Volume 2 Number 4
Roses All the Way?
01 April 1989

I refused to consider divorce - partly due to my pride, but largely due to my faith. I suspected that God saw things differently from me, that it was worth hanging in. It was.
Leafy glade - or jungle?
Soon after Nada and I were married, I broke into a cold sweat. I had suddenly seen how hard it was going to be to blend her irreverent informality and my earnest ambition. The path ahead, which had seemed so attractive, had become a jungle.

No doubt she would change, I thought, as I willed the jungle into leafy glades and set off at a brisk pace, as befitted the son of a British Army officer, trusting she would fall into step behind me. But Australians aren't like that, and it wasn't long before the jungle proved triumphant.

I refused to consider divorce - partly due to my pride, but largely due to my faith. I suspected that God saw things differently from me, that it was worth hanging in. It was.

I had taken for granted that because we'd been up to the altar, our marriage was secure. To Nada, the quality of our partnership was all-important, and she was bored and lonely. Gradually I saw that love does not come cheap, and I had totally underestimated its price.

The price was to look at the pain in my life and see how hurts had encased my heart in a hard shell, a shield against further hurt. It was hard to break this shell. But just as a chicken's struggle to break out of its shell is vital to getting its circulation going, so has struggle enabled me to learn something of what love is.

Love is a lot more than the initial exhilaration of falling in love. If it weren't, our married relationships would soon have all the bubble of flat Coca-Cola.

We are constantly told that sex is the great cure-all, vital to happiness, the solution to emotional problems. In an Australian survey of divorcees, `sexual incompatibility' headed the list of reasons for the marriage breakdown. But sex cannot make a marriage work which does not work beyond the bedroom door.

Companionship is a vital ingredient in marriage but even this is not a big enough concept. Because it still confines love to a feeling. I discovered that love means caring wholeheartedly for another person no matter how you feel. Only then did I begin to experience the love that satisfies and enriches of itself, and not because of the response. The love that frees the other person to blossom. The love Christ portrayed.

This may have to be learnt by going through times when you'd rather give up. That is why marriage - a binding contract - is important. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison in a sermon for his niece's wedding: `It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on the marriage that sustains your love.'

A friend of mine is vehement that he will not marry. `I would not bring children into such a wretched world as this,' he says.

I think I understand why he feels that. Once I found a way of asking him whether he loved his parents. He laughed ruefully: `In my home nobody had heard of love.' His passion goes into political action to change 'the system' a forlorn hope in comfortable Australia, he admits, but it has given him a comradeship he never knew at home.

I know others who are like him. Many are making the most of their opportunities, amassing wealth and knowledge, pursuing all kinds of life-styles; but they feel defeated by their inability to build a friendship beyond the superficial. Multiply them and you have one reason for the surge away from marriage in western countries in recent years. We face a crisis in relationships.

This is not surprising. `One behaviour pattern of the children of divorce,' writes the editor of the American publication Marriage and Divorce Today, `is their refusal to make a serious commitment to any relationship.' A third of America's children have seen their parents split up, and the rate elsewhere in the West is not much less.

This is the great need of our generation. A vast and growing number of young people have not learnt in their homes the art of building a relationship that lasts. It has left them vulnerable to deep hurts when they try.

Our response is to make divorce easier. This only compounds the problem.

Because the boundless, free-flowing love which is the oxygen of marriage is also the oxygen of society and the more we treat it as a commodity that can be snuffed out with a minimum of fuss, the more our institutions - our education systems, our health and social services - suffocate. And now, when people are trying to breathe new life into so many international institutions and relationships, that oxygen is more than ever essential.

This is not a problem we can leave to the experts. In Sydney recently thousands of people turned out one weekend to clean the beaches, restoring life to the waterways. In a similar way Nada and I are part of a network of families who are working to heal hurts and bring a new vitality to our society.

It has given us friendships with all kinds of people. And often it is those who have suffered most who refresh our spirits most.

I was driving my political activist friend home one evening when he said, with a note of wonder, `You and Nada enjoy each other's company, don't you? I like that.' Asking me to stop the car, he jumped out and bought some chocolate for our children.

Detonating a six-foot wall
I remember thinking I would never smile again,' Joan Hennessy says, smiling wrily as she recalls the time her marriage to Bernard was in shreds. `When I was with him I was tense. Only when we were apart did I feel myself.' They had tried an overseas trip, but it simply snapped the last threads. Joan left half-way through and returned home. When Bernard arrived, divorce proceedings were already under way.

For Bernard it was a nightmare. For several generations his family had been loyal members of the Catholic Church. The commitment of marriage meant everything.

Joan had no such worries. `If there was a God He wouldn't have put me through such trauma,' she reasoned. So she went out with lots of men, `some of whom were married and some not', determined to enjoy herself and find another partner. `But more and more I began to sense the emptiness.'

She had gone back to using her maiden name, though her boss knew she was married. Unbeknown to her, he began to meet with others to pray that her marriage would be healed. Once, Joan discovered long afterwards, he spent a whole night in prayer-because she had told him that next day she had to meet Bernard to complete their division of property, and she was dreading it.

She resented Bernard's complicated financial scheme. It would minimize their losses, he said, but she wasn't so sure. Brooding over this, Bernard realized that unless she felt the division was fair, it would only perpetuate the bitterness. He drafted a new scheme, at which his accountant shook his head in disbelief. `What do you want an accountant for?' he asked. But Joan signed the new scheme straight away. `How did it go?' her boss asked when she got back to work. `Quite well,' she replied, a little mystified. `I told you not to worry,' he replied cheerily.

He encouraged Joan to go to a Catholic charismatic renewal service. She had never been to a service like it, but the warmth of the love impressed her. She began to pray. Immediately a thunderbolt of a thought struck her, so strongly that she turned to see if the person behind her had spoken it: 'Go back and ask his forgiveness.' When it came again, she looked up at the ceiling and said, `Forget it. If it's you, God, there's no way I'm going to do that.'

A Franciscan priest gave the sermon. `He said you can't truly love somebody if you resent somebody else,' she recalls. She realized that made sense -`It would be nice if Bernard and I could part as friends rather than having this gut feeling every time his name was mentioned. So I decided to try for that.'

Bernard was staggered by her apology. `All I could say was that it was I who should be asking her forgiveness. Very simple words, but they were like a detonator on a six-footnwall between us. We were still far apart, but we were looking at each other eye to eye.' That day they made a commitment to try again.

There were many hurdles. `When we came up against one, we would ask God to come in and heal that attitude or resentment,' says Joan. `Little by little he did.' For Bernard it meant learning to love. `Most of what I knew was about commitment. But commitment without love is sterile.'

They now have four children, but they never forget the wider community. Many people have found new hope through hearing them speak. Bernard, a fine actor, has put his talents to use in a play about family relationships, Skeletons by Hugh Steadman Williams, a story not unlike his own. They do it in a spirit of gratitude. Some time ago, Joan recalls, someone asked her, `Have you ever thanked God for your separation?' at which she shuddered. `And yet I came to see that it was only because we had gone into that hole of despair and hopelessness that we had found this richness.'

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0