George Bernard Shaw said, “My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity.”
I’ve taken the utmost trouble to put together some comments about a difficult subject, divorce. When I say ‘the utmost trouble’ I mean that the more I ‘got into’ the subject matter of this sermon the more complicated it got, the more difficult it felt.
I can hear someone saying, “No divorce is good, so what are you suggesting that divorce is good.why are you even talking about it?” By the time I completed this sermon I was asking myself the same questions, but not in a rhetorical way.
The issue of divorce is familiar to all of us, and few among us have not had it come close to home. There are lots of issues about divorce that need to be faced.
In the midst of working on this sermon I had dinner with friends and we got talking about divorce-all of us at the table had been through it personally. One person said, “In a divorce you lose everything, including the past.” The comment touched something I hadn’t really thought about-something I had felt, but hadn’t put in to words. So it took me up short–it stunned me.
Not too long ago the divorced person was stigmatized, branded with the big D on the forehead. Now divorce is a common occurrence-half of all marriages end in divorce. So it isn’t automatically shameful. That’s the good news.
The bad news is we have not evolved a standard for a good divorce. By good divorce I mean a divorce where the burning passion of love that launched the marriage isn’t turned into a devastating forest fire that consumes everyone in sight.
Shaw said, without much levity, “The test of a man or woman’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel.”
The way one behaves in a divorce is a test. It’s easy to behave well when you’re in love-though one of the reasons for the high divorce rate is the lack of understanding of how to make the gradual transition from the early flame to a long-lasting relationship characterized by mutual caring and respect.
Again, George Bernard Shaw adds a note of levity to the situation, when talking about marriage. He said; “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”
The romantic love that motivates most marriages may or may not be ‘the most violent, most insane, most delusive of passions,’ but it certainly is transient. It is transient not in the sense that it doesn’t last. It is transient in the sense that it changes. We change. Love, in a good marriage, grows, deepens, matures and mellows.
But it does change. That’s the money-back guarantee that comes in writing with every marriage. In a good marriage the love gets better with age.
I’ll never forget the teacher’s opening comment in a seminary course on Marriage and the Family: “Half the marriages in this country end in divorce and half the others ought to.”
He went on to say that many of the marriages that end in divorce don’t need to, and that’s where we come in. He tried to make a clear distinction between marriage counseling and divorce counseling.
The Impact of Children on Marriage
The impact of children in a marriage is huge. The impact of becoming a mother or father for the first time is huge. Most people who become parents are transformed in deep and lasting and positive ways-ways that bring more depth and meaning to one’s life, ultimately. It’s often spoken of in spiritual terms, like a profoundly religious experience.
The impact of a child on a mother or father’s life can be fraught with pain and problems, of course. A child will make you more vulnerable than you’ve been before.
Love and Marriage, Horse and Carriage
Marriage is motivated by two things: first, it is motivated by the passions of romantic love; and secondly it is motivated by a deep, innate human need for security.
Most couples in our culture live together for some time before getting married. There is little cultural pressure to formalize and legalize the relationship. That pressure comes from within.
Couples in our culture marry for security. As much as we Unitarian Universalists tend to talk about individuality, we humans have an instinctual need for companionship. We like to live in pairs.
This is just one of the reasons why we need to work for a more just society for gay and lesbian couples. They should have the same choice to formalize and legalize their relationship. They have as much right to marry as heterosexual couples. There’s a long list of benefits that accrue to married couples.
I’ll be working with the Rainbow Task Force to deal with this issue in the near future.
Love motivates a couple to form a partnership or union. The need for a sense of security motivates them to marry.
The same two factors that motivated marriage come into full play in a divorce. When the love that brought the marriage into being seems to have died, one or sometimes both parties reacts by feeling the sharp sting of rejection.
The passionate flame that was love often erupts into a burning passion of another kind-the passion of anger.
Keep in mind that anger is fear erupts into a volcano of anger spewing hot lava over everything in sight.
Divorce is a death, and our response to death is grief; and grief has several aspects and stages. It takes time to work its way through to an eventual acceptance.
Anger is one of the basic responses to loss. It’s an essential grief reaction, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It can become excessively destructive, of course. We see it happen all the time.
Anger is a response to fear. When our security is threatened we go into an anger mode. Anger is a tyrant. Anger takes control and its willing to blow itself up like a suicide bomber, without regard to innocent bystanders who may get blown up with it.
Competition as a Survival Mechanism
We humans are highly competitive. We who live in and around the vicinity of Fairfield County Connecticut are immersed in an unusually fiercely competitive culture.
There’s not another word that can come closer to getting at the heart that beats in our little corner of the world than the word competition.
Competition, and his twin brother greed, live together in the deep recesses of the human sub-conscious mind. As partners they make divorce lawyers wealthy.
