Saturday, June 23, 2007

Divorce as amputation?

A suggestion
At the risk of sounding insensitive, I wonder whether we mightn't be able to compare divorce to amputation. It is a drastic emergency procedure undertaken as a last resort when life is at stake. It is not unthinkable because it is possible for relationships to become so broken that an end is 'healthier' than leaving the relational destruction to fester and become gangrenous. But it is not a quick and easy solution to the problem. It is not easy. It is not a solution. Rather, like amputation, the aim is harm minimisation, attempting to retrieve at least the possibility of some good from a severely damaged situation. It is an option that will leave scars and require rehabilitation to regain some measure of lost abilities. It is not done for cosmetic reasons, or because you have a sore toe, or even when you have a broken leg - in fact, not even when there has been partial or total paralysis. Where there is injury, even severe injury, seek healing through repentence, forgiveness and reconciliation (of course there is much more to say here). Seek help early (wise counselling saved us in our first years of marriage). Divorce only becomes thinkable when the damage to the marriage is so severe that unless there is separation, then the 'blood loss' or 'poisoned blood' will kill you. Except in very rare emergencies, it is also not a decision to be made (or executed!) without skilled help.

I speak as one who has not been divorced, nor as one who has experienced the divorce of parents. I also do not have any significant experience of amputation. Yet I have ministered (a little) to those with struggling and broken marriages, and to some going through divorce. I would love to hear reflections and comments on this analogy. It is not intended (like any analogy) to be perfect, but is intended to fire the imagination and provide a sense of the gravity of this decision in a culture where it has been too-often abused.

UPDATE: I did not mean to imply that the ex-spouse is to be compared directly to the lost limb.


michael jensen said...

I think it is a good one. Grief is similar.

Anonymous said...


Many thanks for your blog which I visit regularly.

Your analogy succeeds on one point (is a last ditch, "no other choices left" procedure) but fails for me on a number of others.

1. The amputated part dies - it has no life of its own. Divorce leaves two living but injured parties.

2. Implies that the amputated part is the sole cause of the problem.

3. Is immediately permanent. Doesn't allow for future restoration.

byron smith said...

Anon - yes, they are all limitations of the image, but as I said, it is an analogy, which means that it is similar in some ways and dissilimar in others. Perhaps I should have been more explicit about the dissimilarities, but your three are a great start. I did not intend to picture the amputated limb as the partner.

MPj - Grief is similar. How so? Similar to what?

Anonymous said...

I think it's an interesting comparison. Sometimes the hardest part is knowing whether it's time to "amputate" or not - and in my experience people can refuse to do so on priciple, to the detriment of everyone involved. Rehab afterwards is very important, and usually forgotten.

Anonymous said...

I got rid of the gangrenous part and am all the better for it!

byron smith said...

Anon #3 - As I said above, I did not intend to suggest that the limb is the partner. If anything, I think it is the part of yourself that they have helped form. Amputation is losing part of your self.

Anonymous said...

Hey Byron,

Interesting thought. I developed a very similar analogy about divorce in a recent post I wrote on my parents' separation (cf. There are some things I like about the amputation analogy (the need for skilled help is a very good point to highlight) and some things that make me a little uncomfortable with it (i.e. imposing a sense of gravity is all well and good in certain circles, but other circles have too much of a sense of gravity about divorce). Anyway, if you have to time, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on what I wrote.

Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

"Amputation is losing part of yourself".

Well, that's true of course. You're really saying both parties are potential amputees. I probably have too much experience with damaged limbs, gangrene and amputation to make it work for me. And am surrounded by divorcees.

I love analogies - love them. I am thinking this through and it has too many weaknesses for me to overcome its strengths, I am afraid.

