Anniversary of a Dead Marriage: The Painful Lessons of Divorce

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Today, December 29, would have been the twenty-second anniversary of my first marriage. Five years have passed since our divorce—years raw with emotion, scarred by mistakes, scabbed over with hints of hope. Every year, when this day rolls around, I turn over the stones of remembrance that litter my mind, to see what lurks beneath. I see things there I don’t want to see, learn things about myself that I never wanted to know, but do anyway. I also see there lessons learned, painful but positive lessons. This piece is more for me than anyone else, though you are welcome to tag along and spy on my thoughts.

1. The Undivorced Don’t Get It.
I’ve never stood by the freshly dug grave of my beloved wife. Never has the blood of a fellow soldier been showered on me during a firefight. I’ve never been bankrupt or homeless or had cancer. I don’t know about a lot of things, because I haven’t experienced those hells. The happily married, undivorced man or woman knows nothing of the agony of divorce, and should never pretend otherwise. This includes pastors, and all those who may seek to counsel the divorced. They should never assume they “get” what the divorced person is going through. Every loss, every grief is unique, and to make it generic by universalizing it cheapens the hurt the divorced feel.

2. I disagree with St. Paul.
When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul says, “One who is unmarried is concerned with the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Not for me. Most men who are unmarried are concerned with finding a woman whom they can marry. And until they do that, most of their thoughts, energies, time, and, yes, money, are directed toward that end. I was much more concerned about the things of the Lord when I was married than when I became single. It is not good for the man to be alone, and so long as he is, it won’t be good for him personally, or his service to the Lord. With notable exceptions, men are created for women. And it is in the vocation of husband that they serve the Lord best, for they are completed by her.

3. Lonely, Hurting Men Make Bad Decisions.
I made the mistake many men do immediately after their divorce: the first woman I dated, I “fell in love with” and soon we were making wedding plans. I later broke off the engagement as the reality that this was a rebound relationship slowly sank in, although, of course, it was at an additional emotional cost to both of us, as well as our mutual children. Every relationship is a risk, but the risk skyrockets when the man is still nursing wounds from a failed marriage. He wants nothing more than a restored wholeness, to recreate a past that either did exist, or exists only in his nostalgic imagination. And in this state of yearning for healing, he tends to idealize a woman, seeing in her the wife he wants her to be instead of the woman whom she really is.

4. Divorce Unveils the Monster Within
Divorce brings out the worst in people. It certainly did in me. I was little aware of the fathomless depths of anger, spite, depression, regret, pettiness, and selfishness within me until my marriage ended. Then it all came oozing, or exploding, to the surface, in various ways and at various times. I remember late one night, while working in the oil field, having a conversation with another driver who was going through a divorce. His wife had left him for another man. He described how his every waking moment was consumed with fantasies of revenge, murderous payback, horrid thoughts he’d never entertained before. Divorce can do that, unearthing new evils within. It’s a dark journey of self-knowledge. And although, thank God, most of the time these monsters within us remain caged, never acting out the evils of which they are capable, the sheer fact that they are there at all is enough to make me scared of the man I have the potential to become.

5. Healing Will Begin, But It Takes Its Sweet Time
I’m fortunate because I survived divorce. I didn’t put a gun to my head and pull the trigger, though on my darkest of days I held the pistol in my hand. I didn’t become addicted to something that would dull the pain, though I did my fair share of self-medicating with alcohol. I came through, wounded and scarred to be sure, but at least alive. Not every one is so lucky. God placed into my life a few select friends without whose love I would not have made it. Not surprisingly, these friends are divorced as well. They get it. I am at a point of healing now, five years later, that I thought I’d never reach, even if I had five lifetimes. I still have a long way to go, but at least I’ve made progress. Baby steps are steps nonetheless.

I have two children, a son and daughter. They live with their mother and step-father. I see them four to six days a month—days that mean the world to me. As heart-breaking as my time apart from them is, I have grown to thank God that, in the aftermath of our divorce, our children are still provided with a stable, secure, Christian home in which to grow up. Indeed, they are blessed with a good mother and a caring stepfather.

The very fact that I can write that last sentence, and mean every word, is proof positive that, five years after my divorce, the Lord has made a little progress in putting this shattered man back together again.

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22 thoughts on “Anniversary of a Dead Marriage: The Painful Lessons of Divorce

  1. Thank you for this serious pastoral wisdom. We want to sympathize with each other’s suffering but we rarely “know” what it feels like. I’m sure I’ve been abusive by belittling another’s pain with such flippancy. Thanks.

    • I’m sure we’ve all done that. I certainly did as a pastor, many times. We live and learn, even if we learn slowly, I more slowly than most. Thanks for the comment, Christopher.

