“You are not entitled to a happy marriage”. I heard and read some variation of these words countless times when I was going through my divorce. I’ll admit they caused me pause every time, and they still do. They are true, after all. Not everyone gets to have happiness in their marriage, and some people don’t even get to be married at all. But in the context of divorce, this can be a really cruel way to try and motivate people to stay in a marriage. At least, it can when there have been serious transgressions.
I agree that becoming dissatisfied with a spouse is no reason to seek divorce. Happiness in a marriage doesn’t just happen: it takes work from both individuals. When that work isn’t done, unhappiness and dissatisfaction will be the result. The answer isn’t to throw in the towel, but rather to do some pretty hard self-examination and work on building up the relationship.
But in a destructive, abusive relationship these words are something else entirely. You are telling a person who wants peace and safety that he or she is having entitlement issues. Only someone with a very dispassionate attitude toward other humans could label “I want to go to sleep knowing that I will be safe” as “entitlement”. It’s a cruel twist of words, but they can easily bring shame to the peacemaker who is doing his or her best to stay safe, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
What I’ve found ironic as I’ve listened to stories of abuse victims, however, is that the aggressor is afforded a great deal of entitlement by many churches. He or she is entitled to a marriage, whether the victim wants out or not. I was re-reading John Piper’s take on abusive marriages and I came across these words:
A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries. This legitimate recourse to civil protection may be done in a spirit that does not contradict the spirit of love and submission to her husband, for a wife may take this recourse with a heavy and humble heart that longs for her husband’s repentance and the restoration of his nurturing leadership.
Leaving aside the whole issue that apparently a wife is only able to “not submit” to her husband because the civil authorities protect her (rather than realizing a wife is never required to submit “to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries”), even when a wife flees to protect herself she is to long for the marriage to be restored. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that her husband, no matter how much evil he has done, is entitled to be married to her.
This really hit home as I read a letter from a “former abuser” on ACFJ this week. The part that really got my ire up was his last words:
I am not ready to give up the fight of my life, or my marriage of about 35 years, or my family just yet.
By his own admission, this man abused his wife. He harmed her so much that she decided to end the marriage. He claims repentance, and yet he still believes that the marriage is his to fight for. It is “the fight of his life”. But the real fight of our lives is to be called sons and daughters of God, a right we can never secure on our own; Jesus did it for us. The point is, repentance is not a means to an end. It is not the pathway by which we get things back that we have destroyed.
In the (in my opinion misnamed) parable of the Prodigal Son, there is a son who leaves and a son who stays. The son who stays puts great stock in his own behavior, seeing it as a means to gain his inheritance. But he is not grateful for the presence of his father, something he had the entire time. Ironically, it is the son who squandered what he had who learns the value of the father’s presence. He was willing serve in the lowest of positions just to have it.
That is the attitude of repentance. Whenever someone says “I’ve repented, so now . . .” he or she is already wrong. The gift we get from repentance is the forgiveness and grace of Christ. Anything else we demand means we are feeling entitled.
Abusers have a spirit of entitlement. They believe there are certain things that are their rights, and sadly the church plays right along. The loophole is wanting a marriage to stick it out isn’t entitlement in so many Christians eyes because they reason that God always wants marriages to succeed. But this is false: God does care more for victims than he does for marriages. Take the metaphor of God’s relationship with Israel: Scripture says that God issued Israel a writ of divorce for her transgressions. Would any of us accept Israel turning around and saying “I’m sorry, I’ve stopped my idolatrous behavior, now God you must take me back”? Never- under such logic Israel was owed the crucifixion rather than it being an act of grace. Israel was never entitled to be received back by God after he reached the end of his patience.
The woman fleeing the husband abusing her? She’s not waving around the “R” word to try to get something. She’s exercising healthy self preservation. Please do not even hint that her act is one of entitlement. Save that for the abuser who believes it’s time for her to come home.