6. Divorce: the children
In the preceding chapter I sought to show how the marriage bond is designed to protect love, to keep the spouses' love in one piece, despite the wear and tear of daily life and the centrifugal forces of selfishness. But the unbreakable character of the marriage bond is designed not only to protect the love of the spouses, but also and specially to protect love for the children: to prevent the atmosphere of love which they need for their development and happiness from being shattered by the weakness of one or both parents, by their selfishness or by their simple lack of thought.
That children have a right to their parents' fidelity has often been said; and that children are made unhappy by divorce is surely more than obvious. I would like to suggest a further perspective from which the matter of divorce can be considered.
In a divorce situation one can no doubt set up a plea for the children's right to happiness, as against the right to happiness which the parents claim or (more probably) which one of the parents claims for himself or herself. To me it seems more positive to go directly to that parent's heart and to try to help him or her to weigh his or her own happiness and his or her children's happiness together, so as to see that they cannot be separated: that the happiness of the children (the easier happiness that the children are entitled to) and their parents' happiness (the tougher happiness that the parents should be prepared to live) are so interlinked that one cannot stand without the other.
Suppose: A married person has fallen "out of" love with his or her spouse and "into" love with a third party. He or she thinks of divorce and would justify the possibility in the name of "my right to happiness". That such a person is thinking selfishly is less to our point than the fact that he or she is not thinking clearly. That person's right to happiness will not be satisfied by a divorce, because a divorce harms too many things that are essential to his or her happiness. It shatters his or her children's happiness; and that fact effectively undermines the divorced parent's happiness too.
A heart divided about happiness
The situation needs adequate analysis. It is not enough to see a sort of external opposition of "happinesses", as if the person were caught in a cross-fire between a personal right to happiness and one's children's right to happiness. Nor is it enough to say that husband or wife should be prepared to sacrifice their personal happiness to that of their children. There is truth in that; but it is only part of the truth. Such an analysis does not go deep enough.
The real point is that his or her own heart is divided in itself precisely about personal happiness. That heart is torn between two conflicting considerations about happiness; and unless the tension is resolved properly, he or she will never be happy.
On the one hand there is the thought, "I won't be happy if I have to continue living with my husband or wife (and - perhaps - "I won't he happy unless I can live with X, whom I now feel I love"). On the other hand, there is the thought, "But I won't be happy without my children's love either!"
This last point has to be considered in its full implications. Because a person may argue: "But, I can divorce and still have my children with me - at least most or part of the time"; or, "I can divorce, and still love my children. I can divorce and still have my children's love".
This is where reasoning loses touch with reality. A divorced person may retain partial or total custody of their children. What is not retained is the children's love, certainly not all of it. At the best, a divorced parent might retain a very reduced part of it, for the very fact of divorce inevitably destroys a large part of that love. That is why it is fooling oneself to think, "Even if I get a divorce, I'll still love my children, as before; and they'll still love me, as before". It is just not true; if you divorce, things can never be as before. They won't love you as before; they will love you, at best, with a maimed love, with the same sort of love that you showed them in divorcing. If your love for them is not prepared for sacrifice, their love for you will be without respect.
When a marriage has remained childless, husband or wife has little defence against the temptation to see divorce as the easy way out of difficulties and the easy way into happiness. But once a married person has become a parent, there is no easy way out of difficulties and no easy way into happiness. Unless their children mean absolutely nothing to them, such parents have only one way to happiness: a way that goes through those difficulties.
Only where there is no love for the children is divorce the easy way out. But then it is the way out for loveless persons who, having chosen that way, will carry their lack of love with them.
Where there are children and where there is love for them, the temptation of divorce puts every quality and resource a person has to the test. Some people come out victorious from the struggle, some come out defeated. Many defeats, with their train of sadness, could be avoided if people were helped to think more clearly about the issues and the forces involved.
The issue is happiness - for all concerned. And the forces - the forces at work right there within the heart of the person tempted to divorce - are basically two. One force - a powerful and, perhaps, seemingly irresistible force - thrusting against the marriage is a voice repeating insistently, I cannot stand my partner. I cannot keep it up any longer. At the same time and in the same heart, however, there is force thrusting in favor of the marriage, in favor of the home of which I am father or mother, in favor of my children, with another voice repeating with equal insistence, I cannot let my children down. I cannot destroy their love.
Two forces fighting each other. Two voices struggling to be heard, each trying to shout the other down. One is the voice of tiredness: I've had enough. It is the voice of self-concern and self-pity: of surrender. The other is the voice of generosity and loyalty: You've got someone besides yourself to think of. Keep fighting. Two forces fighting inside. Which will win?
The voice of tiredness has its arguments. "But - it is better for the children if we separate. That way they won't be exposed to these continuous quarrels between us which do them such harm". The fault with this argument is that it does not present all the alternatives. It is bad for children to be exposed to their parents' quarrels. It is better for them not to be so exposed. But it is worse for them to be exposed to their parents' divorce. One has reflected little on life if one has not realized that it is more damaging for a child to lose a parent through divorce than to lose him or her through death.
