Finding the Sacred in Divorce
I can sometimes come across as over-idealizing and/or romanticizing issues so I want to be very clear from the outset that I do not advocate divorce. I think it is awful and personally the worst experience of my life so far. I know that each situation is as unique as the individuals involved and just as I never wanted to speak on behalf of all marriages based on my own one marriage, I also do not want to speak for all divorces based on my own one divorce. I have been pondering this essay for a while now. It is a topic that is so complex and nuanced that I have been scared to write about it all for fear that anything I say will only be confusing and/or misunderstood. Even now I tread this territory very lightly and it is entirely possible that this is a post I will edit and/or delete sometime later when I am wiser and have more perspective. I also realize that our divorce was relatively simple – we had not been married very long and we had no children or property to negotiate. At the same time, I have been doing a lot of reading about divorce and have found very little that discuses the place of the sacred and spirituality in divorce. Even the most encouraging writing about divorce is mostly about graciously navigating the many practicalities involved – which is necessary and good but also just a small piece of everything that is happening. So I am writing this to Bethany in February 2014 when I did not know if God or the sacred or meaning of any kind could be found in the midst of what I was experiencing.
Marriage is a beautiful metaphor. In almost every culture and religion, marriage is seen as a symbol for more than just two people who have chosen to live together. There is an inherent sacredness that is almost universally acknowledged. There are reams of writing on the sacred and spiritual in marriage. I read probably a dozen books on the subject before getting married myself and I had only started to scratch the surface of what is available. This is good. We should affirm the beauty and sacrament of marriage. Unfortunately it is also a sad fact that about half of American marriages end in divorce and that the vast majority of those divorces (I have read percentages as high as 75%) are unilateral rather than mutual which means that there are many, many divorced people who did not choose to be in the ugliest, most heartbreaking, and seemingly least sacred period of their lives and yet find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to navigate it as gracefully as possible. And if I sincerely believe that life itself is sacred, then there must be something sacred to be found in every aspect of life – even divorce.
When I started seeing a therapist regarding my divorce, one of my main questions was: “How do you grieve the non-physical, spiritual, and eternal losses? How do you grieve covenants and beauty and the connections of souls?” My therapist admitted he had never been asked that question and that he did not know of any books on the subject but we spent several sessions discussing it. While I do not think we came to any clear conclusions, I did find peace in feeling free to acknowledge that there is a process of grieving the many non-physical losses involved in divorce. We all experience and process grief in different ways and deep grief is often a sign of the depth of love and commitment that is being grieved. You do not grieve something you did not cherish and hold as important. The very act of grieving is acknowledging you are losing something (or someone) sacred and meaningful to you.
I loved my husband and I loved our marriage so when my husband informed me that we were getting divorced, it felt violent. Even though no physical violence was involved, the ripping of his heart and soul from mine felt more violent than anything I have ever experienced. In the midst of that violence, it was impossible to imagine that there could be anything sacred found in this situation. The pain in my heart felt physical and I honestly wondered for several weeks whether I was going to die just because the pain was so intense. The pain kept me from sleeping and eating and I experienced an emptiness I have never known. On the outside I was still perfectly capable of taking care of myself and going to work and running errands but on the inside I just felt a great hole. For the first time in my life, I felt completely disconnected from the sacred and eternal. It quickly became apparent to me that I was not going to be able to just “move on” and that I was going to need to struggle my way through this period of my life in order to regain parts of my soul that felt like they had disappeared. Something about recognizing it is a journey and a process instead of something I just needed to get over made it feel more sacred and meaningful.
It felt like a death and even though he was still alive and I was still alive, I was immediately aware of everything I had lost. Not just my spouse-best friend-love but also many of my goals, hopes, plans, and dreams. I lost my extended family. I lost the family and home I was building with him. I lost parts of my identity. And for me, probably the most heart-wrenching loss was losing the way of life we had chosen to live together. Before we got engaged, we wrote up how we wanted to live based around loving God, loving one another, and loving those around us through the categories of heart, soul, mind, and strength. We spent hours praying and talking about it and really seeking guidance on what to include and what to leave out. It was a meaningful distillation of everything that we each valued, made all the more meaningful that we wrote it together and planned to live it together. In those first weeks when I was wondering if I would ever be able to regain the parts of my soul that felt lost forever, I was sharing about this document with a friend. She wisely suggested, “Pray over it and ask God how He will redeem these things in your life now that you’re single. Ask Him how you can live out these goals outside of marriage.”
Her simple statement to ask God how He will work it out was profound to me. I felt immediately relieved of one of the foolish burdens I had been carrying: “How will I make this work? How will I make this better? How will I save everything that seems lost?” The reality is I could not (and cannot) make it better. I needed to change the pronouns: “How will He make this work? How will He redeem this tragedy? How will He restore everything I have lost?” I incorrectly imagined I was so far from the will of God that somehow I had to find my own way back to Him. Instead, I was being challenged to ask God to come to me – to the place that looked so ugly, loveless, and without good. It seemed audacious at first but I realized that I was essentially affirming that God still loves me and that I still love God and want Him in my life. I was also challenging God. I gave my life to Him many years ago trusting He would do good with it. It was and is very difficult to see how this divorce could be for anyone’s good but I decided to leave the pressure of making it good up to God. I am just waiting one day at a time to see what He does with my life.
Our separation was very sudden. In the course of a few hours I was told our marriage was over, that I was not loved, and that there was no hope for reconciliation or any kind of future together. It was shocking and disorienting. I still loved him and desperately wanted to be with him but I was being told there was no chance for that. I spent many months fighting for his statements to not be true until I finally had to wrestle with how to love my soon-to-be ex-husband through divorce. The most obvious answer is forgiveness – which is a long and multi-faceted process. I think forgiveness is one of the most personal aspects of divorce. Forgiveness is going to look and feel different for each person and each situation but I believe it always flows out of love. For me, love looked like releasing him from the promises and vows he made to me. For me, it was saying, “You do not have to fulfill your commitments to me anymore. You have no debt to me.” As difficult and painful as forgiveness can be, it has also brought me great freedom. Forgiveness has allowed me to keep loving him; though obviously in a very different way than when were married. Forgiveness is another on-going process. From time to time new hurts rise to the surface and I have to forgive and decide to love without expecting recompense all over again. Radical forgiveness and unconditional love are extended to me daily and being able to extend that even in a minuscule way to another person has allowed me to experience the sacred in way I never have before. It has also allowed me to experience love in a way I never have before and that has brought me great joy. Joy that seemed impossible and foolish at first but is somehow genuine and deep.
One of the most difficult parts of going through a divorce is wondering if all the love you gave and all the sacrifices you made through your relationship and marriage are worth anything now. It can be very difficult not to feel like it was all a waste. Early on in my pain, I was reminded by several dear friends that any amount of love or sacrifice we give to another person we are also giving to God. The very act of sacrifice is sacred. I have read and re-read Matthew 25:40 many times in the last year and a half. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Even if no person acknowledges what you are giving, God does. I was recently reminded of this again through the story of the woman with the bottle of perfume. She poured out her life savings on Jesus’ feet and though everyone around her only saw waste, Jesus saw love and sacrifice. He called her seemingly foolish act “sacred.” There are so many sacrifices made through divorce. So many things that seem given up as waste. But in the economy of the Kingdom of God there is no waste. No wasted years or experiences. No wasted gifts or sacrifices. No wasted desires or talents. No wasted joys or pains. No wasted love or grace extended. God can can make all things sacred.
Somehow even divorce.