It started with an accident...
When our school receptionist met me with a worried look as I came to work, I knew something was wrong.
"Stan, Mindy's been in an accident. She says she is okay, though."
Through the years, Mindy has had several health issues: she has been backed over by a GMC Tahoe, developed a wheat allergy, showed signs of some kind of auto-immune disorder, and more. So given that I am chronically a little anxious about her health, I immediately left to check on her.
It was a four car pile-up. Mindy's CRV was the first to be hit. She seemed dazed and had a burn from the airbag. Her wrist was discolored, so we sent her to an urgent care center to get checked out. That was a pragmatic decision; our co-pay for the ER was much higher than that for the urgent care clinic. Good news. Nothing broken. No evidence of serious injury. We took her home to rest.
Flash forward one week. One of Mindy's co-workers called: "We are taking Mindy to the ER. You need to meet us there. Something is really wrong. Her speech is slurred, and she can't write anything down." After a few brain scans we had a new diagnosis: post-concussive syndrome. Mindy spent the next several weeks in bed. After weeks without any sign of recovery, she lost her job. On top of it all, the driver who hit her had no insurance.
Promises vs. Reality
When Mindy and I married, we wanted to write our own vows because somehow it would be "more meaningful." Among those vows were her promises to encourage me, pray for me daily, and make our home as stress-free as possible. In spite of those promises, and through no fault of her own, Mindy was now relegated to bed and emotionally unstable. Oh, and did I mention we had two grade-school daughters? And I was working on my PhD while teaching full time? I felt like an over-worked single-parent: neither mom nor dad, just... mad.
The next year would feature numerous doctor’s visits, speech and physical therapy, Mindy sleeping a lot, and a variety of financial worries. And frankly, a lot of anger from me. While failing at other idealistic promises, I kept my most important vow: not to divorce her.
The old vows are wise vows
Vows about fidelity in sickness and health, better and worse, richer and poorer ‘til death aren’t especially enticing to a twenty-something confident of future health, getting richer, and becoming better (after all, we were “living right.” Surely God would protect us from irrational bad stuff). We thought our own vows - based on Scripture passages about marriage, no less - would be even more significant.
We were fools.
Here is reality: bad things happen to good people. A lot. For no apparent reason. Now don’t freak out on me, Christian reader. I’m not advocating nihilism. I’m just saying what seems to happen to us.
If our vows are centered on a hopeful marital ideal and not a realistic and holistic picture of life together – its ups, downs (and sometimes, sideways) – then we are woefully unprepared for what life will throw at us, even as part of God's sovereign plan. By the time of Mindy’s accident, we had already experienced several years of her being inexplicably sick, financial stress (while serving in ministry settings no less), and increasing personal stress for me as I took on more responsibilities trying to dig us out of what seemed like an ever-increasing mess.
(Did I mention that I was in a car accident less than three months after Mindy’s? We went from a two-car family to a zero-car family. I also totaled our computer when I vomited on it a few weeks after my car accident).
I'm convinced our lives are stories. Like all stories, our life stories are composed of settings, conflicts, and resolutions. Thankfully this episode of our story began to find some resolution after a few years. In the midst of all that stress, God really did provide for us. There were several times checks just showed up in the mail; we eventually purchased gently used cars; Mindy got strong enough to work two days a week; I was able to finish my PhD coursework. In the process I grew up a bit, and I learned a lot about being a husband. I need to say all those positive things to any readers in the middle of a similar situation – don’t give up hope. I can’t say exactly how God will provide for you, but I can say He provided for us. So if you are in the middle of something similar, don't give up... on God or yourself.
Waiting on resolution was not easy, and we made significant changes to make things work. Honestly, I still get frustrated with Mindy’s limitations. Right or wrong, I feel like because she is limited, I am limited. And I don't like being limited. But of course, man rejecting limits was the precursor to a fallen world (see Genesis 3:1-7). And on a broader level, until we can admit that not only are we limited, but spiritually broken, we will not allow ourselves to experience Grace.
Was divorce an option?
One year after Mindy’s accident, we visited her neurologist, and he mentioned a shocking statistic: over 80 percent of marriages where a spouse has a head injury end in divorce. Although a few people asked how I was able to live with Mindy during our situation, I never considered leaving her. She had a similarly debilitating condition the first time I attempted a PhD, and my academic advisor suggested divorce, but I didn’t take that advice seriously then either.
