Divorce often looks like the easy solution to a very unpleasant situation, and indeed, there are situations wherein it is necessary (continued infidelity, etc.). However, divorce and its aftermath are difficult for both partners and rarely deliver on the promise of "a quick fix." It is usually far more painful than advertised. Everyone loses when a marriage turns sour, especially the children involved. Surprisingly, their grandparents struggle too. I read recently that the parents of divorcing children typically suffer as much as their warring sons and daughters. In-laws can do nothing but stand and watch as two people they love begin clawing one another to pieces, leaving wounded grandchildren in their wake. Certainly, there are no winners when a marriage begins to unravel.
Those who contemplate divorce as the answer to "soul hunger" or the lack of romantic attachments in marriage, which may be the majority of families that split up, remind me of a documentary film made during the early days of motion pictures. Near the top of the Eiffel Tower stood a self-styled inventor with a pair of homemade wings strapped to his arms. This fellow was determined to fly. The jerky black-and-white film captures him pacing back and forth, looking down, and trying to work up the courage to jump. Despite the primitive camera work, the viewer today can see the uncertainty of the inventor. "Should I or shouldn't I?" Finally, he climbed on the rail, wobbled for a moment, and then jumped. Of course he fell like a rock. The camera then panned straight downward as the "flier" descended to his death on the street below.
Many depressed and hurting people are like that hapless man on the Eiffel Tower. They are enticed by the lure of freedom--by the promise of glorious and unencumbered flight . . . by an escape from family stresses. They stand on the railing wondering, Should I or shouldn't I?
Those who take the plunge usually discover that their wings fail to provide the lift they expect. Instead, they soon tumble headlong into custody battles, loneliness, bitterness, and even poverty. So much for freedom, which was defined in the lyrics to the song "Me and Bobby McGee" as "just another word for nothing left to lose."1
Except in unusual cases, divorce is not an easy answer to the stress of a troubled marriage. It usually involves a ripping and tearing of flesh. That fact is now verified by research. Divorce puts people at a high risk for both psychiatric problems and physical disease. Dr. David Larson, psychiatrist and researcher in Washington, D.C., reviewed medical studies on this subject and made some startling observations.
For instance, being divorced and a nonsmoker is only slightly less dangerous than smoking a pack or more a day and staying married. Also, every type of terminal cancer strikes divorced individuals of both sexes, both white and nonwhite, more frequently than it does married people. What's more, premature death rates are significantly higher among divorced men and women. Physicians believe this is because the emotional trauma of divorce stresses the body and lowers the immune system's defense against disease.2
In the 1960s, the surgeon general declared cigarettes harmful to the smoker's health. More recently, researchers have warned us about the dangers of foods high in fat and cholesterol. In that tradition, maybe a warning should be offered to newlyweds about the consequences of marital breakup. It can be equally dangerous. Note: I came across an article some time ago that expressed the pain associated with divorce more dramatically than anything I've read. It is entitled "Death of a Marriage," by Pat Conroy (Atlanta Magazine). I've obtained permission to quote a short passage in hopes of helping someone who is contemplating a divorce. If you are such a person and you've been asking the Lord for guidance, perhaps this is His answer. If you know someone who is considering that decision, you might let him or her read Conroy's personal experience. I think it is rather typical of those who have been through that nightmare.
"Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. The greatest comes from the wound where love once issued forth.
I find it hard to believe how many people now get divorced, how many submit to such extraordinary pain. For there are no clean divorces. Divorces should be conducted in abattoirs or surgical wards. In my own case, I think it would have been easier if Barbara had died. I would have been gallant at her funeral and shed real tears--far easier than staring across a table, telling each other it was over.
It was a killing thing to look at the mother of my children and know that we would not be together for the rest of our lives. It was terrifying to say good-by, to reject a part of my own history.
When I went through my divorce I saw it as a country, and it was treeless, airless; there were no furloughs and no holidays. I entered without passport, without directions and absolutely alone. Insanity and hopelessness grew in that land like vast orchards of malignant fruit. I do not know the precise day that I arrived in that country. Nor am I certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there.
Each divorce has its own metaphors that grow out of the dying marriage. One man was inordinately proud of his aquarium. He left his wife two weeks after the birth of their son. What visitors noticed next was that she was not taking care of the aquarium. The fish began dying. The two endings became linked in my mind.
