That’s the title of Stacy Morrison’s new book. The title arrested my eyes while passing through the Atlanta airport. Then the subtitle intrigued me even more: One Optimist’s Journey through the Hell of Divorce. When’s the last time you read an optimistic memoir on “the hell of divorce”?
I’d never read such an account. So I was intrigued and purchased two copies. I couldn’t put the book down! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Stacy Morrison is editor-in-chief of Redbook magazine. She’s completed editorial stints at Marie Claire and Modern Bride as well. That puts Ms. Morrison smack-dab in the middle of the chick-lit world as far as I’m concerned. Not my usual read, or the usual list of credentials for my most-read authors. So, this book had a lot of ground to cover to make my list of “favorite books so far in 2010.” But cover the ground it did.
Ms. Morrison was a self-described driven, career-oriented self-starter with ambition for doing great things in the world. She met her husband while relatively young, and their relationship was filled with ease, laughter, friends, and fun in New York City. He seemed to understand her in the most intimate ways, making her to feel safe, even helping her overcome a fairly deep-seated fear of marriage itself. After dating a couple years, they joyfully wed and began building a life together. The book opens a few years into the marriage. The Morrisons have a five-month-old son and a gorgeous first home with a lush green oasis in the back yard. Life seems wonderful. Then Stacy tells us how the conversation started:
I was standing at the sink in the kitchen, washing salad greens, pushing my hands through the cold water in the salad spinner to shake the dirt loose. As I poured the water from the salad spinner down the drain, I was feeling grateful for everything I had in my life, but I couldn’t ignore Chris’s silence pressing against my back. I started to turn around from the sink, wanting to find a way to pull Chris back into the room. As he felt my eyes come to rest on him, he let out a slow, pointed exhale, and said, simple as pie, “I’m done.” Then he sighed again. “I’m done with this,” he said, gesturing with his hand to encompass our living room, our kitchen, our home, our son, our future, our dreams, every single memory we’d ever made together in our thirteen years as a couple, and me, suddenly meaningless me.
Done, just like that.
From there, Morrison chronicles three years of pulling apart what had taken some ten years to put together. The recounting is poignant at places, funny at others, instructive all along. As an optimist, Ms. Morrison looks to relay what she’s learned without being romantic or bitter. And she pulls it off. It’s about as honest a self-examination and reflection I can imagine. That’s what made it helpful to me as a pastor and a husband. It was a tour of one woman’s heart as she saw her marriage grow cold and eventually torn asunder. As husbands and a pastors, we don’t often get such an opportunity to learn so close up. In fact, if we’re honest, some of us don’t care for such a tour–we’re either afraid or foolishly uncaring. If that’s you, repent in prayer and read a book like this.
A few lessons Morrison learned along the way:
“A partnership is not really a partnership” (chap. 2). Here was an examination of how the families we grow up in affect our own view of marriage and family. Some of the effects are obvious and easy to see, others quite subtle and difficult to see or change. Stacy really learned skepticism about marriage watching and misinterpreting her parents’ marriage. It was subtle, but she learned to live for safety above all things. She writes: “I examined my parents’ personalities and decided that what each needed most the other was simply unable to provide–they did not meet in their soft places, but instead clashed in their hard places. … It didn’t always feel safe in their marriage, and as I got older, I wondered what the point of risking an unhappy marriage would be.” “There was going to be no time for marriage in this independent, wildly satisfying life. I knew I wanted to be a mother. (I planned to adopt two siblings from foster care.) It was the husband I could do without.” So, she became very self-willed, making big plans to be in control. How could she really be a good marriage partner?
Short answer: in ways she was not always aware of, she couldn’t be a good marriage partner. She thought of marriage as “taking that leap of faith into free space that somehow feels like solid ground, that mystery of marriage.” Poetic, but problematic. Morrison writes:
I loved how getting married had changed nothing in our relationship, except that I felt calmer and more secure. The commitment Chris and I had made to each other had taken shape in my mind as a specific image: me and Chris, two separate people, divided by a space between us, but leaning toward each other, our heads resting together, our arms clasped, making an A-frame in which to weather the storms of life together. The divide was the place our conflicts lived, the places we didn’t mesh perfectly, the parts of us that belonged to each of us alone. For me, the marriage commitment was a promise to always reach across that divide, to never let go, to never be so wholly in the self that I would drop my hand from his, even in the moments when our disagreements might be so strong that one or both of us turned away. That image, of reaching out, our index fingers always touching, even if we were facing away from each other, made me feel safe. It was a position I felt I could hold forever, a forever I could believe in, because it perfectly captured how the partnership was carried by both of us at the same time. I didn’t have to be responsible for the whole thing. It wasn’t only up to me.
I wonder how many marriages–Christian and non-Christian–are built on some understanding or image like the one Stacy writes about? How many think of marriage as a partnership, each person holding up their end? It’s a ubiquitous sentiment. But it’s utterly unbiblical. Marriage is a one-flesh union (Gen. 2), deeper than any 50-50 partnership, a blending so thorough there is no space between the partners where they can be two separate people. Morrison’s tale is a healthy warning, reminding us that even if it’s not our explicit approach, we may find a thousand ways to live together like business partners rather than enjoy the miracle of a one-flesh union.