My fidelity was not because of my superior character. I suspect some of my commitment was due to growing up in a single-parent home and knowing: a) I did not want that for my children, b) Mindy couldn’t take care of herself if I left, and c) in spite of her personality changes, excessive sleeping, and often glassy-eyed stares, there were still moments when I could connect with the person I married. After a year, I looked into her eyes one day and could see that she was “back.” We still have struggles related to her injury, but at least I can interact with Mindy again. Not being able to interact with the woman I pursued, dated, and married was the hardest part of her injury. It's also the most hopeful part of her recovery.
So all this talk about vows implies a question: when is divorce an option? I don’t have an easy answer. The Bible’s commentary on divorce basically goes like this: divorce is bad (cf.Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Malachi 2:16; Matthew 19:1-12; 1 Corinthians 7:10), yet it is allowed, sometimes (Matthew 5:31-32; 1 Corinthians 7:15).
That was a gross oversimplification that lacked nuance, but it was also an accurate summary.
I know divorce is bad. I grew up in a divorced home. I've seen what it does to everyone involved. I've spoken at single-parent events, and I have listened to their stories (by the way, there is never a "pretty" single-parent story). So just because things are bad does not mean divorce is a good option.
Interestingly, the Bible contains a few examples of "bad" marriages. Personal fulfillment does not seem to be the goal of a biblical marriage. Consider Hosea who stayed faithful to a faithless prostitute. And of course, there’s Christ’s command and example: love the unlovable/love your enemy (especially as observed in Romans 5:8).
So does that mean divorce is never an option? Again, the Bible makes allowances for divorce, but it is never the ideal. We live in a broken world, and that world includes broken marriages. Personally, I’d advise a person whose physical safety is at risk to get out of the relationship. If your spouse “goes crazy” and decides to leave, well, there is not much you can do about that either.
How to hold fast
By God’s grace I have never been pushed to the breaking point. I don't know when it is okay to leave. My experience tells me that "staying" may be hard, but it is worth the effort. If you find yourself in a situation like mine, here is where I would suggest you start:
1. Get physically healthy. One personal breakthrough came when I changed my eating habits, lost 40 pounds, and started exercising. The physical exertion got rid of some stress, and gave me additional physical energy to deal with both the emotional and physical challenges I faced.
2. Your health requires healthy relationships. I am indebted to Les Ellsworth, who sought out my friendship in the midst of a very difficult time. Les set up times for us to get together, and he listened, giving me feedback when I was completely nuts, but never judging me for my rants, rages, or whines. I also saw a professional counselor who later became a friend, Chris Legg (who blogs on Crosswalk). Chris helped me figure out why I was angry all the time and what I could do about it.
3. Pursue spiritual health as well. For me this was the most difficult. Frankly, God had disappointed me over and over again. Though I would never admit to pursuing a "health and wealth" gospel, my anger with God involved both those issues. There were times I shook my fist at Heaven, asking "How could you throw me into this wilderness?" And almost instantly The Spirit reminded me: God delivered the Hebrew slaves by leading them through the wilderness. And He leads individuals through the wilderness, too. It is simply how He works. So the "wilderness" is nothing personal, it's just part of Providence.
4. Simplify: commit to less; expect less. You need margin in your life to deal with unexpected relapses and to support your spouse. For me, that means politely refusing a variety of opportunities and being deliberate with how our family spends time. Stamina issues often go with head injuries. I compare Mindy's stamina to our family budget - a limited resource that we must spend wisely.
5. If you have friends in a similar circumstance, listen to their story before you give them advice. Then, look for practical needs that can be met. I appreciated the thoughtfulness of people who said they were praying for us, but that wasn’t much practical help (I specifically remember one unfortunate day when our Sunday school class prayed over us and our situation immediately got worse). So if you really want to help, don’t offer a Bible verse. Offer a meal, or child care, or a check that can pay some bills. Try to take some of the stress out of the situation so the care-giving partner can experience care-receiving.
6. Finally, whether you are in a difficult marriage or not, you should read Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make us Holy More Than to Make us Happy? Some of my anger was rooted in a sense that I was giving and giving, but not getting much back. I suspect this frustration applies to most marriages, even those in less dramatic situations. Sacred Marriage can help you get perspective on this. Also, my wife found John W. Cassidy's book Brain Storms: Recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury to be helpful. Unfortunately, it is out of print. However, he also has a recent book, Mind Storms, for families living with a traumatic brain injury survivor.
Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX. He is also author of Worldview Conversations: How to Share Your Faith and Keep Your Friends.
Publication date: July 16, 2012