Good parents strive to be honest with their children. They want their children to know that they can trust their parents, no matter what. Yesterday, I was on Relevant Radio’s On Call show, with Wendy Wiese. A grandmother called in. Her grandson had found his pet fish lying dead at the bottom of the tank. Flustered, the grandmother told him that the fish was “hibernating”. She knew he’d be very upset if he knew the fish had died. Behind his back, she had the dead fish replaced with a live one. But next time he saw her, the grandson refused her kiss. Had he found out about the switcheroo? Should she tell him? Oh, what a tangled web…
I applaud the grandmother’s commitment to honesty, scrupulous as it may be. If only we could be so scrupulous about the lies we tell ourselves about divorce. I am saddened to see how often the lies are identical for Christians and for secular cultures. The lies stem from the pop psychology anti-gospel of self-fulfillment. They may even be couched in Christian terms, but they reveal a Cross-less Christianity. Here are a couple of the lies:
“Kids are resilient.” “Sure, it will be tough at first, but they’ll rebound.” I’ve had couples in which one or the other is seriously considering divorce after three years or less of marriage. They have a child or children under two years old. (The reasons vary, from “I don’t feel listened to” to “I caught him looking at porn” to “She never wants to have sex” to one or the other having an affair.) Because women generally have higher expectations of marriage, they are also more likely to file for divorce.
There is a veritable mountain of literature outlining the devastating effects of divorce on children, even older children. Even in amicable divorces, the children struggle with poorly formed identities the rest of their lives. This is because they have to live in two worlds, under two sets of rules, according to which parent they’re staying with.
Too often, the father remarries, starts a new family, and devotes all of his attention to that. Or one parent may bitterly resent the other, letting that bitterness trump the children’s need to have a father and a mother by slandering the ex or engaging in endless custody battles. In almost all cases, the strain of now having two households to support puts the entire family under financial strain.
In divorce the children always lose: a stable home, time with one or both parents, and often their neighborhood, friends, school, church. They may also lose their parents’ emotional availability. One or the other parent may become too anxious or depressed about the marriage to attend to the children’s emotional needs. A parent may rush into a new relationship, sometimes with prospective stepchildren involved. This deprives the birth children of accustomed parental time and attention. The parent may use his or her newfound “freedom” to revert to adolescence, hanging out with the girls or boys at the bars, drinking to excess and flirting. “It’s about time I took some time for me.” The children effectively lose every birthday, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, as the parents and grandparents juggle schedules to accommodate the divorce.
Worst, the children learn that parents (or a parent, when one wants to divorce and the other doesn’t) don’t keep promises. Imagine going to a wedding where the vows were, “I promise to be true to you until it gets too difficult. I will love you and honor you until you really, really hurt me. For better, for worse, unless the worse gets terribly bad.” Certainly, annulments are legitimate in certain atypical situations. And to separate in the face of physical or chronic, severe emotional abuse may be necessary. But there’s a reason that the vows are so absolute. We want to believe that promises can be kept, no matter what. “I will love you always, always, always.” It is the profoundest echo of God’s heart. It is the image of His crazy love for the Church, and the Church’s ideal love for Him.
“God couldn’t possibly want me to stay when I’m so unhappy.” This is straight from the pop psychology anti-gospel. It preaches that our hopes are indeed limited to this life. It tells me that I deserve to be happy, in the sense of realizing my potential and not suffering too much. The sufferings of the present are heavy indeed, not to be compared with the dim hope of “some heaven lightyears away”.
Yet God sometimes calls us to persevere in extremely difficult situations. There was a reflection on marriage which the Church formerly allowed in place of the wedding homily. Part of it ran something like, “Love normally requires suffering. And great love requires great suffering. But if the love is great enough, the suffering becomes easy.” Our hope is not limited to this life. To a friend who was considering divorce, and whose marriage was objectively quite difficult I pointed this out. I told “Mark” that yes, he could be looking at another thirty years of difficulty, unless things changed in the marriage. “But imagine, as you cross the threshold of death, hearing the Lord’s words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your Master’s joy.'”
I don’t think many of us truly believe in Heaven – that this life truly is “a bad night in a poor inn”, the merest moment next to the unimaginable expanse of Eternity. The present, the tangible, so seize our attention, mine included. But it’s illusion. Keeping forever vows demands a forever perspective. Let’s drop the “option” of divorce, and the other lies that go with it. Let’s be forever faithful. The Lord guarantees that we can.