By Les C. Wicker
People who have been married once usually want to be married again. The percentage of people who express no desire to be married again after having been married once is fairly small. Those who were once married found fulfillment in the institution of marriage through needs fulfillment, companionship, or the need to affiliate, even if their marriage ended in a separation and divorce. Marriages end either due to the death of a spouse or due to separation and divorce. In either case, there is pain and the need for healing and repairing the brokenness that is encountered. Being a widow or widower is quite different from the intentional ending of a marriage, but even marriages that are intentionally ended experience stages of grief, and in fact, some stages may be amplified because in addition to loss, one may also be dealing with rejection. Either form of ending a marriage has its own set of distresses and before a person is ready to move into another relationship those concerns must be addressed and emotionally processed. Before addressing the subject of marriage after widowhood, let us explore some of the issues that surround marriage after divorce.
Separation and divorce are a fact of the twenty-first century, whether we want to admit it or not. While the church would like to think that every marriage will succeed and the married couple will live happily ever after, statistics do not bear this out to be the case. Separations and divorce were rapidly on the rise in the last quarter of the twentieth century and only recently has there been the lightest reversal o that trend. It is quite startling that one out of two marriages will end in divorce. While statistics are cold, every separation and divorce means there is deep hurt in the lives of those who are ending their marriage and the dreams which lead them to the altar not stand in ashes.
Every pastor should be knowledgeable of his/her church’s position. It is difficult to find that information, as it is printed in most books of church discipline or church order. If it is not readily available in print, a call to the judicatory or headquarters of the church will bring forth an answer regarding the position a particular denominations may hold. Not only is it incumbent on the pastor to understand the larger church’s position, it is al so necessary for the pastor to arrive at some conclusion/position concerning his/her own thoughts, for surely every pastor will be approached to marry persons who have been married before and whose marriage ended in divorce. It is not a matter of if the pastor will be asked, but when. Working through one’s own position, as well as being knowledgeable of the position of one’s church, will provide the groundwork for responding to couples who have been divorced and wish to be married again with the blessings of the church.
The definition of divorce is the legal dissolution of marriage. It has been a concern of the Judeo-Christian tradition since the early history of Israel. In the Book of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, it is stated that Moses tolerated divorce if a man found some indecency with his wife. The divorce was finalized when the wife was granted a written statement of release and sent out of the house. Mosaic Law was, of course, founded within a patriarchal society where men had the upper hand. No mention was made regarding what might happen if a wife found her husband to be indecent.
The school of Shammah that existed just prior to the time of Christ, and a school of thought with which Christ was no doubt familiar, taught that a man could not lawfully be divorced from his wife unless he found her guilty of some action that was really infamous and contrary to the rules of virtue. The Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus into some statement with which they could take issue, but he declined to interpret Moses’ words, though he declared that he regarded all the lesser causes than unfaithfulness as standing on ground too weak to grant such a certificate.
Much church law and understanding is based on Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:31-33. The passage reads as follows:
“It is also said, ‘Whoever divorced his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorced his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
In the twenty-first century world when the church is surrounded by and often made up of people who are in their second and even third marriages, how is the church to respond in faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings and, at the same time, respond to the realities of the world? One solution embraced by many churches and pastors is not to offer the church’s blessings to second marriages, but to invite the couples to affirm their vows before a civil magistrate. The church may offer counseling before and after, but reserve the right not to bless the marriage before the Alter of God. Churches that take this position usually have within their ranks numerous couples who are in their second and third marriages.
The ministry of the church is to embrace these couples and their blended families, minister to their spiritual needs, and assimilate them into the life of the congregation. Certainly, the church wants to turn its back on no one, for it is in every way a hospital for sinners and not a home for saints.
Other churches and pastors feel that divorce and remarriage is simply dealing with the realities of the times, and the church should reach out to couples whose lives have gone asunder in their attempt at marriage and family. They believe God is a God of second chances and that the church’s mission is one of grace. This approach holds that there may have been real reasons why the first marriage did not work out and that it should be the position of the church to be a compassionate enabler in the hope and faith that the new relationship is built upon a more solid foundation and mature judgment than the first.
It is the position of the pastor to marry those who have been married before and for whatever reason found it best to end that marriage, care should be given to guide the couple spiritually in their thinking and journey toward remarriage and the establishment of their new home and family. There are even greater considerations now than the first time around, and all of those issues need to be addressed carefully and resolved in order that the trials and mistakes of the first marriage not filter into the second. There is a need to review the first marriage and enable couples to understand and come to terms with what went wrong and why the marriage die not succeed. Only by understanding and addressing those issues will couples be ready to move on into their new relationship and leave the old behind.
Commensurate with the concern of marriage after divorce is the question and issue of children from the former marriage. If there are children, whether children in custody or children with visitation rights, it is not simply a matter of joining tow lives, but joining two families. Children have feelings to their birth parents and often blame themselves fore the marriage not having worked. Children go to extreme measures to keep their moms and dads together and may experience various stages of the grief from denial, to bargaining, to anger, with final acceptance coming, if at all, long after every other stage has long since past.
Children are often left with feelings of resentment, either subliminal or openly expresses. They may conclude that their feelings and overtures to save their parents’ marriage were ignored or that they simply did not count. They may feel dragged into the new marriage kicking and screaming and powerless to counter decisions made by the remarrying parent. Issues such as giving up their former residence, friends, school, community, home, and room may be sources of anger and resentment.
Blending siblings from two former marriages into one household also has its challenges. Children may react to the new family setting by forming coalitions with the siblings of their birth family and holding the siblings of their new family at bay. An only child from one former marriage may feel outnumbered and overwhelmed by to tow or more siblings in the new marriage and family. They may perceive favoritism, whether real or imagined.