All the love my children need
If a person thinking of divorce is capable of thinking clearly, he or she will realize: Divorce may be easier on me, but it can never be better for my children. What is good for children, what is best for them, is that their parents - the father and mother of the family they belong to (and no substitute father or mother) - live together, in deliberate and faithful union, if not in perfect harmony.
"But that is impossible. In our case, it is impossible. The way he or she goes on. It drives me mad... No, no. We cannot live together, not even with a minimum of external harmony".
You can't live together? It depends on how strong your motives are. If you are really concerned about your children and about what is best for them, then - with prayer, with God's help - you may yet learn to live together, at least with that minimum of external harmony. You cannot live together? You can try - for your children's sake.
"No, No. I can't do it". (And the comes a further "argument"): "And in any case I do love my children. Even if divorced, I'll give them all the love I gave them before. I'll give them all they love they need"...
Don't you see that the love they need is not just a father's love in isolation, or a mother's love in isolation? It is not just your love alone that they need; it is his love or her love as well. The love they need is their parents' love: both your loves together, your united love: father's and mother's love irrevocably put together and held sacred against every effort to pull them apart.
"What God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mt 19:6). The divine prohibition applies to divorce in more ways than one. It is also, and very particularly, that united parental love for their children which man - the parents themselves - must not tear apart. You cannot be united in your love for one another? You can be united in your love for your children.
The children need my spouse's love, as well as mine. This is what God wants you to reflect. This is what your own very heart wants you to face up to: our children need our love, they are entitled to it. If you still doubt that this is true, ask them - whether they prefer two loves apart, or two loves together: their parents' love.
Nevertheless, some parents contemplating divorce not only do not realize the truth of this, they even think that what the children need can easily be supplied in a substitute form. "My children need a father's or a mother's love, as well as my love? Well, of course, they can have it. Jim [or Mary] - whom I mean to marry once I am free - will make such a wonderful new parent; a much better parent, in fact, than that insensitive and intolerable Joe [or Jane] whom I've been putting up with all these years" .
Such parents do not realize that for their children this "replacement love" can never be so. Jim or Mary may be liked by the children; or they may not. They may become good friends to them; or they may not. What Jim or Mary can never be or become is their father or mother.
The fact is that Joe or Jane, however insensitive or intolerable, is their father or mother: the one they have and the one they need: defects and all.
"But" - I hear the reply - "you don't know Joe. His drunken bouts. The way he treats the children when he is in that state. How can that be good for the children?" It's not. But your divorce will be worse. Your faithfulness will do them far more good than his drunkenness can do them harm. And your unfaithfulness will do them far more harm.
The lessons parents teach their children
Parents are meant not only to hug and kiss their children or buy them presents or feed them and pay their school fees. They are meant to teach them, to prepare them for life. And you can teach them marvelously by sticking with that intolerable husband or wife. You can teach them also through your failures. Because of course you will have some failures. Even with those failures - provided you start again each time - you are still helping your children, and helping them immensely. You, in those specific difficult circumstances, are doing a wonderful job as a father or mother. You are teaching them two most important lessons for life:
- that certain things are sacred in life, and marriage is one of them; that marriage is for keeps, until death;
- that marriage, which is meant to be a lasting union, is a union of two ordinary persons, with plenty of defects. Marriages don't last because two people are perfectly matched, or because they were ideally suited to one another in temperament, or because they never had a row, never experienced difficulty in getting on... No - marriages last because people set their minds to it, because they learn to get on.
How important it is for a young person entering adult life, and especially when approaching marriage, to be able to say: "My parents' marriage lasted. They stuck together. And it is not as if they always found it easy; not as if they were ideally matched. No way! They had their defects (we children too knew them: Mom's nerves, Dad's binges...). And yet they stuck together - perhaps mainly for our sake. I think they stuck together too because they prayed. They had their quarrels, but they were faithful".
How this steadies and strengthens young people who are themselves approaching marriage. They will not want to be less good than their parents; and they will know that this is not easy. And so they will think twice or three times about the marriage they are now contemplating. This boy, this girl... Will it last between us? And when the voice comes inside - Does it matter so much? If it does not work, you can always take the easy way out - they will be more likely to reply, as a human heart should: But I don't want the easy way out. My parents didn't want it; or at least they didn't take it. I want a marriage that works. I want a love that lasts. I can see plenty of people around me, and not too much older than myself, who have taken the easy way out. And what an unhappy and unholy mess they seem to be making of their lives. I don't want that.
This is the big lesson about marriage that is taught to children by the fidelity - under strain - of their parents. What is it, however, that is taught to their children, what sort of image of marriage is communicated to them, by parents who give way to the divorce temptation? Marriage - they are in effect telling their children - is a consumer commodity, not only liable to breakdown, but simply not worth repairing if it does break down. It is not really repairable at all. You just dump it as soon as it begins to go wrong, and go off and get a new one.
