I’ve watched it happen in every congregation I’ve served. Two people finally divorce. It is so painful. Many times the whole congregation feels the pain because they love both partners. The anger, the betrayal, and being wronged are what present first. Each person needs to feel justified in the decision to end the marriage. But, no matter how right he or she feels, it doesn’t stop the realization that this is really it. They really aren’t going to live together ever again. They won’t come to church in the same car. One will have the kids, the other won’t, and then it will switch. The kids involvement with the congregation will change too. They can only be at church when it is dad’s weekend, or mom’s or when they stay with grandma.
I’ve never known anyone who anticipated this reality when they said, “I do.” Other people in their lives might have seen it coming, but when they married they thought it would be forever. Unfortunately, the decision to divorce comes long before one or the other (rarely both) end up in my office. That decision happens when one or both utter the words (out loud or in their head), “I think I’d be better off without (insert name here).” In this moment, they are beginning to envision a different future. And, the more painful it becomes in the relationship, the better it looks being out of the relationship. The hurdle seems to be the cost of having to own this imagination in real ways, outside the relationship, with other family members, and in watching the pain it causes your children. Sometimes this hurdle is enough to make people stay in relationship, but it never heals the brokenness. People living alone in the same house together is just as tragic as watching the pain of trying to separate what God has joined together through a divorce.
What I’m watching in the United Methodist Church feels like what I’ve watched for over 20 years now from the seat of pastor. The marriage took place in 1968 without adequate premarital counseling. The fault lines were there, but we chose to ignore them because surely love is big enough to make it all ok. The honeymoon was over by year four. But by then, we had kids and a joint bank account. We were deciding where to go on vacation together, even if we didn’t really agree. We smiled and stuffed it…for the kids. Late at night, the fights became more painful, when we thought the kids weren’t listening. We said, “Keep your motorcycle! I don’t care.” We said, “If you would just lose some weight, I might be more attracted to you.” We said, “You always…” And, we said, “You never…” We thought the kids didn’t hear, but something felt off, even after a beautiful ordination service, because of a rancorous debate of the floor of Annual Conference earlier that week. No matter. God can fix it, right?
Another twenty years go by and now people at the family reunion called General Conference are starting to notice. When grandparents come over for Christmas, it seems one partner is always upstairs reading a book or playing a video game. There are now verbal jabs, doubting the intentions of the other, nights spent crying oneself to sleep while the other snores away. We can still put on a good face, but it never turns to tenderness anymore with the memory, “Oh, that’s why I love you!” We can keep it going, but we are beginning to forget why we care. General Conferences come and go now with quadrennial regularity…she wants to gain ground with control of the money and he wants to gain ground in a parenting victory. The kids are older now and so we don’t keep our fights in the bedroom. Sometimes they happen at the dinner table or God forbid, in the aisle of a store where other people notice. But, he’s not beating her up. She’s not cheating on him. So, they stay.
Another twenty years go by and the fights are relentless. The tactics know no boundaries any more. It is acceptable to accuse the other of spending the kids’ inheritance, with name calling thrown in just for good measure. It is acceptable for inappropriate text messages to be exchanged with a daughter’s friend because sex is no longer about intimacy, it is about power. The kids are embarrassed to be seen with us. Even extended family members refuse to come over for holidays because they know what it will be like. Our kid’s teachers pray that we never show up at the school at the same time because they are afraid they might have to call the police. Cheating? Yes. Lying? Yes. Stealing? Yes. It’s all fair game because the covenant is in tatters and now. We’re just staying to see who can hurt each other the most, and because we can’t afford a divorce.
I’ve seen abuse. I’ve been gaslighted. I recognize the passive/aggressive tactic of staying just moral enough that you can’t be accused, but not caring about the outcome for the other one little bit. I’ve seen a lot of divorce. That’s what this feels like to me. It feels like I’m a kid in the marriage I just described. I’ve taken sides. Of course I have. I want to go live with one parent and I can’t stomach the thought of living with the other. I look upon this failure with disgust and try to deny that I had any role in it because I’m trying to plot my own survival. It is all so messed up that I’m actually looking forward to the divorce. I won’t have any regrets. I’ve grieved this loss for so long, all I can imagine is the hallelujah of being out from under this hot mess. All the while, the hope that was kindled when the vows were taken is silently crying under the altar table.
Here’s how I see it. The WCA, soon to be the GMC, has never been satisfied in this marriage. Their spouse could never measure up to their expectations. They stopped admiring their spouse, being proud of her, wanting her to shine, a long time ago…if they ever really wanted that. Now, they draw lines and dare her to cross them. They threaten her by saying if she doesn’t do what they want, they will take the kids. They feel perfectly justified in their behavior, even trying to woo her friends to their side, because she failed. She failed to be what she was supposed to be when she said, “I do.” Sure, they are cheating on her — taking the kids into their mistress’ home for the weekend — because they know that soon enough they will be free from any claim she has on them. It should be perfectly fine to tell their own story to the kids so they will still want to be around after the divorce. Maybe the kids will even like the promises of, “It’ll be better with us. You’re going to wish you’d stuck with us.” Maybe the kids will choose them over her and she’ll see how wrong she was to stand up for herself, to demand her way, to disobey.
On our part, there’s plenty to regret. We started out trying to compromise, trying to listen, trying to see his point of view. On our anniversary, he would buy us a lovely card and a dozen roses and for a few days be extraordinarily kind. When we were around the in laws, he would talk about how proud he was of us and thank them for raising such an amazing woman. Never mind that he turned over without a word that night when we went to bed. So we did start to squirrel away some money. We opened an IRA that wasn’t joint and didn’t put his name on the title to the new car. We felt bad. We knew that part of his accusations were true. He probably really shouldn’t trust us. We were beginning to imagine what it would be like when we could be free to be our authentic selves. And — the kids. What if he takes the kids and we never get to see them again? How would we live with ourselves?
Finally, the rebellion was not hidden any longer. We did make decisions about the kids’ schooling, and after school activities and their summer camps — decisions he wouldn’t have wanted us to make. We made them anyway. The more he doubted our intelligence and faithfulness to the marriage, the more we gave him reason to do just that. It’s just that every time we would sincerely apologize and promise to consult him, he took advantage of us and punished us even harder the next time we stood our ground. This time, though, it is just too much. He’s telling everyone that we broke our marriage vows, that we cheated on him, that we have been wanting a divorce since the day we got married. The only question we know how to ask is, “What other choice did we have?” Doesn’t matter. He has all the ammunition he needs. He’s filing for divorce. He’s got a really good lawyer. And, he’s going to take it all.
Ok, we say. Take the house. Take the stuff. Take what you want. Just leave us the kids so we can start over. We’ll be poor but at least we’ll be free from the tyranny.
There’s only one problem. When we got married, we signed a lot more than a marriage license. We signed a constitution. It doesn’t really allow for a divorce, even if both parties want it. It’s not like dividing property — you take this, I’ll take that. We are actually woven from the same fabric. If we split, it will be like tearing the cloak to tatters…which is what we are doing to each other anyway while the world watches.
Just like when I watch this happen between people I love in the church I serve, I feel powerless. By the time it becomes obvious, the fissure has become a crack has become a chasm. As a pastor, all I can do is sit with, be present, not give up. I suppose that is what courage looks like. United Methodist Church, I love you. I’ve loved you since I chose you as my spiritual home in 1994. I don’t know what I will do when you are no longer. I can’t even imagine. But, I am a part of this fabric we tear and so I will sit, be present and not give up.