I think everyone who goes through a divorce remembers and struggles with one of the most familiar parts of the marriage ceremony. It echoes in our heads throughout and sometimes even long after our marriages, right alongside such goodies as for richer or poorer or in sickness and in health.
For us it’s the infamous Till death do us part.
Weren’t we supposed to stay together until one of us dies? You can imagine how those words can make divorcing people feel, even if they don’t believe in God.
We said all that in front of our friends and family. Did we not mean it? Did we just not understand?
I think these interpretations take death too literally. That is to say, of course bodies can die during a marriage. But a whole lot else can as well.
Love, for example, can die. Sometimes to be born again with the same person. Sometimes with another.
Sometimes love takes a vacation, then comes home. Other times, it leaves and never comes back.
But when love dies (especially erotic love), a basic warmth and affection can still remain. I think we all know couples like this who stay married forever.
Bodies are important, but they alone don’t constitute a marriage. And while love is important in marriage — perhaps even essential — the heart of a marriage is not love.
It’s respect. Respect is the retaining wall that holds back the worst of ourselves from one another. It’s what lets us be furiously angry at another without that anger in any way threatening our deepest love. And it’s what keeps us from inflicting the deadliest part of our pain upon those we’re closest to.
Sadly, it’s all too often the case that we don’t realize the role that respect plays in a marriage until it starts to fail.
When we feel disrespected, in or outside of marriage, we might say, “hey, you’re not treating me with respect.”
Sometimes such words come just in time for respect to be restored. “Oh my God, you’re right; that was wrong of me, and I’m so sorry I hurt you like that.”
Sometimes they come too late. “Respect isn’t given, it’s earned! If you want respect, start acting like you deserve it!”
When we have trouble treating one another respectfully, it might be because we were never treated respectfully, as children, or when we were most broken. Treating someone close to us disrespectfully can also be a way of restoring a sense of power and control, precisely during those moments when we feel most frail and vulnerable.
When respect falters, when we see it struggling, we might try to give it medicine. In the worst cases, we might even give it CPR. I think this is what marriage counselors and couples therapists do.
In an ideal world, respect comes roaring back to life. Spouses start once again expressing themselves fully while treating each other fairly, and without injuring one another. This is critical when spouses disagree fiercely about something important.
Disappoint, irritate, frustrate, even hurt one another, yes. But never injure. Hurt heals when there’s respect. Injury only gets worse.
Sometimes, though, respect expires. Here’s where death gets the final word: the barriers to anger dissolve. Intimacies and secrets, which once bonded, now become weaponized. Spouses begin using one another as scratching posts or punching bags.
Things get said that can’t be taken back, and permanent damage is done to persons and relationships. Apologies cease to be made, and when they are, it’s more or less sincerely, more or less genuinely. When they come, they’re too late, and can’t even begin to heal the pain.
Time takes over that role, the role that was once fulfilled by the person hurting us.
The soul of a marriage dies when respect is lost. And that’s when marriage changes from a partnership into a prison.
Once a certain basic respect for someone is gone, there’s no bringing it back. And when you stay in a relationship where respect has died, your soul dies too, right alongside that of the relationship.
Sometimes that happens slowly and imperceptibly. Sometimes it happens rather suddenly.
Here’s the crucial point: the death that parts us is not our physical death. And love can long outlast the physical bodies that prompted it.
It’s not the death of love that parts us. Many marriages survive the death of love. Some even depend on it.
No, the death that parts us is the death of respect. It does so by announcing, more or less clearly, that we have to leave the relationship: for the sake of our soul, for the sake of our survival.