I am getting more and more excited about my upcoming marriage. No, I'm not going to reveal the exact date and details; some things don't need to be sent out across the blogosphere. I will post an announcement after the wedding, however.
As our wedding date draws get closer and the anticipation grows, I've also been thinking -- just a little bit -- about divorce. No, I'm happy to say that I'm not filled with foreboding. My certainty about the woman who will be my wife is deep, far deeper than I've known with anyone else! I feel blessed that my fiancee is willing to marry a man who does have a track record of three divorces; her faith in me and our mutual belief that the past is not necessarily the best predictor of future behavior are great reassurances.
But this week, I've been filled with a strange sense of gratitude for my three previous marriages. I'm keenly aware of the fact that I learned a great deal in each of them, and though all of the lessons were painful, they were ultimately very positive in my life. Indeed, as far as I can tell, I cannot imagine having the relationship skills I do possess if I hadn't gone through each of these brief, difficult, but nonetheless significant marriages. If nothing else, my past has taught me a great deal about what NOT to do in a new marriage; it has also liberated me from most of the unhelpful fantasies about what relationships are.
I know I'm treading dangerously close to the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore on account of this.") Obviously, lots and lots of men have become wonderful, thoughtful husbands and fathers without having three multiple prior marriages! And let me hasten to argue that I don't think that divorce is an inherently good thing. But I also have learned that "failed marriages" can have a profoundly positive affect upon those who survive them, provided those who came out of that marriage chose to learn the lessons offered by the experience. And I think it's safe to say that for some of us, we might never have learned our lessons in any other way.
I don't write in any detail about my previous marriages. All were brief; none lasted longer than a few years. All ended for different reasons, and they ended in different ways. While my second marriage ended stormily and abruptly, my third marriage ended very gently and thoughtfully. With this final divorce, my ex-wife and I spent a great deal of time in therapy, and as a result of that process came to see our entire marriage in a different light.
Our marriage counselor was -- and is -- a prominent Christian psychologist. He was one of the early graduates of Fuller Seminary's Graduate School of Psychology. Obviously, I expected "Dr. K." to take a strongly anti-divorce tack. But he surprised us, especially one day when my former wife, crying in his office, said "Divorce makes me feel like such a failure." Dr. K said something remarkable (I paraphrase, though I remember it vividly):
"You know, I used to think divorce was always a sign of failure. But I don't use the term 'failed marriage' as lightly any more. I think the best divorces are more like graduations -- they mark the moment when the marriage has served its purpose, both spouses have learned all that they could from it, and it's time for them to move on."
(Oral emphasis in the original.) Coming from the mouth of a famous Fuller Ph.D whom I knew came from a conservative Dutch Calvinist background, this was pretty stunning! (And for those of you who know the small Pasadena community of "Fuller folk", don't try and guess the identity of Dr. K.) But as shocking as it was, it rang true. These were not easy words offered to comfort two guilt-ridden people. Dr. K was drawing attention to the very real possibility that in some instances, divorce can (for all its attendant hurts and disappointments) be a profoundly positive experience, particularly when it occurs in a kind, civil atmosphere where each partner gets a chance to share their personal pain and grief.
My evangelical theology and my romantic fantasy both tell me the same thing: all marriages should last forever. It's hard to extricate oneself from that belief, and even now, I'm not entirely convinced that we ought to try and do so. There's certainly some very real value in making a lifelong commitment, even if one's own "growth trajectory" makes it impossible to continue to honor that commitment after a certain period of time. At the same time, there's no point in having divorced folks wander around guilt-ridden. I can't tell you how many of my Christian friends who are in their second or third marriages still feel shame and guilt about their divorces. For those of us who believe in forgiveness, and who belong to religious communities that honor the possibility of remarriage after divorce, such guilt seems almost prideful. If regeneration is a process that can happen over and over again, as our faith tells us is possible, then surely we are defying God's grace if we continue to beat ourselves up for past marriages that were ended by dissolution rather than death!
But I don't just believe that divorce is an "evil" that can be forgiven. Though many divorces are bitter and nasty, not all of them need be. I've gone the bitter and angry route (in my second), and I've gone the loving, charitable, and (dare I say it) "positive" route (in my third.) Thus in my own experience, I have witnessed the very real redemptive possibilities that can be found in the experience of marital dissolution.
In this last divorce process, which lasted months, I allowed myself to experience the unique "refining fire" that the end-of-marriage process can offer. I am absolutely convinced that few other experiences, if any, can force one to confront the realities of one's own sinfulness and one's own selfishness! In that marriage, especially in the drawn-out process which ended it, I faced some colossally uncomfortable truths about myself. In the safe atmosphere of the therapist's office, my ex-wife and I confronted each other. But rather than just "dump", we both took the time to hear what we were being told. And by doing that "hearing work", we not only validated the other's experience, we came to terms with facts about ourselves we would never otherwise have seen.
Strange thing: We began the therapy process with Dr. K hoping the marriage could be saved. But we continued to see him for weeks AFTER we had both agreed to divorce. Our goal in those remaining sessions was not to find a way to stay together; rather, it was to make the separation experience as vital, as cleansing, and as cathartic as possible. It was a great gift that my ex-wife and I gave each other. On the final night of therapy, I walked my ex to her car after we were finished. "I feel elated", she said, "giddy." "I know", I replied, "me too." We hugged tightly for what would be the last time, and just before saying goodbye, we thanked each other once again. The thank you was for all the effort each had put into the marriage, but also all the honesty and forgiveness and grace we had each brought to the divorce experience. I wept as I drove away that night, but I was not in agony; the tears were tears of incredible gratitude for the amazing experience that I had just completed.
Of course, saying that there is such a thing as a "good divorce" or that it can be like "graduation" is not the same thing as saying that divorce is the best possible outcome! Obviously, in the best and healthiest marriages, that experience of being in the "crucible", with all one's selfish impurities melting away, will happen within the relationship itself, and not only in the therapist's office as one prepares for the final goodbye! As I prepare to get married again, I am filled with genuine confidence that my beloved and I will be able to challenge each other and help each other transform -- all while making the marriage grow and survive.
I am confident of this not only because of the tremendous depth of love I have for my fiancee, but because I feel that we each have a formidable "skill set" of spiritual and psychological tools that we can bring to the table. In my case, I acquired those tools from many sources: from various spiritual communities, wise mentors and pastors, dear friends, and the grace of a loving God. But I also acquired those tools through the immensely painful -- and yet also immensely transformative -- experience of my three divorces. When I stand with my bride-to-be not long from now, I will have thoughts of no one but her in my head. She is my "now", and she is my "tomorrow", and Lord willing, will be my tomorrow for all the tomorrows to come. But I am only truly ready to be hers because of all of my yesterdays, and all that they taught me.