Divorced, But Still Married

Last week, The Crossing finished its seventh session of DivorceCare. My husband and I, both previously divorced, have been facilitating this class for over three years now, and have begun to see familiar patterns in the way people deal with the break-up of their marriages, and the common mistakes we all can make as a result of unclear thinking.

One of those common mistakes is that two people will decide they can’t possibly stay married to each other – or at least one person makes this decision – and so they go through the painful process of divorcing.

And then they remain married to each other.

Wait…what?!

Here’s what I mean. After making the decision to divorce, former husbands and wives very often – more than you might guess – continue to live out their divorces completely entangled in one another’s lives, often in increasingly unhealthy ways. Though legally divorced, they are nonetheless still emotionally tied to each other in ways that can lead to big problems for both the adults and children involved.

How about an example? One man tells the story of receiving a call at work one day – long after his divorce was final – only to find that it was his ex-wife on the line. She was calling to let him know that there was a dead cat in her back yard, and that their two young children were frightened. The unspoken expectation was that this man would come over in the middle of his work day and remove the dead animal from the yard.

So what did he do? Concerned that his two young children not be unnecessarily traumatized, the man promptly left his desk, drove over to her house and removed the carcass…effectively playing the role as what we would call her “de facto husband,” and this despite the reality of their divorce and their mutual agreement that their broken marriage would never be reconciled.

You may be thinking, “Okay, so what’s the big deal? He just did her a favor, right?”

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that doing a favor for an ex-spouse is never okay. Instead, what I’m trying to point to is a “habitual tendency” to lean on an ex-spouse for help, or to include them as a part of life in ways that are not appropriate after a divorce. This repetitive “leaning” on an ex-spouse can quickly become an unhealthy lack of boundaries that, while certainly not present in every situation, is pretty common. Women continue to call their ex-husbands for repairs around the house, help with the lawn and assistance making financial decisions. Spouses continue to lean on each other financially, one asking for money from the other. Divorced couples spend holidays and birthdays together, even traveling together, “for the sake of the children.”

Every example I’ve given so far is a real-life story that we’ve heard (from multiple people) over the few short years we’ve been working in divorce ministry. Far from unique to one given situation, this kind of reality is lived out time and time again. I believe at least one reason is because marriage – whether the couple accepts this truth or not – is created by God (Genesis 2:24), and brings about a spiritual bonding of two people at the level of the soul. So even after two flawed human beings decide that it’s time to dissolve their one-flesh bond, it’s incredibly difficult to do. God designed the marital union to be permanent, and breaking this bond is rarely (if ever) “clean.”

Another underlying reason, I think, stems from the deeply ingrained “child-centered” thinking within our culture. In the examples I’ve given above – and nearly every other one I’ve seen – the logic articulated as the reason divorced couples choose to stay entangled in each other’s lives at a high level has to do with their children. They want to do whatever they believe will be in their children’s best interest. Oftentimes, “in the children’s best interest” is defined as “whatever will hurt them the least.” And this is precisely where a lot of unclear thinking can begin.

I can certainly relate to the desire to protect one’s children from trauma. It’s common for us to believe, at least initially, that we’ve already brought enough pain into our children’s young lives by divorcing their other parent, so we find ourselves striving to protect them from any more pain. In this spirit, we may find ourselves bending over backwards to make their lives look “as normal as possible” by spending time around our ex-spouses in ways that make it “feel” to the children like they still have an intact family.

This desire to prevent our children from feeling additional emotional pain is a good and right desire; often, though, how we put this desire into play may have short-term gains, but with long-term negative consequences, however unintended. For instance, far from preventing additional pain from entering your children’s lives, this mistake only delays their acceptance of the reality that their parents are divorcing, at best, and can even increase the pain if the children, seeing the parents interacting frequently in a cordial way, begin hoping for reconciliation. (Don’t be fooled, either; kids always hold out hope for the reconciliation of their parents, even after one of their parents remarries, and even as those “kids” move into young adulthood.)

And so what happens when one divorced parent eventually meets someone else? A few things can (and very often do) happen.

The new relationship may fail, at least in part because the new person on the scene will often have the ability to see what the divorced couple is blind to – that the ex-spouses are still “attached” to each other in unhealthy, entangled ways. A wise third party will not want to get involved in that. The other outcome may be that one spouse remarries and, as a newly married couple, the two begin to make necessary changes in the dynamic that was being lived out between the exes. In this situation, it is the new husband or wife who is blamed for the upheaval, and the spouse “left behind” can find themselves grieving the loss of their spouse all over again, even when the divorce is years or even decades old.

Ultimately, a lack of boundaries creates an unhealthy emotional dynamic that ends up potentially hurting everyone involved, and hurting them more than would have been the case had the marriage visibly and unequivocally ended. To help people going through divorce avoid this common mistake, we have often recommended that they read Cloud and Townsend‘s book on Boundaries. A quote from the book:

The driving force behind boundaries has to be desire. We usually know what is the right thing to do in life, but we are rarely motivated to do it unless there’s a good reason. That we should be obedient to God, who tells us to set and maintain boundaries, is certainly the best reason. But sometimes we need a more compelling reason than obedience. We need to see that what is right is also good for us. And we usually only see these good reasons when we’re in pain. Our pain motivates us to act.

Those of us who facilitate DivorceCare at The Crossing strongly encourage those who find themselves in the already-difficult place of facing the death of their marriages to do the hard work of developing that new, healthy, appropriate framework for their relationship with their ex-spouse now, before they or their children suffer yet more pain. Initially, the practice of setting appropriate boundaries may well “feel” unloving – those lingering “one flesh” ties asserting themselves again! – but please consider the larger truth that bringing emotional clarity to the reality of a broken situation will only help everyone grieve appropriately, and then move into their next stage of life with realistic expectations.

Psalm 16:1-8 (NIV)

Keep me safe, my God,
  for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
  apart from you I have no good thing.”
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
  “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
  I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
  or take up their names on my lips.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
  you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
  surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
  even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
  With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

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