I have written you several times in recent months about the tragic assault on the institution of the family, emanating from the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage. The repercussions of that decision and the inevitable fallout from it are staggering.
This month, however, I won’t discuss the collapse of traditional marriage further. Instead, I want to address the marvelous institution itself. Who can comprehend the mysterious bonding that enables a man and woman to withstand the many storms of life and remain best friends “til death do us part?” This phenomenon is so remarkable that the Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, described marriage as symbolizing Jesus Christ’s unfathomable love for His bride, the Church. We could spend a month or two just thinking about the implications of that relationship. It also makes us shudder at the audacity of five arrogant Justices daring to undermine and redefine that divine plan for humanity. We read in Matthew 19:6: “Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
As wonderful as marriage is, too many of today’s families end on a less inspirational note. I’ve seen a flurry of these wounded, dying relationships in recent months, and I’ve witnessed anew the agony that divorce inflicts on its victims. Everyone loses when a marriage turns sour. In fact, I read recently that the parents of divorcing children typically suffer as much as their grown sons and daughters. In-laws can do nothing but stand and watch as two people they love systematically claw one another to pieces, leaving their broken grandchildren in their wake. Certainly, there are no winners when a marriage begins to unravel.
I came across a secular book a few years 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. I’ve obtained permission to quote a short passage from this book in the hope 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 give him or her a copy of this letter. Urge that person to beware! There is pain down that well-trodden road, as Mr. Conroy states so eloquently. This is what he wrote:
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 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 goodbye, 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 about 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 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.
These powerful words bring tears to my eyes every time I read them. They become vivid reminders of the pain expressed by families as they are disintegrating. As Conroy wrote so eloquently, there is no agony like this one, especially for a husband or wife who has been rejected, betrayed, and utterly abandoned. Self-worth is shattered and life loses its meaning. Seeing one’s children cry themselves to sleep night after night is unbearable. Sorrow sweeps over him or her like a tidal wave.
As I wrote in one my books, Love Must Be Tough, a divorce usually involves one partner who is desperately trying to hang on and another who wants out. It often begins with another lover who appears to offer exhilaration and unconditional love. That promise is usually an illusion because the thrill of infidelity is always temporary. But one doesn’t think clearly at such a time. Make no mistake about it: divorce is a tragedy for both parties involved.
Conroy’s description of his divorce helps to explain why Family Talk is 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 gone through this experience. In those cases, we must do all we can to care for couples that are going through divorces and to pray for them and help them deal with the fallout.
Marital conflicts are not the only problems that are brought to Family Talk, of course. We hear about almost every kind of difficulty in the period of a single month. I am thankful, however, for the privilege of serving people in distress. Conroy wrote that to be licked by his dog, Beau, in the morning, was a fine thing. I say that to be available for desperate human beings in their hour of greatest need is the finest of experiences.
Thank you for making it possible through your contributions for us to reach out to families in crisis. We will continue to offer our meager fishes and loaves to those who seek our help as long as you stand with us.
Meanwhile, may I urge those of you who are married to cling tightly to each other? I’ll end with one last illustration that may be helpful to those whose marriages are in trouble. I used to enjoy fishing with my elderly father-in-law during the last five years of his life. My own dad had gone on to heaven by that time, and Joe and I had become great friends. On one occasion, we went to a scenic lake in the Sierras early one morning and rented rowboats. He was in one craft and I in another. We began paddling our separate boats side by side while simultaneously trolling our lines. It was a large lake and the wind was blowing briskly, making the waters choppy. Before long, Joe and I realized we were drifting apart. After about an hour, he wound up on the west bank and I had drifted a mile away to the east. We couldn’t even hear each other shouting. I sat there thinking about what had happened to us, and it occurred to me how relevant our situation was to many married couples.
Often, two people who are deeply in love stand side by side at an altar and pledge before God to remain committed to each other for the rest of their lives. But when the honeymoon is over and they return to a daily routine, they get in separate rowboats and begin bouncing along a choppy sea. The pace at which they run, the pressures of living and the lack of money, cause them to drift in opposite directions. Before they know it, they are far apart and can’t even hear each other’s voices. It happens ever so quickly! They had wanted to remain close, and they miss the romantic relationship that was once so precious to them. The wife is especially vulnerable to the changes that have occurred. But the wind and the waves take them in opposite directions.
That is what happened to Shirley and me in our first years together. Early on, we were both teaching school, and I was carrying a heavy load in graduate school. I was studying at night and Shirley was preparing for the next day. I suddenly realized that we were drifting away from each other. There was no danger to the marriage, but we were not as close as we had once been. That night, I asked my wife to take a walk with me. There, under a bright moon, I told Shirley that we were too busy for each other, and I didn’t like it. I announced that I was going to take a semester off from my professional training so that we could spend those months reconnecting. It was one of the wisest decisions I ever made. By putting Shirley first, we bonded in a way that rekindled the romantic fires. On August 27th of this year, we celebrated our 55th wedding anniversary, and yes, our boats are still sailing side by side. I would rather spend an evening with Shirley than any other human being in the world!
As you know, the culture in which we live is more hostile to marriage and the family than ever before. If you don’t nurture and water your relationship, the delicate little flower will die. That is a preventable tragedy if there ever was one. How can you keep your rowboats in proximity? By rowing like crazy. ROW! ROW! ROW!
Let me hear from you when time permits.
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
President and Founder
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