While every second marriage or blended family will not be besieged by such feelings from children, and some will in fact welcome a new household where there is love, acceptance, affirmation, peace, and harmony, couples with children considering a second marriage should be cognizant of the many facets of emotions entering a second marriage may generate within the minds and hearts of their children.
Children deal with their emotions in a number of ways. Some react with open aggression and expressions of anger. Others react with prolonged passive aggression, not speaking, withdrawing, sulking, staying in their rooms, displaying antisocial behavior, or being negative toward the people they feel have caused the pain in their lives.
Couples need to process the many issues surrounding blended families carefully. They need to involve the children in open discussions regarding the possibility of remarriage and a new family and how they might feel about it. Giving children the opportunity to talk and honestly be listened to and understand will enable them to process their emotions, deal with their losses, and anticipate hope and joy in their lives after the experiences of transition.
In the process of preparing couples for marriages after divorce in which in-house children will be involved, pastors may wish to invite the children to a session and allow them their opportunity to talk through some of their feelings. Here the pastor stands in a unique position not only to enable children to process their feelings, but to facilitate perspectives of understanding and support for parents who are also processing their own feelings as well as seeking to be supportive of their children.
One opportunity to enable children to process their feelings is to involve them in the planning of the wedding and to invite them to participate in the service and the surrounding celebrations. Some wedding services have sections of the service that recognize the presence of children from previous marriages and formally seek their love and support for the present marriage (see, for instance, “Services of Marriage,” The Book of Worship, United Church of Christ). If children do not endorse the marriage, it is still better for them to be involved than ignored or circumvented. The watchword for parents and the pastor is sensitivity. Being sensitive to feelings goes a long ways toward healing and even acceptance.
Getting married after the death of a spouse brings a whole different set of emotions and circumstances. There is no doctrinal reason from the church’s position why someone whose spouse has died may not be married again. The remarrying person fulfilled his/her marital vows, as it was the death of the spouse that ended the marriage and not an intentional action on the part of the person.
Widowed persons approach remarriage not only from a different set of emotions, but often from an entirely different perspective. Such persons are not dealing so much with any sense of failure or rejection, as they are loss and grief. They are not asking why something did not work, but processing their emotions of why such pain was thrust upon them or why their spouse suffered in the way they may have suffered.
Widowed persons may have reacted to their loss by putting the idea of remarriage on the table for an extended period of time, thinking they may never be married again because no one could ever take the place of the one they lost. They may feel it is an affront to their deceased spouse to remarry, that it shows lack of love or lack of respect. The hurt of their grief may have cut so deeply, they may be reluctant to expose themselves to the vulnerability of the pain of another loss.
The flip side of grief for widowed persons is the need to have someone in their life to fill the hurt and emptiness. Losing a spouse leaves a gaping hole and an empty heart, and without the presence of another, life can be very lonely and difficult. Some people simply have to have someone in their lives to feel a sense of completeness, or to fill the void, or to offer support and encouragement. Such personalities cannot make it alone and the loss of their spouse only amplifies their need and loneliness.
Time is also a factor for widowed persons. First and foremost is the question of the amount of time required for healing. That process can take months and years, even scores of years. For some, the loss is too great and life is too short and there is not enough time to heal the brokenness they feel. For others, the healing process is accelerated as they are able to process their loss and look hopefully to rebuilding their life in the future.
The passage of time is also related to social expectations regarding one’s re-entry into a relationship following the death of a spouse. How much time is the right amount of time is the question that is often internally considered though seldom verbalized. For the surviving spouse who may want another relationship, it is a matter of the amount of time required for the healing process as well as feeling social pressure in the form of encouragement to find another relationship or shame for even thinking such thoughts so soon after their spouse’s death. For children who feel that no one else could ever take Mom or Dad’s place, there may never be enough time. Middle-aged widowed persons who may be considering remarriage after the death of a spouse may feel they have all the time in the world as there is no need to hurry. Elderly people who wish to remarry feel time is of the essence, realizing their married time together is limited, perhaps counted more in terms of months than years.
Children play a special role in the decision of widowed persons to remarry. Young widows/widowers may be left with the responsibility of young children and have a special need for love and support. Widows/widowers of teenage children may find their children processing the loss of their parent rather quickly and reengaging themselves with their peers and activities, unaware or insensitive to the pain and sorrow going on inside their mom or dad. Widowed persons of older children may find their children for too encaged in their own lives to be concerned with the grief of their parent. Children react differently to the issue of Mom or Dad remarrying after the death of their other parent. Some children feel a sense of ownership of their parents and resent any one coming in to take the place of the mom or dad that died. Other children see the remaining parent as lonely and needful of support and companionship and welcome the opportunity for that parent to find someone in his or her life.
But people do move on into new relationships after they have suffered such great losses and grief experiences in their lives. Processing the new relationship is often as important for children as it is for those remarrying, and sensitivity on the part of parents can avoid a lot of pitfalls, resentment, and deep hurt.
There are a number of positive steps parents may take to enable children to process the new marriage and form relationships within the new family. It is important to be proactive in making conscious efforts for allowing the child to see that the new parent is committed to the new relationship and that it has all the possibilities of being a good one not only for his/her parent who is remarrying, but there are possibilities for the child as well. Enabling the child to see opportunities for love, companionship, and security in the new family will allow hope and anticipation to replace feelings of loss, gloom, and negativity. The following suggestions may serve as proactive tools for parents in building bridges to children coming into a blended family, even if the blended family is the result of the death of a spouse and parent.
Taken from Preparing Couples for Marriage: A Guide for Pastors for Premarital Counseling, by Les C. Wicker, 2003; CSS Publishing Company, Inc., P.O. Box 4503, Lima, OH 45802-4503. Used by permission.