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July 27, 2006



Hugo, as someone who's only been married for nine months, I have no great insights here. But amid your controversial-but-thoughtful points, this one more than any other raised red flags and got my warning klaxons bellowing:

"I believe that the best reason to marry, for Christians and non-Christians alike,is that monogamous marriage has the potential to be the most extraordinarily successful vehicle for personal growth."

It's not about us, Hugo. Yes, positive personal growth may well be a byproduct for us, but is that the best reason for marriage, and should it even be a consideration? Marriage is perhaps primarily a call for us to sacrifice ourselves for another person's good, and to put ourselves after that other person. For Christians, it's a call to reflect the image of Christ and the church.

And, Hugo, for Christians, whatever state that we are in at a given time, married or single, *if* we are submitted to God, can be "the most extraordinarily successful vehicle" for growth in godliness -- for becoming more like Jesus. This is true even if you're single but don't have the gift of celibacy. As I tell insecure single friends, married couples are not more blessed by God than singles -- we're just differently blessed.

Peace of Christ,


Chip, your first point is quite fair: let me clarify. We don't marry merely for our own personal growth but for the opportunity to play a vital role in another's transformation; in that old paradox, the more we share and give the more we receive. At least, that's how it is supposed to be.

And you're right that marriage is not a particularly blessed state. I should have made it clear that the best thing about marriage is what it offers us the chance to do for ourselves and for others. Is it going to be the "best vehicle" to accomplish that for many people? I think yes. For everyone? Absolutely not.


Thinking of a mikvah. In one of his books, John Shelby Spong says we as Christians should create a liturgical, theologically sound ceremony of divorce. He suggests that this ceremony would be a time during which we as Christians gather round a couple going through divorce and honor them, provide for them a true demonstration of our support for them, provide them a spiritual space in which to honor the pain of the divorce, to bless them as individuals as they reconstruct their lives. At the time, I read it, I thought it was a tremendously good idea. In my experience, my more conservative friends react with horror at the suggestion, as if we are blessing divorce rather than the persons going through it.

Having recently ended my relationship of 6 and half years, I have experienced tremendous personal growth and transformation in the last few months. My congregation has sustained me with an amazing support network and active Christian love. Although seeing my ex at church would be painful, I also wish for him that he were able to participate in this amazing and loving community. There are times that a relationship has to end - it simply no longer functions. It becomes damaging to the persons involved. Ending such a relationship is certainly painful, but I cannot believe it is a sin. I do not share the common Christian view that suffering is good. I do not believe God has called us to suffer but rather, God has called us into the world to be the glory of God. The old latin phrase: Gloria Dei, Homo Vivens.

If a relationship is interfering with our full life, then something must be corrected. You can't give up at the first sign of trouble, by the same token, staying in a completely broken relationship is not virtue. In the end, ending a relationship is painful. It can free us to move on, to see more deeply into our souls. In my journey, I have found that though I dreadfully and deeply miss my ex, that there are days I want nothing more than to call him and hear his voice, I also have experienced life more fully since the end of our relationship. I believe in liberation through Christ and the gift of Christ is the Presence as I struggle to reconstruct my life, not the Presence as I struggle to stay in a relationship that was broken. Truly, the idea that divorce can be a mikvah is not difficult at all for me to understand.

Thanks, Hugo.


Glen, excellent points. Thanks for sharing. I would point out, however, that a mikvah is a ritual cleansing bath; a mitzvah is a righteous act. Not quite the same, though in some sense I suppose you could argue divorce could be both!


(smacking head against keyboard)

I'm usually more careful with language than that. I meant a mitzvah. I apologize.


Hugo, having just (finally) read Hendrix' "Getting the Love You Want," the concept of a relationship as a growth vehicle makes perfect sense to me. No, of course, that's not the only purpose for marriage, but it is, undoubtedly *a* purpose. Since I'm not currently part of a couple, the book isn't a tool for working on my marriage of course -- but it really highlighted for me some of the reasons I've had certain issues in past relationships. When/if I get involved with someone again, I hope to do so much more mindfully.


