11 May 2017

Three Sides to the Story

You know that quintessential '70s scene where in the midst of a raging argument a wife leaves her husband and home, heading to her parents' house with kids in tow packed into a Pontiac station wagon?

I thank God, for the sake of every loving and engaged father out there, that such stories are seldom heard anymore.

My own short story in this regard is that I was put through the custody ringer (a legal racket, if ever there were one) during the course of my divorce. That is to say, when my ex filed for divorce (on fallacious grounds), she also vied for sole custody and removal (from the area) of our children, to which I responded with a simple no, and in so doing kicked off an excruciating eighteen-month legal process (because she chose to fight for it until it became obvious that it wouldn't go in her favor). If this reflects your current reality, take comfort. Fathers have rights recognized and protected in the courts these days. Oh, you still have to fight for them (they are unfortunately not assumed, as they are for most mothers), but while doing so is draining in every way imaginable, at least there's a clear opening these days to make your case. And what's more, judges are bound by laws protecting fathers' rights to judge according to the evidence.

So, take a breath. Calm down. And then get to work, protecting yourself and especially your children from the harm that groundless (and so I assume, vindictive) sole custody can do. For example, you'll want to start recording (e.g., on a calendar) the length, breadth, and depth of your loving engagement and presence with your children (as strange as that will feel). It's worth the effort and will cut lies off at the knees, should you perchance have the unfortunate luck to face such a thing.

I'm not at all suggesting that there aren't warranted instances where sole custody and even removal of the children (from the geographical locale) ought to be granted. Usually those are obvious to everyone but the toxic and irresponsible individual at the other end of the suit. But in a situation where you have two loving and engaged parents, being the cause of an unnecessary battle over custody until the bitter end makes no sense (it's deeply damaging to everyone involved—physically, financially, spiritually, etc.; and it also subverts any modicum of mutual respect you'll be needing to show while co-parenting). This isn't to deny that there are always two sides of a story (it's the third side in this instance that's too often forgotten). Of course there are, and of course those "reasons" put forward for sole custody and/or removal can be validated. That doesn't mean, however, that those validated reasons outweigh the reasons why sole custody and/or removal is not in the "best interests" of your children (get familiar with that phrase).

"Bitterness blinds life," preached Harry Emerson Fosdick, "love anoints its eyes."

Bitterness is like a tuberous weed—a gigantic pain in the ass to kill. Removing the growth above ground won't do; you must dig the entire root and all its tubers out. In the midst of an unwanted and subsequently acrimonious divorce due to specific hateful and hurtful actions revolving around the children on the part of the one suing, it requires a Herculean effort to avoid bitterness. If you do not, you will share in the cause of the malignancy to come. While you cannot control the victimization, self-absorption, manipulation and avenging that emerges in the actions of someone who has allowed bitterness to take deep root, you can control how you respond. There are wonderful resources out there (not least face-to-face therapy or just a friendly shoulder)—no matter what your learning style—to help you check yourself.

Even a few years on, I find myself continuing to battle with vigilance the bitterness before it takes root. It's hard to say this with absolute certainty, but I can imagine one getting over his or her divorce once the shock of it all subsides and the parties involved come to a relatively respectful parting. I mean, I can honestly say, on this side of it, that being divorced from that woman is A-OK. The battle with bitterness, it seems to me, would not feel so acute so often. But reflecting on what I had to go through in order to protect my children's lives and relationships with both their mom and dad still makes me angry. Add to that the burden of providing maintenance (and I'm not talking child support here) to a capable and educated person—really just an adult child, at this point—which puts both households at the poverty line, and bitterness and anger become very real and regular threats, indeed.

I've returned a few times to a helpful little booklet on bitterness written by Lou Priolo in the Resources for Biblical Living series published by P&R. Yeah, it's not the most robust treatment, leaning heavily as it does in the direction of nouthetic counseling, but I've found it useful each time I've read it. I know there are better (i.e., psychologically responsible) resources available out there on this issue, so I don't recommend it unless you're able to read it critically and openly, while at the same time attending to the trauma in your life that is in part one of the reasons you'd be struggling with bitterness in the first place (this booklet will not help you with trauma—in fact it may do more damage than good). Read with your eyes open, and probably don't read it first, is all I'm saying.

