I figure I’ve married about a thousand people in my life. I don’t mean that in a Charlie Sheen “winning at home with my two and a half goddesses” type of way. Do you know the religious argument that you are required to marry 16 people; 4 better, 4 worse, 4 richer and 4 poorer? I’m not a believer in polygamy. It’s a miracle that I could even find one woman who would marry me. But I have presided over the weddings of at least 500 couples in the last 20 years. I’ve always wanted to tell my favorite wedding story and since it took place in New Zealand nearly 10 years ago, it seems safe to do so now. I’ve had some fun moments, twice this past year with dogs in the bridal party and once on the 18th fairway of a golf course. The runner up for best wedding story was when the mother of a bride stopped the wedding mid vows when she realized that it wasn’t a Catholic church. Her daughter had told her I was a Catholic priest. The ear ring and bleached blond hair gave her some doubts, but when I prayed without doing a sign of the cross, she stood up and stopped the wedding.
That was interesting, but my all time favorite story was another couple I married in Auckland. I didn’t think much about the fact that the bride wanted to meet daily before the wedding. Each bride has their own way of preparing for their big day. And I didn’t think much about the way she was looking at me while she held her fiancé’s hand at the altar. I thought she was looking for reassurance. But when she made an appointment to come and see me 4 days after the wedding, it all became clear. She declared her undying love for me, and told me that she had fallen in love with me while standing at the altar with the groom. I know the pastor is supposed to love the flock, but this was going too far. She wanted to know what I suggested. I said, “Get thee to a nunnery” and sent her back to her new husband with the phone number of a good therapist. She tried to keep in touch with me, and eventually gave up when we moved to America.
That particular bride wasn’t a great advertisement for the troubled institution of marriage. With brides like that it’s not surprising that over half of all marriages in America end in divorce, and half of the other half of couples who stay together might be better off getting divorced. It might also be true that half of the marriages that separate, don’t need to. I want to address some relationship questions, from a social, religious and finally from a spiritual perspective. My hope is to build a stronger platform for relationships that last, whether in marriage or not. I want to instill an inner motivation to have awesome relationships that fill your own life with meaning and create healing energy for others. I want to remind you that life is beautiful and even better in healthy relationships. Relationships are not just a good and beautiful thing to be nurtured but a gateway to the sacred dimensions of life, where you learn about the source and many faces of love.
I also want to broaden the conversation from just marriage to relationships in general. These could be romantic relationships, business relationships or family relationships. Many of the same principles apply in all cases.
Among other questions I want to ask- How do you mend a broken relationship? How do you know when a relationship is done and needs to be ended? How do you end a relationship in the healthiest way possible? How do you heal when someone leaves you and you didn’t even see it coming?
Relationship Ethics and Religion
Let’s start by looking at the role of religion in morality. A lot of people think that the Ten Commandments provide the basis for morality. Do you know the real story about Moses and the Ten Commandments? In Mel Brooks version of the story, Moses came down Mount Sinai juggling some large stone tablets. Just as he was announcing to the Israelites that he had 15 commandments, he dropped one tablet. It smashed on the ground and without missing a beat he said, “I have 10 commandments.” In another version of the story Moses came down the mountain and said to the Israelites, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I got him down to ten. The bad news is that adultery is still in.” While I don’t endorse adultery in any way, and know that it’s no laughing matter, the joke points to the problem in looking to ancient religious texts that have passed through multiple oral and written revisions before arriving in their current form, for contemporary morality.
The Bible has many conflicting teachings about divorce. The Hebrew texts teach that a man can freely divorce his wife without need for a reason while a woman has no right to divorce under any circumstance. Deuteronomy 24 implies that a man can divorce his wife if a better offer comes along or his wife is no longer “pleasing to the eye”. Numbers 5 says that if a man suspects that his wife has been unfaithful, in fact, even if he is jealous of his wife, she is forced by the priest to drink a cup of muddy water. According to superstition, if she is innocent, she will become pregnant. If she has been unfaithful, then she will suffer the agony and the pain of a prolapsed uterus. The last verse of the chapter says that even if she is innocent, the husband remains blameless and either way the woman will suffer.
