Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Underground of the Other Half

I got an email last week from someone who knows someone who knows me. She cautiously admitted that she's considering a divorce and had heard that I had been through one (Was that right? she hedged respectfully, non-intrusively, covertly). She wondered if it was okay to ask me about it. I recognized the tone. A familiar tentativeness—trying to determine if the audience will understand that you don't want a divorce but that you might still get one. It's a hard thing to admit out loud in the homeschooling world we come from... that you aren't able to sustain the image of healthy family, and that you feel awful about it, and even embarrassed by it.

She and I talked on the phone today. In that "back from the trenches at different fronts" kind of way, we traded stories, even laughing at what isn't laughable. I got around to asking her what support she has in her life right now. She quipped, "Well I have my non-Christian friends who take me downtown for dinner and drinks. Thank God for them."

Oh that made me laugh. I know just what she means. In the churches we come from, it's almost like two-shall-become-one is not just a spiritual, mystical union, but a fact of identity. When you go back from "couple" to "single," it's hard not to feel like half a person, half a soul, half-saved. While outside the church, people just look at you as, well, you!

I remember years ago when a couple who led our home Bible study group filed for divorce. They were a little older than I am now. The home group disbanded because the husband moved out. At the time, it disturbed me. Why couldn't we carry on with the wife heading up the group? She was still in the house. She hadn't asked her husband to leave her for someone else. But the policy of the church was that "couples" led groups with other couples in them. Sure singles were welcome to participate in the group, but they couldn't lead groups (unless they limited themselves to singles). We all accepted this unwritten code, as though the nature of true spirituality is a married heterosexual pair.

Once you declare that you are more interested in a healthy life than in propping up an institution, the others on that underground railroad find you. It's an interesting community down here. A major shared characteristic is how many have moved away from their original church communities. When they most needed support, they felt abandoned or worse, persecuted. I've heard from women who have had to endure pastors defending violent husbands, calling them repentant or provoked. For what? I can't think that pastors are excusing violent behavior because they, too, are violent (though some may be). I don't think they want wives to be smacked, shoved, slugged, or forcibly restrained, either. So why do some pastors go to such lengths to keep marriages together after a wife finally gets up the courage to admit how bad it's gotten?

My guess is that marriage is so critical to the reputation of the evangelical church (at least the white churches I've been in), they feel the need to protect it at all costs. Successful marriages (in America anyway) have become the chief evidence that the Spirit of God is still a vital force in people's lives. Divorce has become the great evidence that the Spirit of God is lacking in our culture, and consequently, in the lives of individuals who choose it.

Seen that way, no wonder those of us in the divorced camp huddle together in cover of email and get drinks with non-Christian friends away from the suburbs! It's not pleasant to be seen as one who is no longer responsive to God's Spirit... or worse, perhaps was never filled with that Spirit to begin with!


julieunplugged said...

Wanting to add: It is entirely appropriate to assume that there is some level of failure in appropriating the principles of love, faith, generosity, peace, goodwill, and self-discipline between married partners when divorce is the "best" solution. In that way, it is a failure of a spiritually whole life.

I resist the idea that there is an absence of Spirit in the decision to divorce under those conditions. I think we'd be better served to focus on individuals as whole human beings, not as halves of couples, and help them to discover what the Spirit is saying to them, as beloved humans in their own right, apart from a married or divorced or single identity.

Kansas Bob said...

So true Julie. A friend once spoke to me about "the cult of the perfect Christian family". The sad result is that folks who have difficulties with their kids and their spouses cannot be transparent about their struggles. They are forced to go underground and keep their pain private. Thank God for the compassionate folks (outside of the church) that I encountered when my family life was falling apart and my kids were self-destructing. They understood how destructive "the cult" is.

AmpersandPrime said...

Love this sentence, "Once you declare that you are more interested in a healthy life than in propping up an institution, the others on that underground railroad find you."

There are so many layers of truth there.

Kacie said...

