Sunday, May 22, 2011

For a lifetime or for life?

Why do we tend to measure the success of a relationship by its longevity? If a relationship lasted only a year, we assume it was a failure, and if it went on for 50 years, we deem it a success. But I’ve been to more than one 50th anniversary event when I felt the only thing we were celebrating was sheer stubbornness and the tragedy of two ruined lives. There is a difference between a relationship for life and a relationship for a lifetime. The best relationships bring us life. If we’re among the lucky ones, we get to enjoy a life-giving relationship for a lifetime. But a lot of us aren’t that lucky and we come to a time when we are forced to choose between a lifetime with another person and a life.

If you’re married, it’s not easy to walk away from a relationship. If you’re a member of a Christian church, it’s even more difficult because it probably means going against the teachings of your faith community. I don’t know any Christian churches that condone divorce. They all teach that divorce is not what God wants for his people. That’s hard to deal with if you’re a Christian contemplating ending your marriage.

I’ve heard some preachers who have blamed all the ills of society on the increase in divorces. Our prisons are full, young people are on drugs, and adults can’t read, all because of divorce. These are preachers who like to believe they have the answers to all of life’s problems, and those answers are always simple ones, although the problems they address are complex. Their simplistic answers are drawn from connections that don’t exist, based on preconceived ideas that often prove false.

One of the statistics that I’ve often heard preachers cite is that one out of every two marriages in the United States ends in divorce. You’ve probably heard it too. It’s so often repeated, and so widely accepted, that it’s hard to convince people that it’s simply NOT TRUE! The statistic came about by comparing the number of people in a given year who were married and the number of people in that same year who were divorced. The problem is that the people who were divorced that year came from the pool of all married people, and not just from those who happened to get married in that particular year. So, it’s not true that half of all marriages will end in divorce. If you examine the trends in statistics, the divorce rate is actually declining. Of course, that’s not useful information if you want to convince people that the reason why the world is going to hell in a hand-basket is because of the high divorce rate.

The point I’m making is that there is a prevailing bias in the Christian church against divorced people. In some of the more legalistic churches, the judgment placed upon them is blatant. Divorced persons are removed from membership or given secondary status. In more liberal churches, the judgment is more subtle. Although no one comes out and openly labels divorced men and women sinners, the attitude is clearly felt. When you divorce, you have failed to be the kind of person the church expects you to be.

Christians who insist that marriage is for a lifetime will continue to judge the success of a relationship by its longevity. I suspect that they teach this because they fear what might happen if they didn’t. If they began to emphasize relationships for life over relationships for a lifetime, would the divorce rate be even greater than it is? The fact is, preaching against divorce doesn’t seem to deter people from divorcing. In research conducted by the Barna Research Group, divorce rates among conservative Christians were higher than those for mainline Christians and significantly higher than the divorce rates for agnostics and atheists. I wonder how the divorce rate for Christians would be affected if we stopped taking away people’s choices once they marry and instead focused on helping them make responsible choices for life-giving relationships.

I once heard a sermon that typified everything destructive that the church teaches us about a Christian marriage. It had a lot to say about a relationship for a lifetime, but nothing about a relationship for life. The preacher said, “Marriage is a room in which there is no exit except the door that is marked Death.” I groaned when I heard him say those words.

It reminded me of another quote, this one from the writer Steve Tesich. He also uses the image of a room to describe what happens to us when we’re in relationship with someone we love. But for him, the relationship isn’t about being trapped in a room with only one exit. His relationship has many rooms: “It’s like having a tiny apartment and somebody moves in with you. But instead of becoming cramped and crowded, the space expands, and you discover rooms you never knew you had until your friend moved in with you.” Isn’t this a beautiful way to imagine what a life-giving relationship looks like? It certainly isn’t a room with one exit door marked Death.

It can’t be God’s desire that two people remain joined for the rest of their lives, no matter what the cost may be to them as persons. In Jesus, we learned that the law of compassion trumps all other laws. Jesus didn’t come so that we may be miserable and pay dearly for the rest of our days for a bad choice we made when we were doing the best we could with what we were given at the time. Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Our God is a God of second chances. He is merciful and forgiving. He is a God who meets us in death and gives us life.

Before I became divorced myself, I was a little judgmental of those who were. I knew that marriage was tough and it required a lot of hard work. When I saw people who were divorced, I often wondered if they really had done all they could to save their marriages. I thought that if they had worked at their marriages like I did, they would still be married. I figured they had taken the easy way out. Now that I’m on the other side of divorce, I realize that divorce is never the easy way out.

We can all probably think of people who take divorce lightly, people who are married and divorced repeatedly, like Elizabeth Taylor. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Elizabeth Taylor never came to me to discuss her relationship problems. The people I talk to have not chosen the easy way out by divorcing. For them, divorce was a last resort that was only chosen after all other avenues to save their marriage had been exhausted. No one has to tell them that divorce is not God’s intention for his people. When their lives are torn apart, when they are grieving the death of their dreams for the future, when they are struggling to keep their jobs in the midst of their pain, they know very well that divorce is not what God wants for his people. But, there are far worse things for God’s people than divorce, such as, denying the gift of life that God offers them.

Not only is it permissible for a Christian to divorce when a marriage is not the kind of life-giving relationship that God wants for them, but in many cases, ending a marriage is actually the most faithful decision that a follower of Jesus can make. No, divorce isn’t God’s intention for his people in general, but divorce may very well be the kind of life-giving choice that God wants for you in particular. If you have already experienced a very real kind of death in your relationship that you could never have foreseen when you promised “until death do us part”, divorce is not a choice that is going to send you straight to hell. It’s the only faithful choice you can make; it’s a choice for life.


Maurie said...

Thanks for a loving and wise treatment of a painful subject. We all see the "stigma" not only in church, but also in the PTO and on the job and ...

I love reading your noodle! Thanks for the blog posts! :)

Peg said...

Nancy, I sincerely believe you are correct -- rarely do people divorce because it's the easy way out. It's the hardest thing I've ever been through, took longer to recover from than even loved ones' deaths. And I still feel the shame in some circumstances, the need to justify what happened. But because I just don't talk much about divorce, I am certain that the shame I feel sometimes is more my own doing -- the messages I sometimes can't resist feeding myself -- than it is the doing of anyone else.

Anonymous said...

Well, I've been through it too, and for me divorce was like traveling down the rapids in a canoe without a paddle. Eventually though I came to accept that I was better off not married to my former wife. The one thing I do regret is having a limited role in the life of my children. I did remarry, and we're approaching our 10th anniversary this year. While it's not perfect, our relationship is more honest. Thanks be to God.

Lori said...

Thank you so much for posting this Nancy! My ex-husband and I have been separated for almost three years now and even as part of my generation, which these churches claim uses divorce as an easy way out, I still feel judgment. I don't know if it's my own guilt, or if it's the extremely intrusive questions people ask, or what! But there definitely is a stigma and it hurts. It's even harder when you have a child(ren). People judge your custody situation, your choices, your child's behavior, just all kinds of things that really are not their business. I also really like what you say about how not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime. I do not regret my marriage. I do not feel like I missed out on any part of my life even though I was with the same man for very young years of my life (19-30). I learned a lot and I still love him in a caring way, and I've been able to witness him being a great Father which makes me look at it all like it was meant to be no matter how long, or short, the marriage was. Thank you so much for sharing this!