The conversation about divorce often discusses its impact on children in various ways, but doesn’t always take up the question of how divorce affects those children when they become adults.
Since many adults today are facing struggles and difficulties because their parents divorced, it may be time to face the fact that divorce is not a one-time event. It comes up at every holiday, every family celebration, every family tragedy.
In Amoris Laetitia, quoting the Relatio from the 2015 Synod, Pope Francis offers a kind of examination of conscience for people who have divorced: “how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage.”
This last point is perhaps the biggest question for those adult children whose parents have separated. How do they learn to trust that love will not “fail,” in their case? Knowing that they have a higher chance of divorce because of this family history, how do they face the future with hope?
How can the Church do more to reach out to adult children of divorce and help them to heal from this experience?
 Here is a link to one study that shows this, though there are many that corroborate it: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704052/
Stay tuned to this space for a series of videos about various topics.
In the meantime, what do you think about this short story? What does the consumer mentality toward children say about our society?
“Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor (published 1965 in Everything that Rises Must Converge)
This short story by Flannery O’Connor revolves around the character of Parker who is constantly in search of something, and often fills this search by getting a new tattoo. He has so many tattoos, at a certain point, that the only “blank space” left is his back. It is there that he gets a tattoo of Christ’s eyes, copied from an icon he finds. But all this wandering and searching for Parker eventually comes back to his marriage. Let’s look at some of the elements of “Parker’s Back” that have to do with marriage:
- There is always some mystery in a man and woman’s choice of each other.
“Parker’s Back” opens with Parker looking at his pregnant wife, Sarah Ruth, who is sitting on the porch snapping beans. He is thinking about how plain she is, “puzzled and ashamed at himself” for staying with her. He is also confused by her marrying him: “Sometimes he supposed that she had married him because she meant to save him. At other times he had a suspicion that she actually liked everything she said she didn’t.” When they first meet, Sarah Ruth hits Parker in the face with a broom for swearing. Later, when he makes a move on her, she “thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her.” The next line has them married. It can be easy to wonder why you chose your husband or wife, especially when things are hard. Sometimes it seems like they would be more compatible with someone else, or you may meet someone you are more compatible with. These are opportunities to remember the beginning of your story with your spouse; what drew you to them in the first place, and how that love has grown over time.
- It is Christ who must be obeyed in marriage.
Parker goes to the tattoo parlor and asks for the book with “all the pictures of God in it” and finds a Byzantine Christ he chooses for his back because of the eyes. “[Parker] felt as though, under their gaze, he was as transparent as the wing of a fly.” Later, he realizes, “The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed. He was as certain of it as he had ever been of anything.” Parker thought that when he returned home, Sarah Ruth would appreciate the face of Jesus on his back and see it as a way for Parker to be close to her; but Sarah Ruth does not really know Jesus: “It ain’t anybody I know,” she says when she sees the tattoo. Then she beats Parker across the back with the broom, “until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.” Christ is crucified again in Parker. We see Parker weeping under a tree in the last scene, at a total loss to understand what he could do to make his wife happy.
- Husbands, love your wives…
This doesn’t sounds like a hopeful story, does it? Yet somehow it is, because you have to think about Parker’s back, now carrying the icon of Christ, as he is being called to love a woman who hurts him. “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her” (Eph 5: 25).
Jane Austen’s Persuasion (published 1817)
Austen’s most popular novel is Pride and Prejudice, but the character of Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, deserves some attention. Of all Austen’s heroines, Anne is the one who waits the longest to receive her vocation to marriage. In these days of delayed marriage and dropping marriage rates in the United States and Europe, we should spend a little time with Anne Eliot.
Here is the basic story arc for those of you who are not Austen fanatics: Anne is the unloved, plainer daughter of an aging and irresponsible gentleman. As a young woman, she fell in love with a Naval man (Frederick Wentworth) whose prospects were uncertain and of whom her family did not approve. Anne was guided by a woman who acted as a mother to her (hence the title of the book), and broke the engagement. Wentworth left with wounded feelings and went on to make a fortune in the war as a Captain. He returns into Anne’s life bitter and resentful, and thus the story begins.
This post is for the single ladies:
- Patience is a suffering that both comes from and produces virtue.
Anne was quite young when she refused Captain Wentworth. She was persuaded by others at the time, but looking back she thinks that, “she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it” (Ch. 4). During the intervening seven years, between Wentworth’s leaving and coming back, Anne does not wallow in regret or live in selfish preoccupation with what she lost. But she also does not compromise out of fear of being alone; Anne receives at least two proposals from other men but does not accept them. She is a virtuous woman; she suffers but does not despair. She endures the pain of recognizing that the man she refused would have been the best partner for her, and in doing so she becomes even more worthy of Wentworth’s love. Anne says: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (Ch. 23).
