A long, long time ago, NPR did a series of stories aimed at “documenting” the state of marriage in America. One of those stories stood out strongly in my mind, because the woman the reporter interviewed articulated a view of marriage that I’d never considered before. She said that, in America, secular people view marriage as a “contract.” Each party has obligations to the other, and if one party breaches his (or her) obligations, then the other party is automatically released from the contract. Her view, a religious view, was different. To her mind, marriage was a covenant. Under that approach she said, one spouse’s obligations continue regardless of whether the other spouse abides by her (or his) promises.
I’ve often thought about her words when I look at the divorces in the community around me. None happened lightly. All happened because one or another partner to the marriage truly broke his (or her) marriage vows, usually with adultery. All were unhappy marriages to begin with. And because I live in a child-centric world, all of the divorces involved children. In each case, the true anguish for my friends wasn’t the divorce itself, it was the child’s (or children’s) well-being. Would the child be better off shuttling back and forth between two single-parent happy homes (because the presumed that divorce would make the parents happier), or would the child be better off in a two-parent home that was a battlefield of parental pain? Most opted for divorce, feeling that their marital pain was so overwhelming that they were rendered incapable of being good parents.
Because I respect my friends, and because I know their abiding love for the children, I would not presume to second guess their decisions. None were made lightly; all provided much food for thought.
I was reminded of the dramas that have played out around me over the years when I read David French’s Social Justice Begins at Home, which decries the ease with which practicing Christians have accepted the culture of no-fault divorce. He notes that, traditionally, the church has severely limited divorce, but that, even as this doctrine exists in theory, it is vanishing in practice.
In a way, it seems to me that what French is saying that, even amongst Christians, marriage has slipped from being a covenant to being a contract. However, that social/religious shift has blinded people to the fact that our relationship to our children is not a contract, it is a covenant. We owe our obligations to them regardless. They didn’t ask to be born. They’re vulnerable, they’re dependent, and they are tied to us emotionally in ways that transcend any normal consensual relationship.
Some marriages are so disastrous that the children’s welfare demands a divorce. (I know one of those situations, which involves an increasingly abusive father, and a mother who is unable to protect her children from his escalating verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse.) Most unhappy marriages, though, involve parents who manage to put on a good front for the children. Sure, mom and dad fight, but that’s normal even in all but the most perfect marriages. Mostly, though, the parents experience private pain, while continuing to create a stable, financially secure home for their children. These are the marriages in which, even if the contract between the parents is breached, the covenant to the children continues.
I think French and I are on the same page, whether one views it from a Christian perspective or from a non-observant Jewish perspective, which is that the children’s needs are transcendent. If the parents are able to shelve their pain and their discord, it is their obligation to the children that must determine whether the marriage continues. The mere fact that life would be easier for the parents if they weren’t burdened with their respective spouse cannot serve as a justification for breaking apart the home, thereby destroying both the child’s emotional and economic security.