5. Divorce: the spouses

5. Divorce: the spouses
As noted in our Introduction, divorce is regarded today by most persons in Western countries as one of the marks of a progressive society. We now propose to look further into this, with special insistence on the point that divorce can logically be regarded as progress only if one is convinced that it is a means to greater human happiness.
Does divorce bring about more happiness? Does it make for happier persons, for happier families and happier societies? If in fact it makes the majority of people happier, even though it may perhaps leave a minority less happy, then one can perhaps reasonably maintain that it represents progress. But if it is the other way round, if it makes a minority happier but makes the majority less and less happy, then divorce represents the opposite of progress. I suggest that this in fact is the actual situation and, moreover, that one can check this for oneself by means of a little clear thinking plus a look at a few concrete facts.
That marriage is indissoluble of its nature was taught explicitly by Jesus Christ (cf. Mt. 19:8-9). Our Lord's teaching has been re-echoed and solemnly confirmed time and again by the Catholic Church [59]. The Church therefore teaches that every true marriage (whether sacramental or not) is indissoluble. My purpose is not to restate this unvarying teaching, but rather to suggest: (1) that divorce, even on the level of individual and earthly happi-ness, tends to do more harm than good; and (2) that indissolu-bility, far from being an enemy of human love or a restraint on human fulfillment, is meant to be their support and bulwark. The arguments backing each of these affirmations complement one another, and at times are identical. The first can be dealt with briefly enough. The second merits greater attention; in considering it we will enlarge on ideas that have already come up in the last two chapters.
Divorce breeds divorce
Divorce does not tend to make for happiness. Divorce tends to make for divorce; and divorce always marks the final collapse of a hope of happiness. Divorce, it is frequently argued, is only meant for the hard cases - for those persons whose marriages have in fact failed - , so as to give them the chance to start again. The evidence, however, is becoming massive that the remedy is worse than the illness.
Divorce is not curing hard cases; it is creating them. Divorce breeds divorce; and it breeds and multiplies fast. It is a simple matter of fact that once divorce is allowed in a society, its incidence spirals upwards. The following figures bring out how the matter developed in the U.S.A. over two thirty year periods from 1900 to 1960. They show the relationship between the number of marriages celebrated and the number of divorces granted in the same year: the relationship, so to speak, between the number of marriages "made" and those "unmade" in a given year.
Year Marriages Divorces % of divorces
to marriages
1900 709,000 56,000 8%
1930 1,127,000 196,000 17%
1960 1,527,000 395,000 26% []

The upward spiral continued and accelerated dramatically. The 1960 proportion had all but doubled only 15 years later. In 1975, the number of marriages was 2,126,000, and of divorces, 1,026,000 [61]: practically a 50% proportion. One divorce for every two marriages celebrated!
This can scarcely be described as a picture of increasing human happiness. It rather gives clear evidence of growing human failure and isolation. Of all natural institutions, marriage - with its hope of a love that is stable, deep and permanent - surely offers the greatest promise of happiness. If, in divorcist societies, up to 50% of persons who marry fail to find happiness in marriage, where are they going to find it? In a second marriage? The statistics again say otherwise. The divorce rate among divorced persons who re-marry is three or four times higher than among those who marry for the first time.
It is easy enough to see how the legalization of divorce tends to create a situation that drives more and more marriages on the rocks. In a society where marriage is regarded as an irrevocable step, people think twice or three times about marrying. No one enters lightly on a life-long commitment. And later on in married life, when the inevitable difficulties come, the very fact that there is no "easy way out", helps them to fight to make a go of it. In a divorcist society, it is hard for people who marry not to have the thought somewhere in the back of their minds, "If it doesn't work, I can always get a divorce". With such an approach, there is nothing definitive about the step of getting married. One is not committing one's life, one is simply trying something out, while reserving to oneself the "right" to get out of it or to get rid of it if it does not work. The divorcist mentality breeds a commercial approach to marriage. One tends from the outset to regard the whole transaction with certain misgivings, and therefore one insists on a "freedom-back-if-not-satisfied" guarantee. "Try it, just to see" may be a sound basis to a business transaction. Is it a sound basis to what should be a transaction of love? An "I'll try it, to see" approach to marriage is an essentially calculating attitude, and is almost certain to bring about failure, because one may try it, but one does not try oneself.
