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."

06 February 2017

Divorce—Cowardice or Courage?

It's important to state every so often along the way in the course of this divorce discussion that it wasn't completely one-sided. My ex, depending on your point of view, was either a coward or courageous. But our relationship had died years before, not least due to my own words and actions. 

I was holding on because I had a bottom-line commitment to the ideal of the lifelong marital bond (absent adultery and abuse—but even then I had thought in theory that reconciliation was best). We did not share that fundamental starting point, apparently. But this presses into all sorts of other questions, perhaps most importantly the questions revolving around—from a Christian perspective—what constitutes a viable divorce beyond adultery and abuse (emotional or physical). And this is, again, where Martin Bucer comes in.

The vertigo from being left is felt as a result of the shock of its coming, even if you had seen it coming for a while. Unrequited love may or may not be wrapped up in that shock, and of course that just sucks. There are no more words to add to that kind of pain. Suffice to say, you will read Le Morte d'Arthur, Remains of the Day and The Sun Also Rises in a new way.

Rejection, shame, wounded pride—all of these get mixed in there too. I was truly a mess for a time (fighting off apostasy as much as anything else), but I still don't think I can put a finger on the precise feelings that made up why I was reacting the way I did. I thought perhaps love for my ex had something to do with it, but even now I'm not so sure. Perhaps it was more a love of what was lost: the best that was yet to be, would never be. I do know this much: the event unfolding before me went against a core value—an identity marker—and that goes a long way to at least helping me understand the devastating affect it was having on me at the time.

We must not forget that the leaver has also experienced the pain the leavee is feeling. They've simply walked that path already, and probably more slowly. The one being left is playing catch-up in this instance, and that's also a part of what makes the upheaval so intense. The resolved (or seemingly cold) nature of the leaver jars the leavee, but, again, that's likely because the leaver turned the corner long ago. If grace is every going to be a factor in your handling of divorce, continually humanizing the other is necessary (hypocrisy alert!), which, of course, doesn't entail winking at toxic behavior.

And speaking of human dignity, Bucer's views on divorce and remarriage were meant to uphold exactly that. If you're unfamiliar with the going narrative, the gist is that the majority of Reformers stuck to the Catholic line on divorce, even if they jettisoned the notion that marriage is itself a sacrament—preferring instead to locate it within the context of a creational ordinance and civil institution rather than within the church. If the late medieval Catholic teaching on divorce is flattened out to be that the church simply never recognized divorce a vinculo (a total divorce), even in response to adultery (where it would grant a divorce a mensa et a thora, i.e., a legal separation), then that doesn't hold up. Most of the early Reformers did indeed affirm a complete divorce in response to adultery.

So, while it's not a total mistake to consider Bucer's views as more liberal than say, Calvin's or Luther's, it's very easy to overstate the case. Mere freedom wasn't his major concern; caring for abandoned women and children was. In short, the majority of Reformers—Calvin and Luther included—argued that divorce is allowed in certain scriptural cases, in which the "innocent" party is permitted to remarry another person (and I can only think of a very few instances where one party is, indeed, "innocent"). Bucer said the same (and he did interpret those biblical reasons more liberally than others), and he added that remarriage is also allowed across the board, because in the end he thought it better before God to sin less by remarrying than to "fornicate."

It's worth noting that it was in response to the perceived reformational laxity with respect to divorce and remarriage that the Council of Trent upped its ante on the indissolubility of marriage. (The oddity that is seen among—in my experience—the patriarchal Reformed crowd nudges up against this view, which admittedly gets its impetus from WCF 24.) This brief article in the January/February 2017 issue of Christianity Today covers the ground fairly well, even if it necessarily lacks nuance at key points: "Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli." Here's a more in-depth historical overview from the old Winnipeg Theological Seminary's Trinity Journal: "Divorce and Remarriage from the Early Church To John Wesley." (Note the bit about John Milton, who was undoubtedly influenced by Bucer in this regard.)

I find that I've chased a few other rabbits in this post, so allow me to pick up with Bucer immediately in the next one.

31 January 2017

Saving Your Marriage Isn't the Goal

Remember that I warned you about how deeply existential and one-sided my thoughts on divorce would be. I only expect that to continue.

In my last post, I intended to grope toward and commend the viability of letting go. When someone has turned the corner, it's better to realize that finality sooner rather than later. Of course, there are always exceptions to this principle, and you will find the interwebs offering up a great many stories to that end, and many of them come with expansive and detailed—if not manipulative—formulas to help them materialize in your life. They will give you hope. For a time.

But then you should come to realize that many of the suggestions and practical steps only you can take to save your marriage do pay off—whether or not you end up staying married. Because in the final analysis, avoiding apostasy, rather than saving your marriage, is the goal. While it's true that there are fates worse than death (and, at least initially, divorce as I experienced it was one of them), it's also true that there are fates worse than divorce.

When facing the inevitable death of your marriage, after all the disbelief that it's happening, all the negotiating with God and your partner, you will eventually need to get on with acceptance. It starts with truly repenting and owning up to your part in the dissolution. This can be a sensitive and touchy subject for many, not least for those who have suffered from some form of abuse at the hands of their former spouse. I cannot pretend to speak to those particular victims, except to plead that they run from that relationship, and take every legal measure at their disposal to make it so.

