But I Still Am Not Over My First Wife: “Ecclesiastical divorce”

By Bishop Keith L. Ackerman, SSC, DD
Eighth Bishop of Quincy, Retired

Divorce is messy.  Even afterwmarriage-counselingards there are numerous unresolved emotions or issues that continue to surface.  These issues are often manifested in three categories:  Rationalization, Direct Attack, and Justification.  Some of the articulations are:

(1)” I was a fool to ever marry him/her.”   (2) “He/she changed so much that he/she was not the person I married.” (3) “Let me tell you about the rotten things he/she has done since we divorced.” (4) “My life is better now that I have gotten out of that mess.”  (5) “Honestly, kids, this is not about you, it’s about your mother/father and me.”

Remarriage after divorce, of course, is not uncommon.  It is not unusual for people to make certain that they do not marry a person that has the same faults as their first spouse, but sadly, most statistics indicate that people usually take their unresolved issues with them into their second marriage, and they still think about their first marriage in one way or another. Some have doubts and regrets, but generally, they want to convey to anyone who will listen, how much better their second marriage is.  After all, it was the other spouse who made the marriage so intolerable.

Not uncommonly, I counsel people who are in a second marriage, and in just a matter of moments it is clear that some earlier injuries and issues have not been addressed.  Imagine a couple coming to see me, where the husband has been previously married, and the presenting problem, according to the wife, is that he keeps talking about his first wife: her faults, her affairs, her bad decisions, her ongoing problems.  While he may well be quite correct in his assessment, his second wife now resents the fact that he is so obsessed with his first wife.  He is now in a new marriage and he rarely sees his first wife, but he regularly is on his computer “googling” her name, and tracking anything he can about her.  His second wife observes that every time the first wife does something that is absurd, he forwards emails to everyone he knows pointing out how inappropriate she is.  He thinks it makes him look better, perhaps, because now everyone will see that he made the right choice.  Unfortunately, since he spends so much time engaged in thought and emotion disclosing his first wife’s circumstances, his new wife feels neglected, and in spite of his vows, he does not contribute to the second marriage all of himself – he is still holding on to his first wife.  He is not “over” her.  Perhaps he felt he invested so much of himself in this failed marriage, but perhaps he also needs to convince himself that he made the right decision.  No matter what the reason may be, it is not healthy.

Church divorces are often even worse.  In many ways people want to take all the good things they had in the “first marriage” and create the mythical “perfect marriage.” Sadly, it doesn’t work.  Not only do we take injuries with us, but we take anger and resentment.  From a distance many ecclesial families look perfect.  It is not unlike living in a dysfunctional family, which is the normative television family today, and wishing that we could watch “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” again.  The idealized “Cleaver Family” or “Robert Young/Anderson” family is just that — idealized (In fact, I knew his daughter.)  Yet, we somehow, in life, think that we may very well, one day, find the perfect, idealized hypothetically constructed model that exists in our minds: the perfect marriage, the perfect home, the perfect children, the perfect job, and the perfect Church.  All too often the amount of mental energy placed in creating these hypothetical constructs, results in the disappointment of encountering reality.  Indeed, the best way to make one’s current, formerly idealized situation look better is by looking back at one’s former situation and reporting how bad it has gotten.

To speak personally, I was born into the Episcopal Church.  The Anglican side of my family through Wales and England, is a very long line.  My departure from the Episcopal Church is an extraordinarily sad story on numerous levels, and if I were to enumerate the various indignities and disappointments during the devolution of the Episcopal Church, not only would the list be long, but it would take too much time that could be better spent doing ministry now.  I do note, however, that matters in the Episcopal Church have not gotten better. In fact, that makes me quite sad because it was the Church that baptized me, gave me my First Holy Communion, Confirmed me, Solemnized our Marriage and Ordained me three times.  I prefer to recall the good times.  I prefer to think of the many happy experiences over my 63 years in the Episcopal Church.  I pray for the Episcopal Church and also for those who suffer indignities and blessings in the Episcopal Church.  For me to speak ill of her would be not only inappropriate, but may well say more about me than about the ills of the Episcopal Church.  It also raises the question: if I am no longer in the Episcopal Church, why would I spend so much time reading, writing, forwarding peoples’ opinions and news articles, when I could be using my energy by visiting nonbelievers.  Why would I spend so much time being mired in a battle that is no longer mine, when I could be helping people who do not even know what the Episcopal Church is?  Similarly, if one were to leave Anglicanism for another Branch of the Catholic Church or for another jurisdiction, wouldn’t they want to put their energy into celebrating their new found joy?

In the end, people must always look inside themselves to see what their motives are for sharing any information:  does it make me look better?  Does it proclaim to people that I am right and you are wrong?  Does it justify my sinful desire to demonstrate my superiority, and allow me to exercise my gifts of arrogance and condescension?

Before we engage in the art of speaking ill of those who at one point nurtured us, who paid us, who set up pension plans for us, and who loved us, we need to look deeply inside ourselves.  We can rationalize our reasons for speaking ill of our first spouse, or we can pray for her.  If we pray for her, but share with the world every mistake she makes and every sin she commits, in the end we may well be demonstrating a great deal more about ourselves.  The best way for a second marriage to succeed is by not looking back, and by celebrating the gift that we now have.