    • I have no idea how i’ve stumbled upon this page.. ironically, today is the anniversary of what would have been 9 yrs of marriage. I’m only 8 months into the divorce… brutal. Thank you for writing about this, your compassion and your honesty. God bless you.

      • MicheleP on said:

        You and I both Jeanne…..strange how we both ended up here today when this post is already years old in today’s standards, but so thankful a friend shared it with me. May God bless you in your journey of divorce. I have to believe that His hand is in it every step of the way, even though He, like us, is brokenhearted too.

    • MicheleP on said:

      I have no words, only tears after reading this. Your words could be mine, though I’m the divorced woman. I read and re-read this and couldn’t believe that someone actually understood what I felt, or that what I was feeling was something that could be shared by another. I am sooooo very tired of people who think they know how I feel, soooo very tired of married, never divorced, never married people offering me advice or telling me how to save my marriage. It was exhausting and degrading. My former sister-in-law offered me the worst advice imaginable. I told her how afraid I was that my 22 year marriage to her brother was going to end. She looked at me and said, “Just try to be the woman he fell in love with, go back to that and it will be fine.” What? He married an 19 year old girl who weighed 50lbs less, had zero life experience and no stretch marks yet!! I was devastated knowing that there was no way I could be that girl again! What… Who… What even makes someone think that that is good counsel? I won’t even start on my Pastor and my church family. That is a novel of despair, rejection and judgment that I don’t ever want to write into actual words. As I type this now I have only recently signed my divorce papers. A process I never want to face again. I never want to see myself listed on a court document again. I don’t want to see the failure of my life in black and white ink. Thank you for your brutal honestly and candor. It was a breath of fresh air for those of still stuck under the itchy blanket of self doubt, self loathing and brokenness. – Michele

  2. It took me 8 years before I was able to put anything on paper about the experience of divorce. Wrote a paper on Divorce and the Pastoral Office addressing the B.S. That floats around synod concerning this. It is amazing what young pastors are taught about this, and how detrimental it is. I think I have to agree with you about the unmarried, ie, divorced man. It is what Agamois means. For Paul it worked out, that at least for a while he was more concerned with the things of God. Though many in the early church believed he ended up being remarried.Yes Paul himself guilty of digamy, at least in theory. And he does defend it, when though he puts himself in with the divorced in 1 Cor. 7, he maintains his right to a wife in 1 Cor. 9. I don’t know how I got on all that. Divorce sucks. It’s painful, and no, the guys who haven’t been through it, ought to have a bit more caution. perhaps the best advice being, listen, and then listen some more, and don’t say anything unless you are being asked to speak absolution. And only if you are being asked.

  3. navychief98 on said:

    Chad, I only wish I had known. I regret I didn’t give into the rumors and come see you. After the divorce was final and I read you had some close friends, I thought it too late to come to you. Divorce sucks. Mine was sealed January 15, 1988. I know your pain to well. I continue to pray for you that God strengthen you. In fact, I still pray for the same thing for myself. That’s why Christmas is so difficult for me. I still sin against her every year for the anger and hate that well up inside me. Peace is yours brother. Hold onto it and never let Jesus go.

  4. John C. Drosendahl on said:

    I think that your “disagreement” with St. Paul is quite telling (although, it is probably more a disagreement with the Holy Ghost Who inspired these words).

    I say this from my own personal experience, and those of pastors close to me. When my own marriage was at its rockiest point, it was because I was overly-focused on the challenges of ministry, and taking my wife & family for granted. I was using them as a “safe dumping-ground” for my vocational frustrations, which was not fair to them. I was not doing at all what St. Paul was inspired to write. My focus was to be “husband & father” first and foremost, since those were my God-given vocations before I was ever called to be a Pastor. My failures in this regard caused me to be perilously close to losing wife & family, and the MInistry to boot!

    I’ve seen the very same thing happen to brothers in the ministry I’ve known very well. The poor-prioritizing of Pastors who wrongly assume that their tasks within the Office of the Ministry should always come first, and wife & kids should just suck-it-up and receive “the shaft” have broken down way too many marriages, and caused much unnecessary suffering of families. Some I know have lost the Office. Others lost it temporarily, to regain it later after a time of “penitence”. None have reconciled with their wives, sadly.

    It is only by the grace of God that my own marriage somehow survived my own stupidity. I praise Him daily that He spared me and my family the turmoil that could have so easily resulted from my sin of disagreeing with God.

  5. Thank you so much, Chad, for inviting us along for these thoughts. Confession is an act of faith wrought by The Holy Spirit, and profession likewise. (And I continue to learn from you as one of my “professors” in that regard.) A lovely couple in one of my congregations is now finalizing a divorce that I earnestly sought to prevent. Your words can help me encourage others to endure the trials and difficulties that we often encounter in marriage, and I pray I’ll take them to heart in my own. Jesus is with you during this festival of His Nativity; The Blood of His Wounds blots out your transgressions, and He Himself now bears your griefs and shares your sorrows.. Thanks again, dear brother, for the beautiful words you share with us; may The Lord use them to teach us wisdom.

