I do not pretend to advocate staying in a marriage that is full of either physical or psychological abuse. Please exit on the nearest inflatable slide. Keep in mind the exit may be located behind you. Perhaps I wish my parents had divorced sooner. End public service announcement. Commence sharing.
There was a time in 6th grade when my parents called us into the basement. Their marriage was not a healthy one and we knew. That may be an adult view into a childhood memory.
Observation 1: How would you have known what a healthy marriage looks like?
To start, I should inform you that my mother and father have virtually nothing in common. They both lived in Arizona in middle school and high school. They were both raised Catholic. They married at 18 under strange circumstances. I love them both dearly.
Mom is warm, affectionate, a true mother. If anyone were ever born to be a nurturing mom, she is mine. Her love for her children overflows to the point of obsessive anxiety about our well-being. She frets and worries constantly about the state of our souls, whether we have colds, if we arrive safely to our destinations. She used to be a “flag girl” in marching band. She is fiercely religious. She’s simple and proud of it. She would do anything for us and regularly assures us that we are her life. She is a fabulous host and is rarely, and in most cases unintentionally, mean.
Dad is industrious, goal-oriented, and sometimes sarcastic. He is hilarious and the only reason that I’ve ever made a successful joke met with laughter in my entire life. He can sing very well and tooth-whistle. He used to play trumpet in marching band (oh no, I’m seeing a trend). To him, religion is between a person and God alone, if at all. He’s exceptionally smart, successful, and focused. He is relatively carefree, enjoys work, and works hard for the people he loves. He doesn’t like mushy stuff and is not a huge fan of affectionate displays. He likes to party on occasion.
It was a matter of time before their marriage was going to fail. They have incompatible traits and are both very strong-willed, albeit in different ways.
They sat us down and told us that they would be getting a divorce and that dad would be moving out. It was so nonchalant, gauging our responses, wondering where the discussion would go. I don’t remember how soon, but I immediately began saying to my mom, “What? You promised you wouldn’t.” My mom had been in a frequent habit of calming my anxious heart whenever they were fighting and I’d ask her if they were going to split. She’d promised on numerous occasions that that would never happen, and I believe now that I rested in that relief.
If I remember correctly, my sister had a medical emergency shortly after this, and the divorce conversation was put on hold for a little bit. We had a new dog. We were living in limbo. The words had already been spoken about the demise of our family.
In 7th grade, my dad moved out to a small apartment not far from my mom’s house. It was a pretty crummy apartment. I had to meet with the school counselor to discuss divorce. I told her that I was happy about it because at least they wouldn’t be fighting anymore. She said I was in denial. I resented that for many years. I think she was right.
It was uncomfortable and weird sleeping over there the first few times. We had cots or sleeping bags before we had beds. My dad slept on the couch and my sister in his bed. My brother and I shared. I didn’t like when my dad would come over to the house he used to live in to pick us up. It felt awkward and there were always terse words at the door between them.
Divorce was stressful and straining from the beginning. It got better over the years, but we absorbed most of the bitterness associated with such life decisions. We landed square in the middle of their post-marriage bullshit. All the mind games, the favoritism, taking things out on us. They’d fight on the phone. They’d argue about money. It went in phases. We each would get our license and then had a little more autonomy over where we could be, which would start up the passive aggressiveness again. Oh, you just don’t want to spend time with me. Oh, you never want to be here. Oh, you like his/her house better.
I’m 16. I’m trying to wade through this post-familial-apocalyptic minefield the same way you are. I don’t know shit about shit. I’m addicted to porn and I’ve got it gamed at both houses. I just started dating the first girl I’ll sleep with, drag along for 5 years, and drop on her face, because why not? We’re not even married, like that counts for anything. I’m fed up with huge fights that aren’t about me, and are all about personal insecurities and weaknesses. I’m tired of not being let in to anything. I’m disinterested in a theology that hasn’t kept up with my growing mind and is quickly losing pace. I have zero respect for any authority that once existed, shattered by the lie that you would be together forever. Nothing else matters now. I would rather be anywhere else than with any of you, because I’m a teenager first of all. But also because you let me down. Both of you. You refused to seek help, to die to one another. Your marriage never had a foundation. It was washing away in the sand before it began. The pie belongs to both of you, not just this other psychopath who you happened to procreate with and then turned batshit crazy one day. This was slow and terrible. You both deserve what happened. We don’t.
I’m 27. I forgive you. I wish I had listened better to your cautionary words about the implications of sex and dating. I wish I had given you the time of day. I wish I were a son who could have honored you in the few moments I had at home before they slipped away forever, to be replaced only by the nagging feeling that I did nothing to foster our relationship. I’m sorry that for most of my remaining time at home, I was incredibly angry at both of you and never told you or talked about it. I’m finding that there is no bound to the depth of my codependent heart, and I will do anything or say anything to find favor in virtually anyone’s eyes. I bottle up my true feelings until the occasional misstep by those I love causes my hateful guts to spill out before their eyes. I don’t blame you. It must have been slow and terrible. I’m so sorry. Your story could have been my story. I could easily have ended up in the same situation. You don’t deserve what happened.
Meanwhile, I watch another family and the fruit of their marriage and life together (Georgia, looking at you). I’m dumbfounded and jealous by their togetherness. They make up. They fight and they’re together again. They say such stupid, idiotic things sometimes. And yet they’re wholly for one another.
I cannot say the same about my family. We have our great times. We laugh with the best of them. We love each other well most days. But together, that’s something we’re not. My childhood family died in a courtroom over alcohol, a lack of grace and mercy, and people done trying to salvage a dead thing. All of my childhood memories carry the sting of something that once was and is no more. All the vacations, the family outings, the one-anothering one another, clouded by brokenness, tears, scars.
Old me pretended that it didn’t bother me. People have real problems in the world. You’re a white kid from suburbia whose parents didn’t end up together. Boo fucking hoo. For the first time in my life, I think I’m ready to say that divorce is the worst thing that ever happened to me. It hurt me. Deeply.
Marriage is hard. But we experience a life of boundless grace. The kingdom is built on stories such as ours, where fruit is borne from dead things. We look back and see the raging fire and thunderstorm that ended our family, but He uses all things for our good. Look into my eyes and you may spot the pain of those years. I’m tattered and worn. But good will come from this. That I know to be true. The same passion riding slamming doors, filling throaty voices, and tearing down a house to rubble exists in my blood, in my bones. I’m choosing to put that passion to work in the painstaking process of fortifying the foundation of my marriage house. It’s built on a rock and will weather any storm.
I never want to find myself in my basement as my once beloved tells my children the crushing news that the battle will not be won, that we’re giving up. I choose instead to dive into her bottomless soul, to continue probing the tender parts, growing together and mutually and cooperatively in what we learn to be true about one another and our only hope in Jesus. I choose to dive in, to get messy with my shit, to tell things I’m beyond horrified to tell. I choose to be naked, the weight of all my sins on full display, to be known.
And I to know her, to no end. Jesus, help us, help us. Amen.