Last week, my dad told me that my brother had broken up with his girlfriend of 10 years. I listened to the second-hand story, aching for my brother and his former love. Inside, a little voice was saying, "Couldn't they have worked things out? Couldn't they have at least found a way to separate without so much bitterness?"
As my husband and I got ready for bed that night, I shared the family news. He expressed sympathy and regret that these two people who mean a lot to us have created such suffering for one another.
"When I hear that people are breaking up," I said, "I try not to be judgmental. There's some part of me, though, that wants to stand up and say, 'Can't you work things out? Are you sure this is the best decision you could make?' If there are children involved, it stands up and screams, 'What about your kids?'"
But I don't say these things. I hold the grieving in my heart and I listen. Marriage can be difficult at times. It takes commitment, hard work, compassion, humor, maturity, and a certain amount of luck. I can't know the challenges that other people face in their marriages. I've had friends who were divorced against their will. I've known women who divorced to escape abusive situations. I have a friend who spent years trying to keep things together with his mentally ill wife before throwing in the towel.
That little voice, however, won't be still. It reminds me that divorce has serious negative consequences, consequences that our popular culture tends to whitewash.
Our culture views divorce lightly. If two people are incompatible, if they aren't happy together, if they aren't in love any more, then divorce will cure what ails them. If one of them falls in love with someone else, then surely the new love will make a better partner. If you discover that your mate has been unfaithful to you, your marriage has been irreparably harmed, and you'd be better off on your own. Children are resilient; they'll recover quickly and be happier in a household where the parents aren't fighting.
In real life, though, divorce is much harder than the image our culture projects. Divorce is hard on everyone emotionally, and it does serious financial damage to both partners. Divorce hits children especially hard, with emotional and financial consequences that continue into middle age.
Due to good fortune and the maturity and common sense of my husband, I haven't been divorced myself. My parents divorced when I was 11. For most of my life, I believed that their divorce was especially acrimonious and that I was overly sensitive to the negative effects. After reading the experiences of other children of divorce, I realized that my parents' divorce and my own reaction to it were typical. It was the cultural narrative that was off.
How can I challenge the cultural narrative without judging those who divorced under its influence?
We hear a lot about the sanctity of marriage from the religious right, and yet they are largely silent on the matter of divorce. Demographically, they are more likely to divorce than any other segment of society. I yearn for Friends to take up the witness, not for the sanctity of marriage, but for the value of marriage.
A well-built marriage provides vital shelter and support for its members. Over time, as partners overcome difficulties together, a marriage can become stronger, more versatile, more stable. Partners provide balance for one another in times of trouble, and our ability to support one another improves with practice.
A marriage, even a fairly unhappy marriage, provides a stable emotional and financial base for children. Children are happier when their parents stay married, even unhappily, and married parents provide much better financial support for their children.
Marriage is tough. There are rocky periods and droughts in every marriage, times when conflict soars and love seems scarce.
What can we do to help people get through such times, to put their marriages on a better footing for handling the difficulties that life dishes out? What kinds of things can we say to encourage people to hang in there, to forgive one another, to admit their failures, and to move forward together with love? When is such an approach futile, and divorce a real solution to irreconcilable differences? How can Meetings serve the marriages under their care?