My wife left me after 30 years of marriage. Jesuit spirituality helps me love her now.

Frank McKenna for Unsplash 

January’s chill cut to the bone. Leaving the baggage claim area, I stepped into the gloom of winter wearing a T-shirt and REI cargo pants, my daily ensemble during four months of travel. When she greeted me outside the terminal, my wife burst out laughing. “Think you’re still in the Philippines, do you?” 

But she was somber as she drove home through Washington, D.C., meandering north alongside ice-covered Rock Creek. Later that evening, peering at me across the kitchen island, as if the air between us had congealed, she said, “I liked living alone.” 

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My wife left three weeks later, insisting couples therapy was pointless, hopeless.

We met almost 35 years to the day she walked away, at a Fat Tuesday party during a blizzard. We met as undergraduates at George Washington University in 1983. I attended the university as a foreign student from the Philippines. Friends pointed her out to me, saying she had just returned from a semester abroad in Aix en Provence. Her blue eyes sparkled, offset by the red aviator scarf she later told me belonged to her deceased father, a fighter pilot in the Pacific War.

Later that evening, peering at me across the kitchen island, as if the air between us had congealed, she said, “I liked living alone.”

Emboldened by Carlo Rossi wine, I mumbled an invitation into her ear, “Want to stroll through the snow?” We spent the evening slipping and sliding on the pavement outside Ronald Reagan’s White House, clinging to each other for support. 

By 10 o’clock the next morning, Ash Wednesday, my hangover had cleared enough for me to shuffle to the college auditorium for Mass, where I made sure to sit near her. After the priest intoned, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace,” we nodded and smiled at one another. In that morning’s sacred space, so soon after the previous night’s revelry, I sensed the fullness of her humanity, one blessed with both holiness and joi de vivre.

I returned home to the Philippines after graduating that spring. In those pre-internet days, we wrote one another long letters on onion paper every week. Shortly after arriving back in the Philippines, the political dissident Benigno Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport. Thousands of Filipinos took to the streets in protest. To intimidate us, the police swung clubs and chased after us as if we were dogs.

With money she barely had, she called me long-distance. “Are you safe?” she asked in a tremulous voice. Over the next months, our friendship grew as we continued to share our concerns and dreams with one another.

Her courageous decision has been my life’s most precious gift.

Two years after that phone call, on the steps outside Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church, after Good Friday evening services, I asked her to marry me—a penniless, foreign graduate student. “You know me,” I said.

“Yes, I know you,” she replied. “And I will marry you.” 

Her courageous decision—to commit to someone with no demonstrable material promise—has been my life’s most precious gift. 

I had been a Jesuit seminarian two years before meeting her. I went to a Jesuit school in the Philippines and entered the novitiate there. I did not believe I would find someone who could satisfy all my spiritual longings and needs for human companionship. I left the Jesuits, however, believing that God was calling me to be a family man.

•••

The first week after my wife left me, I lost 10 pounds, apparently from trying to outswim the undertow dragging me down to despair. When at last I expended all my energy and hope, my two adult daughters, both in their mid-20s, buoyed me up, lifting me with their wisdom, their unconditional, nonjudgmental presence. 

Meeting at an Indian bistro for lunch, my daughters and I took turns sharing stories about how each of us handled past and current relationships. As my daughters spoke, I watched their tan hands reach for the naan bread, their skin’s brown hue a reflection of the mixture of race and culture that brought joy to their parents’ friendship. 

This diversity ingrained in our family seemed suddenly out of sync with the times after the 2016 elections, as indeed did our entire worldview. Racism and anger against immigrants seemed to be a common feature on the campaign trail and in the new administration. 

The first week after my wife left me, I lost 10 pounds, seemingly from trying to outswim the undertow dragging me down to despair.

The next spring, my wife and I would convene after work at the bar in the Marriott Hotel above Metro Center, Washington’s central subway station. I worked as an environmental scientist, while my wife worked for the Head Start program, which provides early childhood education and support for underprivileged families. I had abandoned Catholicism years earlier, not least because it failed to provide nurturing space for my gay daughter, but a desire to serve stayed with me. Over beers, my wife and I brainstormed all the ways we could continue to craft meaningful lives in service of the public good.

I laid out a plan for us to begin building the future we had long envisioned, a vision of improving lives in developing countries. For the first time since we married, I would return to the Philippines for an extended period to teach a course in data science. There was a global demand for people who understood big data. This would create opportunities for smart, underemployed people in developing countries. As long as they had access to bandwidth, educated Filipinos could provide data services for companies in the developed world. On my wife’s part, this would mark the first time—after years in which we sustained the house menagerie, including her mother and our daughters—she would live alone. 

