Some years ago a woman (and parishioner) told me, almost in passing, that she and her husband were planning to divorce. Knowing that she had two young children, both under 10, I asked her in so many words, “What about the children?” Unabashedly she assured me that they were in fact divorcing for the sake of the children. Perhaps she saw my bewildered, dubious look, so she added, “We don’t want them to experience all the yelling and bickering.” “Hmmm … ,” I said. “Well then stop the bickering and yelling. Get whatever help you need, but don’t make the kids pay even more for your problems.”
I was a parochial vicar in those days, so the woman informed the pastor of my “insensitive” remark and demanded that I be taught to be more sensitive and diplomatic. Luckily, the pastor saw the irony of her demands, since diplomacy between spouses seemed lacking as did sensitivity toward children who did not likely “feel” great that their home was breaking up because the adults couldn’t get along.
When I was a little child (not so long ago) in the mid 60s, divorce was still considered shocking, and to a large degree morally wrong. But that was before we crossed the chasm of the cultural and sexual revolution. In 1969, no-fault divorce began to careen through the land like a runaway train leaking poisonous gas. Within less than a decade, divorce went from something shocking and whispered about to a mainstream action for which we are expected to have sympathy. After all, the thinking goes, doesn’t God want everyone to be happy? How can we be so mean as to say that people should stay in “unhappy marriages”? Never mind those vows, which have no happiness clause and even seem to imply that there will be unhappy times: better or WORSE, richer or POORER, in SICKNESS and in health for as long as we both shall live. No, forget all that. Marriage is about “happiness” and everyone’s “God-given right to be happy.” God only wants me to be happy. Jesus wasn’t really serious when He spoke of the cross and our need to carry it through patience, suffering, forgiveness, and bearing with one another.
I remember another couple who were fighting bitterly in my rectory parlor. They began throwing around the “divorce” word. I asked them, “But what about the vows you took?” After a pause, the husband said, “What vows, Father?” So I recited them from memory. “Oh, that … ,” said the husband. “But you know, you just say those words at the ceremony because you’re supposed to … ” He seemed to have thought of them as only ritual words and considered himself exempt from the vows that had come forth from his very mouth before both God and man.
In the short span of a few decades, we have come to the point where many do not see marriage as about keeping vows, or commitments, or about what is best for children. Marriage is now about adults and what makes them happy. And all of us are just supposed to accept this regardless of the effect that it (obviously) has on children.
In his recent book, Defending Marriage, 12 Arguments for Sanity, Anthony Esolen makes some poignant observations:
Parents will say, “My children can never be happy unless I am happy,” but they should not lay that narcissistic unction to their souls. Children need parents who love them, not parents who are contented; they are too young to be asked to lay down their lives for someone else. It is not the job of the child to suffer for the parent, but the job of the parent to endure, to make the best of a poor situation, to swallow his pride, to bend her knees, for the sake of the child. I have heard [from those] who still quaver in voice when they speak about what their divorced parents did to them – hustling them from one half of a home to another half, enlisting them as confidants, one against the other, [threatening] them that they may just find themselves a lot less often with a parent they love if they do not do exactly what the [threatener] demands. [and I would add forcing them to endure Daddy’s new live-in girlfriend, or Mommy’s new husband, or a strange new step-brother who is hard to get along with and who started touching them in embarrassing places.] Children must grow up at age ten so their parents don’t have to (p. 142).
Esolen also comments on how children often have divorce “explained” to them:
[The Child] must be told that the father, although he wasn’t so terrible, just couldn’t satisfy the mother in some mysterious way, and so bad was this dissatisfaction that she had no choice but to compel her son [or daughter] to live without a father … Adults are wonderfully adept at weaving webs of self-deceit around themselves for protection. Children aren’t … They aren’t yet dulled by habit, or by slogans, or by a long history of compromising with the truth, so that what they do see, they see clearly (p. 138).
Yes, indeed, children are famous for for seeing through the hypocrisy of adults. Their innocence is still shocked by misbehavior and inconsistency. I remember a high-school classmate, whose parents had divorced, wondering why “the rules” in the house only applied to her. One day she asked her mother, who had divorced, why she couldn’t love her father anymore. The mother replied, “But I still do love him.” My classmate saw through this self-justifying lie and challenged her mother to “get back together with Dad again.” Her mother just responded, “You’ll understand when you get older.” In one short phrase, her mother managed to both patronize her daughter and introduce her to the cynical and compromised world of the baby-boomer generation, a generation that collectively never grew up and that may well be the most narcissistic, egocentric, selfish, and immature generation since the patricians of the late Greco-Roman culture.
Disclaimer – I realize that every divorce story is an individual one. I know that there are some who read this who will be angry or hurt and who will insist that my picture does not take into account the special and unique circumstances that led to their particular divorce. I realize, too, that some people really tried to save their marriages but could not because the other spouse refused. OK. But I only speak to the general problem, not to every specific case. The critique here is of the culture, first and foremost. The fact is that by and large people used to work out their differences and stay married, but today they do not. We used to consider the impact that divorce would have on children. Today it is either not considered or the children are way down on the list below the needs and wishes of the adults.
Divorce has shredded our families and caused grave harm and hurt to children: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. If we cannot see this then we are not only divorced from marriage; we are divorced from reality. You might say, “Well, I don’t think it’s so bad. The roads are paved and the planes run on time.” OK, but talk to someone whose parents divorced. Talk to them honestly about the absurdities to which they were subjected: they were supposed to get along with their siblings while Mom and Dad played by other rules. Talk to them about being shipped back and forth to different homes, about feeling guilty that they liked one setting or parent more than the other, about two houses with two different sets of rules, about Mom and Dad bad-mouthing each other, about being subjected to “loyalty tests” by their parents. Ask them about how all of this affects their understanding of acceptance, loyalty, trust, self-esteem, respect for authority, appreciation for the truth, personal responsibility, courageousness, perseverance, forgiveness, human dignity, sexual responsibility, marriage, family, love, and on and on.
We need to see divorce for the diabolical lie that it is. It comes from the hardness of our hearts, as Jesus clearly says in Matthew 19. We ought not separate what God has joined. And if we do, there can be little but destruction that comes from it.
Splitting the family is like splitting the atom. And for all the anxiety we had back in the 80s about “the bomb,” as usual, Satan had us focused on the lesser thing in order to keep us from concentrating on the greater and more dangerous problem. All the silly “nuclear-free zones” did nothing. A few “divorce-free zones” (like we had prior to 1969) might have actually made a difference! But the problem is always someone else, not me or the decisions I make.
Even in the Church we got all swept up in issues of nuclear war, etc. And while total silence on that matter from the Church would have been wrong, where were similar statements against the nuclear fission of divorce as our families were split and we were handing out annulments like candy?
Do not mistake this for “bishop bashing.” We cannot expect the clergy to solve every problem in a cultural and moral tsunami in which lay people outnumber clergy 5000 to 1. But clarity and a bit more courage never hurts.
Perhaps it is like the clarity and courage my old pastor (referred to above) showed me when I was “turned in” for being insensitive and undiplomatic, who saw the hypocrisy of the complainant and commended me, instead of scolding me, for raising the simple question, “What about the children?”