“Dad, why do people get divorced?” my fourth grader recently asked me after he became aware of the impending divorce of the parents of some friends. Hoo-boy, that’s a tough one. I wondered to myself why he couldn’t just ask me about something simple, like where babies come from.
How do you put something like divorce into terms that a child that age can comprehend without being too simplistic? It’s particularly a challenge for this child, because he likes to see things in absolutes.
I could have given a glib answer, such as, “One or both of the parents is a jerk.” But that would instill (perhaps lifelong) incorrect ideas. Besides, I’ve known too many people that divorced where both partners seemed to be at least somewhat decent people (even if they spewed venom about each other).
“Well, son” I finally said, “making a marriage work well takes a lot of hard work. And both partners have to be committed to doing that hard work. If one or both partners slack off, the relationship deteriorates. When the relationship gets bad, it becomes very difficult for people to continue living together.”
My wife chimed in that people sometimes get married without properly examining their long term goals. They marry because they have a lot in common at a specific point in time and space, but they fail to consider the fact that their long term trajectories are headed in quite different directions. People in this situation stay close at first, but they soon begin to grow apart as they pursue goals that are too different from their partner’s goals.
“If a marriage gets bad” my son asked, “isn’t it better for the partners to get divorced?” I thought of the scripture where Jesus Christ speaks of marriage, saying, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”
“Well, no,” I answered. “In the first place, people ought to make sure that they are marrying someone with common goals and with whom they are compatible. Even then, every marriage will have problems and hard times. That’s when the partners ought to work to make it better. Most people that describe their marriage as bad describe it as happy or very happy five years later if they stay together. So the bad times don’t have to last.”
“Except for when there is abuse by one or both partners” my wife added. “If someone is hurting the other partner or the children, it’s important to get the victims to safety. And that may mean breaking up the marriage, at least temporarily until the abuser can get the help or discipline they need.” She also noted that sometimes a partner experiences mental issues that present extreme challenges. Sometimes they can be helped, but not always.
My son seemed to be satisfied for the time being. I thought of how blessed I am to have a wife that is deeply committed to our marriage, despite my many faults. Beyond this, each of us grew up in a family where our respective parents were devoted to each other. That is an increasingly rare blessing. We saw demonstrations of true love as each of us watched a mother care for her terminally ill spouse.
I hope that we can likewise continue to set an example of successful marriage for our children, regardless of what challenges come along. I suppose that no matter what we say, our children will eventually form their own opinions of matters like divorce. They are touched by stuff like this far more than we were during our tender years. I only hope that they will aspire to success in their relationships and will do as much as possible to encourage it.