A husband or a wife? Well, that is something you acquire, as you might an automobile. You choose an attractive model, one that you find comfortable, easy to use, demanding a minimum of effort on your part; but one that you abandon once it gets old or a bit rattly, and starts being more trouble than it is worth. Basically it is worth very little. So you just look around for a "better" model and trade the old one in.
And, what if there are children in the marriage? Well, hopefully they'll enjoy the whole new transaction (after all, why can't they see it can be fun to change parents?). And if they don't, they'll have to grin and bear it. I'm their parent? Sure; but, to be honest, they were never really very important in my eyes. Just accessories that came with that original purchase I made. So, well, after all, that's it, that is what they are: just accessories... The main thing is that I must be happy with my automobile. And if the old accessories don't fit or won't go with the new model, well then, regretfully and all, you know, I'll have to let them go. They don't mean all that to me.
That is the idea of marriage that divorced parents teach their children. And when those children marry, and the moment comes (it will come; it always comes) when their marriage becomes difficult, how will those children react? What sort of persons will they turn out to be in that moment? In all predictable certainty, they will be like their parents: Why should I try to make a go of my marriage now that the going has become tough? Why should I sacrifice myself for my children? Children don't care for their parents (oh yes, you cared - once - very much for your parents; and then they let you down and made you bitter). Children don't respect their parents; at least I never respected mine (but you did - right up to their divorce).
Divorce casts a spell of unhappiness on children. And as the experience of that unhappiness mounts, there comes a growing bitterness towards their unfaithful parents.
So, in this divorce you are considering, it is not just your children's present happiness that is at stake; it is their future happiness too: the sort of life that you prepared them for, the sort of happiness - easy or difficult, true or false - that you, by your own life and example, taught them to seek. It is not just your marriage that is at stake; it is also their marriage in the future. Dump your marriage (and your family) now; and you are sinking your children's marriage tomorrow.
People contemplating divorce need to reflect on these realities - of which they may be only hazily aware. The choice they are faced with is not one between "freedom with happiness" on the one hand, and "condemned to misery", on the other.
What they are faced with is a choice between two approaches to happiness. The first is difficult: to remain stuck (that is, faithful) to their present marriage and family. The second seems easy: to be "freed".
What they may or may not see is that the second choice is not a choice for happiness at all. It frees them from too many things. It "frees" them from the duty of loving someone they once promised to love, but who no longer seems lovable; but it also "frees" them from the right and privilege of being loved by those whose love they surely still want but no longer merit: their own children.
That is why the second choice is not a choice for happiness; or, if one wishes, it is a choice for such a poor "happiness" that it can never really make a person happy. It is a "profit-and-loss" happiness: calculated indeed, but badly calculated, because what has to be assigned to the loss column is just too much. It will be a happiness headed for quick bankruptcy because it has been acquired at too high a personal cost.
This chapter and the preceding one have been written for couples who sense that their marriage is breaking up. The preceding chapter was designed to help them reflect on conjugal fidelity: on the many motives for renewing or reviving the love that once brought their marriage into existence. But pastoral experience has of course taught me that with many couples it may seem too late to invoke that argument. It may be little use to appeal to a love that once existed but that is now (so they feel) dead beyond recovery. Even in such cases, nevertheless, one can and should appeal to the love that is still there: to their love for their children. That has been the purpose of this chapter: to appeal to parental fidelity. The motive of the children is the big motive for faithfulness: to keep a marriage together, whatever the effort .
If the spouses make up their minds not to desert their children, God will not desert them. If they are prepared to make the effort to get on together, or at least to tolerate one another, then the basis is laid for a possible - though gradual - resurrection of their love for one another.
So often estranged parents, who determine to work together for their children, to bury their differences and keep them buried, little by little rediscover respect for one another, because each is aware that the other is making a sacrifice; and from respect can come a new birth of love. The love they thought dead and gone for ever, revives.
I am sacrificing myself for my children. So is he or she. We are doing what we can for our children. And so the sense of joint purpose, of reunited endeavour, emerges. And gradually, if they persevere, this awareness leads to renewed respect. Respect gives rise to renewed esteem. And esteem, to reborn love.
In all of this I have not mentioned what is surely the toughest case of all: where one of the parents has made a definitive break, and has already divorced and remarried someone else. What is the abandoned party to do? Not to abandon the children; and a clear way of abandoning them is to think of remarriage. If one parent has torpedoed the family, let the other not finally sink it. The remaining parent will certainly have to find a lot of extra strength somewhere. God alone can give it; but he will readily do so. If that parent prays, he or she will find the grace to give to the children the example of faithfulness - faithfulness, precisely, to an unfaithful husband or wife - that can still help the children to keep the ideal of marriage (which also means the demanding reality of marriage) before them.