Stories of Healing: The Less than Perfect Marriage does not Equal Disaster
The following is the first in our ongoing series about stories of healing featured on our blog. For more on this series, see this blog post. This first story is from a fellow friend and John Paul II Institute graduate - Shaina Pia - who like me is an adult child of divorce. Enjoy Shaina’s story as it represents a common struggle all of us adult children of divorce face during dating and marriage. I pray it helps you to continue your healing journey.
“The Less than Perfect Marriage Does Not Equal Disaster”
By Shaina Pia
It was a perfect August summer night; the temperature had cooled to brisk as the sun lost its battle with the moon, foreshadowing the impending defeat of summer by fall. My husband and I were celebrating sneaking out early to a double date having safely and expediently deposited the littles at Nana’s house, stealing that too rare occasion of being able to slow down and converse over a cold one. The arrival of our friends only brought more merriment to the evening; I was so grateful to have laughed so hard that I cried during a particularly rousing rally. As the conversation turned to memories of college, my joy was all too quickly commandeered by a deep pensiveness.
For me, college was a time of tremendous loss. My parents separated my senior year of high school and their ensuing divorce lasted until the week I graduated university. I have few happy memories from that time, and even the good ones are clouded by a sense of shame and regret over what was lost, what could have been, what never was. That same darkness continues to threaten the light, and yet I am figuring out how to let the shadows act as a compass by serving to mark the areas that are still in need of illumination, thus marking my way forward.
God has slowly taught me that healing is painful, it’s work, and it is not the same as a lack of suffering.
Healing is Painful
I spent most of my 20s in different types of therapy: hours and hours of cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma therapy, family therapy and even group therapy. I knew that I had wounds from my parents’ divorce, and I was only beginning to understand how they affected my ability to be in healthy relationships (be they friendships, with family, or romantic in nature). One therapist stands out; his assistance was critical in my journey of self-awareness and in replacing the disordered coping mechanisms to which I clung. Early on, he encouraged me to watch The Spitfire Grill, a challenging film about mercy, healing and redemption. He thought one line in particular would resonate with me. The protagonist asks,
“You suppose if a wound goes so deep, the healing of it might hurt as bad as what caused it?”
This quote lends itself to an important starting point when we are talking about healing from our parents’ divorces. The healing of a wound can be just as painful as the wound itself. Often, the experience of this discourages one from pursuing wholeness. However, like the patience and pain demanded by recovery from any physical ailment, spiritual and emotional healing takes time and hurts – a lot. And unlike the healing of a physical wound, the healing of these wounds never really reaches completion this side of Heaven. Instead, we invite grace into our lives, moment to moment, season to season, receiving healing little by little.
Healing is Work and that’s OK
We know that God works for good for those who love Him and serve Him according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). We know that He makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). We are told that if we ask, we shall receive (Matthew 7:7). Scripture also tells us that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). While these words from St. James are referencing the theological truth of justification, I think they also apply to making progress in the spiritual life. It’s not enough to have faith, we have to live that faith through work because grace always works with our nature, not around it. Case in point: The long-awaited marriage that I finally find myself in falls short of the one I dreamed up in all of those years of consoling myself with the idea that “it will be worth the wait.” Because it’s not perfect, because it never was supposed to be perfect.
Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament, which means He knew it was hard and that we would need His grace. Marriage is for the sanctification of the spouses; there will be sin and healing needed even in good marriages.
But the wounds of divorce tell me that anything less than a perfect marriage spells disaster.
It means “I have failed,” “I didn’t discern well,” “I must have married the wrong man,” or “I must not be availing myself correctly of all of the graces promised by the sacrament of marriage.” The truth is, healing is work. It’s not just the work of therapy, it’s the work of everyday living and praying. It’s making the choice to exert my will over my emotions. It’s choosing to stay instead of running away. It’s being vulnerable, uncomfortable, and staring the ugly in the face. It feels like trying to run through water. It feels like I’m back where I started. It means believing and hoping in what I cannot see (Romans 8:25; Hebrews 6:19): redemption, healing, beauty from ashes.
Healing Does Not Mean the End of Suffering
The disappointment that I experience more often than not comes from falling over and over again into the temptation of a prosperity-Gospel attitude toward my faith and my healing in particular. If I do A, B and C, then I will receive D. If I go to therapy, put in the hard work of change and conversion, receive the Lord daily in the Eucharist, and study everything I can about love, the human person, marriage and family, then I will be healed and have the beautiful, life-giving marriage of which I have always dreamed, completely unaffected by my past. After all, “he who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62) right? So as long as I check all of the activities needed for healing off my list, then I will be free from that suffering. Wrong. In fact, this attitude misses the mark of a mature, Catholic spirituality. In the wise words of St. Rose of Lima,
“Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
The work I put in, the necessary grace I ask for and receive from God, does not mean I will no longer hurt. Rather, they mean that my hurt will be transformed into the means by which I am saved. The suffering isn’t a sign that I did something wrong or even an obstacle in my path, rather the suffering IS my path. And even more, there is a joy that comes with acceptance, one that is all the more treasured because it is hard-won. Do not be afraid of the pain, work, and suffering that go along with healing for they are necessary footholds on our climb home.