Part 2 in the After the Influence Series*.
I ran into an old friend and he told me that he’s now divorced. I said, “Oh man, I am so sorry to hear that.” At first sheepish, he briefly replied by saying it was the best thing that ever happened to him, and he couldn’t be happier.
So, then the next time someone told me that they were getting a divorce, I said with a big smile, “Congrats!”
Increasingly common situations like this have forced me to reflect on why divorce has a negative stigma in society. Actually, forget about the social order: Let me start by asking myself why I have thought it to be a bad thing. Well, firstly, one friend, Bill, was abandoned by his wife. That was a very painful time in his life, and I observed that with empathy. For another acquaintance, her kids were traumatized by the parents separating; and some would question whether they have ever recovered.
Ok, so the kids suffer. Right? I think everyone knows that, even though some contend that kids turn out fine. Another common issue is that couples frequently spend all their savings on divorce lawyers. So, a divorce can bring on financial calamity. Got it. Divorce also has the power to cause emotional stress, to induce hurt feelings and on and on. Finally, there are the biblical restrictions about divorce. (In my world, this last point is almost ignored since divorce is so common.)
So, despite all the negative effects of divorce, and even Jesus’ rejection of divorce, I feel there is one bigger issue that we often ignore.
It’s the vow.
You know, the promise to stay together until death, and all that.
Somehow, when we bump into someone and they tell us they are now divorced, the mere label of being “divorced,” makes that vow all just vanish into thin air. We almost never ask why, and many couples don’t bother trying to explain. “Irreconcilable differences” is the only thing we need to assume. And then we can all just move on, right?
Well, back when divorce was not as common, I surmise that it did not really matter if a person knew one or two divorced folks. But things change when 50% of the people I know are divorced. All those people made public vows that they later broke. That’s like half of the people in a high-rise apartment building all breaking their leasing contracts. Or pretend you are building a house, and 50% of the contractors you work with do not uphold their end of the bargain. You can see how that could make building a house extremely difficult. Are there any similar social ramifications regarding divorce?
And yet, we are told that people are free to divorce for any reason, but we must not question their ability to keep other promises in their lives. Now if it were a business, and some businessperson had a reputation for dealing dishonestly with the customer, would everyone just give him or her a pass? Not really, right? Customers would look elsewhere and leave bad reviews.
Despite people trying to act like it’s nothing, it is.
Because of that vow, divorced people carry a stigma for the rest of their lives. It’s like they wear a scarlet D on their clothing. And that is unfortunate. It is this issue that I would like to address.
See, divorce could be a lot less damaging if people did not make a vow for life.
The point of my ramblings is not to try to hold people to their promises. Believe me, I have heard too many sad stories that have made me conclude that in their situation, divorce was the only possible option. And yet, I still have an issue with it. And it is this: I don’t like the fact that everyday thousands of people make a promise to stay married for life, when everyone knows that 50% of them will not keep it.
And that’s the rub. Why do we allow people to continue making these kinds of absolute statements—lifelong contracts, if you will— when we all know that it’s a flip of a coin as to whether they will be able to keep their end of the bargain. It’s like a mortgage lender continuing to give home loans to people when he or she knows that half will never be able to repay. Why do it? It only hurts citizens by basically sub-criminalizing them. (Ok, so breaking a contract is not necessarily a crime, but it is considered by most to be questionable at best, and unethical, immoral or even illegal at worst.)
Is there a Better Way?
As I see it, there are generally two approaches that people are taking. On the one hand, there are many resources available that provide assistance in keeping one’s vow. These are people who try to prevent divorce in the first place. That would seem to be the ideal. But with 50%, I fear we need to be honest. On the other hand, some attorneys are only too happy to profit off of breaking up families. These are people who appear to be practical and try to help people who are going to split up anyways. But is that it? Are these the only options, to either try to help people keep their promise, or just provide an easy way out?
I guess I would like to take a different approach. I for one would like to suggest that some wedding officials change the vows that couples make. At least for some couples. I do not think people getting married should any longer take for granted the chance to promise to marry for life. As a State-sanctioned law, maybe it should be forbidden. This would prevent people from failing so much. It’s just like not allowing people to take out a loan we know they can’t keep.
You see, instead of the “’til death do us part,” imagine that a vow like this were used:
I promise to stay with you as long as we both agree to do so.
That leaves the door open to exit should one or both parties in the future deem it so necessary. And it means that when half of the marrying couples do break up, they should not need to carry forward any sense of failure or dishonesty. I do believe there is merit to this idea, and it is not only semantics.
If the above suggested vow causes any of us to bristle, I would like to make three observations:
- That vow above sounds so unromantic! I admit, it’s a far cry from, “I’ll love you forever.”
- On a more practical level, for some people, the idea that the other parent of their children might not stick around is very unsettling. And therefore, they do not want to enter that kind of agreement. They prefer to mate for life, as it were, for at least the proliferation of the species.
- We have been conditioned to believe that marriage should only be for life. I personally believe this is a carry-over of the Judeo-Christian influence on American society. And yet, now as the nation has continued to erode away at the historical traditions, this one, I suspect, may also need to perish. True Christians can maybe be expected to marry for life, because they have the Holy Spirit to enable them to achieve such heroics. But for the non-Christians, or the people who only call themselves Christians, they may have very little in their favor. What goodness would compel them to stay faithful? Or to uphold their end of the bargain? Even to remain married? Since they do not have the Holy Spirit, maybe we should not expect much from them, particularly in their ability to stay married. That sounds harsh, but I fear it is true.
The traditional Vow is an example of how the Church has significantly influenced society. And because of this effect, we all assume that there is only one kind of marriage; and that means forsaking all others, until death. On the one hand, this appears good, but possibly only for the Christian, I would argue. See, when the Church asks non-Christians to make such promises, it sets many of them up for failure.
Some will protest and quote the statistic that even in the Church, the divorce rate is still 50%. Well, maybe not. I need to say not everyone who attends church (or who gets married in a church) is a Christian. And just being born into a Christian family, also does not make one a Christian. Rather, Christians are those who have repented of their sins, confessed their allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah, and vowed to live their lives as guided by the Holy Spirit. These are the True Christians. And among True Christians, the divorce rate is much, much lower. I do not have an exact number since I lost the statistical reference. But someone did a study and found it to be much lower than 50%. They found a direct correlation between sincere Christians and the ability to stay married. So you see, the Holy Spirit in a person’s life really does make a difference, at least as it relates to keeping a promise.
I shall conclude by saying that when True Christians marry, it can be expected—ideally—to last for life. And those Christians should still be allowed to vow, “’til death do us part.” But for everyone else, marriages should be more contractual, with a clause that easily allows for separation. While not romantic, it is the reasonable and respectable way to handle people who have very little chance for living promise-keeping lives. And again, using the lending analogy, it’s like saying that only those who can meet much higher requirements, should ever be given a loan in the first place.
One practical way to implement this, would be for True Christian marriage officiants to interview the couple in advance. If the couple appear to be truly born-again and seem to have the Holy Spirit, then they can vow whatever they like. But if the couple appears to be nominally Christian at best, they should be counseled to use a vow that will allow them to easily divorce in the future should that be the best course.
I also think the Church should start using two different phrases: “Christian marriage” and “marriage.” I think this could do wonders for helping people understand that they are not the same. We should probably be talking about two different commitments, two different promises, two different vows.
*After the Influence is a Series that explores ways that culture has been influenced by Christianity.
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