lived with my husband before we were married, only choosing for the license because 1.) tax breaks and 2.)we were only unmarried because our parents wanted us both to have college degrees first. We were happy as we were and the paper has changed nothing in our relationship except lessening the pressures placed on us by our parents.

  25. Helen, you’re absolutely right. No more “current” wife references. She is my wife, full stop.

  26. Actually, I am suprised that in amongst the Paul-bashing which is par-for the course around here, no-one has mentioned the very much tougher position on divorce which Jesus himself had, not to mention Malachi 2:
    16 “ For the LORD God of Israel says
    That He hates divorce,
    For it covers one’s garment with violence,”
    Says the LORD of hosts.

    Luke 16:18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

    And of course, St. Paul:
    “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.
    11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”

    I’m not proof texting here. You can see the consistency of the passages very handily here:
    http://www.ph.unimelb.edu.au/~jlc/stuff2.html

    I can understand rejecting them in entireity. I can understand saying that while it is regrettable that you haven’t been able to live up to them, you accept them as authoritative. But I can’t think of a faithful evangelical response which says that divorce is a positive good. Perhaps it might, in many cases, be the lesser of two evils, I can see that, and you might make the case that it is more healthy than the alternative. (“It is because of hardness of heart that Moses wrote you this law”) But not a good. My credentials to speak on this subject are not good, but if it comes to a choice between Hall and Oates and Jesus Christ, I think I might take the latter.

  27. John, I promise a response soon — I have no time tonight. But the tact and bite with which you phrase your last sentence delights me.

  28. I proffer the age old reason to marry is to procreate and propagate the species. Is that not a reason any longer? Is it only the me, me, me reasons that we look for and try to justify? With that said, is there any doubt why so many marriages end in divorce when entered into for self reasons?

    Last time I checked the human species was procreating and propagating itself just fine, whether marriage is involved or not. But thanks for the drive-by insult of those of us married people who are unwilling — or unable — to contribute more mouths to an already over-subscribed banquet. How positively selfish of us.

  29. Stigmatizing personal relationship choices like divorce is usually a crude tool for changing society, because the nuances of any relationship are hard for outsiders to understand. Just as with abstinence education, we spend too much time stigmatizing the disfavored behaviors and too little time talking about the joys of unselfish, committed, loving relationships. But I do see the social perceptions of marriage and divorce as kind of a seesaw. The more divorce is made to seem positive, the less valuable marriage seems. This lack of community support makes it hard for married people to stick to their vows amid numerous temptations. Ending a marriage for lack of “personal growth” can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A couple who believe divorce is no big deal may have never committed themselves to the marriage enough to “grow” in the first place. The looming fear that my spouse may suddenly decide “I’m not growing with you anymore” would certainly keep me from giving myself wholly to the marriage. Besides, unless the other spouse is abusive or mentally ill and refusing treatment, isn’t my personal growth my responsibility and not my spouse’s fault?

  30. From a Catholic Christian perspective, marriage is one of the holiest sacraments – and it’s supposed to be about Christ’s relationship with the church, about dying to self, about sacrifice and commitment to another person. Of course, it can be a vehicle to positive growth – no doubt. There is a type of closeness and intimacy you can only achieve in marriage, and this certainly leads to challenge and change. But I believe that’s only a side benefit, and shouldn’t be the main reason for marriage, in this age or any yet to come. I think both spouses should seek to honor God in their marriage, and that should be their primary reason for coming together and making a lifelong commitment. Any marriage project begun for “self” and not for “other,” I think, runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed.

    Like Jendi, I think too much of our focus is spent on stigmatizing divorce, rather than building up people who are able to flourish in a marriage. I don’t think it’s a good idea to toughen divorce laws and make it harder for people to separate. That doesn’t change the underlying problem – that some people get married even when they shouldn’t. But barring adultery and abuse (which comes in many, many forms – no one should ever stay in any type of abusive relationship), I cannot see divorce as a “positive good” – only as one type of sin, or a the very best, as a necessary evil, causing (sometimes) the least amount of damage given the choices available.

  31. As a child of divorced and successfully remarried parents, married for 23 years, and having in-laws married for more than 50 years, I feel I am somewhat qualified to say divorce is a tool. Tools are not generally inherently good or bad; it is the manner in which they are used that make them so. Good marriages are a wonderful thing. Bad marriages are hellish on everyone involved. Bad divorces are hellish as they occur, and leave scars.

    I hardly think Sean’s friend would have been happier or better off in any way if her husband had gone ahead and moved on to pursue his new life without a divorce. Had he done so, would divorce really seem so bad to the friend?

    And I agree with the other Helen, go ahead and refer to your exes as my 1st, 2nd or 3rd ex-wife, but it is really not cool to refer to your wife as “current”.

  32. 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.

    I find this kind of ironic — when I had the audacity to suggest at Savage Minds (http://savageminds.org/2006/06/21/the-end-of-marriage/) that marriage might well be past its prime as a social institution (a position that needs clarifying, and that’s coming, but that’s not my point here) the “marrieds” came out in droves, both to villify me (as on the metafilter thread here: http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/52470) and, more to the point here, to share stories of their own marriages. Look at John McCreery’s comments on my post — there’s nothing glorifying divorce there, just a sensitive portrayal of a marriage that’s about as old as I am and still happy.

    I don’t really see where the marrieds are losing the mindspace game — seems to me that everywhere I turn the glories of marriage are touted and the evils of divorce are reviled. That despite all this PR marriage still seems to be losing the odds game may be suggestive, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are happily married people out there perfectly willing to share their stories.

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