On Marriage and Divorce–with a Proposition Bound to Be Controversial

Friends traditionally set great store by the Testimony on Truth. So highly did early Friends prize the truth that they would go to jail rather than take an oath; the oath implying to Friends that sometimes it might be all right to lie (see also Matt. 5:34-37).

Modern Quaker meetings, on the other hand, regularly engage in a completely fraudulent practice, taking it under their care, and blessing it. This practice is the modern institution of marriage.

Why do I say that the modern practice of marriage is fraudulent? We induce people who cannot possibly foresee the future clearly to take vows of lifelong commitment, while we know full well that they have only a 50 percent chance of keeping their word. We celebrate marriage with great joyfulness, often in meetings where nary a cautionary message is given. But we do not believe what we are doing, often whispering worriedly about the couple’s chances of success, nor are we willing to follow through as we would need to if we believed in lifelong marriage.

Hillary Clinton wrote a book entitled It Takes a Village to Raise a Child. It also takes a village to save a marriage. Once upon a time, communities in our culture went to great lengths to save marriages. They put enormous social pressure on people to stay married. People who divorced might not be able to hold a job. Women who divorced would get no help with their children. People stayed in relationships that were truly abusive because there were no alternatives.

Now the pendulum has gone full swing in the other direction. People have heard so many horror stories about marriage that they dare not recommend to a couple or person who claims unhappiness in marriage to stay put. On hearing of a possible upcoming divorce, they say "I’m so sorry," or "I hope you find the right thing for you." They almost never say, "I don’t agree with divorce."

Perhaps the most pernicious thing that Hollywood has done to our country is not to foment violence, but rather to encourage people to believe that marriage is an institution of personal fulfillment. In this image of marriage, "Some enchanted evening you will see a stranger across a crowded room." Based on this moment of lust, "once you have found her never let her go." This is a far cry from what marriage was historically.

My father grew up in Germany at a time when marriages were still arranged, as they have been historically throughout the world. He thought that those marriages were much happier than marriages in the United States. He pointed out that when you married someone you hardly knew, at the instance of your parents, you would be pleasantly surprised if that person manifested any positive characteristics at all. On the other hand, if you were raised on a diet of Hollywood, you would be devastated to discover if your spouse had even minor flaws. He suspected that this was the major problem with his marriage with my mother, who had lived all her life in the United States. She was raised on the Hollywood myth, while he felt his own expectations were more realistic. My mother, for her part, being traditional, did stay married to him, despite being unhappy. He left her quite well off financially when he died, while divorced women frequently struggle financially in old age.

The older view of marriage can be seen in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. In this work, originally written in Yiddish and based on cultural traditions growing out of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, a middle-aged couple whose marriage was arranged by their parents faces the growing tendency of young couples, including their own children, to want to choose spouses based on "love." At one point, the middle-aged man looks at his wife and asks her whether she loves him. This has never been an issue for them in 25 years of marriage. She responds with a poignant song about how for 25 years she shared his bed and cooked for him and raised his children. Then she asks in song, "If that’s not love, what is?" He responds by singing, "Do you love me?" and she sings, "I guess I do." He concludes with, "And I guess I love you, too."

What I like about this interlude in Fiddler on the Roof is that love is something the wife does. It is not something that happens to her because her husband is so wonderful. She does not do this thing because she expects a reward, necessarily. She does it because it is her responsibility. When I was in law school, an Orthodox Jewish professor once explained to the class that, in the Jewish tradition, the responsibility to obey the law is a responsibility to God. Others may be third-party beneficiaries of the practitioner’s compliance, but the duty to obey is not owed to others. When we promise to love, we promise to take a journey where we do things as lovingly as we can, though, obviously, being human, we will not always be successful. Our promise is not dependent on our own happiness, though perhaps we will succeed more readily if we are happy.

Marriage is not an institution of personal fulfillment. It is an institution for promoting financial and emotional stability for families. Certainly it can be fulfilling, just as a job or school can be fulfilling. The satisfaction that comes out of these situations results from hard work leading to accomplishment. That does not necessarily mean that we’re going to be happy when our boss or teacher asks us to work all night to meet a deadline or when we have a conflict with a colleague. Despite the fact that a job has frequent intervals of discontentment, many people find retirement very stressful. Many even die from retiring, just as many die from the death of their spouse even if the marriage has seemingly been unhappy. We have not made jobs into myths. We have reserved that for marriage.

Hollywood stars themselves seem to embrace the myth they helped to create. OK, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but sometimes I read those disgusting tabloids. In one, there once was reported a particularly revolting episode of a stalker taping a cell phone conversation between two actors who were married to each other. Shame on me, but I read it anyway, though I was glad to hear that the person who made the tape was prosecuted criminally. The conversation contained the usual accusations of failure of the husband to bring home flowers; but the most interesting portion of this conversation to me was where the husband said, "You should make me feel good." And the wife responded, "Make yourself feel good!"

She was right. One’s spouse cannot make one feel good all the time. Responsibility for one’s own happiness lies with oneself, not with one’s spouse. Indeed, it has long been traditional Christian doctrine that there cannot be happiness in this life, that happiness is for the next life.