I have noted that I am not alone in a group of people who once got married in order to get a divorce. When I was very young, barely a teenager, I started dating a boy who I then married at 21. We got divorced six or seven months after our marriage: frankly, with that kind of history we were more like siblings than like partners, and the relationship was tumultuous. Yet, we were clinging to each other - kids in a scary world - and we tried to use marriage to strap ourselves together when we were obviously coming apart. The marriage and the divorce were both rituals that allowed us to end our dependence with a weight of feeling that better represented our 7(!) years together. A third of our young lives.

I am so utterly thankful that we did get divorced. We were bad for each other; different approaches to life entirely, and we kept trying to force each other into molds that didn't fit. Now, I've been with my husband for 9 years - I had a very short but incredibly important time as a single person, in which I decided I needed to be happy single before I'd consider making another relationship - and we're an incredibly good fit emotionally, spiritually, ethically, and in terms of lifestyle choice. It would be the greatest of all tragedies if I were still with my first husband - for me, and for my ex - because we are both far better suited to where we ended up. The thing that strikes me about my first marriage is that it may have worked if one of us had forced ourselves into the mold of another. Fortunately, I like strong people - I'm not sure I could have 'killing my partner's enjoyment of life' on my conscience.

I am not the only one with a similar story: this I find most interesting. I've witnessed it with a number of couples and heard many similar stories: getting married to get divorced, although, of course, you don't see it that way at the time. The marriage is created as bondage out of need, because you become panicked about making it on your own.

So yes, divorce can be a mitzvah. And marriage can be a panicked act between people who need to grow; beautiful and human and erroneous and needy.


My spouse and I are fast coming up on that 20 year mark your poster mentioned. Well, bully for us.

Frankly, I've always felt we were more lucky than possessed of any particular virtue---we both had (and continue to have) parents who remained married, and thus a good model; I at least was *taught* how to choose a marriage partner, something none of my friends claimed their parents did for them; and we were encouraged to (and in fact) waited till we were relatively old (mid 20s/early 30s) before wedding. Oh, and my spouse had a critical understanding of the absolute necessity to keep our lines of communication open.

In a lot of ways the long-standing business relationship I've had with my partner has been harder, though that too is now of some decade's standing (the friendship's past the quarter century mark.) Both have been, if you like, important factors in my `personal growth' (ugh. sorry, I find that a horrid phrase.) Yet if the partnership were to fail, it would merely elicit a ``oh, too bad'' as opposed to the moralizing that accompanies divorce, though I think it would be nearly as devastating to me personally...makes me wonder if way too many people get bent out of shape about what bits of flesh are rubbing up against what other bits.

I suppose one could throw the `think of the children' argument in support of divorce being so much more immoral than the breakup of other kinds of relationships, but I don't buy it. Any close relationship deserves support; and the failure of any such---whether we call it marriage, civil union, friendship, or even a fruitful business partnership---is often grievous, but not, I think, necessarily an evil.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

I meant a mitzvah. I apologize.

And here I was thinking you were advocating a special cleansing ritual for couples going through divorce :-).

Lynn Gazis-Sax

Almost everyone I know who has gone to a marriage counselor has found that the counselor has been divorced at least once. I love to hear the complaint that a Catholic priest can't counsel a married couple because of his lack of experience in marriage, but some one who has failed once or twice is an expert.

I'm not sure either a never married Catholic priest or a divorced person should be ruled out as being able to give effective marriage counselling. If the friend with the marriage of 19 years were trained in marriage counselling, I don't think that it would invalidate all her knowledge, or that she would need to abandon her profession, because she nevertheless found her husband walking out on her.


Lynn - I'm sure lots of people going through divorce feel the need for a special cleansing ritual . . .



Have you read Mark Jordan's "Blessing Same-sex Unions"? He says some of the same things regarding break ups and "divorces" among same sex partners and even of divorces of opposite sex partners. That we need rites of divorce that continue to witness to the care of each partner by the community beyond the marriage and that divorce rites would witness to the Resurrection in the midst of death, in this case divorce. What you offer here is further reflection beyond much of what is being thought as Christian marriage these days that really is more a reflection of cultural and advertisement matters.

