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Several years ago I wrote an essay on marriage, an essay filled with conviction and certainty. I was twenty-two, three weeks into my own marriage, and an out-of-work actress working as a receptionist for IBM. Not exactly Montaigne. Through a series of unlikely events, the essay was published and reprinted in a literary review, a psychoanalytic newsletter, an ethics textbook, and in pamphlet form for use by Episcopalian study groups.

Three years ago I divorced and have since remarried. It has seemed painfully ironic and, of course, somehow appropriate that the subject about which I wrote with such great confidence should have been the occasion of my greatest failure. I still believe what I wrote then, but it is obvious that in some respects my understanding fell short.

I wrote then in angry defense of marriage at a time when such a step was not only unfashionable but even a sort of betrayal of that “independent, career-minded young woman” ideal so lauded by all. My argument then would, for the most part, still be my argument now: after all, my own failure to keep the marriage promise says nothing about the truth of the argument. My failure does, however, radically alter my perspective, destroy the confidence I once had in my own ability to prevail, and demand that I look again at the question of marriage—this time from the vantage of divorce.

Certainly, I would no longer (if I ever did) claim that divorce is always a mistake. Always a failure, always an evil, but not always mistaken. Even as a child I remember seeing the movie of Dr. Zhivago and asking my parents whether divorce was ever O.K. Surely, I thought, Lara and Dr. Zhivago belonged together. And I often wonder whether Anna Karenina would have had to kill herself if she’d only found a better man than Vronsky. In any event, I am convinced that there are times when the marriage vows must be broken.

The problem, then, is to understand the broken promise in such a way as to make possible future unbroken promises. I had argued that the public promise to love is itself the enabling, if not guarantee, of a lasting love: That “piece of paper,” which my friends had found confining or even irrelevant, in fact frees us from the dark, always vulnerable world of private thought into the bright and clarity-filled world of action. Saved from a slavish dependence on our “feelings,” which are all too murky and easily swayed, we are able to hope for, work at, a “love till death do us part.” Or so I, impassioned with all the insight of a twenty-two year old, declared.

What I underestimated then and what has only increased with the years is the almost complete erosion of the public arena. It is this failure of the public realm that has made a lasting marriage as unlikely an event as a redemptive divorce.

A promise is an action and therefore an essentially public undertaking. But this “public” presupposes laws, commandments, standards, restrictions. Absent all these, we are acting, yes, but in a world no less murky than our own private interior. Thus we may indeed promise—may take the initial enabling step of marriage—only to find ourselves plunged back into darkness.

We live in a public arena in which there are no absolutes, and in which all rules and restrictions are suspect. Those institutions that have traditionally aided and encouraged marriage now function as collaborators, even co-conspirators, in the broken promise. No-fault divorce is readily available, prenuptial agreements anticipating divorce are all the rage, and our churches are far more interested in the fate of the rain forest than in the endangered promises of those in their congregations. Indeed, I cannot recall the last time I heard the “M” word or the “S” (spouse) word. Parishioners must count themselves fortunate now even to hear discussion of “relationships” or “partners.”

Entire industries exist specifically for the purpose of easing guilt, of making us “feel O.K. about ourselves.” Our culture has appropriated the language of Christianity without any of its substance. Thus we forgive without ever having judged. Indeed, we are “saved” without ever having sinned. What we seem now to call forgiveness (as in therapy’s famous “learning to forgive oneself”) seems rather to take away the seriousness of the offense than to encourage acknowledgement of failure that could lead to repentance, and a resolution to do better. Only in a culture therapeutically obsessed, in which the self is perceived objectively, not subjectively—as something apart from what we do or are—could we speak of “forgiving oneself.” Forgiveness is an action requiring both object and subject. Forgiveness is also a gift—by definition, unearned. If I cannot earn or work for forgiveness, I most assuredly cannot forgive myself. I may learn to live with my past, may understand it more fully, but I cannot forgive myself. Only God and those who love us can, through the gift of forgiveness, redeem the past, and make whole again.

