Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Dragon in the Woods

There has been a number of comments recently worrying about failed marriages and divorce. I get a sense that many of you in your twenties see divorce as something ubiquitous but random, striking at all but the very lucky. It is like this uncontrollable, unstoppable force out there in the woods waiting to eat you up. One minute a spouse is bliss and somehow in two or ten years he or she becomes a horrible, nasty, snapping monster. However, it's neither that dreadful nor that simple.

Nobody really understands what is going on in another person's relationship. Many of you, very sadly, had the shock of your lives when your parents broke up. Others were horrified when married friends broke up. I was next to devastated when a very old friend left her husband--which I found out about just as my brother moved into his first house, days after his wife had her first baby. I was frightened rigid.

"Don't even mention divorce in this house," said my brother.

For years my friend and her husband had been symbolic for me of the happy couple, of the marriage that worked out, of the possibility of happy married life with kids. Maybe I (then divorced-and-annulled) hadn't had it, but at least they did. But apparently they didn't. I hadn't been told the whole story; either we were not as good friends as I thought, or my pal's ability to hide unhappy feelings (she was relentlessly positive to the point of lying) had taken me in.

Divorce looks random because you don't have the backstage pass into divorcing people's marriages. Even when they're your parents, you aren't told what is going on. And you usually weren't there to see the warning signs when they first got married. And possibly nobody else saw them, and they were doing their darnedest not to see them either.

Part of the reason I write so much about Single life is because I married badly at 25 and I don't want other girls (or boys) to marry badly. I want you to live your lives intelligently and authentically without worrying about becoming "old maids." It shocks me that in 2011 girls still worry about becoming old maids, but I myself worried about it in the 1990s, and that was also long into the feminist revolution which purports to have stopped all that. It didn't.

We live in an age of anxiety, as I like to tell my Baby Boomer neighbours. And I meet many twenty year olds who worry a lot about the future. "What if I don't--"?" "What if I--?" Twenty year olds don't seem to know or trust themselves yet. And this is not a value judgement; this is an observation. I didn't completely know or trust myself until I was in my thirties. I was unusually young for my age, which is an unlucky thing. However, one of the great gifts of adulthood is that you know and trust yourself. And if you know and trust yourself, you're less frightened about the possibility of failed marriage.

Divorce is not a random accident. The seeds of divorce lurk within people before they even meet the person they divorce, and they start to spring up when the unfortunate pair get together. My seeds included gullibility, a fear of confrontation, a fear of being an old maid, a genetic tendency towards depression and--this is not all bad--the ability to chew my leg off to get out of a trap. My ex-husband had many divorce seeds, too. The only one I'll mention is his belief that he could make people do anything he wanted, which is very useful in a career but a double-edged sword when dealing with a woman who can, when the hunt seems over, chew her leg off to get out of the trap.

Bad marriages happen because too many women and men are not rooted in reality. We are led by our wishes and our fears, not by our intelligence. I do not know why this is so, other than that we live in an age of anxiety, where the media tells us "America Has Lost Her Innocence" every time there is a political assassination or a terrorist attack, and we are fed a steady drip of news about cancer, the population "bomb", global warming, climate change, "Middle East Descends into Chaos"--and a number of other things we usually can do absolutely nothing about. (Sure, you can stop polluting the air; now you stop India and China from doing it. Hmm.)

What we can change are ourselves. We can grow up. We can ask ourselves what we really like and what we really don't like. We can admit to ourselves that although X is really sweet and nice, he or she bores us now. Or that although Y is really exciting and fun, he or she treats us badly. Or that, even though Z treats us nicely, Z is really horrible to every other woman in his life: his mother, his sisters, waitresses, ex-girlfriends... We can use our brains. Scary? Yes. But do it anyway.

We can even admit that we are sinners, but we don't deserve a life punishment for our sins. For example, you don't have to marry some guy or girl just because you slept with him or her. You shouldn't have done that, and you know that, but once you apologize for having done so and have gone to confession, that could be the end of the matter. I hope it is--unless you really do love each other, and you both realize it is time to marry each other rather than to carry on like that. Truth is what is, wrote Thomas Aquinas. Truth is NOT what you merely want it to be.

If you are so unsure of yourself that you are terrified of making a bad marriage, it is a sign that you are not ready yet to get married. Again, this is not a value judgment. Just as some of us reach our adult growth at 14 and others at 21 or 22, some of us get adult brains at 16 and others at 30. That's just the way it is. Truth is what is.

One last note about marriage and divorce. After three years in an MDiv program surrounded by very good men who were mostly male religious, I learned to recognize a good man when I saw him. When I moved down to the USA, I met other good men, like my housemates and dear old Volker, and I thought a lot about what good men my father and brothers were. And when I went to Scotland and met BA, I recognized that he too was a fundamentally good man. To marry a good man, I suggest hanging out only with good men and not being guilted into giving the time of day to bad men. Judgmental? Judgment is the final step in knowledge. If you're afraid of being called judgmental, do your judgment silently in your head and find diplomatic ways to defend your decision.

Meanwhile, BA and I will never get divorced, not just because we love each other and are kind to each other, but because we fear God. We both know our marriage is sacramental. There were no possible impediments. We'd have to be really weaselly to put together any kind of annulment defence because there are simply no grounds. We're married, and we're stuck, and--so far--that's great. I don't worry about future problems. We'll cross any bridges when we come to them.


just evelyn said...

Amen to that! Facing disapproval from my former church (No divorce! Even if he hits you! Maybe if he cheats on you, but only if you're such a lousy Christian that you can't forgive!)I hid a deeply abusive marriage for the better part of ten years.

Most people had no idea, until I got to the point where I couldn't cope anymore and was risking a nervous breakdown. I knew when we were engaged that there were red flags waving madly, but a)I was afraid of being an old maid and b)I didn't know that I deserved any better.

Elisabeth said...

This is a lovely post - thank you. As someone who was married at 19, and is now divorced and annulled with 4 daughters, I couldn't agree more. It is interesting to be in my situation and the mother of children approaching the age when I made my Big Mistake, so I routinely send them links to your blog so they know I'm not the only nutter who thinks like this. Thank you so much for all you do.

Blipfillypicklepoo said...

Thanks for the post. I have been reading your blog for a while and have taken comfort in your no-nonsense take on being healthy and happy whether single or married. Thanks for your insight.