It’s not just the Old Testament. The New Testament is also inconsistent. The early Rabbis had diverse opinions about divorce. By the first century, some Rabbis allowed divorce for just about any reason, including a wife burning the toast. In one passage Jesus is recorded as saying that divorce is always wrong and in another he is recorded as saying that divorce is allowed in the case of sexual immorality. Saint Paul allowed a Christian spouse to divorce if the other spouse is a non-Christian and has left. Polygamy was widespread in Hebrew culture and life expectancy was so short in Bible times that marriages rarely lasted more than 15 years. It was a completely different world. Even if you expect to find morality in the Bible that makes sense in the modern world, the Bible’s teaching is completely inconsistent on the issue of divorce.
Apart from anything else, even if we could say for sure that we have an accurate record of what was really said by Jesus and others and even if the Bible had a consistent teaching on the issue of divorce, it still has little to offer us in a world where we value gender equality. The world of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, afforded women very few rights and very little dignity. Women were literally the property of men to be used, abused and discarded however men chose. I feel no need to criticize ancient cultures and the Bible is simple a semi historical record of ancient practices. The question is what, if anything, it offers today’s world in relation to morality.
In the past many people believed, or maybe needed, religion to be the basis for morality. When it comes to marriage, the statistics suggest that religion doesn’t help. 25% of the total adult population in America have been divorced. 27% of adults in churches have been divorced and 29% of adults in Baptist churches have been divorced. At the other end of the spectrum, 21% of adult atheists and agnostics have been divorced. You could easily conclude that religion makes it more difficult to be married. The stricter the church, the greater the incidence of divorce. Maybe the more conservative the religious perspective, the greater the pressure, and the less realistic the expectations and gender roles. Divorce rates are MUCH higher in the Bible belt, in the American south, than in New York and other parts of the north east. The statistics come from a 1999 Barna Research Report and Barna is himself a conservative evangelical Christian.
This is all particularly surprising when you remember that conservative Christians are more likely to preach family values and the danger of same sex marriage on the basis that same sex marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage. In fact since 2003, states which have not passed a state constitutional ban on gay marriage saw their divorce rates decrease by an average of 8 percent. States which had passed a same-sex marriage ban saw their divorce rates rise by about 1 percent over the same period. IF marriage is under threat in America, it may be more at risk from those who read the Bible literally than it is from atheists or supporters of same sex marriage. The reason I emphasize this point is not to criticize the Bible. I have no need to defend or critique the Bible, except when the Bible is used as a whipping rod of guilt and shame for so many people. The Bible does have wisdom when it comes to relationships and sexual ethics, like all wisdom traditions, but not in the way it is usually used. Before I turn to some examples of non literal wisdom from the Bible, let me just say that because gay and lesbian people still deal with high levels of pressure and alienation in society, break ups can be particularly difficult and lead to a lot of isolation. Both in terms of community support and also in legal options, we should be particularly mindful of this extra challenge and create community that has an extra cushion of support for people who are doubly marginalized.
Divorce and Spirituality
It’s questionable whether religion increases the stickability of relationships, and it’s questionable whether religion offers a clear basis for morality. What does an inclusive spiritual perspective offer the issue of morality and relationships? Inclusive spirituality looks to the truths that turn up in many places rather than expecting to find absolute truths in literal readings of ancient texts. Let me illustrate by looking to the Bible stories in a different way.
Here are three non literal possibilities.
1. We are all connected.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to live with integrity after he was gone by saying, “I am with you always.” Think about the implications of living as if we are with each other ALWAYS, whether we are physically together or not. We are with each other, whether we are together or separate, married or divorced. Let me put it more bluntly. You might be able to remove your ex from your daily logistics, from your home and from the photographs around your house, but you can never remove them from your heart. This is where the notion of closure can be so impractical. We’re ALL connected, and you chose to make a special connection to your ex. He will always be with you to some extent. She will always stay with you.
