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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Taking up an Offense

A Facebook friend posted an article about marriage, by a self-proclaimed "truth sayer" by the name
of Matt Walsh. Because of my respect for my friend, I took a look.

Walsh begins by announcing that Nicholas Sparks, author of multitudinous and much-loved romantic novels that all seem to end tragically (some of them anyway), is separating from his wife of 25 years. Note the word "separating." Walsh carries it to its logical, but not always accurate, conclusion by implying divorce. I know couples who have separated and remained married, getting counseling and enjoying a marriage that was stronger. It may not happen most of the time, but it happens. So that is strike one.

He then goes on to talk about how culture has negatively influenced us on the idea of marriage. There is the thought that there is that "one," a perfect soul-mate. He says that his wife wasn't "the one" until he married her. Okay so far. We have freedom of choice as to whom we marry. We aren't forced into it, as is the case in some cultures. We decide who to propose to, or who to say yes to. But then he starts to meddle.

There’s a very real danger inherent in the “there’s only one particular person out there for you” mentality. Think about it. If you are “meant” for one specific person, who’s to say when and if you’ve met them? Who’s to say that the person you married is them? And who’s to say that you don’t get married and then, just like that, someone moves in next door, or you get a new coworker at the office, or you run into someone at the grocery store, or you lock eyes with the cashier at Trader Joe’s and all of a sudden you realize that this is your real soul mate, the person you were “supposed” to marry? If we are meant for someone in particular, who’s to say you’re wrong? Sure, adultery is evil, but this is your soul mate we’re talking about here. This is the person God Himself designed for you. Can He really be mad if you ditch the mistake in favor of your true Prince or Princess Charming? Maybe you’re technically a backstabbing, adulterating cheater, but you’re just following your heart, and who can fault you? You’re correcting a mistake. Resolving a cosmic injustice. Fulfilling your destiny. Isn’t that what cheaters often tell themselves, especially women cheaters? This is the dark underbelly of pop culture fairy tales. It gives a free pass to adulterers, and convinces married people to follow their emotions rather than stay true to their vows.
What do I find offensive about this? The implication is that married people are always supposed to stay married, that marriage is always preferable to divorce, and that if a couple divorces, it's probably because of unfaithfulness. (In a way, it is, but more on that in a minute.)

I used to be so naive that I would have bought Walsh's logic without a second thought. Of COURSE! Marriage is sacred and divorce is wrongwrongwrong. Years ago, I even encouraged a woman to stay with her husband - because it's the Right Thing To Do - and later learned of his horrific emotional and verbal abuse. It pains me to think that she remained for even another day because of my well-meaning but ignorant advice.

I know a beautiful, lovely young mother who married a man in her church. After she and Mr. Right had a child together, she discovered a heinous crime and pressed charges. There were people who told HER not to get a divorce. Good-freaking-grief. The man is sitting in prison, where he belongs, and she's supposed to put the rest of her life on hold because of HIS mess? I think not. Where is the justice in that?

The problem is...well, there are a lot of problems, perhaps the most significant being that it's none of my gosh-darned business why a person who gets a divorce believes he or she needs to get a divorce.

Another is that while we may look at the Bible and traditional values, etc. and see an ideal presented, life is anything but. People change. We make decisions based on what we believe to be true and best at a particular moment, but I just can't wrap my head around the idea that staying in an abusive sham of a marriage is more glorifying to God than exercising that "free will" we talk about and getting out while the getting's good.

Another problem is that the ease of divorce today (from a legal standpoint) can easily lead to laziness and a lack of wisdom, to hard-heartedness. So I want to be clear that divorce would be sort of a last resort, after trying all available options. Chinese author Watchman Nee wrote that a divorce is the public declaration that the oneness God intends in marriage is dead. I like that - two become one. If they emotionally split back into two, a divorce is really nothing more than acknowledgement of that fact. It's an end. Probably not a happy ending, at least not at the moment. But not the end of the world.

A husband and wife (or in many states, a same-sex couple....that's going to get some folks riled at me, I'll bet) make vows before God which ideally will be obeyed. Except that life isn't ideal. People develop addictions, suffer economic setbacks, lose loved ones, have mental health issues, become criminals or abusive or assholes. What a blushing bride in her teens or twenties promises...what a lovesick groom of the same immaturity tells the world he'll do...changes. Always.

If both are able to keep up, emotionally, with the changes, great! Hallelujah! What a great example of love, romance, and commitment! Yay, those people! Pat them on the back and throw them a party!