- There is a difference between the compromising that is necessary in marriage and the compromising of important values for the sake of getting married.
Compromise is important in any relationship. Anne’s future with Captain Wentworth will be full of things that they will compromise about; their temperaments are different and he is much worldlier than she is. But these compromises in marriage are fruitful and necessary. They do not mean that either of them “compromised” by marrying the other. Learning that Anne rejected Charles Musgrove is a moment that might disturb the reader, because Charles is a good man. Could Anne have been happy with Charles? Perhaps. She certainly would have been a better wife to him than her sister Mary is. But when you think about all of Anne’s interests and qualities, her quiet passion for poetry and music, her utter calm in a crisis and interest in travel, you can see that she would have been stagnant in a life with Charles. Then, when Mr. Elliot proposes to Anne, and Lady Russell urges Anne to accept him, we see an even more important refusal on the grounds of character. Even though Anne is practically an “old maid” by that time, Anne will not enter marriage without love.
- Look for a man who is authentic and trustworthy.
“Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped” (Ch. 17). Anne does not trust Mr. Elliot because he never shows what he is really thinking or feeling. He is always self-possessed and calculating in his words and actions. This is a good reminder for women to really pay attention to what a man reveals in his less guarded moments; and if there are none, pay attention to that too!
Strong Poison, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon: Dorothy Sayers (published 1930, 1935, 1937)
Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, wrote a series of detective novels around the character Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter is one of the most eligible bachelors in England until he meets Harriet Vane and becomes enamored of her. He meets her in Strong Poison, asks her to marry him [for the nth time] in Gaudy Night, and is finally married to her in Busman’s Honeymoon.
Strong Poison introduces the character of Harriet Vane in a rather unideal circumstance: she is on trial for the murder of her live-in boyfriend. The novel opens with the watertight case against her and Lord Peter’s offering to prove her innocence. Wimsey actually proposes to her the first time they meet, at the prison; she is duly unimpressed. Here are a few things we can learn from these Sayers’ mysteries:
- Love is, and must be, a free choice.
After a few cases and numerous outings with Lord Peter, Gaudy Night finds Harriet with a quandary. She values her independence and career, and fears that despite his protestations, Peter will want her to give them up. These fears are unfounded, as Peter demonstrates that he loves her just as she is over a period of six years. Harriet finally allows herself to love him as she watches him sleeping on the grass during a picnic. She looks at him while he cannot observe her; while he is vulnerable and simply Peter, rather than Lord Peter, the diplomat and “most eligible bachelor in England.” Knowing his love for her and his persistence, Harriet struggled against saying “yes.” She needed to know that it was her choice.
- Love delights in giving; receiving is also a gift of love.
Harriet sees a chess set in an antique store and loves it. It is expensive. She knows that Peter would be extremely happy to buy it for her, if she let him. It is a small turning point in their relationship because Harriet shows that she is willing to receive Peter’s generosity, which she has been holding at arms’ length. She has stubbornly refused to take any gifts or mention anything she might like to him. Sometimes it is almost harder to receive love than to give it.
- Marriage is a true partnership.
Before marrying Harriet, Peter had a number of “lovers,” but he had not loved those women; he had not cared whether they were happy with him. In marriage, “He felt himself at once ridiculous and omnipotent. He was exultant. He wanted to shout” (p. 293). Later, when Peter offers to give up investigating a case for her, Harriet says, “What kind of life could we have if I knew that you had become less than yourself by marrying me?” (p. 344). Peter points out that many women see changing a man as a “triumph”—that their husbands would do anything for them, even against their own judgment— some women see that as power. Harriet responds, “We won’t use it. If we disagree, we’ll fight it out like gentlemen. We won’t stand for matrimonial blackmail” (p. 344). After they talk their issue over, they agree not to use the word “possess” about one another. Peter says, “We can’t possess one another. We can only give and hazard all we have” (p. 362).
- Marriage gives each of the spouses a home in the other.
“And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that?—I love you—I am at rest with you—I have come home,” Peter says to Harriet (p. 327). This simple affirmation is tested in Busman’s Honeymoon when the couple faces a difficult situation and both are used to being alone. Peter acknowledges that he usually deals with things by himself. Harriet says she is the same way: “I like to crawl away and hide in a corner.” “‘Well,’ [Peter] said, with a transitory gleam of himself, ‘you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide’” (p. 443).