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'Happily ever after' has become 'I'm not responsible'

October 17, 2009|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

Religion and marriage are alike in this respect: they appeal to the human aspiration to live happily ever after. Nowadays, however, marriage delivers on its promise of permanence to only half of all wedded couples. The remainder ends in divorce.

Early in the last century, alarmed at the soaring divorce rate, G.K. Chesterton warned university students that B.A. would soon stand for "Bachelor Again," and M.A. for "Married Again." The faithful, religious Chesterton lamented that, "the modern man wants to eat his wedding cake and have it, too."

The poet T.S. Eliot was even harsher on divorce, calling it the death of the spirit - worse, he said, than extremes of physical pain. "Every day a little death," the lyricist Stephen Sondheim agrees. Leo Tolstoy famously remarked that all happy families are like one another, whereas each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So, too, are the parties to divorce.

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With the advent of no-fault divorce in America, couples are now inclined to blame "irreconcilable differences" for marital failure, without considering compromise. The even greater failure rate of second and subsequent marriages suggests that unhappy couples devote scant effort to analyzing what went wrong the first time around.

"No-fault" is clearly a euphemism when applied to the breaking of the marriage bond. No couple separates without acknowledging or assigning blame. The fault and the pain of marital failure are personal, and the breakup is typically unexpected and often unwanted by one of the spouses. As much as sophisticated couples would prefer to part amicably, there is no such thing as a civilized divorce.

Fidelity, even more than romance, is the glue that binds married couples. Today, in half of our states adultery is no longer a crime, and in the remainder it is seldom, if ever, prosecuted. Despite all churches' distaste for divorce, there are now parts of the Bible Belt where the divorce rate is even higher than in the nation at large.

The psychologist Ruth Kaplan acknowledges that a strong religious orientation can enable an embattled spouse "to try again without losing self-respect."

In Christian weddings, following the couple's vows, the minister or priest proclaims on behalf of the community: "What God has joined together, let no one put asunder."

It is a caution aimed not just at interlopers who might tamper with the marriage, but at the couple themselves, who are responsible for maintaining a relationship that God has blessed and entered.

Couples experiencing difficulties with their marriage are less likely to consider divorce if they believe that God is the author of marriage and that it has been the divine plan that "they are no longer two, but one flesh" (Matthew 19:6).

It's not required for spouses to believe that their marriages were made in heaven. It is necessary, though, that they both take responsibility for living happily ever after.

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