Not everyone experiences that, however. Sometimes one person practically kills himself  or herself trying to do all the heavy relationship lifting, while his/her partner becomes more and more distant. Sometimes two kids marry and when they grow up, realize they aren't the same people who said "I do." What's more, they don't want to be those people, ever again.

I said that divorces are the result of unfaithfulness, but I didn't necessarily mean sexual infidelity. Those promises in the traditional marriage ceremonies talk about honoring, cherishing. If a wife leaves her husband for another man, or leaves her husband and then finds another man...chances are, her husband was unfaithful to his vows long before that. The same thing is probable when a man leaves his wife. It's never because of one person falling in love, cheating, screwing around, or other phrases for what Walsh paints with a fairly wide brush as "evil." Two people say vows. And two people, working together, loving together, are necessary to maintain a healthy, happy, forever marriage. One person can't do it alone. Can. Not.

I suppose Walsh's blog struck a nerve because I have known many couples in loveless marriages who held on so long they turned into withered, bitter copies of who they once were. Ideally they would have sought help, gotten help, and experienced healing and transformation. That would require both parties wanting the same things...and if both wanted the same things, it's far less likely to end up in such a crisis in the first place. Ideally everyone with cancer receives prayer and treatment and experiences healing and transformation too, but we all know that the reality is that some people die. Only the most arrogant and cruel would blame them for not trying harder.

Some marriages end. I have, I say to my own shame, been arrogant and cruel, blaming one or the other or both partners in my heart for not doing enough, not trying this or that, not forgiving, not loving, not obeying. If I communicated that abysmal representation of Christian love to anyone reading this, I ask your forgiveness. I was stupid, self-righteous, and wrong. Oh, and young. Getting older definitely has a way of turning some of those black-and-white thoughts into more gracious grays.

Marriage problems are a concern, yes, especially when a failed marriage is that of a friend or family member. We don't like being reminded of the fact that none of us is perfect. As long as everyone smiles pretty and says things are fine, doesn't that make it so? When we discover that someone we thought was happily married really wasn't, we feel let down, disappointed. We may feel the need to change minds, offer counsel, send "fix it" books. And our hearts may be right, wanting only the Best for those we love.

That's our national codependency rearing its ugly head. Other peoples' lives aren't our responsibility. We can't possibly know what is Best for someone else, living under circumstances about which we know and understand very, very little.

I don't want to be too harsh on Mr. Walsh. He's young. He's excited about life. But he is also enjoying a happy, loving marriage that he and his wife have been maintaining for...not 25. Not 20. Twelve or thirteen! They've barely begun!  Perhaps they haven't had any life-changing traumas occur - I hope not. I hope they never do. I hope that 40 years from now, Matt is still writing blogs about how great his life and marriage are.

But...if I had written about marriage after only 12 or 13 years, I wouldn't have written these words, either. (We're into our 39th year, and we still don't have it figured out completely, not by a long shot.) But I can tell you one thing: If Matt Walsh and his wife don't make it, I seriously doubt he'd appreciate folks writing blogs about it, building up  the bloggers' audiences based on the Walsh's personal pain, smugly implying that divorce is an affront to anyone's own sensibilities and experiences. I think he would appreciate grace. Mercy. Understanding that since no one's living his life but himself, we don't know the whole story.

Amazingly (I prefer happy endings) Nicholas Sparks has kept millions of readers merrily buying books and devouring them. Anyone who sells that many books has my respect, whether I read them or not. So what if he and his wife aren't the perfect couple? They don't owe anyone an explanation for the choices they make in their personal lives, and they aren't This Month's Example of What Is Wrong With Our Country or Bad People.

Bottom line: I love the idea of marriages lasting and lasting and lasting if they can last with love and laughter, lots of kissing and touching, emotional and physical intimacy based on the sheer joy of being together. Without that, Lord keep me from judging when miserable people have had enough heartache and decide to part ways. Hopefully, as a friend of mine shared with me recently, they part as friends. And hopefully, each finds love again.

Maybe, really, for the first time. Hopefully for the last.

Ordinarily, I don't think it's a good idea to take up an offense for others. Two people may have a conflict and you get offended, then they make up and you're still mad. But Matt Walsh didn't just take on Nicholas Sparks and his wife - he used them to make a point, emphasis on used them. And he pointed his finger at lots of people I know and love, simply because in his world, divorce is the worst thing that could happen.

Earth to Matt: it isn't. Divorce isn't ideal, ever, but not much that passes for this life fits that description. Plenty of folks divorce on whim (and marry on whim, too, for that matter). But there are also valid reasons for divorce - which really aren't anyone's business! I just don't think honor or love or religion or Christianity or God are BEST served by going out of our way to make others more miserable than they already may be.

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2015