Friday, April 27, 2007

marriage and divorce

At times, I am reminded that marriage is such a leap of faith. I read things like this tidbit in the Star Tribune, written by the relationship reporter, Gail Rosenblum:
For years, I've covered the unmistakable churnings and changes in the American family -- from nuclear to blended, from closed to open to international adoptions, interfaith and intercultural marriage, paternity leave and at-home dads, grandparents raising grandchildren, adult children parenting their parents, GenXers opting out of legal unions, gay couples trying to opt in, and the remarkable reality of 70-, even 80-year wedding anniversaries.

All of it fascinated me. None of it affected me personally, or so I thought. The noise under our own roof began years ago, a low rumble we ignored effectively. Kids keep couples busy. Jobs keep couples busy. Societal and familial pressures keep couples busy, and married, too. But as building-better-marriage books and, later, books about a new kind of divorce calling for collaboration and co-parenting crossed my desk for review, I read them in a different light.

As our children grew older and the rumble grew to a roar, we panicked and leaped into a painful and painstaking search for answers to so many questions. Did we just suffer from lousy communication? Was our struggle acute and temporary, or chronic? As one therapist suggested, "Has the milk been out too long?" With no affairs, abuse or addiction to report, did we expect too much? Yet, how long can two good people run on emotional empty before somebody tries to fill up elsewhere? And what about our precious children?

Those who charge that couples like us take marriage vows too lightly, especially when kids are involved, are dead wrong. The reality of stepping out, of handing back the dream and, most horribly, destroying our children, threatened to undo us many times. In the end, we decided that staying was riskier than leaving. So we moved slowly forward, always with an eye on our kids.

And then, last week, this, from the new book by Krista Tippett, host of NPR's Speaking of Faith:
Sometimes I have had a feeling — and I had this in my marriage to Michael — that God throws out the occasional wild card, almost a dare — try this if you will; I will bless it; it is rich with possibility; it will not be easy. And in the case of my marriage, Michael and I failed to carry it through to the end. We lost the dare. That might sound like I experience my marriage as a mistake, and that is most definitely not the case. Our amazing children are the best proof of the blessing, of the real sacrament, that grew from our marriage.
...
I am now divorced, a word I never thought would apply to me. I did not go into my marriage lightly, and it ended only after years of struggle to repair the brokenness between us. It ended with the end of hope, I suppose, and a conviction that God would not require me to live permanently with disrepair at the center of my life. These years onward, Michael and I have learned to honor and love each other practically as parents to our children.

Reading these experiences by two different women, I can't help wondering: What is it that makes or breaks a marriage? Why did these women's marriages break apart when people like my parents, who have certainly faced their share of hardships, are still together and going strong? I am sure few people ever enter marriage lightly, expecting it to end in divorce. Yet we all know the statistics. And sometimes, the people who end up getting divorced surprise me. A reporter I used to work with in Mississippi had what I imagined to be the perfect marriage, so I was shocked, totally, when I heard they had split. But we cannot know what goes on under the surface. Marriage works in mysterious ways.

For some couples, the culprit is something obvious, like money or religion or sex or addiction or adultry. Some say they are no longer "in love." (Though doesn't the nature of love change over time, and don't we learn that love is also an action?) Some say they grow apart, interests and outlooks diverging until there is no glue left to hold them together. For others, it seems, it is something insidious that lurks beneath the surface for years until it's too late. Gail Rosenblum described it as a "low rumble" that she and her husband were able to ignore. Krista Tippett described it as a sort of "brokenness." I wonder if the seeds of the disrepair began as something so small that they didn't even notice until the seeds took root and grew into something uglier, like the weedy plants that try to worm their way up through our patio cracks every year.

I am really happy with the marriage that Stephen and I have built over the past four years. I think it rests on strong foundations. But we aren't relationship experts, and we aren't saints — and we aren't perfect. Occasionally we disagree, we argue, we accidentally hurt each other's feelings. We make up and talk through it, although sometimes it takes me a few days — several levels of making up — to fully heal and feel like we are back to normal. (I am writing from such a place, though we are mostly back to fine.) And whenever I read accounts like these, it scares me a little. It gets me (over)analyzing the things that occasionally disrupt the good mood of our marriage and wondering if we will look back on them later as the seeds of something larger. Yet I have to remember: My parents argue, too, and every couple has their unique share of conflicts, and the relationship experts say it's how we work out the conflicts that sets the tone of our marriage as much as anything else.

Having a baby requires us to be even more intentional about our relationship, too. It's so easy to fall into our roles as parenting partners and let our other roles — friend, lover, husband, wife, supporter, movie date — take the back seat. It's a balancing act, an adjustment, that Stephen and I are still figuring out as we go along, still early in this journey of parenthood. In that respect, I can see, as Gail Rosenblum points out, how a couple with several children could get along for years without nurturing their marriage and not notice it cracking at the seams.

Of course, I share these stories with Stephen, too, and we talk about them and agree that it's essential to nurture our relationship (even if it means leaving Daniel with babysitters at the height of his stranger anxiety — so hard!) and address any potential "termites" in our marriage before they chew up the foundation. And I think we do a good job of managing conflicts as they arise — baby and all. And yet, and yet ... we are only human, and this thing called marriage seems like such a mystery sometimes — I love the way Krista Tippett describes it as a dare from God. Such a leap of faith, requiring much optimism and not to be taken for granted.

7 comments:

Ellen said...

