It’s Saturday and I’m single. I think. I dunno. I’m not married. I’m confused. I have a headache.
Last week, an unmarried male acquaintance of mine, in the context of teasing me about how I actually like cleaning my house, asked me, tongue in cheek, “Are you single?” To which I responded, “Technically, yes. Well, I’m not married. I don’t have a ring and a date or anything. I guess it depends on your definition of single.” At which point I wanted to sink uncomfortably into the floor.
My Facebook status says “In a Relationship.” Not only that, it’s an exclusive long-term relationship, not just some flavor of the month. But when I fill out government forms, I can’t check the box marked “Married.” Sometimes there’s a box marked “Divorced.” When there isn’t, I check “Single.”
Whether or not “In a Relationship” ever turns into “Married,” I will always be “Divorced.”
Or will I?
The Catholic Church is like Yoda: there is no “tried.” There is either “I do” or “I do not.”
There is no “divorce.” There is either “married” or “not married.”
My religious faith doesn’t recognize divorce. In the Catholic Church there is no such thing. Yes, the Church acknowledges the secular reality that about 50% of people who get married will eventually get a divorce decree from the state. But as far as the Church is concerned, I’m still married to my first husband. Even though he has taken a new spouse. Even though they are expecting a new baby. As far as the Church is concerned, he is a public adulterer, and I’m a private one by dating another man. Apparently the Church is less concerned about the “dating” variety of adultery, given that most divorced Catholics do at least date while remaining active members of their church community, as long as they aren’t cohabitating with their partners and aren’t publicly flaunting their presumed sexual behaviors.
Contrary to popular misconception, divorce itself is not necessarily a sin, nor does getting a civil divorce mean I’ll be excommunicated from the Church; remember, the Church says there is no such thing. But if “the fella” wanted to give me a diamond for Valentine’s Day, I wouldn’t be free to say yes. Getting remarried would be the thing that keeps me from being in communion with the Church, and as legalistic as my religion is in this regard, it is an important part of my identity that I have no desire to abandon for, say, Anglicanism.
It’s Saturday and I’m a divorced, married, single mother in a long-term, exclusive relationship. Facebook can’t handle a relationship status like that. (Wait, I forgot about “It’s Complicated.” Insert laughing emoji here.)
My unfulfilled New Years resolution for 2015 was to “simplify.” A year later, I have begun to simplify the relationship status. Last Sunday, the day after my uncomfortable relationship status exchange, I began writing the summary for my annulment request.
There are lots of misconceptions about annulment. When I talk about it with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, one of the first responses is, “What about the children?” There’s a common belief that getting an annulment is akin to publicly stating my children are illegitimate, which is a ludicrous word to describe any human life. Just as there is no such thing as “divorce” in the Church, there is no such thing as an “illegitimate life” in the Church. Nor is it saying that my children are bastards or born out of wedlock.
An annulment acknowledges the reality of a wedding while at the same time nullifying the validity of the marriage. In the Catholic Church, it takes more than mutual love, vows, rings, and a marriage decree for a marriage to be valid. Even consummation is not enough to seal the deal, although not consummating the marriage relationship is definitely grounds for dissolution.
It comes down to the Church’s definition of marriage and the conditions present at the time the ceremony took place. If the marriage is missing just one part of the definition from day one, it was never a valid marriage to start with. For example, marriage by the Church’s definition is biologically procreative, which is one reason why two people of the same gender cannot have a valid marriage in the church. It has nothing to do with discriminating against two people who love each other and everything to do with simple biology.
By definition marriage is a loving, unconditional, permanent, exclusive, procreative covenant entered into by both parties freely and without condition or impediment. The annulment process looks at whether those basic qualities were missing for one or the other of the spouses. If something was missing, like the intention to remain faithful, then the marriage was never valid in the first place, the marriage is annulled, and the spouses are free to marry again.
Any number of factors could render a marriage invalid – intoxication, mental illness, pregnancy and a father-in-law with a shotgun are just a few. When I first spoke to a deacon about annulment, he informed me that he and his wife had at least seven possible grounds for annulment. I suspect most couples do; at the very least, we all go into marriage with expectations of which we probably aren’t even conscious. For half of couples, God’s grace makes up for it and the sacrament is renewed every morning along with their vows to stay faithful for another day, into perpetuity. Having grounds doesn’t mean the marriage is destined to fail, which I suppose is why the Church continues to preside over most marriages, even the ones that start on shaky ground.
Conversely, annulment, at least in the United States, is the Church’s best pastoral, compassionate response to people whose marriages failed and who want a second chance.
I don’t know if I want a second chance. There’s a lot more to marriage than love and companionship; every decision becomes a jointly made one, and I’m used to being independent. Would I really be ready to love someone through “worse” and not just “better?” Is anyone? I have a friend who just lost the love of his life to cancer, and I am certain he wasn’t ready to love through the worst of the worse, but he did. Could I love like him?
Ultimately marriage is a choice. So should being single. Today my relationship status is not so much a choice as it is a default position. Perhaps if and when my annulment is approved and I am free to make that choice, I’ll have a better answer when someone asks, “Are you single?” Maybe I won’t stumble over my words or hide behind church legalities to avoid the joys of true intimacy and building a life together. Maybe I’ll find the grace to put “we” before “me.”
Until then, it’s Saturday, and I have a date with a lovely man I treasure, who is cooking me dinner and going with me to a bluegrass concert at the same place we met and had our first date – our Church. I can’t think of a better place to be regardless of what boxes I check on forms.