Thabiti the husband was warned. Thabiti the pastor was instructed afresh in making the biblical picture of marriage an unavoidable and surpassingly sweet picture of the good life.
In this same chapter, Morrison describes her husband Chris’s posture in the marriage. “Fast-forward a decade or so [from that A-frame description of marriage]: Deciding he wanted to leave me felt like the first decision Chris had made in our marriage for some time.” And, “Chris had become a silent partner in the marriage. … So for many, many months I had been learning to live with less and less of Chris, hoping that if he found his footing in the things he wanted for himself, he would once again be more fully present in the life we shared.”
Ouch. Since Adam, husbands have abdicated leadership and genuine participation in their marriages and families. I must admit to having more periods than I want where I’m not “fully present in the life I share” with my wife and family. And the thought that my wife could feel that way humbled me, scared me a bit, and re-focused me. I hope this is the grace of repentance that lasts and bears fruit. In telling her story, Morrison reminded me that I didn’t want to be a silent partner in my story. Nor does finding my footing in my own wants lead to real participation with my wife. That’s simply selfishness. Her husband decided he was done; by God’s continuing grace I want very much to begin and continue. And I’m thankful for how this book stirred me in ways I didn’t know I needed to be stirred.
One more lesson from this chapter. As a pastor I need to teach and warn couples against deciding alone that their marriage is over. They didn’t decide alone to marry. So, there is no dignity in unilaterally deciding alone to divorce. It betrays the covenant promises of marriage itself. Consider this gut-wrenching experience:
I sobbed to Chris, trying to make sense of the fact that he wasn’t telling me we were having problems, that we should go to couples counseling, that he thought we weren’t getting along anymore. Hell, tell me you hate me! But no, he was telling me that our marriage was over. He had decided. Alone. … I didn’t realize marriage had its own get-out clause, which could leave one partner standing there, dumbfounded. … Forever can be undone in a second: once Chris chose to enact the get-out clause, the magic of that leap of faith we’d taken together instantly evanesced. (Italics in original)
Isn’t this how it seems to happen so often? One partner checked out long ago, then one day in a brilliantly disastrous display of self-awareness, they decide unilaterally that it’s over? Pastorally, we must work against this tendency in troubled marriages. Meaningful relationships between couples must be fostered to help detect early warning signs and build links for intervening. And entire church families must take active interest in its marriages, even to the point of calling a brother or sister to repent of deciding alone that what God has joined together can unilaterally be torn asunder.
“You don’t Get to Know Why, But Ask Anyway” (chap. 3). I don’t think I fully appreciated how haunting the question “Why?” is to those working through the pain and uncertainty of divorce. Morrison’s third chapter helped with that quite a bit. She hadn’t seen her divorce coming. Sometimes people do. But in both cases, answering the why question is a major challenge. There seem to be so many reasons. And how unhelpful for everyone who hears the news of your break-up to offer their answers to your why questions, usually with a suspicion that every breakup is about infidelity. Morrison: “The whys are like hats: deep down, I know I don’t look good in one, but I can’t resist trying them on, seduced by their power to flatter and conceal.” In the end, the whys are not always that helpful; certainly every why isn’t as compelling as every other. And it takes time to really see the whys clearly, not to mention learn to do something with and about the answers.
Ultimately, here was a woman who in a thousand ways felt guilty for being her. Note to Thabiti the husband: Ask Kristie if she feels guilty for being her? Does she feel nursed like a delicate rose, or trampled like crab grass? Exterminate the uncertainties about your love by repeatedly, creatively, plainly, and joyfully giving the whys of your love.
There are so many things I could say or discuss about this book. Let me offer just a couple more quickly:
Morrison did survive “the hell of divorce.” She writes: “I was slowly learning the truth that would get me through the process of having my life and house fall apart around me: I could keep two opposing thoughts about myself in my head at the same time and know they were both true. I am a Mess. I am Fine. I didn’t have to choose one idea and dwell in it. When I tried, I would only find myself seesawing wildly between the two, anyway, as I collected evidence for the alternative.” If Morrison is a Christian, she doesn’t write of it in the book. But I’m struck by how close to the gospel that comment is, and how far away it is. For the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are sinners (I am a Mess), and yet through faith in Jesus, who provides our righteousness and pays our penalty for sin, we are justified before God (I am Fine). But to think those two things apart from Jesus is to delude ourselves. We may survive divorce by holding these contradictory truths together, but we will not survive God’s perfect judgment by merely asserting these things. We need Jesus to survive the real hell.
The book is an easy read. Written well. Moving story. Great resolution. Hope-filled and life-giving. I heartily commend it whether you’re divorced, in the process, single, or married happily or sadly. There is much here to savor. Not the least is this: the book may be helpful in preventing us from losing our best idea of ourselves. As sad as it is, marriages sometimes become the burial grounds for our best selves. We don’t have to live the story of divorce (or marriage) that everyone offers us. There’s an infinitely better way, in Christ.