I'll leave you with Mary Baures helpfully highlighting the contours of bitterness and the role of hate and forgiveness in the wake of trauma (in the great article I link to in the above paragraph):
Allowing oneself to feel the fury of hate...is often a healthy part of the recovery process but it is only healthy if one can also learn to let it go. Hate minimizes a victim's feelings of powerlessness and self-blame and counteracts feelings of destruction. But after anger has been experienced, when self-compassion has replaced self-blame, and when the terror of the experience is no longer intrusive, letting go of hate can give survivors vitality and hope. ...The world is full of violence, and many are its victims. It is natural to become angry and even to hate as part of the healing process. But the final step is to forgive. Forgiveness does not condone evil behavior; it acknowledges evil without denying a person's potential humanity.

05 May 2017

Building Dwelling Sobbing

If you don't think place and the discreet
singularities that unfold with them reveal
our being-there, already always given over
to the things in the world, inextricably bound yet free,

try telling that to my seven-year-old son who left
his bed exactly three minutes and sixteen seconds
after I tucked him in, chin-deep under the flannel sheets,
sobbing forlorn, sputtering heavy, indecipherable sighs
about the sudden disappearance of his mama and daddy
and could he stay in either of our houses forever?
And keep all our stuff just where it is in order to keep our
memories alive? In tears he came up with a plan
for he and his brother to trade-off nights at each
of our houses to sustain the continuing, constant
unconcealment of the discreet places we, they, call home.

I had not the heart to tell him that even though
place remains, the naming of such places remains
in flux, and further reveal other voices, other rooms.

I could only cradle him close and through clenched teeth cry,

"Hear our prayer."

20 April 2017

A Stream Flowing in a Field

So different, this man
And this woman:
A stream flowing
In a field.

~Wm. Carlos Williams

Bailing on a long relationship seldom happens suddenly, severe mental instabilities notwithstanding. They die very slow deaths more often than not. I sometimes hear stories where people are shocked when the leaver finally leaves, but I've usually chalked that up to their stubborn unwillingness to be honest with themselves and their shared past with the other.

In seeming contradiction, there's this thing called "ghosting." Because ghosting is now a thing (but really it's nothing new; it just takes a unique form in our digital dating culture), research is being conducted on it. Psychologists and relationship coaches tell us that ultimately it stems from fear—fear of conflict, which leads to avoidance of confrontation, of difficult conversations, and of hurting someone's feelings.

I get that. I really do. Because I hate conflict, and I'll do almost anything to not hurt someone's feelings. (On second thought, maybe I'll do almost anything to not feel the way I feel after I've hurt someone's feelings.)

But it should come as no surprise that all that avoidance actually increases anxiety and conflict, sometimes from the one being ghosted, and often from the lingering guilt that comes with taking the wrong kind of exit from a relationship. Such anxiety can end up ruling you. I know this. I spent most of my early-to-mid 30s suffering from it, because my life was one big ball of avoidance—particularly with my now ex-wife. I had tried open communication early in our marriage, but I'm sure I wasn't doing it right: I was impatient and unkind. At times I was condescending and angry and overbearing. Because I didn't get anywhere with that communication (no surprise, looking back), I shut down ("ghosted") and became avoidant (incommensurate withdrawal or slamming the door on someone is the same thing as ghosting, only perhaps more painful because it occurs in the midst of an actual long-term relationship). So our communication occurred only out of mounting frustration. Never was there resolution. I avoided confrontation (and so did my ex), and my anxiety grew, and depression crept in. And then one day, I woke up, and my marriage was over, kicking off years of mere cohabitation. That's when the seething bitterness made its home in my heart. And I walked the earth with furrowed brow and heaving, heavy shoulders, dragging around black clouds wherever I went.

