Not so long ago, I planned to enter into marriage (should I get married) with the agreement that divorce was not an option. I wanted the security of knowing that the person that I’d committed to was also committed to me, and on the days when one or both of us was ready to quit, to know that no matter how frustrated or angry we got, neither of us would be heading out the door, never to return.
I was not alone in this thought. There are songs I’ve heard (like Martina McBride’s “Be That Way”), conversations and sermons and books dedicated to this idea. In fact, for a large part of the Christian community, it seems, divorce is simply not an option.
Within the last couple of years, I have watched people that I know get divorced. Unlike those seasons where everyone is getting married or having children, this season has been unpredictable, heartbreaking, and difficult to navigate. Most of these couples are Christians, and the decision to divorce is wrenching, made even more so in the face of judgement and hurtful comments by others.
Like many other “issues” divorce has made it’s way into my life, acquiring a face and a silvery laugh and asking me to think more deeply about the way I’ve approached it in the past.
I’ve realized that no one goes into a marriage thinking that they will get divorced. In the flurry of vows, rice and cake, the couple doesn’t consider what might happen should their marriage break. Maybe there is a prenuptial agreement, maybe there is a relative or friend with experience and a few scalding words, maybe there is a flicker of doubt. But until your marriage breaks open and apart and you are left or leaving, divorce is something that happens to someone else.
But it does happen.
It’s naive for me to say, as I proceed into the (currently fictional) marriage I hope for, that divorce is not an option. No matter how many times I say it, it doesn’t make it true.
I don’t like conflict. I loved the idea of building up security for myself by shutting out any options that I didn’t like. Divorce is messy and hurtful and takes a long time from which to heal. But I’ve seen something else, something that I didn’t want to see: sometimes divorce is helpful.
In the wake of divorce, I have seen hope and freedom and new life. I have seen the heavy burdens of a relationship that isn’t working well lift from shoulders. This doesn’t always happen, of course, and it’s not always visible, but I have seen it.
There’s that often-quoted verse about divorce, which comes from the mouth of Jesus. I’ve been ruminating on it lately, and I think I might be understanding it in a different way.
“Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8).
Maybe it’s the “you” that has always thrown me off. It felt like Jesus was talking about my hardness of heart (which is certainly present, from time to time). But in a culture that wouldn’t allow a woman to seek a divorce, I realize that there is more to it than that. Sometimes, I think, divorce is the consequence of a hardened heart.
I had good intentions, thinking that I would protect myself as best I could from the hurt that comes from divorce. What I neglected to consider was that divorce is itself a safeguard. When it is removed as an option, hardness of heart has no consequences. Grace is one thing, but accepting consistently unloving behavior is another. I would accept that in no other voluntary relationship (and not all involuntary ones). I would struggle to maintain ties with even a very close friend who chose to be thoughtless or hurtful over and over again.
The past few months have been very much about realizing how little I have control over. I am not God, but I wanted to be like Him. I wanted to always be the one who keeps my vows. But I don’t. I sometimes fail to keep up my end of the bargain. I am not the one who loves unconditionally. He is. Planning a talk making divorce off-limits would have been another attempt at control.
Instead, I think that if I arrive at the cusp of making vows with someone, we will have another kind of talk. I want us to know in our bones that there are things that we can do to lose one another. I want us to mean our vows, not taking them for granted, knowing that they will not always be easy to keep. I want to know that if there is hardness of heart, which will not be softened, and we do get divorced, that I will recover, and so will he, even though it’s not the way it was from the beginning. I have seen that recovery, a work of the Spirit, and I know it exists.