The Old Ball and Chain: Never Say Divorce

When the word “divorce” entered my vocabulary, I had already decided it was going to happen. We sat in our room and I told him that I wanted out. There was no real warning, just the proclamation that divorce was imminent.

The advice I’d heard was that you should never even mention the word divorce, because words have power and once you start talking about something, it means that you’re thinking about it, and you shouldn’t even be doing that, if that something is Divorce. Divorce was some kind of boogeyman that could be summoned simply by saying the word. So I didn’t talk about it, even when I thought about it, for fear that the word might bring that terrible monster to life.

This led me to a place where I wasn’t able to look at my marriage with any sense of honesty. Sure, I could admit that my marriage wasn’t perfect, but that’s an easy admission to make, because really, no marriage could possibly be perfect. “Not-perfect” doesn’t actually tell you anything about the state of the marriage or what the struggles in it might be. But looking at specific problems felt like it might cause some of those “divorce thoughts” to come to the surface, so I stuck to the safety of vagary. Not only in public (because I don’t think that we necessarily have to speak about specific marital struggles in public), but also in my own private monologues. Keeping everything very general allowed me to keep any thoughts of divorce at bay.

What drove this was a combination of fear and shame.

As I said in my last post, much of what I was taught about divorce was that you had to have a biblical reason to seek the end of a marriage. So if I was thinking about divorce because I felt lonely or unhappy, those unbiblical reasons weren’t worth talking about. If even “legitimate” reasons for divorce were given the side-eye, how could I possibly be honest about my struggles that were so much more mundane? If I wasn’t allowed to say the word divorce, how could I say, “I think about divorce”? Wasn’t that dooming me to a divorce?

I believe that the shame that surrounds the discussion of divorce in the Church keeps people from actually seeking the help they need to avoid it.

So much of what I read about marriage says that if people knew the seriousness of what the marriage vows meant, they would treat marriage more seriously. But the truth is, before I was married, agreeing to never say divorce was an easier promise to make. I didn’t know what marriage would be like. What having kids would do. What mental illness would do. What massive faith shifts would do. What the daily grind of life would do. Most of what I heard was “marriage will be hard” and “you need to stick it out.”

And I get it. Specifics are hard to share because they won’t be the same for everyone. Each marriage will face its own challenges. The issues that I have to watch for in my current marriage are often far different than what existed in my first marriage. Any marriage advice I offer will be colored by my own experiences, and while there are general nuggets of wisdom that may apply across the board, they’re just that – general. Your marriage will have challenges that are unique to you, and you likely won’t discover what they are until you’re in the thick of it, because while difficulties that exist between friends or dating couples can give clues about how marriage will be, marriage is a different kind of relationship and will have its own circumstances that will need to be addressed.

So what do we do? How do we advise people on marriage when each relationship is a unique entity?

I think one thing we need to do is to recognize that marriages end for reasons that some might deem unbiblical or simply not good enough, and we need to be okay with that. The end of a marriage will always be painful, but some ends are destined to be more painful. When we offer support to those who are ending a marriage for “unbiblical” reasons, we may actually be helping people become better partners in the future. We may be saving someone from abandoning their marriage entirely through any number of other destructive means.

We also need to recognize that what might seem small or inconsequential to us could be something much deeper to the person experiencing it. When we treat someone’s pain as trifling by saying that there are only limited legitimate reasons to seek divorce and even then, not really, we show that we are not a safe place to share any pain.

This is not to say that at the first hint of difficulty a marriage is doomed or that one might not suggest paths for reconciliation for struggling marriages, but simply that if people know that they can talk about their emotions honestly and be supported in the disillusion of their marriage for reasons that might strike us as trivial, perhaps we can help people make the best choices for their relationships, whether that choice is reconciliation or divorce. When we eliminate shame over simple things like thinking about, or even discussing divorce, we may actually help people find their way back to one another.

I wonder what might it have looked like in my first marriage if I had admitted I thought about divorce before that day in September when my mind was already made up? What if I had felt free to be honest about what was wrong well before I had sought ways to address the lack outside of my marriage? What if I could have seen my discontent as something valid and worth considering?

I can’t know the answers to those questions, but I take the lessons learned from not asking them with me in my marriage today. And I believe that rather than weakening my marriage, the knowledge that divorce isn’t a taboo actually makes strengthens it and makes divorce less likely.

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