Sunday, July 18, 2010

20 Years After: Divorce and the Culture of Death

He was a friend from my childhood. We attended the same school, and we were in Boy Scouts together. His mother was a striking woman, with a face that one might imagine portraying a life of glamor, as if on a magazine cover. But the life she was handed took its toll on that face. The other guys in the neighborhood said that her husband was a drunk. I didn't know what to make of that, but I used to see her every morning, faithfully taking her place in the pews when I was serving daily Mass.

It might surprise some people that a divorced man such as myself would actually disapprove of divorce. These would be the same people who didn't know, or for whom it doesn't seem to matter, that it was the mother of my son who left me. (No kidding, I have actually met "devout Catholics" who didn't know the difference.) It was twenty years ago today, that I came home from work, and found a note in the place of my wife and son. If you want to know the extent of the damage that divorce can cause, you can read this piece by one of my favorite Catholic writers, Anthony Esolen ...

He could have abandoned her years before -- not for another woman, but for what the world calls peace. Dad is not a Catholic, so he had no Church precept to warn him against divorce. He didn't need any. "You never know what you'll get in life," he put it to me once. "You have to do the right thing, because if you don't, you'll probably make things worse." So he never left, and at the last moment of Esther's life he was there, fulfilling a patient vigil, his eyes red with weariness and loss.

... or I can tell you what it cost me.

Had we stayed together, and in the same house, the mortgage would already have been paid off, and I could have retired from the Government at the end of this year, having just turned 56, with enough years left to take a job in the private sector for half my government salary. Instead, the house was sold as part of the settlement, and my obligations to child support prevented me from buying a house again until 2005, just before the housing boom went bust. I will never live to see the mortgage paid off. It is more likely that I will be working full time until I'm 70 -- nearly twice the age I was when she left.

The good news is, I love my work.

I am forever proud of my son, all that he has accomplished, all that he has overcome. But it was his mother who taught him how his father should be treated. This poses a challenge for both of us. But the real price to pay will be his, when he has children of his own, and they learn from him how he should be treated. It could turn out very well, and I hope that it does, but only if he challenges what he was taught, culminating in a dreaded admission.

There are only three good reasons to get a divorce.

The first reason is adultery, since marriage is not only a covenant with another human being, but with God. A spouse who defiles the marriage bed in this way, not only commits sacrilege, but can never be trusted again, and even canon law makes some allowance for those who leave for this reason.

The second reason is domestic abuse, to the point of imminent danger to oneself, and/or one's children. We are, in the words of the Psalmist, "beautifully and wonderfully made." God's creation must be kept from harm. We owe this to ourselves, and those who love us -- even when they don't know how. This step requires complete honesty with oneself, as in a surprising percentage of such cases, the wife is the actual abuser.

The third reason is alcohol or substance abuse, as it is only when an addict loses everything that he or she can come to terms with the need for recovery. This is often a very costly solution, one that entails a great deal of risk. The only thing worse may be not going through with it, especially if children are involved.

VIDEO: Julia Roberts, from the movie Eat Pray Love, based on the 2006 NYTimes best selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert.

All these cases are to be motivated out of love and commitment to the marriage covenant, including the interests of the children, and none of them, by themselves, affect the validity of the bond.

What are not good reasons to get a divorce?

Discontent with one's life. This generally takes on one of two forms. One is dissatisfaction with one's spouse. If you love someone, sooner or later they will disappoint you. I've met countless women who left their husbands, sometimes after twenty years or more together, for no reason other than some selfish bull$#!t nonsense about their own personal fulfillment. A man who does this is portrayed as a rogue, a cad. A woman who does this is portrayed by Julia Roberts in a major motion picture. The other form is that of "growing apart." Marriage is a conscious decision to grow together. To do otherwise, is to deliberately choose otherwise.