Indissolubility and happiness
My second suggestion was that indissolubility is designed (by nature, by God) to make for human happiness, not to spoil it. Now, we can understand the point of indissolubility if we understand the point and purpose of marriage itself, especially that end of the "good of the spouses" which, as we saw in chapter three, church teaching now stresses so much.
It comes down to this. Marriage is designed to make people happy by teaching them to love. Indissolubility is simply God's rule for those apprenticed to love: that they are not entitled to give up the effort to love even when it becomes difficult. Let us take a deeper look into this.
Marriage (and indissolubility), we have just stated, should make people happy because this is part of God's design for marriage. A few evident qualifications need to be added to this statement:
- Although marriage can and should make people happy, it cannot make them perfectly happy. Perfect happiness cannot be found here on earth. It can only be found in Heaven. So, if one insists on expecting perfect happiness from marriage, one is bound to be disappointed.
- Second, and equally important, although marriage can make people happy, it cannot make them effortlessly happy. Happiness is not found easily; it takes an effort. Easy happiness does not last. This means there is no such thing as a happy marriage without an effort [62].
- From the general principle, "marriage should make people happy", one should not too quickly or too easily draw the particular conclusion, "marriage should make me happy". If made in strict logic, the conclusion follows. But if made - as it so often is - in a spirit of impatience, self-pity, bitterness or indignation, it is almost certainly proceeds less from logic than from self-centeredness. And marriage, if approached self-centeredly, is just not going to work - that is, it is not going to make anyone happy.
Each one of these points, especially the last, merits some further comment.
Marriage cannot give perfect happiness. That is not its purpose. Its purpose, one needs to insist, is not to give the spouses perfect happiness, but to mature them for perfect happiness. In everything here on earth, God is trying to teach us to love - so that we will be able to enjoy Heaven fully. Marriage is one of his most intensive schools of love, and the one where He tries to train most of his pupils.
This is where the second point comes in. If marriage takes an effort, it is because love takes an effort. Love is no easy subject to learn; just the contrary. The reason for its difficulty lies in the fact that we are all strongly self-centered. Love, true love, is other-centered. As a result, the average self-centered person (that is, all of us) has to overcome his or her selfishness in order to be able to love. And this means a constant effort and struggle: a struggle that can go up and down, see-saw like. Love will grow only if self-centeredness is lessened. If selfishness remains, love cannot grow. If selfish-ness grows, love declines and can die. Love seldom dies a natural death. If it dies, the reason is usually that it has been murdered: killed by self-love.
We are strongly self-centered, but not totally so. We have in fact a real hankering and need for true love, for other-centeredness. But it is true that in practically all marriages, each of the spouses starts out with a much larger dose of self-centeredness than of other-centeredness.
But - it may be objected - surely two people who marry are usually very much in love, and therefore very "other-centered"? Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not; time alone will tell. How is it that so many persons who, on marrying, regarded their partner as the "only one in the world", eight or ten years later "can't stand" him or her, and get divorced? Their love "died", we are told; and divorce is the only logical step once love has died. We will consider in a moment what may be the best thing to do, if love has "died". But let us not proceed too soon. We could profitably do a post-mortem on this married love that - we are told - has just died, remembering again that if love dies, it seldom dies a sudden death.
Love, at the time of the marriage, was aglow with health. Through what peculiar process of consumption and decline has it passed that one or both of the spouses want to write its obituary notice ten or fifteen years later? Was it, after all, not as strong and healthy as appeared at the start? Probably not. Love seldom starts strong, for at the start one seldom knows the other person well and deeply, as he or she really is (a mixture, like all of us, of good points and bad points).