For a long time I could not discover my own metaphor of loss--until the death of our dog, Beau, became the irrefutable message that Barbara and I were finished.
Beau was a feisty, crotchety dachshund Barbara had owned when we married. It took a year of pained toleration for us to form our alliance. But Beau had one of those illuminating inner lives that only lovers of dogs can understand. He had a genius for companionship. To be licked by Beau when you awoke in the morning was a fine thing.
On one of the first days of our separation, when I went to the house to get some clothes, my youngest daughter, Megan, ran out to tell me that Beau had been hit by a car and taken to the animal clinic. I raced there and found Ruth Tyree, Beau's veterinarian. She carried Beau in to see me and laid him on the examining table.
I had not cried during the terrible breaking away from Barbara. I had told her I was angry at my inability to cry. Now I came apart completely. It was not weeping, it was screaming, it was despair.
The car had crushed Beau's spine, the X ray showing irreparable damage. Beau looked up at me while Dr. Tyree handed me a piece of paper, saying that she needed my signature to put Beau to sleep.
I could not write my name because I could not see the paper. I leaned against the examining table and cried as I had never cried in my life, crying not just for Beau but for Barbara, the children, myself, for the death of a marriage, for inconsolable loss. Dr. Tyree touched me gently, and I heard her crying above me. And Beau, in the last grand gesture of his life, dragged himself the length of the table on his two good legs and began licking the tears as they ran down my face.
I had lost my dog and found my metaphor. In the X ray of my dog's crushed spine, I was looking at a portrait of my broken marriage. But there are no metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about divorce. Divorces without children are minor league divorces. To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them that you are mutilating their family and changing all their tomorrows is an act of desperate courage that I never want to repeat. It is also their parents' last act of solidarity and the absolute sign that the marriage is over. It felt as though I had doused my entire family with gasoline and struck a match.
The three girls entered the room and would not look at me or Barbara. Their faces, all dark wings and grief and human hurt, told me that they already knew. My betrayal of these young, sweet girls filled the room. They wrote me notes of farewell, since it was I who was moving out. When I read them, I did not see how I could ever survive such excruciating pain. The notes said, "I love you, Daddy. I will visit you." For months I would dream of visiting my three daughters locked in a mental hospital. The fear of damaged children was my most crippling obsession.
For a year, I walked around feeling as if I had undergone a lobotomy. There were records I could not listen to because of their association with Barbara, poems I could not read from books I could not pick up. There is a restaurant I will never return to because it was the scene of an angry argument between us. It was a year when memory was an acid.
I began to develop the odd habits of the very lonely. I turned the stereo on as soon as I entered my apartment. I drank to the point of not caring. I cooked elaborate meals for myself, then could not eat them.
I had entered into the dark country of divorce, and for a year I was one of its ruined citizens. I suffered. I survived. I studied myself on the edge, and introduced myself to the stranger who lived within.
Barbara and I had one success in our divorce, and it is an extraordinarily rare one. As the residue of anger and hurt subsided with time, we remained friends. We saw each other for drinks or lunch occasionally, and I met her boyfriend, Tom.
Once, when I was leaving a party, I looked back and saw Barbara and Tom holding hands. They looked very happy together, and it was painful to recognize it. I wanted to go back and say something to Tom, but I mostly wanted to say it to Barbara. I wanted to say that I admired Tom's taste in women."3
Reading these powerful words helps explain why I am so thoroughly committed to the concept of lifelong marriage. That's the way it was intended by the Creator when He laid out the blueprint for the family. Of course, we must acknowledge that divorces do occur, and many of my readers have undoubtedly gone through this tragic experience already. In those cases, we must do all we can to care for them, to pray with them, and to help them deal with the pain that Conroy graphically illustrated. But if we can prevent just one unnecessary dissolution from occurring, with its terrible implications for three or more generations, we will have fulfilled a critically important mission.
“Me and Bobby McGee,” performed by Janis Joplin, Columbia Records, 1971.
David Larson, “Divorce: A Hazard to Your Health?” Focus on the Family Physician (May/June 1990): 13–17.
Pat Conroy, “Death of a Marriage,” Atlanta Magazine (November 1978). Excerpted by permission.