Friday, February 25, 2011

More Local Divorces Than Meet The Eye

 Each January I contact the clerk of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Curcuit Court for the city and county divorce and marriage statistics for the prior year. As a pastor and a marital and family therapist, I am always interested in the direction these numbers are going.

On the face of it, the divorce trends may seem slightly encouraging, in that, like the rest of the country, the numbers have been mostly flat for the past number of years, and actually show a modest decline. But the marriage numbers are also dropping, in spite of a significant increase in our population over the past 15 years, as seen in the above graph.

A decrease in the number of marriage licenses issued, of course, doesn't mean that fewer people are in some kind of wedded relationship. If we were to define the essence of marriage as “leaving father and mother” (forming a separate partnership and household), “cleaving to each other” (becoming an exclusive couple) and “becoming one flesh” (forming an intimate sexual bond), we may find there are more people than ever who are "married." There are always those who engage in purely promiscuous, one night stands, of course, but there are many more couples who are simply in undocumented relationships we once referred to as “common law” marriages. We just don’t have a record of how many.

And when these unregistered couples break up, do they avoid all of the pain and heartache (and legal and other complications) we associate with the nearly 400 registered divorces that took place in our area last year?

I don’t think so. Ending an emotionally intimate “marriage” inevitably results in going through an emotionally painful “divorce.” So just cohabiting without the formality of a license or a ceremony doesn’t insulate people from the gutwrenching grief and betrayal they go through when they tear apart.

My uneducated guess is that we may have at least 25 percent more undocumented “marriages” happening each year than are indicated in the numbers above, and an equally large increase in the number of unregistered breakups.

So how is our community impacted by an estimated total of, say, 500 divorces, each of which, according to novelist Patrick Conroy, involves the “death of a small civilization”?

If there is an average of even only one child per divorce, that means we have 500 children in our community each year whose lives will never be the same. The impact of their parents breaking up is, for many, equal to the death of a loved one in the family. With lots of nurture and support, many children of divorce recover reasonably well from such a loss and go on to have a good life, but who would want to wish such a "death" on a child, or to be the cause of one?

And what about the 1000 divorcees involved in these numbers who, along with their parents, their siblings and their friends, also suffer the painful “loss of a loved one.” Physical deaths are usually due to an unavoidable tragedy (except for suicides), and those left behind savor the bittersweet memories of all of the good times they once enjoyed together. But divorce is more often experienced as a form of “wed-icide,” a preventable tragedy associated with raw feelings of anger, bitterness and betrayal.

In any case, closure is difficult. There are no funeral or memorial services, no burial rituals. Few friends or family members bring casseroles, send flowers or offer cards of condolence. The grief is palpable, and is much the same for documented and unregistered marriages alike.

If we had 500 school dropouts in our community each year for every 1000 students enrolled, we’d be forming blue ribbon panels to do something to help prevent this trend. Admittedly, in cases where partners are guilty of unrelenting abuse, addiction or adultery, a separation or divorce can be justified. And ironically, children may actually recover more easily in those cases than when their parents are equally loved and seen as good people who simply can't learn to get along (as they always insist on their children doing!).

The Harrisonburg/Rockingham Community Marriage Policy has been officially adopted by over 50 congregations in our area, and is one example of people trying to help prevent divorce and strengthen marriage, following the lead of over 250 other communities across the US with similar agreements:

Local clergy and congregations who support the CMP agree to the following:

a) for couples to be married:

 • To encourage a courtship of at least one year before marriage.

 • To guide engaged couples through an intensive marital preparation process involving individual or group educational sessions dealing with religious, financial, relational and intimacy issues and utilizing some form of premarital inventory. 

b) for all congregational members:

 • To promote premarital chastity and faithful marital relationships.

 • To encourage enrichment opportunities to strengthen existing marriages and provide intervention and support for marriages in distress.

 • To train mature married couples to serve as mentors to engaged couples, to newlyweds, and to those experiencing marital difficulties.

 • To cooperate with other congregations and agencies to share resources and to create a positive climate in which all marriages are helped to succeed.

Let's all see what we can do to strengthen marriages and spare adults and children alike the stresses associated with their demise.

Note: For a pastoral response to couples in undocumented marriages, you may want to check out the following:
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