No matter how much you wish you could erase parts of your life, they stay with you. Their lessons and karma continue to cycle through your life. You may even feel that you have been greatly wronged, but let me remind you that even a pancake has two sides. You brought at least some of the energy to the broken relationship. You don’t have to wear the other person’s baggage, and you can’t make them clean it up. But you can ALWAYS honestly reflect on your own part in the relationship and take responsibility for your responses NOW. The beautiful irony in the words of Jesus (I am with you always) is that according to the story he said that in one of his reappearances after death. Jesus kept showing up. Sometimes he was easily recognized and other times he was in disguise. The same is true for all of us. Our previous relationships and nemeses, our hurts and betrayals, continue to turn up and demand a great deal of honest self reflection. The question is “do you recognize the past when it turns up in your life?”
2. Make Peace with the Past
That sounds like bad news to many people. It’s a harsh reality. The good news is that you can make peace with the past as you learn to recognize it when it turns up in your present. When Jesus made his resurrection appearances, the story tells us that sometimes he told people to hold on and sometimes he told people to let go. When Mary wanted to hug him, he said “Stop clinging” and to Thomas he said, “Touch the wounds”. There is a time for both when it comes to moving on and making peace with the past. Do you remember the agonizing scene in the movie Titanic? Jack and Rose are floating in the icy ocean after the ship has gone down. Rose finally realizes that Jack is dead and she pries her trembling hand from his dead, lifeless grip. She lets go and his body floats away. As hard as it was she came to realize that she couldn’t carry his corpse or else she would risk her own life.
We spend far too much energy carrying corpses through life, the skeleton of past choices or previous relationships. Sometimes you need to question what you’re clinging to, whether you’re clinging to an idea about the past, blame for the break up, settlement details, custody arrangements or seething hostility, and sometimes you do that by touching the wounds of the past with the healing touch of acceptance. Make peace with who you are and who you’ve become. Your first love, even though they may have broken your heart wide open, taught you how to know yourself and to know what open-heart living feels like. They were with you for the first mile when your heart broke a sweat, the first kiss when your lips became moist with awareness, the first heart palpitation when you surrendered to passion. All that the past meant for you is still with you; the good, the bad and the ugly. Your choice now is how you respond.
3. Love Your Enemies
The measure of spiritual strength is not how well you love those who are easy to love, but how well you love those who are hardest to love. Jesus said, “If you only love those who love you, the rewards will only be moderate.” Growth takes place when you can wish ALL people well, even those who have harmed you and left you with many pieces to put back together. I know how hard it is. Even though I have been with the one saint of a woman who has put up with me for over 20 years, I know how hard it is to forgive enemies and how much easier it is to curse them. I have my “exes”, the corpses I carry around with me, the hurts I cling to. Letting go of the corpses and wishing my “exes” well may be the most challenging thing I ever do. But the rewards are phenomenal.
If you are still making an enemy of your ex you are harming yourself. If you are speaking ill of your ex, then you are harming yourself. If you are gathering people around you who confirm your basest instincts and encourage bitterness, then you are hurting yourself. You can be so much more by living from your highest values and loving even those who have hurt you. Note that I’m not suggesting that you trust them. They may be exes for good reason. But love them. Love them despite themselves and their destructive patterns. I’m not even talking about expressing it to them. You might have good reason not to communicate. But in your own heart, love them and recognize that they brought something good, true and beautiful to your life at some time. Love and let the past be what it was, clearing the way to move forward with integrity.
Spiritual Break Ups
Every situation is different and I’m certainly not telling anyone what to do. There are very few rights and wrongs when it comes to ending relationships. Whatever your situation, whether you are considering a break up, trying to mend a relationship or trying to mend your life after a break up, make sure that this is an opportunity to be all that you are destined to be in the world. Choose to stay together or break up, but either way do it with mindful self reflection and honesty.
Other people can make you lose your balance for a time and wobble on the edge of bitterness, but ultimately you have a spirit that no one and nothing can break. As you honestly face your own attachments and take responsibility for your own sense of inner peace, you will remember that you are strong and capable. This self awareness will prepare you for relationships that are healthy and life affirming. The unbreakable spirit of strength in me honors the same in you. Namaste.