Anon 1

psychodougie said...

maybe like the separation of siamese (or p.c. conjoined) twins then?!

as a former prosthetist, i also think the phantom pain adds to the analogy - there will be a continuing, ongoing pain after the separation. pain that ranges from a dull ache, to an intense, crippling agony.

and re mpj's point, scales measuring grief, list amputation as an equivalent grief level to divorce! just fyi.

Looney said...

I donno. Emotionally, I believe people can get over an amputation and move on with their lives. There is something in my interaction with those who have been divorce - particularly the women - that makes me think that full emotional healing will never occur aside from a miracle from our Lord. As he said, "if your right eye causes you to sin ...". Amputation is to be preferred.

/Karen/ said...

To say that divorce is the final solution to the problem is a bit of a myth; if you read some of Judith Wallerstein's books, you'd see that many couples were deluded on that point—especially when it came to marriages which experienced domestic violence or other forms of abuse. Divorce often did not have the intended effect, and problems that existed in the marriage pre-divorce usually continued post-divorce.

Martin Kemp said...

I wonder whether its better to say divorce is like when the limb has already fallen off, and you're dressing the stump. I say this because I think Christianly divorce is advisable when for all intents and purposes the marriage has already ended, ie one spouse refuses to live with the other, or lives in a state which somehow denies their unity.

Amputation in the way you describe it just sounds a little too close to conceding that divorce is an option, when it's actually a way of dealing with something already gone. Unless, of course you consider gangrenous leg is already dead, but you just say that it’s "severely damaged".

At the risk of also sounding insensitive, perhaps its worth commending something that Meilaender wrote in his book on bio-ethics; that we need to put forward living with brokenness as a brave and commendable option for Christians who have hope.

Byron, would say that euthanasia can be seen as a retrieval ethic? What differences or similarities do you see with what you're proposing?
Also, might there be a difference between Christian couples and non-Christian couples?

/Karen/ said...

Hi Byron,

Sorry to revisit an old post/discussion, but I was reading this again today and thought it might be helpful for you in seeing the limits of your analogy. It's from Second Chances by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee. When no-fault divorce was adopted in America, Wallerstein began a study that went for 25 years which charted the effects of divorce on families. She also founded the Families in Transition centre in California (San Francisco?) Second Chances was written at the 10-year mark and it's fascinating because she doesn't just focus on the children—she focuses on the family as a whole. This is from her introduction:


Sometimes we think of one crisis as resembling all the others and all stressful events as having a great deal in common. But the truth is that in a family with children, there is no experience like divorce. In some respects, the closest thing to it is death and bereavement, for they each spur internal and external life changes: Each involves loss and mourning; each brings in its wake lasting changes in the fabric of daily life and intimate relationships. But divorce is different. Unlike death, divorce involves choice, and the long-lasting changes it effects carry the promise of positive outcomes. Unlike bereavement, divorce is intended to relieve stress and reduce unhappiness in family members. These intended effects may or may not be realized, but in either case, divorce at the outset comprises a special category of life crisis in that it simultaneously engenders new solutions and new problems. Divorce is also unique in that it gives rise to the central passions of human life.

Feelings of loss and grief comingle with those of love and hate. Sexual jealousy is triggered and reinforced by a sense of betrayal. Relief is tinged with guilt. Narcissistic rage is precipitated by humiliation. Acute depression rides on the heels of rejection. When long-lasting marriages break up, a person’s very identity may be threatened. These feelings, and the internal conflicts they arouse, are not amenable to a quick fix or short recuperation. People do not forget that divorce is rarely a mutual decision or that it is a voluntary act, and entirely man-made and woman-made act.

When we fall in love, we idealize the object of our love; at the point of leaving, however, we de-idealize and sometimes dehumanize the loved one. Divorce is really the opposite of falling in love and it inevitable marshals anger and sometimes intense rage—rage that people feel is justified. It is a rage that feels good. Rooted in a sense of having been exploited and humiliated to the core, this anger flows from wounded self-esteem and helps us defend ourselves against feelings of depression, unloveableness, and abandonment. It is the kind of anger that helps people deny responsibility for the marriage’s failure. The “bad guy” is he or she who wants the divorce; the “good guy” is he or she who wants to continue the family. What other life crisis engenders the wish to kill? In what other life crisis are children used as bullets? Divorce is unique in that it unleashes our most primitive and most profound human passions—love, hate, and jealousy.

