What couples learn from divorce they could learn from marriage prep
by Emily Macke
As people around the world make resolutions for the upcoming year, a British newspaper recently took a look at the lessons learned from young divorcees.
Aida Edemariam of The Guardian wrote in “Divorced by 30: why do so many young marriages come to an end?” that her conversations with couples who divorced before the age of 30 was similar to tales of traffic incidents – many different stories (each with two witnesses) and yet familiar themes. Two common threads she notes are “that the pain and trouble of a difficult marriage are often a huge shock” and that “divorce, though easier and more common than it was in previous generations, is still traumatic.”
Edemariam points out that young men and women have a high divorce rate (at least in England, where the article was written), but that those who “survive what are sometimes called starter marriages often learn things they could not have learned in any other way – not even by cohabiting. And that these things might help them go on to make far stronger unions than they might otherwise have made.”
It’s an interesting premise, but the conclusion that “starter marriages” might be inevitable on the path to a happy marriage is unconvincing. Instead, the conversations that Edemariam shares highlight the need for excellent marriage preparation, something that the Catholic Church strives to offer.
Many of the individual stories highlight either a lack of understanding of marriage, of commitment or of oneself. For several couples, a “happily ever after” illusion failed to live up to expectations in reality. Edemariam writes: “As a culture we seem to believe that marriage is a kind of end point and a solution to all ills, rather than the start of a complex process that, depending on who we are and how we deal with it, could go any way at all.” Susanna Abse, a psychotherapist and CEO of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, said the central question is, “Can [a marriage] tolerate the process of disillusionment, the facing up to limitation that all long relationships have to go through?”
Alison Martin, 42, had doubts about whether or not to marry a month or two before her church wedding. Not certain whether or not her marriage would “work,” she married anyway. The day after her wedding, her husband was going to help her clean their apartment, which had been “trashed” by their friends. Instead of returning after dropping off his suit, her husband stayed out for eight hours, grabbing drinks with friends. Martin said, “It’s not a great way to start your marriage off, and I suppose that carried on, really.”
Paul, 45, another interviewee, said he and his wife didn’t call each other husband and wife because “it sounded too permanent.” He recalls fighting frequently after their marriage began. “I’m sure it was a reaction to the idea that we were tied together for the rest of our lives,” he said.
Paul also noted that he and his wife evaded certain questions in their relationship before marriage. “We never talked about whether we loved each other,” Paul says, “or what love meant. We sort of ran away from that question.”
Some of the interviewees chalk up their rocky marriages to the ignorance of youth.
Paul said, “In your 20s, you think you’re an adult and in control of your life, but you’re basically an idiot. You don’t have the self-knowledge you think you do.”
Laura Paskell-Brown, 34, said that during a difficult relationship in her 30s she “had a moment of realisation. I was going through old diaries, and I saw that the state of my relationship was pretty much the same as it was at the end of my marriage, and the common denominator was me.”
Several interviewees share stories of their own inability to commit or to seek the good of their spouse before their own. While many blame their struggle on their youth, the quest for selflessness is really a lifelong process.
At the same time, some couples confuse selflessness for self-negation. Psychotherapist Abse said, “If you did a big analysis of those early relationships, you might find that is a common theme: mutual suppression of the individual self in favour of the relationship. And in the next relationship, they’re able to be more autonomous.”
Kieron Faller, 34, said one of the main things he has realized about his marriage is “that I was very much the compromiser.” His wife had clear ideas about what she wanted in life, and Kieron wanted to help her. “I think that was just me being a perfectionist. Compromise is supposed to be a good thing, so if I compromise a lot, then I must be doing really well.” In reality, Kieron found that an imbalance was created that wasn’t healthy for their marriage.
Lindsay Faller, 34, has the closing word in the article. “My aunt thinks everyone should have a starter marriage, then go on to their real marriage afterwards,” she says. “I definitely feel it was a good education for me. As traumatic as it was and as sad as it was, I am really glad it happened.”
The article raises interesting points about the importance for a happy, lasting marriage of self-knowledge, a shared understanding of what marriage is, and discussion about issues such as money, family of origin and communication styles. However, the author’s conclusion – that “starter marriages” are inevitable – fails to uphold the dignity of every person and of marriage, and ultimately won’t achieve its goal of stable marriages. How would spouses receive the respect they deserve if they were merely a placeholder for a second spouse later in life? And how can people “practice” commitment by entering a relationship defined by a lack of permanency?
Instead, the article affirmed the need for couples to be well prepared for marriage. St. John Paul II talked about the need for three levels of marriage preparation – remote (from birth until puberty), proximate (from puberty until engagement) and immediate (engagement until the beginning of marriage). The life lessons Edemariam highlights from her interviewees shouldn’t have to be learned through the tragedy of divorce.
 Note that the author treats two persons of the same sex as a married couple, contrary to Catholic teaching and natural law.
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.