“Doomed to wither and die”?

In the wake of the news about a celebrity marriage (Al and Tipper Gore’s) coming to an end after 40 years, one writer who has studied late-life divorce shares her findings. It sounds like couples who’ve been married for 20, 30, and 40 years divorce for the same reasons that younger couples divorce—only with wrinkles and grown children.

Men and women I interviewed insisted they did not divorce foolishly or impulsively. Most of them mentioned “freedom.” Another word I heard a lot was “control”; people wanted it for themselves for the rest of their lives. Women had grown tired of taking care of house, husband and grown children; men were tired of working to support wives who they felt did not appreciate them and children who did not respect them. Women and men alike wanted time to find out who they were.

One spouse might have wanted to keep working while the other wanted to retire. Often, there was an emotional void; one would say that the other “doesn’t see me, doesn’t know who I am,” while the other hadn’t a clue: “I thought everything was just fine; we never argued, we don’t fight.” One grew disenchanted with the wrinkled person across the dinner table and wanted someone new and exciting.

I hope I got this point across in last week’s sermon, but every couple, no matter how happy they may be at one time or another, is susceptible to splitting up. No one can fully imagine or anticipate what loving until “we are parted by death” means. No one can know the changes that life will throw their way. We can be certain the person we marry at 25 will not be the same person—physically, emotionally, spiritually—that he or she will be at 40, 50, or 60. Will we still love this new and different person?

It depends to a large extent on us.

Remember the “Hauerwas Rule”: You always marry the wrong person. Doesn’t that take some of the pressure off? Forget the romantic lie that there is one person out there with whom we wouldn’t have to deal with these very real stresses of time and change. So deal with these problems or don’t, but don’t pretend that simply running away from a marriage will make them go away. It seems likely that in most cases the problems that contribute to divorce will outlast the divorce—whether we’re by ourselves or with someone else.

Notice that the writer uses a little sleight of hand to cover up this inconvenient truth:

Many stories ended with some rendition of, “It’s my time and if I don’t take it now, I never will.” No matter whether they had spent years gearing up for divorce or decided on the spur of the moment after one minor disagreement too many, few had regrets. Men who wanted new companionship easily found it, and women who wanted new partners had them within two years.

So let’s get this straight: Her research focuses on couples who divorced later in life—after decades of marriage. It is therefore next to meaningless for her to report that, among these recently divorced people, “few had regrets” about divorcing. Has she followed their lives for decades after the divorce? No. If she had interviewed these same people within a few a few years of getting married, how many of them would express regret about getting married? Very few. They were probably still happily in love.

My point is, problems in relationships emerge over time. Even the problems in a relationship of a newly single person to himself or herself emerge over time. How will we deal with them when they come?

We are Christians in part because God has shown us the future in the resurrection of Christ. Resurrection means that despite the way things appear right now, the future of this Creation, and our lives within it, is good. The way things are today is not the way things will always be. That is our Christian hope.

We bear witness to this hope in marriage. This is in part the meaning of Ephesians 5:25-33. Bearing witness means believing that God can work through even our present struggles as married partners to create a better future for us. The way things are now is not the way things will necessarily always be. Our future isn’t sealed. We are not “doomed to wither and die.” No one is.

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