I met a woman this weekend who was married for over twenty-five years, whose divorce was finalized a year ago. Her husband had cheated on her to such an extent that she knew of at least one child borne out of his dalliances as well as two abortions. Along with that, he had brought home sexually transmitted diseases to her. She had many questions for me on getting through her divorce but the one that stood out the most to me was this:
Why did God let me stay in my marriage so long?
I answered her with a soft “I don’t know” because what I was thinking would’ve seemed harsh in the face of her pain.
Because this is what I was thinking: “He didn’t let you stay in it. You chose to stay in it.”
So my question to myself is what made her choose to stay in that marriage that long? What makes a woman stay in a marriage that is abusive or riddled with adultery? (To be clear, I’m not asking ‘what makes a woman stay in a marriage that is inconvenient, boring or kinda hard’. Because I believe, for the most part, that woman should stay in that marriage.)
A counselor told me once that we teach people how to treat us. This woman mentioned that her ex-husband used to tell her that she should stop waiting on him hand and foot, and that she must like the way he treated her (verbally abusively) since she kept coming back for more. Harsh, cruel words spoken by an abusive, unfaithful man…and yet, total truth.
This woman had what some of us call in the Christian world “biblical grounds” for divorce. Her husband was an unrepentant serial cheater (and dangerous on top of all that, giving her diseases for goodness’ sakes). But she stayed. I do not know her well enough to know why she specifically stayed. But I have my theories on why women stay when they don’t have to and when they actually shouldn’t.
One, we might be broken. We repeat what we’ve seen. We only know what we know. If we grew up thinking we deserved to be treated poorly (as this woman mentioned she did), we will tend to seek that out and we will be comfortable in that kind of environment. I will go so far as to say we might even be uncomfortable when treated well (when this happened to me, I ran from it).
Two, we might be stubborn. I was bound and determined not to repeat the cycle of divorce that I had been through as a child, even if it meant I was miserable for the rest of my life. Some of us stay because we truly want to do what’s right and we honestly believe staying is the right thing to do. (For some of us, it is; for others of us, it’s not.)
Three, we ask for help but are patted on the head and sent right back in. This woman spoke of going to a pastor years prior begging for wisdom and he said, after she told him of her husband’s multiple affairs, “Go back home and love your man.” This makes me want to throw up and hit that pastor over the head with his Bible. Jesus said some amazingly disturbing things in the name of truth, but I would pretty much bet the farm that he would have had only words of grace and mercy for this sweet woman, and he probably wouldn’t have handed her condoms, metaphorically speaking, and told her to suck it up and go home.
Four, we might not know that things are as bad as they really are. I just thought things were hard. Really hard. I didn’t know they were the bad kind of hard until probably just a few years ago. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t want to see it. And I don’t think I could’ve handled it emotionally to know it…I wouldn’t have known what to do. I was strong enough to handle the brunt of things (though, of course, I didn’t handle it well), but I was not strong enough until recently to know I had to do something about it.
And five, we might like being the victim. I know, I know. That’s mean of me to say. But I can only say it because I have been this person. I touted my sob stories like a security blanket. I even feared that I’d have nothing to think about or talk about if my marriage got better or if I weren’t in a bad marriage anymore. And, and this is the saddest admission, people might stop cutting me slack if I didn’t have this heavy burden to carry around anymore, and I was scared to have to live up to my potential and be a grown-up. (I still am, sometimes.) So we might stay because leaving the hard thing opens us up to the possibility of joy and being free to live fully, and how in the world would we do that?
The woman I met, she asked me if there will ever come a day when she will be happy again. (Keep in mind, her divorce has been final for over a year and I’m not even divorced yet…so technically, she should be farther ahead in her healing process than I am.) But I told her yes, there is happiness and joy out there and she can and will experience it; I told her there are good days and bad days but I’m feeling more good ones already. She followed up my sentence with, “Yes, but, my husband still lives in our home with his new girlfriend and her three dogs and…” And it occurred to me that this woman will more than likely never be happy. She probably never was. And she probably never will be. Because she’s a ‘yes, but…’ kind of woman. An excuse around every corner, a retort already formed on her lips for your every suggestion. So, for her, no, there probably is no happiness coming, unless…
Unless she gets to a place of moving on, of forgiving her husband, of realizing she stayed and that God did not make her or do that to her, and of actually wanting to be happy and experience joy and peace. Until then, she will have the same conversation and ask the same question to the next person who comes her way. In fact, she probably moved on from me and went to someone else moments later, telling the same story.
I don’t say these things to be unkind. I say these things as a two-fold reminder to myself. One, you can only help who wants to be helped (and you shouldn’t waste your time and breath on those who don’t). And two, I used to be that person, I still can be that person, but the healthier part of me no longer want to be that person (most of the time, on my better days). When Jesus whispers to me, “Do you want to be made well?”, I want my answer to be ‘yes, please’ each and every time from this day forward.