Marriage: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Renewing or reneging on the marriage commitment is, for most people, their biggest discernment ever. Many factors go into the decision, but the core dilemma is often integrity versus suffering. Commitment means something; it has enduring power within conscience (though its limits are rarely explored). Marriage highly structures social and private life, thereby creating family. Will anyone recognize me once I am suddenly single? Will I recognize myself? A commitment to a central structure largely constitutes integrity for the married person.

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Farmer and Bird – Norman Rockwell – 1923

On the other hand, divorce presents an escape hatch for a world of hurt. Humans instinctively look for the first available exit from suffering. Do I work indefinitely to improve the relationship with no guarantee of success or eject now? Ending the immediate pain and dealing with any side-effects later sounds like a big relief. It might even be the most charitable move in the short- and long-term for all concerned.

I want to put in a strong disclaimer here that in any particular marriage, the question of “should I stay or should I go” is a personal one. Family, friends, spiritual advisors and marriage counselors cannot answer the question for you and should not judge your answer afterwards. With that proviso, as an example, here are my criteria for remaining in my own marriage.

My Non-Negotiables of Marriage

The dignity of the human person has primacy in all human affairs, including marriage. You are the final guardian of your own dignity, which is the object of an appropriate self-love. If you do not love yourself, you cannot really love anybody else (and vice versa). Any kind of abuse, by definition, attacks dignity. Physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse cannot be permitted.

Marriage obviously requires active engagement from both spouses. The absence of engagement is abandonment. It is clear that if your spouse does not come home one day and is never heard from again, you’ve been abandoned. There are other ways, however, that  one can leave a marriage. When your spouse refuses to work towards mutual satisfaction in the marital relationship, you no longer have a partner and likewise, you have been left alone. Infidelity or betrayal is also a form of abandonment. You cannot be in two places at once.

Two engaged people with basic respect still have a marriage. If both parties choose to stay, there is hope. However one person may find the challenge too great and choose to go. May there be mercy either way.

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Divorce First Aid

There is the first to know and then there is the second to know. This note is for the one who did not see it coming, or hoped that it would pass.

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Marilyn Monroe with a representative of Joe DiMaggio

Divorce is premature death, a marriage succumbing to a fatal disease. The funeral arrangements can take a very long time and the burial occurs in a court of law, but the emotional work closely follows the death of a person. Divorce results in a bereavement whose severity is proportional to the importance of the relationship. When your home, dreams for the future, desire for intimacy, support system and family are all built on that one relationship, it is very important indeed.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of dying have been applied to grief and here they indicate the major attitudes and emotions in the wake of divorce:

  • Denial – It is not happening. S/he did not really mean “over.” Wait for the retraction.
  • Anger – How dare s/he make me feel this bad!
  • Bargaining – I’ll change. What will it take for him/her to call this off?
  • Depression – My life is crushed and nothing is enjoyable.
  • Acceptance – I am starting to think about how to live again.

First Aid Kit

Your divorce first aid kit contains only the bandages and ointments needed to stabilize your heart and carry you through the initial grief process. Recovery launches from “acceptance” above and is a much longer journey. Here are some suggestions for your kit:

  • a separation plan, especially for children and bills
  • a place to “lay your head” (and those of your children), however small or humble
  • two safe (confidential, nonjudgmental) friends with ample time to listen
  • ample time to weep and rest your body
  • a recommitment to exercise and nutrition
  • a lawyer who specializes in family law
  • an indefinite ban on romance
  • patience with yourself