Then came the day when those clouds parted. My marriage was still over, this time legally. Sadness set in, but almost immediately so did growth and awareness and vitality and friendship. And, yes, even love. Whether reciprocal or rebounded or unrequited, I realized I could actually feel something in my guts, something better than what I had been feeling for so long. Integral to that growth has been not avoiding conflict, not avoiding doing the hard thing. Caring for the surplus of meaning inherent in the symbol of the holy, the other, the I-Thou.

If only symbols were empty, irrelevant things that aren't inextricably bound to each of us, bringing to world new relations, binding each of us anew to the discreet places they reveal. If only. Then we could dash them against the rocks without consequence. The idols would quietly go into the twilight, and the marketplace would open the next morning without any sense of loss, of meaninglessness. Take heed: symbols gather, symbols world nothing into something. It is for this reason they are to be revered—broken only as a last resort. And yet, a demolished symbol gathers another kind of world, sometimes in Elysian fields, sometimes in the abyss.

Walk, then, with fear and trembling. Guard the symbol with your life. Protect but whisper those unsaid things that cannot as yet survive in this world on their own (like little birds). Become the place—the field-stream—of peace and respite for the weary.

It's like she ceased being Thou, fully human,
With her own despair and desires.
Now she's become a symbol,
A signature of abandonment, a seal of longing.
Toward the Emerald Isle, dizzy in lofty flight.
Ghosted away: This is the dust we carry.

22 March 2017

When Divorce Is the Only Option

Knowing only a little about this subject—that Bucer held slightly more "liberal" views than his fellow Reformers—I sought to get my head around it in order to see if my ex had sufficient grounds to initiate the divorce. 

I did not do so with the intent to present whatever I found to her; it's an obvious though unfortunate fact that reasonable discourse is not tolerated, much less heard, in situations such as this. What I wanted was to be confronted with my own sin so that I could own up more honestly and faithfully to the part I played in the dissolution of our marriage. Probably my greatest hope was that I would be vindicated (not of our relational demise, to which I no doubt contributed), at least to my own mind and before God, should I find that I was not implicated in Bucer's grounds.

In short, what I wanted to find was that while we marrieds can easily find multiple reasons to leave each other over the years, the higher road or calling was to stick with the marriage, not least in the absence of infidelity or abuse.

What I found was that I could've divorced my wife years before (unilateral abstinence, irreconcilability), and she probably also could've made the case on at least one ground to initiate when she did (irreconcilability)—because by the time she did pursue a legal divorce, the relationship had grown very toxic, indeed. Claiming the "higher road" by not initiating made me feel better, but I'm a pretty pathetic judge.

Ah, well. Life's events seldom shake out in black and white.

John Burcher, who stood in opposition to Bucer, wrote in a letter to Henry Bullinger June 8, 1550, that Bucer was more than licentious on the subject of marriage. He accused Bucer of having asserted that a divorce should be allowed for any reason, however trifling (see H. Robinson, Original Letters, vol. 2, The Parker Society, CUP, 1846,  p. 666). I could see how downstream from Bucer this could be extrapolated from what he wrote (e.g., recall Milton's spin on the subject). There's no doubt that the paradigmatic shift away from procreation being the centerpiece of a marriage in favor of mutual companionship lies upstream from no-fault divorce, just as the sacramental notion of the indissolubility of marriage has just as often led to the imprisoning of women in abusive relationships (whether physical, emotional, spiritual or sexual). There are of course other factors leading to such unfortunate circumstances (e.g., the absence of an individual woman's legal rights), but the causal relationship of the aforementioned appears obvious to me.

So, what Bucer ultimately taught me about divorce was to in principle find the path that is in your power to please God. Staying together remains that path if—and only if—your partner is willing so to do. Absent that, what's in your power to please God is to negotiate the divorce in such a way as to be able stand with your head held high before the only judge who counts in the end. It is by grace (and hopefully not delusion) I can say today that with respect to my ex and my children, I conducted myself during the entire divorce proceedings in a manner I'm not ashamed of. That is to say, I can talk about my actions and reactions both in court and at home publicly without shame.