I also learned quickly that "emotional abuse" is a very real thing, with very real and negative consequences for all parties involved (even if a notion like "mental cruelty" as a ground for divorce is I suspect more often than not a thinly veiled attempt to justify an unjustifiable no-fault divorce, or worse, to perform character assassination in a child custody case). Facing the grounds with which I was strapped at first, I dove deeply into the subject, not least out of fear in light of my life and actions. Did I actually provide legal (not to mention biblical) grounds for this divorce?

If you have a modicum of humility, when you're world is unraveling, and you're an emotional wreck, you are far more susceptible to believe everything being thrown at you, to take on far more blame than the situation warrants. Guard yourself. Do not walk alone during this time. Find an honest friend who knows you for real and who can respond to certain allegations about you with a more reasonable and objective clarity than you'll be able to muster. It also helps tremendously if he or she doesn't let you drink alone.

The truth is, even though it felt like I was being ripped apart at the (ontological) seams, I had given up on my marriage well before my ex initiated. There was a time after that but before her initiation that I tried to turn it all around, but if I'm being honest I think I had intuited it was too late, and so it was a last-ditch effort with no real hope of success.

So, if you're like me, which is to say an oddball interested in literature, history and theology, and if you find yourself in a similar predicament as me, you may find yourself looking for similar resources to help you walk through and eventually accept what's happening to you (and I don't mean that in a passive sense—for you brought this upon yourself as much as your partner did). Such resources involve digging into the scriptures, reading theologians of the church on issues revolving around marriage and divorce, swallowing tomes of angsty Gothic poetry and spinning multitudinous records of 80s ballad music (and some outlaw country, for good measure).

In order to help me make sense both of my failures (which I came to readily accept and confess—and of course I still have a ways to go in discerning all of them), my former spouse's failures (which I had to impute, never having had the luxury of receiving a mutual confession) and my need, given my oddball interests, to find some guidance within the historic church to my dilemma, I unsurprisingly found myself sitting at the feet of one Martin Bucer.

In my next post, I'll unpack what I learned from him. Maybe it'll help someone else out there.

10 January 2017

I'm Sorry for That

"The Myth of Sisyphus," by Nicci Bedson

I've been itching for a bit to put down in writing a little more after my initial post on divorce. Today I was inspired to do so when I read a post from a young evangelical who has walked a similar path. His stakes are no doubt higher (=greater courage)—not least with respect to keeping up appearances—so I figured I could at least shake some of my journaling out these past three years and see what sticks, without (I hope) succumbing to questionable motivations, as the aforementioned poster warns against when going public in this particular context. Being a feeler first, and a thinker second, I realize how distasteful this may be to whole swaths of what little readership I have. C'est la vie.

I was struck some time ago prior to his death a quote I'd heard Robin Williams say in World's Greatest Dad:
I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone.
It succinctly summarized how I'd been feeling for so long, feelings that I'd previously found in the lyrical sentiment penned by Ben Folds back in the mid-90s:
Now that I've found someone,
I'm feeling more alone,
than I ever have before.
She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly. . . .
For the moment we're alone.
She's alone, and I'm alone.
Now I know it.
I can handle being alone—defined among the single crowd in terms of the absence of a monogamous, marital relationship—in contrast to being lonely. That's a healthy place to be. But handling the feeling of neglect and abandonment—as if you don't exist—from someone you've covenanted to love, that's well-nigh unbearable. I can see how it leads one to consider whether or not to live now, in reality (whether it be suicide or simply checking out), as "the only really serious philosophical question," as Camus suggested.

If you're the praying type, then one perhaps valuable prayer during times like these would be that God empower you to be freed from the need you feel for that other in the face of unrequited love. This isn't to suggest a desire to lose the ability to love deeply, to trust recklessly; you just want to be freed from having that other be the object of that love and trust.

It's okay to let go.

Now, I don't think it's unhealthy to be wrapped-up in another person (i.e., co-dependent in a very specific sense), insofar as one's identity (in Christ, for the Christian) isn't swallowed up in the process. Loving God with all one's heart, soul, mind and strength is a matter of priority, not a matter of exclusivity. I'm reminded in this that there is a place for speaking of God's love and trust as "risky"—risky in the sense that whenever a person opens him- or herself up to love and trust another, he or she runs the risk of it being unrequited. In some small way (given the parts we've all played in our own relational implosions), then, each of us who has had our deep love and affection and reckless trust betrayed, unrequited or used, taste the hurt, sadness and remorse that the covenant God feels in the face of the countless betrayals he has experienced at the hands of those to whom he has given everything.

In line with my penchant for unoriginality, I'll leave these thoughts here by commending a particular way to let go. I understand very well that many times it doesn't go in such a way that allows for this kind of parting (mine did not). At any rate, here's Theodore's last letter to Catherine for your inspiration:
Dear _____, 

I'm sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. 

I'm sorry for that. 

I'll always love you because we grew up together. You helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know that there will be a piece of you in me always, and I'm grateful for that. 

Whatever someone you become, wherever you are in the world, I'm sending you my love. You're my friend till the end. 


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