Divorce is too often the death of love, and turns it into a long, drawn out battle. A good divorce, believe it or not, is characterized by love. Not the passionate flame of love that motivated the marriage, but a deeper, more mature love that wants to protect the integrity of the person who had been one’s partner for all those years.
Love is the spirit of a good divorce. A good divorce preserves the soul and prevents unnecessary collateral damage.
If a good marriage can be defined by love, why not a good divorce? We know a good marriage when we see one. If we’re fortunate, we know how to help create and sustain a good marriage.
So why not a good divorce?
We all remember the saying we learned as kids: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.” Don’t believe it! Names can break the Soul, eat away at self-esteem. Name calling is abusive.
As a culture we need to be more assertive about defining a good divorce, and set it up as a standard.
Too often a good divorce is defined by who wins. Too often it’s about money and power over the other. Too often it’s about control.it’s about getting the better of the other, as if it’s a boxing match, if not a fight to the finish.
It takes two to make a good marriage, but a bad divorce takes only one person, with the help of one lawyer, and others who so often get recruited as an ally in the battle.
Children always lose, of course. They lose even if they’re better off having their parents divorced. If it’s a marriage that ought to end in divorce, they’ve already paid a big price. (Certainly some marriages that could and should be saved end in divorce.) Children are double victims in a contentious divorce. They’ve often suffered through the slings and arrows of witnessing an outrageous marriage, and in a bad divorce they become pawns on the big battlefield.
Children in a bad divorce are abused.
Divorce is not an indication of a failed marriage. A bad divorce is an indication of failure. A good divorce is an indication of the depth and seriousness of a person’s integrity.
We all remember the story of the two women who were fighting over the baby, after one of their children had died. Each claimed to be the real mother. So the wise King Solomon ordered the child cut in half, knowing that the real mother would save her child by giving in.
A good divorce requires some giving in, in order to save a soul.
The effect on the children can best be characterized by the word abuse. Children are too often cut in half by divorce.
We are a culture in transition. Change is difficult.
I remember with some discomfort driving into my driveway in 1975 and reading the bumper sticker on the car of a woman who was visiting with my wife. The bumper sticker said, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
It was a difficult time. Anita and I had been married for fifteen years and we were struggling to keep it together, or struggling to decide whether to keep it together. The children were 12 and 8; vulnerable ages. (I have since learned that our children are vulnerable at any age, when it comes to their parents divorcing.)
The women’s movement was in full gear. As a white male in a profession that had traditionally excluded women, it was hard not to feel like ‘the enemy.’
Those days were difficult for stay-at-home moms. There was a not-so-subtle pressure on women-and there still is, by the way-to be independent, to shake loose, to be liberated.
So that bumper sticker took the most painful, disturbing, threatening thing in my life and found the ‘right thing to say and to say it with the utmost levity,’ to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw.
Men who insisted on holding to the traditional model of ‘head of the household,’ who listened to preachers quote the passage in the Bible that says ‘a wife should be subservient to her husband,’ were considered relics of the patriarchal, male-dominated distant past.
We were all singing along with Dylan-the times they are a changin’.
The times certainly were a changin’. I was first married in 1960, having come of age during the fabulous 50’s, a traditional time. You remember how Tevye put it: “Because of our traditions, when everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
Then along came the 60’s, that most infamous of decades!
In truth, a lot of important changes were pushed along, even if they weren’t solved. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. To name a few.
Roe v. Wade was conceived in the 60’s and born shortly after. The gay rights movement, which had been gestating for years, came screaming onto the scene on Friday evening, June 27, 1969, when the police in New York City raided the Stonewall Inn, the gay bar in Greenwich Village They fought back, encouraged by the radical protests of blacks and women. Gays and lesbian started coming out in huge numbers.
The times they were a changin’.
I want to say something about lawyers: We sometimes hear someone say that they hired an aggressive lawyer.substitute other terms for ‘aggressive.’
Your lawyer is your agent-acting on your behalf, as you instruct. Generally speaking, you wouldn’t have the taxi driver determine where you’re going.you wouldn’t have the waiter decide what you will eat and drink.you shouldn’t allow your lawyer to decide how aggressive (cut throat) to be.unless you are out to hurt the other, not merely to win, but to hurt the man or woman with whom you once stood and promised to love and cherish forever.
No divorce is easy. If you want to hurt the person from whom you are divorcing, you have to own it, take responsibility for that kind of destructive behavior. It doesn’t have to be that way.
You can let go with love that is left over from the wedding vows.
People going through divorce need to be encouraged, by family and friends, to find ways to minimize the damage, and to find ways to make it a good divorce.
Mary Oliver put it nicely: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing that your own life depends on it, and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”