What starts strong is romance. But romance tends to idealize the other person. It therefore is not really other-centered, for it is centered not on the real other, but on an "other" seen through rose-tinted glasses that reflect an image peculiarly pleasing to the viewer. Romance, in other words, is perfectly compatible with a large dose of self-centeredness.
Romance is pleasant and easy. It can give love an initial push to get it going, but it is not the same as love. And when the easy momentum that romance produces runs out, love - if it is there - has to keep going on its own. It is easy to "fall in love". To be in love, to remain in love, to stand in love, without falling "out" of it: all of this is difficult.
Romantic love sees no defects in the other person. Real love should see them, or at least be convinced that they are there and will appear. And real love must obviously love the other person with his or her defects: love him or her, that is, as he or she really is. That is anything but easy [63].
A profession of love that is equivalent to "I love you provided you have no defects" is not love at all. It is the same as saying, "I'll love you provided you don't turn out to be a real person..."; and clearly, the love that is only prepared to love a fictional person is a fictional love. To put it another way: "I'll love you provided you have no defects" is the same as saying, "I'll love you provided I don't have to make an effort to love you..." - which is the approach of simple and sheer selfishness, no more.
Attaching conditions to love
That is why any conditions attached to love (especially the condition implied in allowing for the possibility of divorce) are a sign that self-centeredness is present, and well settled into a good defensive position. "I'll love you until such and such a date - and always provided I don't meet someone who attracts me more before then": that sounds like a good, straightforward, cards-on-the-table, commercial approach. It does not sound like love.
If marriage is viewed as a satisfaction-producing machine, the moment it is no longer gives satisfaction, it has essentially failed and should be replaced; just as one replaces any other machine, such as a television set or a car, that no longer works satisfactorily. But is it the marriage that has failed, or is it the husband or the wife, or both of them?... When the car breaks down irremediably, was it destined to be a dud from the start, or was it simply the victim of bad driving? And how long will a new car last in the hands of the same driver unless he or she learns to drive properly?
You have to learn to love. You have to work at it. It takes time. And it can get harder as one goes on. But if one perseveres, one learns. This after all is the way we approach other major aspects of life, such as a business or a profession. The vast majority of people are quite convinced that to be successful as a doctor or lawyer or accountant, one has to study at some school or university for years; and, after graduation, still keep studying. And that even then, with years and years of constant learning and effort, one may still not achieve all the profess-ional success one had expected. The peculiar thing is that the same people appear to expect instant and effortless success or happiness in marriage; and when the need for effort emerges, they (if they have absorbed the divorcist mentality) seem to think that the reasonable thing is to quit. It is not the reasonable thing. It would be just as reasonable to quit studying medicine at a particular univer-sity because one found the effort to master physiology or pharmacology too exacting, and to look around for another university where one could become a doctor without having to tire oneself studying these subjects. Even if such a person, by some fluke, graduated from some strange medical school, could he or she be anything but a failure as a doctor? Similarly, the person not prepared to make the effort to love - to learn to love - can only end up a failure as a husband or wife.
Happiness demands an effort. Marriage demands an effort. When a person in difficulties allows the thought, "I'll get a divorce and marry this other man [woman], because I'll be happier with him [her]", what she [or he] is really saying, without realizing it, is: "My happiness depends on not having too much demanded of me. I'll be happy only if I don't have to give too much, only if I don't have to come out of myself, only if I don't have to make much of an effort to love"... The person who thinks this way can never be happy. The reason is clear. Happiness is a consequence of giving: "it is happier to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Happiness is not possible, inside or outside marriage, for the person who is determined to get more than he or she is prepared to give.
Indissolubility, then, is really God's law for would-be quitters [64]: for those who get tired of the demands of love and fidelity and are tempted to chicken out. God says No; He says, "Keep at it". The happiness game, which is no cakewalk, is demandingly but all-wisely refereed by God. When played within marriage, one of its main rules is indissolubility: you just don't quit the game when the play gets tough; if you quit, you lose.