No-fault divorce is a legal concept that has gained acceptance in this country, but I have yet to meet one man, woman, or child who emotionally accepts “no-fault” divorce. In their hearts, people believe in fault and in the loss associated with the decision to end a marriage. Adults almost inevitably blame each other, but, as we shall see, they rarely blame themselves. Children, on the other hand, feel that their parents are to blame for having failed at one of life’s major tasks, which is to maintain marriage and family for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse.

Divorce is different from other life crises in that anger more often erupts into physical and verbal violence, violence that can cause serious psychological harm for many years. It spills onto the children and into the legal system. In fact, judges, lawyers, and police are in more danger of being shot or killed by angry family members than by criminals.

In most crisis situations, such as an earthquake, flood, or fire, parents instinctively reach out and grab hold of their children, bringing them to safety first. In the crisis of divorce, however, mothers and fathers put children on hold, attending to adult problems first. Divorce is associated with a diminished capacity to parent in almost all dimensions—discipline, playtime, physical care, and emotional support. Divorcing parents spend less time with their children and are less sensitive to their children’s needs. At this time they may very well confuse their own needs with those of their children.

Divorce is also the only major family crisis in which social supports fall away. When there is a death in the family, people come running to help. After a natural disaster, neighbors rally to assist those who have been hurt. After most such crises, clergymen may call on the family to console adults or speak with children who are baldy shaken. But not so with divorce. Friends are afraid that they will have to take sides; neighbors think it is none of their business. Although half the families in our study belong to churches or synagogues, not one clergyman came to call on the adults or children during divorce. Grandparents may be helpful but are apprehensive about getting caught in the crossfire. They often live far away and feel their role is limited. When a man and a woman divorce, many people tend to act as if they believe it might be contagious. The divorced person is seen as a loose cannon. We have names for them: rogue elephant, black widow. Despite the widespread acceptance of divorce in modern society, there remains something frightening at its core. It is as if married people are afraid that another’s divorce will illuminate the cracks in their own relationships. On a visceral level, every divorce threatens to erode our own marriages.

Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, Second Chances: Men, women, and children a decade after divorce, Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1989, pp. 6-8.

byron smith said...

Karen - thanks for that! I must admit, my recent pastoral experience is of two marriage breakups/breakdowns, and in both cases it was only a few years old and there were no children involved. The tragedy only increases with children. However, while there are ways in which it may be usefully compared with death (I used to think that suicide was a better metaphor! I don't think so now), and indeed, can sometimes be worse than death in some ways, I still think that my image is useful in capturing the extremity of the need that might lead to divorce. It was against an 'easy' divorce culture (not that divorce is ever an easy experience, but our culture seems to expect it, even if no-one thinks it will happen to them) that I came up with the image (on the spur of the moment during a pastoral conversation). Anyway, thanks again for these thoughts. I was particularly saddened by this:
Although half the families in our study belong to churches or synagogues, not one clergyman came to call on the adults or children during divorce.

Anonymous said...

martin's points are excellent, as someone who has recently experienced divorce. unfortunately the amputation analogy has too many flaws to be useful.

byron smith said...

Thanks anon, I agree that Martin makes a good point about divorce being a recognition of what has already happened. Yet for those in the midst (or start) of marital difficulty, how can we convey the extremity of divorce? I'm the first to admit the image isn't perfect and it isn't what I'd say to someone who is already divorced, but as a way of trying to get the attention of a young Christian whose ideas of marriage follow the culture too quickly and so assume that divorce is the 'solution' to their problem, I thought that it was a useful image.