When we're hurt, we often lash out. In such a situation as this, where emotions run high and fear takes control, we might be tempted to, for example . . .
  • Initiate a divorce on fallacious grounds.
  • Sue for sole custody of the children.
  • Seek removal of the children to another locale, far away from one of their parents.
  • Refuse to consider mediation for the sake of establishing a healthy, co-parenting relationship once the dust has settled.
  • Take conversations and/or texts out of context in order to besmirch the other's character.
  • Anonymously write the other's place of business with accusations—however close to the truth they might be (the best lies always are)—with hopes that they'd terminate employment.
  • Cling to the sole custody and removal suit until the last possible moment (say, 18 months), until it becomes obvious that it will not go favorably, thereby wreaking havoc on all finances in the process.
  • Refuse to take any responsibility for the breakdown of the marital relationship and foist all the blame on the other.
  • Steal opportunities from your children by refusing to find sustainable and gainful employment—despite being young, healthy and educated—in order to contribute something financially to the rearing of the children.
Don't succumb to these temptations. Nothing good ever comes from playing the victim.

If you're on the receiving end of such vengeance, protect yourself—legally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially. The avenger suffers from a (we hope) momentary lapse of reason. Hold on.

To be sure, I missed the mark (and continue to do so) in other, personal ways during that time, but my actions and reactions both in court and at home exhibited, I believe, a kind of grace that can only emerge in a situation where you've committed not to play the nihilist, where you're not taking an "ends justifies the means" approach to getting what you want in court, where you're constantly humanizing the other by remembering your own faults, despite the violence she's perpetrating, not least for the sake of your children and their lifelong relationship with you—and their mother.

You want a divorce predicated on irreconcilable differences? Then go get one. Just don't blame anybody else for it. And, most of all, remember that there's an entire life to live on the other side of it, and especially the children's lives, coram Deo. What you do building up to that will impact those lives deeply. Outdo each other in kindness. It's never too late to start.

And it's important to hear: You are allowed to terminate toxic relationships. You are allowed to walk away from people who hurt you. You are allowed to be angry and, for a brief time, selfish and unforgiving. You don't owe anyone an explanation for taking care of yourself.

While that selfishness and unforgiveness must pass quickly if healing is to take place, it is nevertheless part and parcel of that process early on. In my life at the time, I needed to remember that I could walk away, but that meant I could not judge my ex for doing the same, even if I abhorred it, even if I thought she'd be wrong or giving up in so doing. As I said, I'm a pretty pathetic judge, and, at any rate, I'm not her judge for walking away, not least if I had perpetrated pain and toxicity, which, to my chagrin, implicates me in Bucer's grounds, after all.

13 February 2017

Knit with Love & Consent: Grounds for Divorce

Martin Bucer as an intermediary between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, by Josef Ehrismann

Here we finally get to what Martin Bucer wrote about divorce (and remarriage), which helped me along in my journey through divorce. For those wanting the complete story, check out Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer by Herman J. Selderhuis. What follows has been culled mostly from this book (the page numbers throughout correspond to it).


Irreconcilable Differences:
As a result of a lack of love and good will, a marriage has irreparably broken down. In this instance (which is decidedly not a matter of trifling disagreement), while the divorce is as yet unofficial, the marriage in fact has ceased to exist, in that personal relations are essential to the existence of a marriage.
. . . there is no true marriage between them, who agree not in true consent of mind; so it will be the part of godly magistrates to procure that no matrimony be among their subjects, but what is knit with love and consent.
(Lifted from chap. XIX of John Milton's translation of Bucer's De Regno Christi.)

This entails the obvious—extramarital sex—but also the withholding of sex, according to Bucer. The withholding of sex also includes being guility of driving the other toward sexual immorality, which marriage in part is meant to thwart. "Unilateral abstinence not only leads to but is adultery" (p. 289). (How's that for a response to being caught sleeping with the neighbor's wife? "You drove me to do it with all your conveniently placed headaches!")

