Jay Haley (1923-2007) is amongst my heroes in my chosen profession. I’ve read everything he’s ever written. I traveled to hear him speak. He was brilliant.
And I’d like to sorta quote him now. ‘Sorta quote’ means I can’t remember the exact quote, but the gist is: “Divorce might be legally possible, but it might not be actually impossible. You just end up adding another person to the marriage bed.”
When I first heard this from Haley in 1990, I knew immediately what he meant, because I’d heard someone else say the same thing all my life, just a little more poetically: “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” That would be Jesus’ teaching on divorce in the Gospel of Mark.
If you know biblical Greek, Jesus is not so much saying “You’re not allowed to divorce,” or “You’re a bad, unforgivable person if you divorce.” It’s more, “You can’t. Literally. You aren’t able to. You’re welcome to go live in separate residences and resume a dating life, but, you’ll find it’s not as simple as banging a gavel. So good luck with that.”
These two guys, by way of two different paths, are on to something. And I have no religious motive for piling on here. This comes strictly from 25 years of clinical experience. Every day I see the Jesus-Haley axiom play itself out in my office. It’s amazing how many divorced people never really get around to actually being divorced. Actually living separate lives. Years later they are still ‘processing’ the marriage and the break-up. Still never more than a few sentences away from eruptions of pain and indignation.
Over and over I say to divorcing and divorced couples: “Anger is a bonding agent. It is very intimate. Only people who want to work on a great marriage have any reason to argue and fight. Only people doing the work of great love have any reason to pick through the minutia of who said what that night when we promised each other we would never blah-blah-blah …
Couples marry. They live their lives closely and intimately. Then they divorce … and live their lives closely and intimately. Still trying to be ‘right.’ This is the behavior of two people still desperately bonded. Still profoundly invested in the other’s opinion. A.K.A., still ‘married.’
And don’t even get me started on the subject of divorced people still having sex. Sex is a curious strategy for severing ties.
Jesus is making a theological point; Haley, a psychoanalytic one. But they are saying the same thing. The marriage symbol is big medicine, even if you don’t embrace it from a religious point of view. The marriage bond ‘lives.’ Especially if that marriage made babies. And it’s really, really strange and odd and awkward and confusing to live singly or enter a new partnership with this other ontic albatross swinging around your neck.
Singer/songwriter Amy Rigby’s song “The Trouble With Jeanie” (2005) is a droll and honest examination of this reality. It’s from the point of view of a new wife in regular and close relationship with her husband’s ex-wife:
Jeanie is my new husband’s ex wife/ It looks like she’s gonna be a part of my life/ Cuz there’s a couple of kids and 20-some years they share/ So I guess Jeanie isn’t going anywhere
How can I pick up where she never left off/ We’re like a club of two who’s seen him with his clothes off/ And there’s nowhere to hide because it’s all out in the light/ Can I help if I’m a little bit uptight
I’m not saying a quality, post-marital single life isn’t possible. Nor saying a quality, even redemptive new matedness and/or marriage isn’t possible. But, to embrace either, a wise person takes seriously the living significance of a former marriage. It behooves us to be conscious and intentional in setting boundaries to manage that psychic reality, lest it interminably leach into your efforts to live your new life well.
Thinking of divorce? Don’t ever kid yourself that it’s a mere legal maneuver. What divorce sets in motion is something that will ricochet across your path for a long, long time. In some ways, forever. Again, especially if you made babies together.
I don’t say this to invite guilt. I say it so that, should divorce regrettably prove impossible not to choose, you’ll be ready. You won’t be surprised and naïve. You’ll be intentional to manage the immutable reality and ensuing complications that will inevitably be a part of your future.
Especially if you ever fall in love again and wish to thrive in a new, redeeming life partnership.
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. You can reach him at SKalas@marinscope.com)