  6. L. Jay Reinke on said:

    Wow. Very helpful. Thank you

  7. Jason Reed on said:

    You, sir, will always be a brother to me – and I appreciate the frankness of your words. Thank you for sharing these thought, and making available the opportunity to share this.

  8. Walter Mattys on said:

    Thank you for writing these raw & wise words for your spiritual e-companions! There’s a compassion here that can’t be put into words. Forge on with that brilliant mind and golden heart.

  9. louise dash on said:

    I’ve seen too many people live dead marriages and both are miserable. What kind of message are they sending to their children — what kind of message are they sending to others. If one is Christian and the other is not, what common ground would one find to build on if only one is willing to address anything and the other does not care and even says, go get a divorce.

  10. William C Weinrich on said:

    Chad: The sheer integrity and honesty of your remarks is evident. Clearly there has been a deep self-reflection by you, and that is, perhaps itself, a mark of grace. It is, I suspect, the lack of such self-reflection that makes most (mine too!) confessions of sins somewhat hackneyed. But such reflection, it seems, often requires a serious spiritual crisis which a broken life coughs up. I thank you for your wise and thoughtful words. I also thank you for the honesty of “disagreeing” with Saint Paul. Whether you disagree rightly with what he said and meant, we can leave open. But to acknowledge that what the Bible says, or what the church has said, or what Luther has said, is not what one is thinking, feeling, experiencing is simply to say that one is speaking truthfully. When the “authorities” are merely imposed upon the suffering as “truths” or “answers”, it is false and superficial pastoral care. All pastors, young and old, need to understand that. That comment above to listen, listen, listen, and withhold absolution until the right time was very correct.
    God bless you, Chad.

  11. Dear Chad:

    You have certainly made a lot of relevant and pointed observations about tragedy and trauma in the human condition. When I buried my husband’s ashes, it was as if the floodgates opened to comments about ‘God’s plan’ for Chris, his ‘plans’ to prosper me, and all sorts of clueless wisdom. I have since discovered that the divorced and the widowed have a great deal in common, and the ‘undivorced’ and ‘unwidowed’ have a difficult time grasping this.
    I also disagree with Saint Paul. I too was a better servant of the Lord in an intact marriage, than in this state of incompleteness.
    It’s funny, Chad, there are so many hurdles when we encounter the entrenched sin in the world. Death, divorce, no one can tell me that these are part of God’s plan. He an redeem them, to be sure, but only by us allowing him to transform our own damaged hearts.
    I enjoy your thoughtful posts.

    Victoria

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  13. Peter Lim on said:

    Hi Chad,
    I have not been divorced but I have been widowed. When my wife died of cancer after 22 years of happy marriage, I felt my heart torn. It was a tough emotional experience.
    I know the importance of relating to people on an emotional level (not theological) when they are going through such an emotional event. I am glad that you have healed to a great extent.
    I hope it is ok if I mention something more theological. Jesus was never married but I believed what he experienced on the cross was something like a divorce or being widowed. I believe the fervent prayers he prayed in the garden before his arrest was not just about the physical suffering that he soon to endure. But, perhaps more importantly, it was the “divorce” that he would soon experience with his heavenly father. From eternity past, he lived in the wonderful fellowship of the Trinity. But he would become sin for us, and sin breaks fellowship with God. This was something Jesus had never experienced before. “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”
    Jesus experienced a horrible separation, his “divorce” , and all the pain you mentioned that is involved with that, for our behalf, for our redemption. We are left humbled and speechless for the great love our Lord has for us.

  14. 30 years after my first marriage and divorce all is fine until…
    Family tell you how you nearly destroyed the family. I didn’t know.
    Now I have two pains to deal with 30 years later… God help me.

  15. Paul’s comments about singleness were made in the context of the pre-married. He said that if you’re strong enough to remain single then that is better because you can focus wholly on God and serving Him. If, however, you aren’t strong enough to remain single (and God created us to need a spouse, by the way!) then it is better to marry than to burn. For those who have experienced a good marriage, losing it leaves a gaping hole that makes continued existence, much less godly service, very difficult. Divorce also adds a lot of insecurities and damages the ability to trust as well as rendering you utterly undesirable to other Christians. The loneliness is impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it before.

  16. Thank you for being the only comforting words I have found on what would have been my 15th wedding anniversary today. Beautiful to see.

    • I’m thankful that you found some comfort in what I wrote, Rebecca. Those anniversaries can be terribly difficult days. But Christ carries us through those days as well with the promise that He will never leave us, never forsake us.

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