I Know Why People Stay

I just started my third semester of an accelerated nursing program. (Woo hoo!  Only 32 LONG weeks to go…) During our orientation for Community Nursing, a local social worker came and did a short presentation on domestic violence, and the cycles that cause people to stay in or return to bad relationships.

It is an insidious cycle, that gains more momentum with each turn. Some type of abuse occurs, followed by a honeymoon stage, where the perpetrator tries to draw the victim back into a false sense of safety and acceptance with loving gestures, flowers, gifts…  Then, tension begins to build as the abuser’s dark side again begins to manifest itself, finally resulting in another abusive event.  This cycle continues and continues until the victim feels completely incapable of leaving the situation because of fear, manipulation, and sometimes the belief that they are at fault or must “save” their abuser.

During the orientation, the social worker offered us a short role role play, where an “abused” mother was handed heavy books representing all the difficult things she would face if she tried to leave the abusive relationship she was in.  Delayed court dates, struggle to find childcare, manipulation and intimidation by the abuser, lack of good community resources, lack of family support, potential for getting fired at work….the list went on and on until the role play volunteer was holding a hefty stack of heavy books in her arms, looking defeated herself.

I compared this role play to my own life. I didn’t leave my marriage because of blatant abuse, but so many of the outcomes of the role play still rang very true with me. It got me to thinking about how people in our culture view those who get divorced, why so many of us stay in bad marriages, and maybe how we should start reframing the whole divorce narrative.

First of all, I want to point out some things I’ve noticed about marriage and divorce, especially related to the “Christian” culture that still pervades much of our society and influences dynamics that occur within churches. I must preface by saying I’m throwing out some big generalizations, but I think there is truth in all of them, especially after the countless conversations I’ve shared about them with other people.

  • In many circles, marriage offers a step up in citizenship.  I noticed this shift personally both within my family and within churches that I attended.  Singles are given lip service, but the “sacrament” of marriage still carries so much weight that people are treated as though they are even just a bit more worthy, more capable of offering something to the outside world, if they are in a legally bound partnership. I can recall all the dumb books I read growing up that circulated among so many people I knew.  I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Lady in Waiting, and countless other dating and courtship treatises weighing down Christian bookstore shelves that taught us how to prepare ourselves for the ultimate initiation rite of marriage.  Looking back at them, it’s all quite nauseating to me.  We believed if we could just get to marriage, we would arrive…and in some cases, like mine, we did arrive. My status definitely improved in many ways.
  •  In the same way that marriage offers us a leg up, even in our modern culture, divorce causes us to take a step backwards.  Actually, I would venture to say even several steps backwards….even below where we were as virgin singles. Those who have been through a divorce get it, but so many who haven’t exude skepticism about our marriage commitment in the first place, or one’s connection to God, or one’s effort to make the marriage partner happy, or etc, etc.  I suspect this is partly why so many people rush back into marriage…partly out of loneliness, and partly because we want to be treated like whole, complete people again.
  • I’ve gone to so many conferences, retreats, and Christian counseling sessions where a another hefty pile, this time guilt, is handed to people struggling in their marriages.  You made a vow before God, you need to honor it. You decided to marry this person, now it’s for life.  Women, you need to respect your husbands. Women, it really only takes a few minutes…will it really kill you to give your husband what he wants? You’re just being selfish. Men, you were placed as the head of your household by Christ, you need to lead it properly.  And on, and on.  (And don’t even get me started on how the definition of rape needs to be broadly expanded within the institution of marriage….and the definition of nagging and hen-pecking for that matter.)  The bulk of these platitudes thrust on me, even by well-intended people, never helped me at all

All of this is to say: I think the main reason that good people stay in bad marriages is not because they are more committed people, or more God-fearing, or more sacrificial.  I think it’s because they are freaking scared of the alternative: a fall from status and alot of really hard things to sort out for an indefinite period of time.

I was chatting with a friend recently and told her, “This is the kind of day that makes people stay in bad marriages.”

You know, the kind of day when you can’t find a last minute babysitter, and you have a $2,000 leaky roof bill, and you can’t figure out how you’ll save for college on your own, and your kid is throwing up at school but you can’t leave what you’re doing to get him, and you have to board your dog for the day because otherwise you’ll come home to an accident on your already gross carpet, and you can’t go to the doctor for anything less than an antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacteria because you have a ridiculous deductible, and you can’t remember the last time you were hugged by an adult much less kissed or held by one, and you’re afraid you’re going to freaking go out of your mind trying to coparent with someone you don’t even recognize anymore, and you’re praying that your kids aren’t ingesting too many endocrine disruptors because of the crap you’re feeding them lately, and  you want to go out with your friends but based on your current schedule you can see that maybe happening next month…and..and..and…

This, friends, is why people stay in bad marriages. Because we aren’t taught that we can make it on our own, or that we have inside us what we need to survive.

Now, I should clarify, there are some marriages that really should be fought for.  But let’s just call a spade a spade and recognize that some broken marriages are necessary endings.  Necessary not always because of abuse or infidelity, but because the people in the marriages are suffocating and living out of motivations based in fear.  Which is not how ANYONE should be living.

This is how I lived for years.  Oh, I’d tell myself I was doing it for Jesus, but that was only superficially true.  I stayed because I was scared of regressing to my pre-marriage status, of pissing off God, of being judged by my family and the people around me, and of screwing my kids lives up forever.  And I know I’m not alone in this…I know alot of people who have lovely looking marriages on the outside, who appear to be thriving in this “staying together under God’s umbrella of blessing” idea, but in reality, at least one of them is dying inside.

So, to reframe…

Christian culture shames the heck out of divorced people, and places so much emphasis on the traditional nuclear family.  But I say that in a good number of cases, the people who chose divorce were actually the bravest people of all.  I know what some of you are thinking…Julie, don’t you think commitment is important?  Julie, what about the kids in these situations?  Julie, don’t you believe in keeping promises and the importance of family? I get it……but…

Sometimes staying in an unhappy marriage is the safe thing to do.  And for a time, this may serve us well, just like it did me.  In fact, I think it was a growing field for me – a place for me to grow brave in other areas of my life first.  But to finally break free into a world of uncertainties and unknowns takes a whole freaking lot of courage – it doesn’t matter if you’re the primary breadwinner and make a crap ton of money or if you’re having to build a new career over from the ground up.  Leaving the familiarity and safeness and status that comes with marriage is so hard.

So going back to the people who have been abused in relationships.  I TOTALLY get now why many return to the situation again and again – if it took me so many years to leave something that wasn’t abusive -and the rest of us have absolutely no business shaming them. So many of us stay in bad marriages for far fewer reasons than people caught in the cycle of domestic abuse with everything, including survival, on the line.

Staying in any situation in life just because of fear is a horrible way to live.  I fervently believe that while we may not always agree with a person’s reasons to leave a relationship, we should absolutely ALWAYS applaud them when they are breaking free from the tyranny of fear, “you should”s, and shame-based beliefs that have held them there.