Yeah, it's something I think about all the time too, and I'm single!
I don't agree with the first writer who said "Those who charge that couples like us take marriage vows too lightly...are dead wrong" because taking marriage vows lightly comes in many forms each day and over the years, and any one of them can destroy a marriage. Our parents and all those couples who have 50+ years of marriage under their belts survived because they take seriously the belief that marriage vows uttered before God are divine and eternal and not to ever be broken. We always wonder how those couples survive, but I think the time is come where we stop wondering and start modeling our lives after theirs. They give 100% without expecting that much in return and stay through the bad times, which can sometimes last for years as each person changes and learns and comes out stronger in the end. Mom and dad could have left for a life that's better than having to care for two disabled sons, meaning they may never be able to travel, pursue certain hobbies or "follow their dreams" the way society says we entitled to do. Marriage is a vocation that requires constant sacrifice and change in the way we do things, even if it strays from our goal that society sets for us of "being who we want to be."
Kids are the fruits of a couple's love for each other, and they deserve their parents' divine commitment to each other and sacrifice. Of course "staying is riskier than leaving," but my question is this: If "amazing children are the best proof of the blessing, of the real sacrament," then aren't they worth the risk? I am sure the "risk" is at the heart of marriage vows.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a big fan of divorce. I don't say this from the "till death do you part" viewpoint, but rather from a more tangible, realistic viewpoint. Being single, I see things from the other side of the fence than a lot of people. First of all, most divorced people I know of are remarried. Sometimes it's because they truly met someone more compatible than their former spouse, but all too often the second marriage is about the same as the first, in which case I think the idea of divorcing and then remarrying is reduntant - why not just stick with the first spouse? Furthermore, I know of a lot of divorced people who are outgoing by nature, and as such have an easier time meeting someone new. Let's face it - remarriage is a common, almost expected post divorce activity. If I, as a quiet introvert, were married to someone who wasn't the hottest companion, who in fact could be an asshole at times, but still made an effort to meet me halfway, I would consider the stress of finding a second husband a definate con in deciding whether to divorce him.

Other than infidelity, money, abuse, and addiction problems, I'd have a problem being married to someone who makes zero effort to communicate with me - basically someone who'd be non-responsive to my divorce threats. When that's the case, the problem lies usually with that particular spouse rather than joint incompatiblity. Divorce that person, I would say. Otherwise, try to stick with them, for reasons mentioned in the first paragraph, because one will gain next to nothing from the divorce.

- Susanne

liz said...

This is really interesting. Makes me want to read that Krista Tippett book even more!

I think the leap of faith comes when you acknowledge that even though you love and are committed to your spouse, you simply cannot guarantee what the other person will do. We are ultimately responsible only for ourselves. As strongly as I may believe that marriage vows are eternal (and I do), that doesn't guarantee that Seth will always feel that way. And, as is true for many of the couples that come through my office, there are disappointments small and large to contend with. We see clients all the time who don't want divorces, but their spouses do. Many of my clients want to work on their marriages and feel that marriage is a lifetime commitment, but if their spouses have made up their minds otherwise, they're out of luck. And, there are the clients who want nothing more than to be married, but their spouses have chosen to abuse them. In those instances, I would never recommend that a person stay in a painful or abusive marriage simply to honor vows made to God. I honestly don't believe that God requires that level of sacrifice.

I guess I feel that marriage vows are not to be broken in a perfect world, but then real life intervenes, and we break our vows in small and large ways all the time. (One of our vows was "to forgive and strengthen" each other, and sometimes that's pretty tough!) Ultimately, I can be responsible for the way I choose to live my vows over the course of my life, but, even though I trust Seth with my life and believe with all my heart that our marriage will flourish over a lifetime, I cannot be responsible for what he chooses to do. Choosing to love him and to be married to him anyway is the risk. And the reward!

Emilie said...

That's a good reminder, Liz - that I can only be responsible for what I do and how I react to things. Everything else is out of my hands, and I can't control it. Also, I do have the choice to trust my husband, which I do. That does make me feel a little less anxious about the overall mystery of marriage ... :)

Cynthia said...

This touched a core with me, Emilie, as I have recently got involved in a serious relationship that could lead to marriage. In fact, we have already talked about that and we have only been together since Christmas. It's scary for me - not the idea of divorce, but the idea of marriage. In a marriage, you are naked- (or should be) emotionally, spiritually, mentally, finacially and physically. That other person sees you as you really are. I can so easily see how couples can take each other for granted. When you are dating, you put in effort to let them see you at your best. I assume that when you are married, you are yourself. You pick boogers if they are there; you may pass gas in front of them; you allow them to see you in hair rollers or wearing a facial mask; you don't mind if they see your house messy. You yell. You change somewhat from that person he was dating to the woman he married. Maybe we all don't but I fear that I will. Then, add children and in-laws into the mix and it can be a daunting task.
I have a girlfriend who tells me all the time that she loves her husband, yet I see her yelling at him all the time. Though some of the stuff that he does drives her crazy, she loves him unconditionally. She tells me that even though at that moment she is mad at him, she does not want to leave him or he leave her. They both tell me all the time that they are committed to one another. They talk about things that bothers them about each other. They encourage each other. They laugh with each other. And, yes, they yell (well, she does) at each other.
Since getting with my friend, I have called her several times to seek advice. She reminds me that marriage (or in my case, a committed relationship) is something that grows and that you have to work at. Your child grows and changes and so does a couple in marriage.
I appreciate you writing this, Emilie because this is something that has been on my mind for the past few months. I look forward to the wedding, but it's the days, weeks, months and years after the wedding day that I am concerned about.
I'm glad that you and Stephen can be examples for me of what a good marriage could be. Even though you and Stephen are learning about your new roles as husband and wife and mom and dad, you are also committed to trying to learn those new roles together.
As it should be.

Christina Nevers said...


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