It was a Friday evening. My wife and I were sitting in the kitchen talking to a friend of ours while the kids played outside. Our friend indicated that for the last couple of days, she couldn’t stop thinking about a situation that had recently been unveiled to her. A well-respected member of the community, whom had coached her son for years, had recently left his wife and kids for another woman. The wife, who also was a close friend, indicated that she was blindsided by the news, and the absolute nature in which it was delivered. It appeared that a decision had been made, and there was no recourse available.
As we were sitting there talking about this, it spurred conversation about other similar circumstances that had occurred with close friends or family in the past few years. In many of these situations, it was clear that one spouse had not only made a clear decision to end the marriage, but that the pain left from this decision remained very real years later. In the midst of this discussion, I found myself saying something that we had uttered before:
“Rejection is worse than death, isn’t it?”
As the three of us all acknowledged, the death of a spouse would be easier to accept for the one left behind than this type of choice made that led to separation and divorce. In reflecting on this idea, this contention certainly doesn’t minimize the awful reality that one experiences when a significant other dies. But in moving beyond the inherent difficulties of losing a spouse, there is a deep pain resulting from rejection that even death does not seem to rival.
From a psychological sense, one of our most basic needs is to belong. Whether it is belonging to a family or a peer group or even an organization, much of our identity is wrapped up in who we are a part of. And yet, belonging goes beyond just a membership or affiliation. The spirit of belonging runs like an invisible force that attaches itself to another person or entity. That is why when our favorite professional sports team wins a championship, we feel proud, as if we have done something personally; it is also why when an organization or family we associate with is involved in a scandal, we feel ashamed, even if we had nothing to do with the acts committed.
But even deeper than the affiliation or attachment we might feel is the sense of belonging to another, as exists in marriage. When we give ourselves in holy matrimony, our vows speak of a deep spiritual transfer, even more than just a union of selves. “I, Jim, take you, Amy, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward…until death do us part.” In essence, I not only love you, but I open myself to you and accept you in. As is natural, many of us may find that the need to be desired is even stronger than the desire we have for someone else.
Yet when someone leaves a marriage, especially because of infidelity, it is as if that exchange is happening in reverse. Whether or not it is realized by the person departing, they are in effect saying to their ex-spouse, I no longer want to have you or hold you. Rejection may not be the intention of the departed. But so often it is the first thing that is felt when the person abandoned is left to wonder just why they weren’t good enough to “have” and to “hold” forever.
Maybe this is one reason why the Catholic Church takes marriage so seriously. And perhaps it isn’t only the rejection felt by the significant other, but the rejection experienced often by the children left to deal with a new reality. Although there has been some debate in the literature about just how much people are affected by divorce long-term, a massive body of literature supports the idea that separation does result in significant physical, psychological, social, financial, and societal ill effects for all involved. Even beyond these effects, my experience as a psychologist indicates that many kids, even for years after the divorce, suffer their own vicarious feelings of rejection even when parents are careful to publicly not lay blame on each other, or the kids. Many kids regularly express feelings of rejection when parents separate because they are confused about why two people, seemingly committed to them and the family, would choose to live separate lives despite the complications it brings. Simply put, kids experience a loss of togetherness, and this loss raises serious questions about why the original plan was, well, rejected.
Maybe this is also why the Catholic Church does not consider a lawful marriage indissoluble…except in cases of death. Interestingly, death is the one exclusion to the “undying commitment” made on the wedding day. Although it might seem unfair, the sacrament of marriage could exist as does other sacraments, such as baptism or confirmation, in that once you have received it, it is never rescinded. Yet this is not the case, and the Church fully sanctions a remarriage for someone whose spouse has deceased. I wonder if that in addition to recognizing how much human beings often need each other, the Church recognizes that, well, rejection IS worse than death. While the adjustment from the death of the spouse can be brutal, it seems only superseded by a choice made by one individual to reject another through divorce. It appears that the Church isn’t alone in this belief. There are many in the secular world who also contend that divorce is worse than death of a spouse when it comes to negative outcomes for kids and families.
Regardless, this discussion suggests a mandate for all of us. One, if you are married (except in serious, extenuating circumstances), consider that nothing is more important than preserving the health of that commitment. If you are in a longstanding romantic relationship, especially with kids involved, consider that serious attention needs to be paid to understanding why separation should be treated as a very serious matter. And if you have been rejected, or have rejected someone else, it is paramount that amends be made wherever possible, efforts be taken that this does not happen again, and resulting pain be dealt with directly, not just allowed to fester indefinitely.
Whether we like it or not, most human beings need to belong, especially to one another. Deep in the chambers of our heart, there is a hope that someone will have and hold us all of our days. We need not forget the responsibility that comes when we accept this invitation.