“We must be pure. I do not speak merely of the purity of the senses. We must observe great purity in our will, in our intentions, in all our actions.”
— Saint Peter Julian Eymard
As a young Catholic woman, I was raised with the understanding that sex was reserved for married couples. By college I had a fairly good handle on why the Church forbade sex outside of marriage including the emotional, physical and psychological effects of such intimacy. Fast-forward sixteen years’, I’m divorced and again faced with this challenge, but this time it is not just about physical intimacy but the emotional as well. Before I married, I knew I had to be careful not to cross physical boundaries but now, although I’m living without the benefit of the masculine presence, I am still bound by the sacrament to my husband. I may not receive his love, help or touch, but faithful to him in thought, word and deed I must be. This is heartbreaking, frustrating, humiliating etc…but in truth it is extremely important to remain chaste both physically and emotionally after divorce.
What I’d like to focus on here is the divorced, single-parent. Much of what I’ll say applies to the annulled as well, but one fundamentally important distinction will not. That distinction is that without an annulment: you are still married! Marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament cannot be undone through civil divorce. The Church will always find in favor of the marriage unless it has been decreed null and this includes the period of time after filing for an annulment. Until a formal decree of nullity we must, under pain of sin, remain faithful to the marriage vows. “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matt. 5:28
Choice vs. Reaction (Intellect vs. Emotion):
It can be frustrating and humiliating to live faithful to a spouse who is not returning the favor. This I know is a HUGE understatement and for that, I’m so very sorry! Unfortunately, that is our reality and a large part of this cross. Our spouses, whether claiming to be Catholic or not, have disobeyed God’s law. He/She has chosen pleasure over goodness; the lie instead of the truth and self-indulgence over selfless love. God help them! They are on a dangerous path.
Now, where does that leave us? Well, that leaves us with a decision…Are we going to rashly react to our pain or are we going to step back and identify that which we CAN control in our lives and that which we CANNOT? What can we control? Our wills. We may not be able to control our emotions and we certainly cannot control our wayward spouses, but we are in control of our choices and actions. Are we going to allow our spouses’ selfish choices to separate us from Christ? Will you give him/her that much power? Haven’t they already taken enough from you? Stay with Christ! No matter how lonely and broken you feel, a life separate from Him is empty. Much more empty than your bed.
At first you may be going through the motions. That’s okay for now. Our Lord loves our little acts for Him. They do not always need an emotional counterbalance and honestly in the beginning your feelings will be all over the place and for the time being may not be inline with the right and good choices. It’s a bipolar way to exist, but with prayer and grace the gap between the virtues and your overwhelming need for justice, consolation etc… will close. Be confident that Christ will shower you with all the graces needed to chastely endure.
You may feel that your spouse’s betrayal has completely humiliated you, especially if there has been an affair. To be trampled upon after giving yourself completely to another is devastating, but know that only real humiliation can come from our OWN choices. Those who love you will see the betrayal but not your humiliation. They will see your spouse as having humiliated himself, not you.
Your choices are what will increase or decrease your respectability, not his/hers. Staying faithful to your vows under these hellish circumstances will be the true testament to your character. Your fidelity will not only increase your self-respect, but the respect your community has for you as well. Be a good example to your children and community for nothing your spouse does can diminish that!
Effects on the Children
If you have children, please remember that they will be watching your every move, even the little ones. Their other parent pulled the rug out from under them and they are terrified that you might too. When you remain faithful in thought, word and deed to your marital vows you remain faithful to your children. They need you to carry this cross for them. They need to see that fidelity is possible even under the worst circumstances. Don’t believe that you are only being faithful to your unloving spouse; you are also being faithful to your children, the sacrament and your Christ. When your heart aches and you feel desperately alone, look at your children and find your strength in being what they need. Your Chastity is their Hope!
Furthermore, as they grow in the Faith and study the catechism, they will see the sin in unchaste choices. If you seek consolation in another, how then will you instruct them to be pure before marriage? They will follow your choices more than your words.
As if you haven’t suffered enough, in time loneliness will creep in. There seems to be something taboo about admitting to this feeling, as if it implies some weakness, yet that’s absolutely not the case! You have been split in two. Your spouse and you were two people who became one through the sacrament and now you feel like half a heart and body. It’s important to allow yourself this acknowledgement. It is real and natural, so shed the light on it or it will grow like a cancer in the dark.
For me, some of my loneliest moments occur when I’m sick. It is at these times when I feel the full weight of this reality. There is no one to take care of me, and no one to help with the children when I’m feverish or struggling; no one to pick up my prescriptions, or check on me as I lie awake all night trying to breathe. My children are lovely and try to help but it’s not the same. With them I feel guilty and I don’t want them to have this additional pressure. My care was never supposed to be their duty (not at least until I’m elderly). In those times I can feel the loneliness envelope me.
There can be many different triggers: arriving at events alone, making a smaller pot of coffee than in the past, certain holidays etc…Whatever your triggers may be, be honest about it. At first you may want to avoid those situations if at all possible, but eventually you will need to find an appropriate response. It is in the loneliness that you will find your vows most tested. Remember that the enjoyment from romantic indulgences is only temporary but the accompanying sin will have long lasting consequences. These ramifications will not only affect your soul but your children’s as well. Depending on how far you delve into the illicit relationship, your community could also be affected. Adultery whether emotional or physical is a public sin just as marriage is a public contract.
This is where St. Joseph can be called upon. Though he will not be picking up your prescriptions, he will console you. Give him your marriage, family and home. Buy a picture or statue of him to put in a prominent place. Speak to him daily about your struggles and let him be the head of your household. Could there be a better choice than the man God put in charge of the Holy Family?
Loneliness and the Eucharist
St. Joseph cannot assuage any physical longings, but the Eucharist can. Through frequent reception of Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity you are physically connecting with Our Lord. Meditate on the profound intimacy that is offered here. The graces and nourishment in the Eucharist are well beyond any sexual, physical or earthy satisfaction. The cross of divorce will not be lightened by anything or anyone of this world. Only Christ can free you, heal you and feed you. Believe that. Don’t be fooled by the devil’s lies. Another’s affection will not repair you; it will only break you and further break your family as your spouse has shown. Heaven is the end game, remember that!
Romantic Books & Movies
Just a quick warning about entertainment: As your focus necessarily turns to spiritual remedies, be careful to avoid books, TV or movies that are overtly romantic. You are in a fragile place and enough viewings of The Notebook and the like, could become an occasion of sin. Be honest and self-aware enough to accept your limitations.
None of this is easy but the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce and chastity is fairly straight forward. If you have any confusion don’t hesitate to consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church directly. Hold on and be strong, remembering that your attractiveness and beauty lie in your character before your appearance. The measure of your worth should not be found or sought in the flattering words or advances of another. The divorce does not change that fact. Don’t let your spouses’ weakness diminish your beauty or self-worth. Christ Sees you and loves you. That is more precious than any attention you may think you need from another person. Bear in mind that it is the favor of Christ and your children that matter, not the cute guy giving you the ‘once-over.’ That cute guy cannot save you or open the gates to the Beatific Vision for you; he could be the cause of them closing. He’s (She’s) not worth it – just as your spouses’ perceived ‘happiness’ has not been worth this pain.