I grew up in a “different time.” My parents were married for 56 years – until the time of my father’s death a few years ago. The grandparents to whom I was the closest, also lived out “‘til death do us part.” My aunt and uncle and all of my cousins had and still have intact life-long marriages. Based on what I saw, I pretty much believed that the permanency of marriage was a given. Oh sure, I knew of those rare cases that people whispered about at church where someone had been unfaithful and the marriage unraveled. But that was not the norm. That was not my world.
I am a Marriage and Family Therapist and a Professor of Marriage and Family/Psychology classes. I have been trained and I do my best to live out what I counsel and teach. So, when my wife said to me – “I don’t want to be married anymore;” “I don’t love you and I’m not sure I ever did;” my world was rocked. “This must be a bad dream,” I thought. “People in my family don’t go through divorce.” And yet, when the head of Pastoral Care at our church told me that he believed she was either having an affair or was contemplating having one, I was stunned. I had married for life. I loved my wife and had done my best to regularly demonstrate that. I found myself in a daze mumbling, “It’s not supposed to be this way!” And yet, it was.
I prayed and I prayed for the restoration of my marriage. I begged and pleaded with God. I know that He is a champion of marriage. So, why wasn’t He fixing this? I agonized over this dying relationship. Yet, I knew that He is faithful and He would bring me through this. My world felt broken and shattered. I knew that God was in control, but I didn’t feel it. Those in my church family were praying that this would be put back together. I think down deep somewhere, I thought that if enough people would petition God then He would have to give in and fix this. I mean, I had read the account of the woman who kept pestering the judge until he gave in to her request (Luke 18:1-4). I was praying for something God desired – for a marriage covenant to remain intact and whole. But of course, our Father who gives each of us free will was not going to force anything to happen.
God did indeed bring me through that season of life, His faithfulness ever evident. I realized that He understands the pain of divorce in ways I never imagined. I emerged with a new sensitivity to those who have experienced the devastating heartache of divorce as well as those who are struggling to survive in their marriages. What felt like my “broken road” served to intensify my passion for marriage and married couples. While this led me to begin a support group for men going through a divorce it also led me to write about divorce with an urgency to help couples back away from the divorce cliff. Yet even as I did so, I was finding more and more couples in my marriage and family practice stuck in what seemed to be between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.”
I often found myself in the presence of couples celebrating milestone wedding anniversaries – 30, 40, 50 years or longer, with mates they can barely stand to be in the same room with. And yet they boldly proclaim, “At least we didn’t get a divorce, because we are committed.” Was this commitment? I heard from friends who were miserable in their marriage and how they feel confronted with a most difficult decision: “Which is better—should I just get a divorce, even though I know it is not God’s highest and best, or should I stay in this marriage and be miserable for the rest of my life?” “What an awful choice,” I thought. The more I reflected on my friends, as well as couples I saw in my practice, the more I realized the number of people in this stuck place is not the anomaly but the norm. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is that really the choice we are left with?” Is that possibly the reason Jesus’ disciples responded to His teaching on the permanence of marriage with, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry”? (Matthew 19:10 NIV)
Did God make a mistake? Are men and women too different to be together? Is marriage just an unworkable ideal? I know marriages can work and be life giving! I’ve seen it! I am grateful for the past few years to be experiencing it as well! I know that from the beginning of time God created marriage for our benefit. But why then are so many so unhappy? This question burned in me, motivating me to find ways, to find strategies to help hurting individuals and couples learn to re-engage and experience the marital journey that God intended—the vibrant relationship we all long for. It permeates my counseling and it oozes out of my writing.
I have grieved, survived, and grown through the devastation of a lost marriage. I have acquired a new sensitivity and understanding for those who have been run over by the “divorce truck.” But out of my experience, my work with clients, and the peek into the lives of my students has come an invigorated passion for marriage. I have learned that when we learn to pursue marriage the way that God intended, it can be an amazing journey! And that jazzes me!!
- Barry Ham, author of Unstuck: Escaping the Rut of a Lifeless Marriage, and God Understands Divorce: A Biblical Message of Grace.