I often say that I would have written better blogs if I had first received the responses! This was true of my blog Growing older together in which I reflected on the life that Caroline and I have enjoyed for some 54 years. Along with emails of appreciation, some felt that I should also have reflected more upon the many marriages which do not last.
For instance, one person wrote:
You talk about the need to keep growing together in retirement. That’s all very well if you ARE growing together to start with. Looking back on our marriage I would say that we neither understood nor practised ‘growing together’ when we first married and by the time I did understand it I was stuck in a kind of non-relationship with someone who with the best will in the world and whatever he would have said, did not actually want to change and certainly did not want his wife to grow as a separate person. That is not to say that my husband was a bad person; it is simply (well it’s not simple of course) that we were naive innocents when we married, looking for a solution to our insecurities and (certainly for me) not finding the solution in our relationship. For me now, the reality is that many marriages these days outgrow their sell-by date because they are, as you point out, much longer overall than when the current system was first devised. For someone like me, it took a huge amount of courage to initiate the ending of our relationship and looking back my main question is whether it would have been better for the family as a whole if I had had more courage earlier on. I wish it hadn’t been like that but given our different upbringings and insecurities, I think divorce was ultimately inevitable, the only alternative being long years of unhappiness.
Unfortunately this is not an unfamiliar experience. I knew an Oxford college principal who much preferred the company of his cat to his wife for the simple reason that his wife had not grown over the years as he had! More seriously, this is a very real issue. I remember listening to a woman then in her early 70s giving her ‘testimony’ and it was clear that she had scarcely grown in her faith since she became a Christian in her teens. Then there is the issue of couples growing separately in their professional lives, but never reflecting together. The challenge for ministers in pastoral charge is to encourage couples to grow together and in this way ensure that divorce is not inevitable. Alas all too often what churches offer to couples is very superficial.
The breakdown of a marriage can be exceedingly traumatic. This is reflected in the experience of a minister, now happily remarried, who in his response shared the pain of the breakdown of his first marriage.
I still struggle with the guilt though the decision to divorce was my ex wife’s. On the day we went to the solicitor I said we could start again, try again. But she had already made her mind up. In fact it now seems likely she was already seeing someone else at that stage although I didn’t know it. My divorce is the saddest thing in my life. And my biggest regret. And my greatest failure. It is also a failure for which one can never make amends, never reverse, never undo. I have literally cried in guilt and heartbreak before God many, many times. And by cry I mean sob uncontrollably. I loved my first wife with all my heart. I never thought divorce would happen to us. When I see the pain and damage it has caused the children it makes it all 100x worse.
I confess I was deeply mov ed by this account. However, as I have often said to people who have been divorced, what have you learnt from the failure of your previous marriage? The reality is that when marriages break down there is rarely an ‘innocent’ party, even although there may well be an ‘injured’ party.
What saddens me is the unloving judgmentalism of some Evangelicals toward those whose marriages have failed. In the case of this minister, he is in the process of seeking to move to another church – but most of the churches he has been in touch with do not want to meet him. It is as if divorce is the unforgiveable sin. But on what basis? As the former distinguished Evangelical Anglican Michael Green commented, the teaching of Jesus on divorce “follows hard on the heels of one that expresses the unbounded mercy and forgiveness of God” (see Matt 18.23-33). Green went on: “So the legalistic rigorism is as inappropriate for the Christian community as is casual divorce”. The irony is that, as I said to this minister in my reply, “I would argue that precisely because of your past you are able to be a more understanding and empathetic pastor to those who are going through life’s mill”.
Other respondents to my blog felt I should have commented on the stress imposed on a marriage by ill-health. True in a Christian wedding we pledge our commitment to one another “in sickness and in health”, but illness changes the dynamics of the relationship. When training for the ministry the wife of one of my teachers developed a major mental health issue and had to be sectioned for life: thereupon my teacher divorced her and remarried. Along with others I was shocked and felt he was wrong. Yet, as I have discovered, there is a time when pressures are so intense that maybe divorce is the only answer. This was true in the case of a close relative, for whom the demands imposed on her by her husband were so intense that her health was seriously impaired with the result that I had to tell her that for the sake of her own survival she had to leave her husband. I dare to believe that Jesus might well have done the same: look carefully at the teaching of Jesus on divorce and you will discover that Jesus was primarily opposed to those who allowed divorce for trivial reasons (this is what ‘for any cause’ in Matt 19.3 refers to).
I am grateful to God for a marriage that has lasted. However, this is no cause of pride. In words often attributed to John Bradford reflecting on fellow Protestants being martyred in the 16th century for their faith. “There but for the grace of God go I”.