A Strange Cross

Spouses Standing for Marriage Disrupt the Modern Matrix of Divorce

Allen was fully committed to lifelong marriage and fatherhood when his wife of thirteen years told him she wasn't happy. He tried everything anyone suggested to work on their relationship—marriage retreats, counseling, books, prayer, fasting, and more—­until she filed for divorce and remarried a few months after it became final. Several of his friends are, like him, unwillingly divorced fathers, in many cases victims of betrayal by adultery. "You never know how bad it is until you experience it," he said two years afterward, clearly still in pain for himself and his children at this unchosen bend in the road of life.

Kristi has no memory of life without divorce being a part of it. Her parents split when she was two, and shortly before her own wedding, her mother's second marriage ended in divorce. Shaken, she briefly questioned going through with her wedding, but told herself that since she and her fiancé were both Christians, they would face and overcome together whatever came their way. Seventeen years later, he filed for divorce, and she was catapulted, reeling in emotion and shock, into a strange world governed by "family law."

Allen and Kristi are members of a growing "club" they never consented to join. A 2014 Relationships in America survey, conducted by the Austin Institute, found that more than 70 percent of the divorces among those surveyed had taken place against the wishes of one party.1 In the majority of cases, it is now the woman who seeks divorce.2

No-Fault Default

Marriage and divorce haven't always worked this way. Prior to the 1970s, a person wanting out of his or her marriage would have had to establish fault on the part of the other spouse—something like adultery, abuse, or some ongoing reckless behavior. The other option would be to simply walk out. However, willful abandonment would in itself constitute fault. The desired divorce could be obtained, but there would be a backend cost to the divorcing spouse when it came to decisions about children and the division of marital assets.

No-fault divorce changed all that. Now, all that is required to dissolve a marriage is for one party to petition for it, stating "irreconcilable differences." At that point, social and legal forces are set in motion that favor the will of the divorcing spouse and subject the rest of the family to the mercies of indifferent outside furies. Proponents said that no-fault divorce would free women trapped in abusive marriages, but existing law already provided for those cases. Instead, what no-fault divorce did was to enable, if not incentivize, abandonment without the backend cost to the abandoning spouse.

Allen and Kristi shared their stories at the Ruth Institute's first annual "Summit for Survivors of the Sexual Revolution" as members of a panel of "Standers." Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, president of the Ruth Institute and host of the 2019 Summit, recommended that we start using this term to refer to persons who have been divorced against their will but who have made a conscious decision to stand for their marriage by remaining faithful to their spouse, regardless of what the civil courts have decreed. The term, she said, "connotes a nobility. These are not just people who can't figure out what to do. They've made a conscious decision,"3 one that should be validated and esteemed.

To Stand in the Gap

Two generations into widespread divorce, the notion of a rejected spouse committed to remaining faithful to the unfaithful spouse may sound like an odd cross between quaint and delusional. But if God is the author of marriage, then it is something more akin to conscientious objection.

Maria Pia Campanella, author of The Gift of Self: A Spiritual Companion for Separated and Divorced Faithful to the Sacrament of Marriage, frames it as a continuation of the total gift of self originally pledged at the altar. "It is fidelity to the conjugal pact made with God . . . a witness to the fact that God remains faithful to His covenant . . . even when people are idolatrous and unfaithful." Several years into her unchosen separation, she continues to pray for the conversion of her husband as if he were "in an extremely grave coma: a spiritual coma."

Bai Macfarlane, founder of Mary's Advocates, a Catholic marriage-support nonprofit, frames it as a stand for justice, because it recognizes the priority of divine law over civil law and the church's duty to guard and keep it.4 "In the no-fault divorce courts, every petitioning plaintiff is awarded a divorce, and the courts have no interest in who reneged on the marriage promises, nor who was counting on those promises to be upheld." When unfaithfulness is normalized, we are tacitly conditioned to believe that commitment is meaningless, love is fickle, and infidelity and marital abandonment are morally acceptable. For this reason, it is all the more incumbent on the church to support faithful spouses and children and to uphold the truth about marriage as it was originally intended to be.

Glitches in the Matrix

If all of this sounds too legalistic and rigid a frame for love and marriage, let me set it in the context of a story. Maggie was an optimistic but shallow college grad when she moved to a new city and met a guy. They went out on a few dates. (People still did that back in the 1980s.) One Saturday, after a lovely hike up a mountain, he told her that he was divorced and had a small daughter. Maggie wanted nothing to do with that. I kind of like him, she thought, but how can I gracefully end this thing right now? Whether for lack of will or something else, she didn't end it, and they got married the following year.

Time passed. They had children, and Maggie also came to genuinely love her stepdaughter. As the family grew, Maggie grew as well, and her thoughts about marriage matured. At some point, she became aware of a gap between the casual complacency of her youth and the more grounded convictions that had formed in the intervening years. She decided she should address it, lest she lend passive consent to casual divorce and remarriage. One day when her stepdaughter was in college, she explained all this to her. It came as a complete surprise to her stepdaughter, but it was Maggie's way of closing that time-lapsed, talk-to-walk gap.

The point? You don't have to do everything right or be divorced against your will to stand for marriage. The boundaries of marriage, as rigid as they may feel in times of distress, were put in place for our benefit—individual, familial, and societal. Yet the Author of them is ridiculously gracious even when we fail.

In The Matrix, characters would occasionally see a "glitch in the matrix"—a small but puzzling anomaly for which their understanding of the world provided no explanation. Glitches tipped them off that they were living in a simulation. In our world, if people like Allen and Kristi seem strange, it's because we've become too acculturated to divorce.

Maggie's story is true, by the way . . . except that Maggie was me. Also, there's an epilogue worth bringing in here. That marriage ended last year with the death of my husband. It wasn't always a walk in the park (or a happy hike up a mountain). Not for either one of us. But now, on the backside of it, I feel a strange gratitude that it ended the way it did and not the other way. If that counts as a glitch, too, chalk it up to the ridiculous grace of God. 

1. Jennifer Roback Morse, The Sexual State (TAN Books, 2018), 212.
2. Laura Geggel, LiveScience (Aug. 22, 2015): livescience.com/51950-women-tend-to-initiate-divorces.html.
3. Ruth Institute Summit: youtube.com/watch?v=iR5g1sEKyG8&list=PLSi2OoPf_APuypDyGiMZEfFy4kDijoO9S&index=13.
4. Bai Macfarlane, "No-Fault Divorce, Standing for Justice," Homiletic and Pastoral Review (Dec. 28, 2019): hprweb.com/2019/12/no-fault-divorce-standing-for-justice.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #59, Winter 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo59/a-strange-cross


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