Marriage, divorce, and “continuing concern”

On my prior post, I mentioned the policy in the Diocese of Southern Virginia about waiting at least four years after a divorce before entering the discernment program for ordination.  The policy asks

4. If divorced, have you been divorced for at least 4 years and demonstrated continuing concern for the well-being of your former spouse and children?

And the four year thing does seem a bit harsh, I’ll agree, but I do understand why.  (Don’t really like it, but understand it.)  A commenter on that post wondered what degree of continuing concern would be appropriate for someone who has escaped an abusive marriage.  This is a really interesting question, and I know it’s relevant to both that commenter and to me.  So I decided to make this a post on the blog itself, because it’s more than I wanted to put in comments.

In the Episcopal Church, marriage is a sacramental rite, and the couple makes vows to each other.  Not agreements, not promises, but vows.  Vows are meant to be lifelong commitments, and they are meant to be relatively scarce in one’s life.  I’ve only taken two vows in my life: baptismal vows and marriage vows.  Of course, I fall sadly short of my baptismal vows, and I’m sure we all fall short of loving, cherishing, and honoring our spouse as we should, too.  We’re human.  These vows give us a target to aim at, a goal to strive for to the absolute best of our ability, but God knows we are fallible.

When I first told my spiritual director that I was leaving my ex, and that this time, it was forever, she said several things to me.  Having had experience with this in her own journey, she knew something of the path I was choosing to walk.  And she told me, Hedwyg, the spiritual work ahead of you now is how to live out your marriage vows, but in a different way.  You will still love and honor your ex, but you will do this apart from him.  And she is right.  I had already learned that I never stop loving people.  I may not continue to like them or respect them or trust them, but once I have opened my heart to someone, love never stops.  Changes, yes.  Ends, no.

Now, I honor my ex by paying my support payments to him each month, by being flexible with his needs and the kids’ needs and my needs so that we all get taken care of, by offering help when I see that it is needed, by clearly communicating what I want and need, and by refusing to indulge in ex-bashing to the children or to anyone else.  Yes, I speak honestly about my journey with him, but I try to refrain from saying negative things about him or even from painting him in a negative light at all.  He’s perfectly capable of doing this for himself – as I am, too! – so neither of us needs the other to do it for us.  If he were to become gravely sick or seriously injured, then I would try to help him as much as I would be welcomed – yes, for the sake of our children, but also to honor the relationship that we had.

This same language appears in the form requesting the bishop’s permission to remarry after divorce (and again, this is policy rather than canon – the canon says only that the bishop has to give permission for a priest in the diocese to officiate at a wedding after one of the partners has been divorced) …

9. I am satisfied that each party has an adequate continuing concern for the
previous spouse(s) and any children.

… only I find it very interesting that this statement asks the question of both people intending to marry.   I also find this completely appropriate.  When you marry someone who has been divorced, their former spouse isn’t gone, especially when there are children.  There are memories, ghosts, wounds, joys, sorrows – a life shared for those years – which will never go away.  But I also notice an additional word here, and I think this answers the commenter’s question: an adequate continuing concern.  This means that the clergyperson filling out this form for the bishop has to make a judgment call.  What is adequate in the situation?  Of course, I wonder whether adequate implies the same degree as appropriate, but that’s probably a quibble.  Merely sending support checks is adequate, but appropriate probably implies more than that.  I don’t know.  Again, I think that would depend on the individuals involved.

All of this is incredibly pertinent to me, as I prepare – both outwardly and inwardly – for the final dissolution of this marriage this summer,  and for the birth and nurturing of a new marriage next year.  I’ve taken on a great deal of spiritual work in this, over a fairly short time period.  There is some very important stuff here: knowing you are worthy of love, knowing you are a valid individual and complete without needing someone else to make you that way, knowing that while you may want a partner you do not need one, learning how to please yourself and tend to yourself and make yourself happy, finding the things you love and the things that feed you, weeding out the things that don’t feed you but that may have become habitual.  Healing.  Forgiveness.  Wholeness.

So… not complete answers here.  Just that continuing concern isn’t necessarily wrong, even for an abuse survivor.  There can be too little concern for your ex, or there can be too much, and either is inappropriate and potentially harmful.

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2 thoughts on “Marriage, divorce, and “continuing concern”

  1. Hedwyg, this is most interesting. I no longer believe in the ‘marriage for life’ ideal; I now feel that everyone should be married and divorced at least once!

    Have a good time in Ottawa.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of the question, Hedwyg. I haven’t been able to think about it that clearly, alas — about all I can summon up for him is ‘I hope he doesn’t die in a fiery car crash like I’ve been expecting him to since he drives like an idiot’. Which counts as concern, I suppose but not very much.

    It’s especially hard at the moment, as he’s currently trying to scare me out of even asking for my half of things. :/ It won’t work — it would have a year ago, but it won’t now — but while I’m proud that I’m angry not scared, I’m still angry.

    Kate

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