We, as fellow members of society watching people suffer in marriage and buying into the myth, contribute to the problem of perception regarding marriage. When someone complains about his or her spouse, it is painful to listen to. It is often easier to say, "Maybe you should get a divorce," rather than listen to the painful details of the flaws of the spouse.

Therapists are even worse. A person I know reported that his therapist and therapy group frequently asked him why he stayed married, when he complained so much about his spouse. I do not understand why therapists or therapy groups are allowed to ask such a question. The unstated implication of the wording is that if one has no answer, then one ought to get divorced; and, coming from a therapist, a person in a position of authority, such an implication is devastating to a patient’s commitment to marriage. Not surprisingly, this person is now seeking a divorce from his unwilling wife.

Personally, I have known at least one woman who sought divorce, and then developed terminal cancer and died during the process—so much for divorce leading to happiness or fulfillment.

At this point, I am reminded of my experiences with natural childbirth. I concluded through these experiences that natural childbirth is frequently not at all painless; but the pain is not necessarily something that needs to be avoided. In fact, the medications that are used to mitigate pain in childbirth also carry with them substantial risks both to the mother and the child. The obstetrician, seeing the mother hysterical and crying that she cannot take this anymore, finds it less painful to medicate than to watch the mother suffer, even if she has expressed a desire for natural childbirth prior to being in labor. By contrast, my midwife, who was committed to natural childbirth, engaged in a kind of tough love. She had had a child, and she knew it was painful. She said, "Say yes to the pain." The pain is good. It leads to the child.

We cannot be truly committed to lifelong marriage unless we, like this midwife, are willing to be sympathetic to those in pain without recommending or even supporting a decision for divorce. We have to be aware that even the most successful marriages have periods of pain—even years of pain.

The only hope for lifelong marriage lies in religious faith that marriage is supposed to go on. What does it mean to have a real, honest, religious commitment to marriage? I’m going to quote from the Bible here. I’m quoting not because I am a fundamentalist, which I am not; nor because I am a traditional Christian, which I am not; but rather, because these passages speak to me. They speak to me of the attitude that would be necessary for marriages to be successful.

"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets." (Luke 6:22-23). This passage reminds me of the situation of a spouse who is being subjected to emotional abuse but clings to marriage because of a commitment to a vow made before God. We should not tell such victims to dump their spouses because of the emotional abuse. We should praise such faithful sufferers because of their commitment to the truthfulness of their word to God, that their ayes are ayes and their nays are nays (Matt. 5:37).

Please understand that I’m not saying that this applies where someone is in actual physical danger. I’m only talking about the situations that lead so many couples to feel simply that they’re incompatible.

The truth of the matter is that none of us is without flaws. Jesus said to remove the log from our own eye before attempting to remove the mote from the eye of our brother (Luke 6:42). It is much easier to see the mote in our brother’s eye. We need to remember this when we hear someone complaining about his or her spouse. It is almost certainly true that the spouse is committing some kind of emotional abuse. But there are at least two sides to every story. It is almost certainly equally true that the one complaining has done something wrong as well. People may argue a good deal, even most of the time. This does not mean they should get divorced. Arguing, even in loud voices, is only the human condition.

A commitment to marriage requires almost continuous exertion toward forgiveness.

We’ve been told by therapists, purveyors of the false belief that the purpose of life is to feel good, that we should only listen and not offer advice. We should allow the person who is speaking to reach his or her own conclusion about what will make him or her happy. We need to let one decide for oneself whether divorce would be the right solution. We, ordinary people in our culture who are reluctant to make a mistake or alienate anyone, will not make a statement either for or against any particular marriage or divorce. Few of us are willing to speak out in conscience against any divorce. Few of us are willing to be the village that might save the marriage. Peer pressure is a mighty thing.

For hundreds of years, peer pressure kept most marriages together. And it could now, too—but who would use it, especially amongst Friends?

Can we truly believe that lifelong marriage will result in personal fulfillment, with proper counseling? That flies in the face of experience. Counseling is often not successful in causing happiness. Nor is marriage only valid if it is happy.

Our attitude toward marriage is fraudulent. If we take marriages under the care of our meetings, based on the Hollywood feel-good model, while nevertheless administering vows of lifelong commitment, we are committing fraud. If we are not willing to at least censure meeting members who seek divorce, then we are not exercising even as much conscience as we would against our government when it seeks war.

Perhaps, to soften the eventual blow, a marrying couple ought to be made to sign a paper indicating that they will be subject to censure if they break their vows. But people ought to expect censure for dumping their spouses.

I remain a pacifist. I do not advocate committing acts of violence such as stoning people whose moral values are different from ours, as they still do in some countries. Nor do I advocate reading people out of meeting. We need only state our feelings or write a letter.

I call then upon readers who have gotten this far to do one of two things. Either be willing to exercise peer pressure against people who seek to break their marriage vows; or, stand in the way of your meeting undertaking any further marriages. To go forward as we have been doing, choosing neither alternative, is the most blatant of violations of our Testimony of Truth.