I repeat: there is no easy way to happiness. Those who seek divorce because of the difficulties that marriage involves, are simply balking at the difficulties that happiness involves. They are settling themselves on the road that leads away from happiness.
The biggest enemy of love is not the other person's selfishness, but one's own selfishness. One can run away from the other person, but one's own selfishness runs with one... After all, it is possible to love a selfish person (God does). But it may be impossible for a selfish person to love.
The intervening decades scarcely call for a modification of the judgments of an article, "The Divorced Woman" published in 1967 (when divorce was still regarded as a social problem and not taken simply as a routine fact of life). It pointed out how the divorcee is, self-confessedly, more selfish and more independent, though at the same time more self-conscious and socially more maladjusted: more defensive, less expectant of happiness, sadder... "Her 'tristesse' is revealed in the incidence of divorced women seeking psychoanalysis, in their rate of alcoholism (one in four), and suicide (three times that of married women)" [65].
Some element of jealousy is proper to married life [66]. Since the spouses belong to each other, a possessive attitude towards the other is logical enough. However the devil well knows how easily that natural possessiveness can lead to groundless suspicions which, if not checked, may ruin a good marriage (remember Othello). Suspicions should be rejected. Detective work, to discover if something is really happening, tends to undermine further whatever remains of confidence and love.
But what if some real infidelity has in fact occurred? What to do? Forgive! And set out to restore love. The spouse sinned against will be hurt, of course. So, what? Realize that it is one's own pride which has been hurt; and that if one gives way to the reaction of pride (I'll never forgive, I'll get my own back, I'll even have an affair myself), everything will be lost.
It is not enough just to forgive; one has to restore love. Or should one never forgive what may have been just a passing weakness on the other's part? Most times, it is necessary to go deeper still, and look into one's own recent behavior toward one's spouse. Have I been truly caring towards him or her? Has he or she always found a warm and welcoming smile in me - especially when I am annoyed by their lateness coming home, by their forgetfulness in this or that? Surely that is the spirit I had before marriage when I was hoping to win their love? Is there not a danger that love, once won, can be neglected? Is it surprising if it then declines; and whose fault is it? Forgiveness is the only way to restore injured love. More love, not less, is the only way to overcome what has been or is suspected to be a lack of love, or a sin against love. The person who does not understand this is proud, and will tend towards the isolation that all pride brings with it.
Bringing love back
The conjugal instinct which draws people to marry and makes them work for a happy marriage, also tends to make them work toward healing a wounded marriage or mending a broken one.
"I no longer love my husband (or my wife). My love for him (or her) has gone..." Your love for him or her, which has gone, can come back. But, for this to happen, you have to learn to forgive. If you had forgiven earlier (and perhaps also if you had asked for forgive-ness), your love would not have died. It is not quarrels between husband and wife that destroy married love; it is the failure to make them up: the inability to forgive and to ask for forgive-ness. Quarrels (even big ones) made up, do not destroy love; they can even cement it. Quarrels (even small ones) not made up, gradually poison married life and make it seem intolerable.
The love you once had has died. How much was it worth to you in the past? By what sacrifices did you show your sense of its worth? What did you do then to protect it? And - what is perhaps more important - how much are you prepared to give now in order to bring it back to life? Love can be kept alive, but not without sacrifice. Love can be brought back to life, but not without sacrifice.
"But - I'm not interested in reviving that love. My marriage was a failure, and I just don't care any longer for him or her". Very probably that statement is not true. Married love is a great treasure: too great a treasure to be lost without regret. Go back to that conjugal instinct that led you to marry, and try to revive it in its purity and idealism and generosity.
The instinct to marry, after all, is not a selfish one, and few people marry out of purely selfish motives. Marriage has to be built on the generosity involved in that instinct: the generous urge to be a good husband or wife, to learn to love one's spouse, as he or she is, with his or her defects, the generous urge to swallow pride, to overlook hurtful things, to forgive and to forget. It is simply not Christian, nor is it human, to think that life is governed by an instinct always to get one's own back, to "to give tit for tat", to answer badness badly.