I think at the heart of marriage or unions is ascesis, or learning to become a better Friend of God by being a better friend to one's sister or brother in Christ and if there be children, to sisters and brothers in Christ. But that's actually a radically traditional understanding of unions and marriages related to monasticism in some ways.


Perhaps I've not been in conservative enough circles in my life (which I actually find quite hard to believe), but I get the sense that most conservatives wouldn't consider divorce a sin, but that they will often consider re-marriage to be adultery. This is primarily b/c they see marriage as a covenant which lasts for life; in their view, one simply can't get *spiritually* divorced, though a legal divroce is usually permissible. (An interesting consequence of this point of view is that if two people get divorced and one of them subsequently dies, the remaining (ex-)spouse is then freed again to get married without sin; one can only get re-married if one's ex dies, which certainly can't help but increase enmity between separated couples.)

As for how I approach this issue, I'm still not exactly sure. I don't want to judge people who are currently living in a post-divorce marriage (and I certainly don't think they're "living in sin"), both b/c I tend to be a good liberal American Christian but also b/c I think that God's grace can work wonders beyond standard fundamentalist conceptions of morality. But I also, as some commentators have also noted, see marriage as a convenantal bond and as a profoundly more-than-symbolic representation of the relationship b/t Christ and the Church, and I'm not sure how to square that conception of marriage with re-marriage.

P.S. This might be an unrelated tangent (perhaps inspired by Arwen's comments but not to be considered an answer or rejoinder): I am an unmarried 27 year old, and I'm actually on record for saying that people should wait much, much longer to get married. Inspired by the hyperbole of Stanley Hauerwas, I once, only half-jokingly, suggested a ten year moratorium on new marriages in the Christian church, an idea that at the time I figured I would probably not fulfill; but hey, I'm already half way there now.... I still regularly (and without any real envy (I think), and still half-jokingly) tell my friends who are younger than me (even if just by two weeks, as recently happened) that they are too young to get married. Don't the statistics suggest that those who get married later have a better chance of staying together?


As any seminarian who spends much time on the New Testament soon discovers, the Pauline ideal of marriage is hardly an elevated one: 1 Corinthians 7:1 is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the institution! Marriage, in the early Christian world seems to be more of a concession to human frailty than a particularly blessed sacramental state.

What were the matters the corinthians were asking about? It seems to me, on the topic of marriage, the answers given regard specific situations of human frailty; however, these same answers may not apply for marriage in general.

Sean H


Since it was my comment you started with, let me briefly - because I need to go to bed - elaborate on a couple of things.

First, I am very sorry about your father. The point I was trying to make with the analogy is that divorce is bad - period. By which I mean it is a social ill and an objectively bad thing. Perhaps I should have said - like putting lipstick on a pig. There is not getting around the new testament scripture's at least dim view (or as I believe condemnation) of it. We look through scripture for loopholes and exceptions, but basic Christian doctrine condemns it.

I think most people in what I suppose you would call successful, long-term marriages understand that marriage is not principally a personal relationship. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Through the sacrament, the married couple have brought into being a new, beautiful and sacred entity. Divorce kills it. Divorce is death. Divorce is evil.

This does not mean some people can't have amicable divorces or even good relationships after divorce. Indeed, when a divorce occurs, that's better than the alternative. But that still doesn't make divorce a "good" thing or a mitzvah, or a blessing, or a grace - which was the import of your essay. Even in cases where there is abuse or adultery, separation, and even legal separation through divorce, may be necessary but it is still not a good, but a necessary evil.

On a more practical level, the perfectly amicable divorce is, in my experience, the exception – I won’t say rare, but certainly the exception. For every life that is made better by a divorce, I think 2 or 3 are made worse or even ruined – particularly if you consider the children. Earlier in my career I worked doing, for lack of a better description, legal clinic work, and in that time I dealt with about 200 clients involved in divorces or their aftermath. That was my experience. I believe you will find statistics on suicide, poverty, mental illness, and crime all bear this out.