Which brings me back to the initial point. Unless there is judgment, there is no need for forgiveness and thus no possibility of starting anew. For a culture in which acceptance and tolerance are the chief virtues (indeed intolerantly demanded) and “judgmental” is a dirty word, there can be no true second chance, no real hope.

When we take away all disapproval, all censure, all the everyday constraints that make divorce more difficult, the inevitable result is the diminishment of marriage. We cannot expect to take all the weight and meaning out of divorce if we want any weight and meaning left in marriage. I remember after my own divorce, when friends asked how I was, I sometimes replied that I’d lost my honor. Almost no one knew what I meant, and certainly no one agreed with me. Everyone was far too busy “being supportive.” Let me add that I am in no way blaming the public for my own mistakes. My marriage had to end in spite of my own strongly held convictions, and no amount of pressure from the outside could have saved it. So would I really have wanted hordes of wrathful friends and relatives, difficult laws, and harsh preachers? No, of course not. But such a response might, in fact, have been more appropriate to the gravity of the event. We do ourselves and our friends no real service by making nice and making light of something as serious as divorce and marriage. Not if we hope for a better and more faithful future.

On the other hand, it may well be that marriage “till death us do part” is simply a doomed enterprise. In a world so ruled by the jargon of therapy there is little room for a permanent relationship. In this ever-optimistic world there are no external absolutes, no original sin, only the relentless pursuit of “health” and “fulfillment.” If what we all aspire to is health rather than virtue, gratification rather than strength of character, how can we hope to find a foundation for a lasting commitment? If I have “grown” and my mate hasn’t kept up, is even impeding my own “growth,” what possible reason could I have for remaining faithful? The “healthy” choice is clear: find someone better-suited to my current needs. The notion that a man and woman should be devoted each to the other “through sickness and health,” should place their good as a couple over the good of each individual, is then just silly.

I have no doubt that there are times when therapy can be of tremendous value. My concern is that it is largely practiced in a moral vacuum. Only if the patient has a firm morality, or at least aspires to one, is there likely to be any discussion of right and wrong, because therapy’s only imperative is the health of the patient. An open-ended quest for fulfillment unbounded by religion or morality is a fruitless and ultimately dangerous endeavor.

Let us suppose that a lasting marriage in a world such as ours is no longer a reasonable expectation. What does it matter? What difference does it make to anyone but the couple? The answer is stunningly simple but it bears repeating. It makes a big difference to the children. While there are any number of alternatives to the nuclear family, all the evidence suggests that nothing else works so well. Children need a father and a mother, male and female. And they need the stability of one set of rules, not two—so it seems eminently more desirable that the parents live together, love one another, and work things out as a family. Hardly foolproof, but surely more likely to produce happy, productive children than any other arrangement.

Without children, we have no society. Marriage, then, is the foundation of community, the model for our communal life. Without that first promise, there can be no other. When we abuse the marriage vows, we imperil our community. Because the promise of marriage is a public promise it is made not only to one’s spouse, but also to one’s community. The breaking of such a promise breaks more than a marriage. There may be times when such violence is unavoidable, but as with other crimes against society, there must be judgment, repentance, and, one hopes, forgiveness.

Perhaps marriage is doomed, practicable only for a few hardy souls whose great good fortune has made it a possibility. I do not know. The sort of confidence I once had in myself has long since vanished, and the trust I placed in our public institutions erodes with each passing day. In my new marriage, I have been granted a second chance for which I am most grateful, and I pray that God will help us remain faithful. But while my heart has never been so full, my mind is inescapably aware of my own fragility and that of the world in which I live. These are dangerous times, actively hostile to marriage, family, and community. We must keep our promises and pray for grace.

Kari Jenson Gold, who is married to writer Lucky Gold, is still an actress.

Photo by Anna Utochkina on Unsplash. Image cropped.