“I want a divorce.”
The words hung suspended in the air like an executioner’s blade just before it falls and severs an unwilling neck.
Where did this come from? Our marriage had the flu, not a terminal disease. It certainly didn’t require euthanasia. Or so I thought.
A litany of grievances poured forth out of him and into my stunned and disbelieving silence: a chronology of hurt, bruised feelings, neglect, and wounded ego. His complaints were a suicide attempt aimed at drawing attention to our marriage’s cry for help. I forced myself to listen without comment, mentally drumming my fingers on the table, impatient to interrupt him with reasonable counter arguments.
He wasn’t making any sense, I thought. But I kept quiet and listened. There were no vices, no addictions, no interest in other women. Life as a recluse away from female company, of any kind, was simply preferable to being married to me. The landscape of our years together was crevassed and pitted as far as the eye could see with long separations for work, military service, and school. Perhaps these had exacted their final toll.
His discontent at last vented, he sank back into the kitchen chair, grim resignation etched in his face.
“None of these are good enough reasons to get a divorce.” My words fell slowly, deliberately into the chilly space between us. Now is not the time to panic, I reminded myself. We’ve had rough patches before, although not like this. “But they are all really good reasons to see a marriage counselor.”
As soon as I said these words, and throughout the ensuing days and weeks, I knew if I gave the seed of divorce a chance to grow in our minds, like the weeds in our garden, it would greedily take root and flourish, eventually crowding out and choking off any tender feelings of love and commitment that, however dormant, still remained. And I was certain they were there, buried somewhere under the 30 years we had invested in this marriage. Moreover, there was still a future, an eternity, to be a couple. We had a history together; that was worth something, wasn’t it? I couldn’t bear to simply toss it in the trash bin. We really did love each other once but I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that love warm my soul. Where did it go? What happened to the adoration, the tenderness, the confidence we used to have for the other? These days we wrapped ourselves in a multitude of petty resentments which were selfishly easier to harbor and feed than abandon. What was once wonderful about our relationship was now ordinary and stale…and for my husband, painful enough to leave.
Our marriage had atrophied from compassion to convenience. Predictable domestic routine had long ago replaced solicitous romance. I convinced myself that I could live with this condition because the marriage still meant financial security, social stability, and companionship. Sure, things were far from perfect but I was content to cling to this much. The alternative was to start over with someone else or live alone, both prospects fraught with more risk than I could stomach.
His words made clear that afternoon at the kitchen table he no longer loved me. Yet his eyes could not conceal a strangled, tired, worn down, and disenfranchised love. I still loved him, even if only out of a sense of duty rather than seeing him as the most important person in my life.
Clearly our bond had devolved from devoted companions to disinterested roommates. In the place where love once incubated and sprouted, apathy crept over all like a rank fungus. Heedless of the insidious warning signs, we had done nothing to hinder our love’s demise. It was only a matter of time before one of us found the arrangement completely unsatisfying and wanted out. It just happened to be him.
We agreed on three things. First, our marriage was in trouble and was worth saving, but we needed help to fix it. We’d go to marriage counseling and give an honest effort to follow through with whatever counseling prescribed. Second, until marriage counseling had run its course we would operate under the assumption we would stay married. Neither of us would speak the “D” word or consider divorce as a contingency plan during the weeks of counseling. Third, God would play a major role in the healing. We couldn’t do this by ourselves and no marriage counselor in the world can duplicate our Heavenly Father’s balm of peace and hope and power to change hearts. We would redouble our efforts to draw closer to Him through worship and prayer, both together as a couple and individually.
Improvement came gradually, sometimes grudgingly. But it did come. The difficult, sometimes tearful, initial weeks turned into months, then years. The suicidal marriage survived.
And I am so grateful it did because it was not until serving this mission with my husband, the near-suicide of our union fading in the rearview mirror, that I discovered what I believe to be God’s chief purpose for marriage: to make us holy even more than to make us happy.
If God’s plan for us as His children is to become as He is, to live with Him, to achieve our highest potential by gaining all that He has then we have a lot of work to do given our current imperfect, mortal, and fallen state. It’s quite impossible for us to live up to our divine heritage, in fact, without the expiation for our shortcomings provided through Jesus Christ’s atonement. The atonement gets us the rest of the way home after we’ve done our best here in mortality. And it’s a good thing, too, because God set the bar very high for us when we left our heavenly home. In order to qualify to live in the same realm with Him when we leave this veil of tears, we have to become like Him. We have to acquire the attributes of love, charity, longsuffering, patience, mercy – you get the idea – that He has.
This is where marriage comes in.
Where else but in marriage do we really learn how to love another more than we love ourselves – everyday, all day, for a lifetime, even when our partner isn’t always lovable, even when it is not convenient? Where else but in marriage can we hone the traits of mercy, patience, sacrifice, longsuffering, humility, service, charity, and the discipline of true discipleship? Marriage is the best university for acquiring this degree. It is the best institution for learning to become like God, for becoming holy. The fact that happiness is one of the byproducts of striving for holiness is a divinely added dividend.
On this mission, as we’ve worked to align our desires and actions with God’s we’ve also discovered miraculous changes in our depth of love and compassion, greater than our marriage has ever experienced. Certainly there are challenges we face every day. We are not naïve to think the road gets easier the longer we travel it. Forces relentlessly work to tear our marriage apart, to plant seeds of discontent, to whisper that we’ve grown apart. Our commitment to each other is constantly being put to the test. But in facing each new challenge with forgiveness, acceptance, and respect the marriage seems to be getting stronger, more resilient, more infused with tender, caring love. Behaviors that used to annoy no longer command the attention they once did, and thus seem shrunken in their demand for resentment. I see my husband with my soul, not just my eyes.
The lessons I’ve learned about marriage here in Florida have not been my doing alone. I had a little help from others, including some fine authors who know a lot more about marriage than I do. In the hope that what I have learned may help others, allow me to recommend my latest reading list. Even after 37 years in my role as wife, the message in these books has changed my connubial default setting:
Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make us Happy. Gary Thomas, 2008.
The Peacegiver. James L. Ferrell, 2004.
Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness. James L. Ferrell, 2012.
The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, 2009.
Each day I am profoundly grateful our suicidal marriage stepped away from that ledge and lived…
… and is still learning.