16 April 2007

Marriage: a Difficult Witness

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?


Stefaneener said...

It was when I realized clearly that my children would much rather I stayed and was unhappy as long as they were happy that I really "got it." Without them, I would have been closer to the center, but when I made the decision to have them and the commitment to put their welfare first, I had to also decide to be willing to set myself aside some.

Now, that's not a popular view. And I wish with all of my heart it never needed to rais its head in my brain. I still think it's right.

As my genius brother in law says, "It's not about you."

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Heather --

You write, "We hear a lot about the sanctity of marriage from the religious right, and yet they are largely silent on the matter of divorce."

That has not been my own experience. I have heard many speeches and read many statements from the Religious Right, expressing concern about the high rate of divorce, and condemning divorce for all but a very narrow range of reasons. This statement from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church -- a member denomination of the National Association of Evangelicals -- spelling out its position on divorce, strikes me as fairly typical.

You go on to write that "Demographically, they [the members of the Religious Right] are more likely to divorce than any other segment of society." That is quite true, but what does it signify? Demographically, the people who followed Jesus were more likely to be publicans and prostitutes than the regular synagogue-goers were. That doesn't mean that following Jesus turned them into publicans and prostitutes. And demographically, the people in intensive care units at hospitals are more likely to die than any other segment of society. But that doesn't mean the people in ICUs want to die.

An awful lot of people start attending evangelical and fundamentalist churches because the troubles in their marriages have led them to seek help. They don't want to divorce! But they are already, before they start attending their churches, more likely to divorce than the average Jane or Joe, and their involvement in a church, even a church with first-rate marriage counseling services, will only go so far toward helping them overcome their own problems. If their marriages end in divorce all the same, they deserve our charity, not our self-righteous judgment.

I am not clear that it does any more good to slam churches on the right for their high divorce rates, than to slam intensive care units for their high death rates.

There is one paragraph in your yearly meeting's Faith and Practice, 1985 edition, addressing your question of how meetings can serve the marriages under their care. It appears under the heading, "Nurturing Marriage". As I read it, it occurred to me that the advice contained in it might be substantially deepened and enriched. And I thought: If your yearly meeting currently has something like my own yearly meeting's Discipline Revision Committee, you might perhaps want to get in touch with them and offer your assistance. What do you think of that idea?

RichardM said...

Good post about a serious problem.

My brother had already been married twice when he came to the Princeton Meeting to be married under their care. He wasn't a Quaker at the time and had heard that the Quakers were pretty laid back and would let him have a religious ceremony without undue hassle. So a clearness committee was appointed. To make a long story short the clearness committee took their job seriously and didn't rubber stamp his request to be married under care of meeting. They came to see rather quickly that there were some issues that needed to be addressed if this marriage was to succeed. The clearness committee put off approving the marriage month after month after month as they scheduled more and more meetings. After about a year they felt satisfied and agreed to take the marriage under their care. Well, the bottom line is that this third marriage worked--after twenty years they are still married because Princeton Meeting took marriage seriously enough to help these two people succeed.

I have found marriage to be a great thing for me, but I know that it takes work. More marriages would succeed if our communities would be more supportive of marriage both before and during. And, what's good for heterosexuals holds true for homosexuals too. In fact I'm of a mind that gay couples need even more support from their religious communities since they get bashed by so many other people.

Jonathan I Winchell said...

Most women believe that work has an overall positive impact on their marriage and family life. The major negative effect is a lack of time for personal relationships.
Women identify relationships, and issues associated with relationships (cooperation, mutual support, communication) as gender-specific in the workplace. Men place less emphasis on workplace relationships.