Desertion or Banishment:
Included here is geographical separation, either deliberately or as a result of a cause out of their control (e.g., imprisonment, soldiers of wars, commercial travelers who fail to return, etc.). Deserters are "certifiable marriage-wreckers" (p. 293). Such "unchristian conduct is proof of unbelief," Bucer wrote (p. 294).

Sexual Relations:
"Conjugal work" is so important for marriage, said Bucer, that where it is refused or cannot be rendered, a divorced has to be legitimated.

Psychological and Physical Factors:
If sexual intimacy is rendered impossible due to psychological or physical illness, then a divorce is to be legitimated (clearly this is a pre-Viagra world). Bucer's thinking primarily of all forms of "dementia" here. Physical illness refers to anything that renders sexual intimacy permanently impossible. (But note, where Bucer saw a legitimate grounds for divorce, Luther saw an opportunity to serve God by serving the spouse in his or her illness, and thus the opportunity to live up to one's salvation, p. 295.) Both Bucer and Luther in the end agreed that indefinite impotence was grounds.

The Pauline Privilege:
Apparently at the time among Protestants, a divorce was permitted when an unbelieving partner no longer wished to live together with the believing partner (i.e., desertion; 1 Cor. 7:15). But this only applied if the deserting spouse was an unbeliever from the beginning. If he or she becomes an unbeliever after the marriage, then the only recourse is legal separation, with no possibility of remarriage for either parties.

Bucer took umbrage with this common interpretation: if an unbelieving spouse divorces, he argued, then the believing spouse is free to remarry. Unbelief in this instance is seen in the fruit—one who leaves his spouse for unsanctioned reasons and divorces shows him- or herself to be an unbeliever, in violation of God's Word (see Eph. 5:1–33). Also, "the refusal of sexual communion is disobedience to a divine mandate and therefore unbelief" (p. 304).

Insofar as there are no other grounds for divorce, the believer is absolutely not permitted to leave the unbelieving partner. The believing partner must persevere as long as possible. Only when the other categorically refuses intercourse and to show love and fidelity and there's no longer any hope for change, can the believing spouse divorce (p. 306).

Physical and Emotional Abuse:
In instances of physical abuse that is habitual and harsh, the spouse may divorce (these qualifiers of "habitual" and "harsh" will no doubt run against the grain of our modern sensibilities. We would say now—and rightly so—to take every legal measure possible to extricate yourself from an abusive relationship, before it gets physical). Wherein a spouse becomes a tyrant (emotional abuse), a dissolution of the marriage is permitted. The courts are bound to deliver the victim from unjust tyranny (pp. 308–309).
"God instituted marriage so that a [spouse] would receive love and faithfulness form the other and not ugly language, pain, and grief." The divorce is legit if a spouse receives nothing but "ranting, pounding, beating, pain, and agony" (p. 309).

Special Calling:
Divorce is permitted in response to a special call, that is, to a monastery or nunnery. Very few people are called in this manner, noted Bucer.

A legitimate divorce may be procured in response to a serious crimes perpetrated by a spouse—murder, sedition, and abortion are noted as examples by Bucer.

* * *

In all of these instances, it is important to note Bucer's premise: an attempt must be made—at least initially—to bring about reconciliation. Yet the innocent party must not be forced so to do. If there are legitimate grounds for divorce, a Christian must forgive (without continuing to tolerate toxic behavior and habits), but that does not necessarily entail staying. If he or she finds that they are not able, on account of what has happened, to love the other with an open mind and heart and to maintain full communion of life with him or her, then no obligation to stay married remains.

Even the guilty can remarry before God, according to Bucer, provided they repent (pp. 317–18). Perhaps somewhat contradictorily, even if they don't repent, he thought it was probably better that they do remarry, despite his recognition of 1 Corinthians 7:10, which suggests that a spouse who leaves the other for an invalid reason must remain unmarried (p. 318). But Bucer thought that marriage as a divine mandate trumps all the other concerns put forth about remarriage (p. 321). Why? Because, as I wrote in the previous post, in the end he thought it better before God to sin less by remarrying than to "fornicate."

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