It's tough to think about an appropriate attitude towards divorce at my age. I'm in my 20's. My friends are all over the board. It would be easy to take a light attitude towards divorce, after all, you can NEVER know what went on in a marriage, it's not really appropriate to judge or to make anyone feel like an outsider because they are divorced or divorcing.

But what about on the other side? If I don't speak loudly about marriage and divorce, doesn't it set more newly married couples down a path that often leads to deterioration? If I don't speak up, doesn't it encourage the attitude of "oh marriage is so romantic and fun" in the dating couples?

When I'm with newlyweds and dating/engaged people, I always want to speak strongly about marriage, because I want to set them up well. On the other hand, I feel awful when someone older who has a divorce in their path feels as though they've failed on such an important issue

julieunplugged said...

Speaking strongly about marriage *before* marriage is critical! I have no problems with that at all. Far too many couples are unprepared for the challenges of merging two histories, two personalities and even the effects of childhood abuse or neglect.

The goal isn't to tell people marriage is no big deal and divorce is an easy way out (it isn't). Rather, because marriage is such a big deal, we should be far more cautious about going into one - take more time, get more advice. I even think it is probably a good idea to have sex first and get that out of the way to slow things down... Too many couples rush to the altar to finally have it or out of guilt for having crossed that line "prematurely."

So keep speaking strongly about marriage. It is the biggest commitment you'll ever make outside of parenting. (Fyi, ex and I only knew each other 10 months before we married... not such a good plan.)

Julie Evans said...

" I got around to asking her what support she has in her life right now. She quipped, 'Well I have my non-Christian friends who take me downtown for dinner and drinks. Thank God for them.'Oh that made me laugh. I know just what she means."

I know what you mean and it makes me laugh too, but it also breaks my heart at the same time.

Colleen said...

I feel like a groupie, reading each of these new posts and gushing agreement, but once again...you've hit the nail on the head. The church's reaction to marital stress and/or divorce makes my skin crawl. The platitudes. The cover-up. The assumption that couples and families who look good must be good, that marital longevity must equate with marital success. Stuff and nonsense. Remember that infamous film line intoned by Jack Nicholson? "The truth? You can't handle the truth!" So it goes with the contemporary, American, evangelical church.

Your addendum about focusing on individuals as whole human beings rather than halves of couples immediately brought to mind part of a Tom Robbins line:

"(W)hile a partner can add sweet dimensions to our lives, we, each of us, are responsible for our own fulfillment. Nobody else can provide it for us, and to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves dangerously and to program for eventual failure every relationship we enter."

Susanne Barrett said...

I have a dear friend going through this very thing right now...in our church. It's been very, very painful for her, and my heart bleeds with hers. I've sent her several of your posts, and she has found them very helpful. So thanks for being honest and for sharing your experiences openly here. You're helping so many women caught between the proverbial rock & hard place--or divorce and church, in these cases....

actionsub said...

It's even harder on the guys; whom, with the emphasis on man "ruling over his household well" and all that, find your wife leaving you and have everyone else looking at you like "well what did YOU screw up this time, pal?"
And then go on to suggest if you watch "Fireproof" enough, that she'll come back and all will be well.

julieunplugged said...

actionsub, that is brutal! The idea that there is one person on whom success in marriage rests is nonsense. I never did watch Fireproof because any story that becomes used as a model for "recovery" is suspect to me. You can repair damage and find sincere repentance in "moments." The test is longevity and commitment to transformation.

In the end, I don't think most people change very much in essentials over the course of a lifetime. Being with someone you can grow with (maturing is not the same as changing) is the goal.

Kansas Bob said...

I did watch Fireproof.. nit bad for what it is.. too bad it has become one of the banners of "the cult of the perfect Christian family".

Steve said...

"Once you declare that you are more interested in a healthy life than in propping up an institution, the others on that underground railroad find you. It's an interesting community down here."

Exactly. Shame on us fake church people.

Well said, Julie.

julieunplugged said...

Colleen, I meant to thank you for the Tony Robbins quote. It's brilliant. :)