The ironic thing is that where both spouses don’t see the marriage principally as a personal relationship, the relationship part is better. I was truly heartened by Chip’s post. Married 9 months, and he gets it. I have been married 22 years, and it took me 15 to start to understand it. Good for him.


Sean, I apologize for taking a rather cheap shot by raising my father's death. You aren't a regular reader of this blog and couldn't be expected to know that. My bad.

I'll agree wholeheartedly that most divorces are pretty ugly. But perhaps that is less because divorce is so inherently awful, and more because of the huge stigma we attach to it. And you're right as well that many people do "divorce badly." The fact that so many do it badly doesn't mean it can't also be done well; the fact that it is so often done with malice and selfishness doesn't mean that those are inherent attributes of the process.

We can enthusiastically share an opposition to betrayal, selfishness, cruelty, and stupidity. But those are not part and parcel of all divorces.


Gotta see your Hall & Oates reference and worsen it with a Barenaked Ladies reference:

The bravest thing I've ever done
was to run away and hide
but not this time
the weakest thing I've ever done
was to stay right by your side
just like this time and every time


Sweet! You win!


I believe that the best reason to marry, for Christians and non-Christians alike,is that monogamous marriage has the potential to be the most extraordinarily successful vehicle for personal growth.

While marriage can be a vehicle for personal growth and a wonderful experience that leads two individuals to meld into a unified couple intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I proffer the age old reason to marry is to procreate and propagate the species. Is that not a reason any longer? Is it only the me, me, me reasons that we look for and try to justify? With that said, is there any doubt why so many marriages end in divorce when entered into for self reasons?


Sorry, that should be "for selfish reasons".

David Morrison

re We all want wonderful marriages, but sometimes marriages die just like bodies. Quitting at the first sign of trouble is the sin of weakness, no doubt -- but continuing to remain in what is loveless and lifeless is the sin of pride and stubbornness. After a reasonable and concerted and prayerful effort to solve the problems that are killing a marriage, it is indeed a mitzvah to let one's spouse go with love and in peace.

Sorry, but no. Or at least not necessarily. It may very well be that continuing to refrain from love and life in a marriage represents an unwillingness to change or modify oneself for the good of the other. What I have observed in marriages and found in friendships is that people change and relationships in order to keep growing have to be flexible enough to change as well. In marriage or in enduring friendships the parties commit to remain in one another's lives even as their partners change and grow and even as remaining there requires they change and grow.

Wonderful marriages or lasting friendships have times when they have enormous difficulties and terrible problems. What makes them wonderful and lasting is that both parties remain committed to one another through those problems so that they, as spouses or friends, can get to the other side of whatever challenges the problems brought. Perserverance, it seems to me, is the great unsung and too often ignored virtue required for marriage or lasting friendship. That and forgiveness.


David, what you describe is the happy phenomenon of two people growing together; that is often but not always the outcome of the maturation process. Sometimes, alas, growing apart happens as well. That's not a moral failing, but a simple reality.

The Happy Feminist

Sean H. says:

For every life that is made better by a divorce, I think 2 or 3 are made worse or even ruined – particularly if you consider the children.

Of course, sometimes divorce is something parents SHOULD do for their children. When I was growing up, I would have given anything for my parents to divorce. I think many children suffer terribly for their parents' misguided belief that they should stay together "for the sake of the children."


from the perspective of a secular woman in a long-term relationship who is contemplating marriage, i found these questions posed by cary tennis (who can be insufferable sometimes, but sometimes gets it right) to be really thought-provoking:

Is marriage magically transformative? Is it transformative at all? Does it confer on the individual any new life understanding, or any new ability to cope? What existential problems does marriage solve, and what ones does it create? Does it help or hinder our development as people?

as someone not considering the religious aspect of a marital union, these questions seem pretty paramount to me.


My parents were married 40+ years. The secret to their success? They spent the last 20 years living on different continents and my father had a mistress 20 years his junior as his "little wife."

The reason they didn't get a divorce? My mother was convinced that divorce would bar the entrance to Heaven.

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