Growing up, divorce was a sad but abstract idea for me. I had a couple of extended relatives who I knew were previously divorced, but those divorces had occurred either before I was alive or old enough to remember. In college, I watched friends pair off and eventually marry, blithely assuming that because they seemed well matched and happy together – and because they said the words “until death do us part” in their vows – that they would simply be married until one or both of them passed on.
That assessment was gradually chipped away, piece by heartbreaking piece. First there was, late in my college years, the messy divorce between an aunt and uncle that upended the world of four of my beloved cousins. Then there came my own pivot point at the age of 26, when I learned my own parents were, much to my great shock, separating (and later divorcing) after almost thirty years of marriage.
That was followed by a succession of out-of-nowhere divorces. The lively church couple who seemed liked two peas in a pod. The college friends with a wonderful love story whose beautiful wedding I had attended. The intelligent, thoughtful public school teachers whose marriage spanned four decades. The charming pastor and his smart, supportive wife. The colleague who had adopted a child with her husband. And half a dozen more examples, each one more tragic than the one before.
Sometimes the reasons for the divorce were clear; other times they were not. (I would say that infidelity has accounted for most, but not all, of the splits I’ve witnessed.) Sometimes the reasons for one party initiating the divorce were, in the eyes of their friends and family, eminently justified; other times, loved ones lobbied, to no avail, to save the marriage. In most of these cases there was collateral damage: confused and frightened children, devastated parents, grief-stricken friends. In virtually every case, the divorce created a major financial upheaval that left one party – if not both – in the lurch. Some of them have still yet to fully recover.
Every time it happens, I’m left to wonder how the couple found themselves in such an awful situation … and how the relationship grew so fractured it could not be saved.
That’s why divorce is so scary.
It’s scary to watch old, wise couples who were so good at articulating what it takes to make a good marriage themselves no longer married.
It’s scary to watch couples who have so much in common drift apart for reasons that no one can quite put a finger on.
It’s scary to watch a spouse in a marriage get involved with a drastically different person outside the marriage … a decision that spouse would have roundly criticized just a few years before had they seen it happen to someone else.
It’s scary to spend hours hanging out with a couple, talking and laughing and discussing all that life is … and then realizing later on that those moments are gone forever.
It’s scary to watch a couple, once so enamored with one another, now get so wrapped up in work or kids or one of a million other facets of life that they become strangers without even realizing it.
It’s scary to watch with trepidation as the children of divorce try to put their world back together, not knowing how those kids will ultimately be affected by what happened between their parents.
I know I’m not the only one who finds this scary. Statistically, marriage ages have gradually crept up in recent decades, and unmarried cohabitation is at an historic high. While the reasons for these trends are many, I know anecdotally of many people who have delayed or sworn off marriage because their own parents are divorced. But even those measures don’t protect people; marrying older lessens but does not eliminate the risk of divorce, and unmarried couples who live together can experience just as much emotional trauma (and, depending on where they live and if they have children, economic trauma) as couples who have inked a marriage contract.
I do not shy away from this fear. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I try to remind myself of it.
Don’t misunderstand me; this is not the paranoid, afraid-of-everything kind of fear. This is more like the kind of fear I have when I’m working with a table saw, or when I’m crossing a busy street, or when I’m driving in a snowstorm. It’s an awareness that complacency is dangerous, because I’ve seen firsthand how people who have an intellectual understanding of what can go wrong gradually forget to do the things necessary to keep things from going wrong.
It’s how I’ve tried to protect my marriage and my family.
Because the only defense I know of against things that are scary is vigilance.
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