There is a special memory indelibly impressed on my mind from my one visit to the Grand Canyon. It has nothing to do with the awesome grandeur of nature working on nature over thirty million years. It has to do with a very tiny bit of humanity bawling its head off in the ecologically silent bus which brought us along the southern rim of the canyon. The mother was fruitlessly using her patience to try to pacify the child. Whatever the reason for this three-year-old's rage, it erupted into a brutal climax directed precisely against her. His shrill voice spitefully articulated each word: "I - hate - you..." The shock and the hurt ripped through the bus, but the evil spell was broken by the mother's reply, which came quick and clear and true: "And - I - LOVE - you!"
But, it will be said: that is part of human nature, it is maternal instinct to love so. Quite. But it is human nature too, it is conjugal instinct, to want to be faithful in marriage, happen what may; to react with love for husband or wife, even when he or she does something hurtful or hateful.
The person who wins is the person who answers contempt or hate with love. Love is the secret weapon, it is always the stronger instrument; it has God's strength.
If you want to revive married love, go back and look again for the good points you thought your partner once had, and for which you once loved him or her. It is not likely that they have completely disappeared; but you need to concentrate on re-finding them. And, for that, you need to make the effort to keep his or her bad points out of your mind.
It can help very much if you also look for the good points which your partner's friends think he or she still has. In stress, don't seek opinion or advice about your partner from your friends: seek it from his friends, or from hers. Your friends will possibly not be able to help you to see your partner in a better and truer light; his or her friends - if you listen to them - very probably can do so.
Meaningless unions?
And a final word about the "hopeless" cases. What to do if one's partner really seems to have no virtues left? What if the husband is an absolute alcoholic, or the wife has undergone a complete mental breakdown? Even in such circumstances I have known cases, many cases, of persons who have kept faith, who have remembered the vows that love once inspired in them: "for better or for worse, in sickness or in health", and who, seeing their partner reduced to such a sad state of sickness and poverty, have responded to the challenge and risen to a heroic height in loving.
The charge that the Church, if it refuses a divorce in such cases, is passing a sentence of unhappiness on a husband or wife, is simply not true. Such persons will not be unhappy, though they will undoubtedly suffer, if they try to bear such a cross in close union with Christ.
Naturally a further point must be made here. If a person feels that what is asked in such a situation is too much; if a wife, for instance, feels she can no longer live with a drunkard of a husband who physically mistreats her, then, in the last resort, separation can of course be granted.
So the Church is not denying the right to divorce, in that sense. But she is saying: you can separate from your husband or your wife, but you are still bound to him or her. Perhaps it would be better to express it this way. It is our Lord who is in effect saying to that person: You can separate from your husband or your wife. But do not separate from me. You may feel you can no longer be happy with your partner. But you can be happy with me. Be faithful to what I ask of you. Try to administer well the talent of fidelity I have entrusted to you. And your reward will be great.
There is no condemnation to unhappiness here. What there is, is a special call to holiness. Some people, it is true, rise to such a call well; others do not. Just as some people, stricken with cancer, rise to a new degree of love of God in accepting their illness, while others lapse into bitterness and resentment. This is simply part of the deep mystery of human freedom, and of our capacity to answer God's grace in different ways.
The idea that once a marriage has become burdensome, it has become "meaningless" and should be done away with through divorce, shares much of the same despairing outlook on life as the attitude which readily declares the sufferings of an incurable patient to be purposeless, and would put an end to them through euthanasia. All marriages, like all sicknesses, must come to an end some time. In that sense, they are all "terminal". But none need be meaningless. All of our earthly experiences, good and bad, come to an end. Or rather, it is our crosses which come to an end; an end which, if we have tried to bear those crosses well, is the beginning of our real happiness and eternal reward.