"Falling out of love." Love is a decision. It is not a hole that you "fall" into, nor is it a feeling that can change with the weather. If you cannot transcend these ups and downs, and accept that marriage involves both the bitter and the sweet, it is better that you never marry at all. Most people who find someone else hard to live with, fail to recognize that a similar accusation may apply to them as well.

The old standby known as "irreconcilable differences." Like suicide, this is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Usually it's over things as silly as failing to take out the trash, being unable to fix the dishwasher, or something even more trivial. Everyone has a dream of how things should be; in a marriage you merge that dream with another's. It's not all about you anymore. "Growing apart" often begins when couples refuse to make that adjustment.

I can say with satisfaction, that after twenty years, I have gotten past what I call "my former life," and that I have been able to reconcile the matter, and the life that follows, with my Faith. How I did that is nobody's business but mine, and canon law protects that privilege. There are people reading this now, some of whom are happily married, who have it all figured out what I should have done back then, how I should feel about it now, or even how I should have worded the previous sentence. Fortunately, people like them are not the reason I'm still Catholic. UPDATE: Hey, kids, haven't had enough? Click here for the sequel! .


RobKPhD said...

David - I have read your blog off and on now for a few years, and I can't really say that I know you - but this post, I don't know - I connected with what you wrote. Not because of the advice (though it is good), but because of the connection to your story underneath it. Thanks for that.

angel said...

I agree in general with your column. I was abandoned by my adulterous husband. I had 4 children under the age of 8 when he left. I had been out for the workforce for about 8 years and would stay out another 7 to raise our children alone.
I had to go back to school to get the job I have now.
I understand the financial effects of divorce which society will just be realizing in the next few years.
I cannot afford to buy a home.
I have virtually no savings for retirement.
Since most of my friends are married I am now finding myself socially isolated. Not a couple anymore and everything in society is couple based.
I will likely have to work well into my late 60's. It's already difficult to work with three children at home.
My husband's reason to leave was "to let it all hang out".

To my mind divorce is the same as abortion.
It appears to a be a solution but is one that offers more problems than anything.

And the effect on children is terrible.

eulogos said...

Some people have forgiven both adultery, and some people have forgiven abuse and gone on to have happy marriages without the recurrence of either. It takes divine intervention and conversion of heart, but it can and does happen.
Susan Peterson

David L Alexander said...


People confuse forgiving with forgetting.

Yes, a couple can go on after such an episode, but they do not always. Behavior can change with an infusion of Divine Grace. But Grace builds upon nature, and the heart must be open. To do so often requires losing everything held dear. My contention regarding addictive behavior is based on anything that anyone with any experience whatsoever, has ever written with regard to addictive behavior, including no small number of recovering alcoholics.

11 On My Own said...

I was abandoned three-and-a-half years ago when my husband decided he wanted all of his money for himself and a younger woman, it is much more involved than that (I wrote a book), and it included abuse, also. I had ten minor children at the time. I am still going to court to this day trying to achieve justice, safety, and child support. The system is terrible, and it has been most definitely HARD every single day

David L Alexander said...


Yours is a very moving account. Please contact me directly the MINUTE your book comes out. No, not the list that's on Amazon. YOU contact me. Please.

Gail F said...

David: I am so sorry to read this. You are right, many so-called Catholic people don't understand. When I moved to this neighborhood (December, 15 years ago) a woman down the street had been left by her husband at Thanksgiving. She had two children, one that had just been born. No-fault divorce means that once one person leaves, the other can't do anything about it, even in states where contesting the divorce is allowed (they don't win). She is or was Catholic -- I don't know her very well anymore. But she told me once that many people at her parish (different from mine) thought less of her because of the divorce that she never wanted. I was very young then and I didn't know how to be a good neighbor to her, which is one reason I don't know her well. But even then I thought it was awful that the world doesn't punish the one who leaves, it just expects the one left to do the work of two parents. It's awful.

People should not divorce except for the reasons you stated, and even some of those marriages can be saved. But the Church and society at large has to stop encouraging divorce. It's the abandoned spouse against the world.