When I flew to Asia, I believed we were on the cusp of our next adventure as a couple; I was simply the advance scout exploring our frontier.

If I had been a real scout, however, I might have considered the possibility that life back at base camp would unfold in ways I could not foresee.

•••

I had never before considered suicide. But in the aftermath of my wife’s departure, as I walked along Rock Creek, throwing pebbles into the water, I often thought of Virginia Woolf. She stuffed her pockets with stones to drown herself in the river near her Sussex home. I avoided the bathroom, especially during sleepless nights on my half-empty bed, because thoughts of sinking into warm waters with slit wrists were becoming alarmingly enticing. 

During those dark times, I remembered my brother’s suicide. The pain of his death lingers, even decades after I read the yellow strip of paper on which, even at his darkest hour, my brother scribbled his accountability on his suicide note: “The fault is mine. All mine.” 

Thinking of my daughters, I lurched in the opposite direction, toward hope, toward living a life of responsibility to my loved ones.

Thinking of my daughters, I lurched in the opposite direction, toward hope, toward living a life of responsibility to my loved ones.

And so I languished, wondering whether this ache, like an insidious parasite consuming me from inside, corresponded to emotions my wife had been harboring. In those few weeks before she left, anything I said or did only seemed to stir more pain within her, until she felt she must leave me. I finally understood how much pain she kept hidden from me, from our family and from our friends.

Finally, I sought solace by returning to my Catholic roots and diving into the deep well of Jesuit spirituality. In 2013, after the white smoke wafted above the Sistine Chapel and Pope Francis emerged to catch the bus to his hotel, I told myself, “I know this man.” His simplicity and compassion appeared to spring from the same spirit shared by my Jesuit mentors.

Two months after my wife walked away, for the first time in many years, I entered a Catholic church. Sitting alone in the darkness, I heard the faint but familiar voice of Tom Green, S.J., my spiritual director. “The soul,” he used to tell me, puffing on his pipe as the smoke wrapped around us, “is the battleground in the war between God and the Devil.” 

Finally, I sought solace by returning to my Catholic roots and diving into the deep well of Jesuit spirituality.

We understood each other enough to know we relied on metaphors to “eff the ineffable.” Our understanding of God, molded by Catholic traditions and belief, was that of an all-encompassing goodness residing in creation, in others and in ourselves. In its etymology, Devil simply referred to someone blocking the path to God. The Devil was a personification of anything—a friend, neurotic attachments, fake news—leading me away from my best self.

Father Green trained me to recognize those God-inspired movements in my soul-stirring courage and compassion. He taught me to be sensitive to how the Devil plays with my fears, subtly nudging me toward hopelessness and anxiety. And he delivered his most useful advice: “Never make a major decision when the Devil encloses you in his embrace.”

This is powerful stuff, these Jesuit mind tricks. For the moment, my marriage is in a crisis, where past traumas, aging bodies and waning hormones poison the narrative. Distrust and anger colors my wife’s view of our marriage. Father Green’s instructions from the past help me settle my emotional turmoil by shifting my focus to God’s voice inside me, encouraging me to treat my wife with compassion.

I try not to overthink this legacy of discernment from my teacher. I grasp comfort where I can find it, in this case by layering my vague understanding of human relations and psychology with the spiritual principles developed by the Jesuit order’s founder, a 16th-century soldier-turned-mystic. These principles impel me to focus on that one area where I can exercise choice: to respond lovingly to my wife’s departure.

Never make a major decision when the Devil encloses you in his embrace.

On good days, I believe my authentic self must be constant in unconditionally loving her, even as I claim responsibility for the harms I caused “through my fault, through my fault”—as I used to chant at daily Mass—through my most grievous fault. Wherever the journey leads, she remains my best friend, and I hope to be beside her at journey’s end. Knowing this helps me through bad days, when the Devil gives no quarter on my soul’s battleground and I am awash in the urge to walk away and end the marriage. 

On a recent bad day, I wandered into a movie theater to distract myself. The movie’s protagonist, a country priest entrapped in existential crisis, paraphrases the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.”

With spring, Rock Creek flows freely, except in the shallower, cooler waters near the shore. There, ice stubbornly persists. I watch chunks of it break off like fragile crystals to float away and melt into the downstream flow toward the Atlantic Ocean.

I am overwhelmed by the notion that without my wife and I noticing it, quotidian behaviors and attitudes over 33 years have frozen into patterns of certitude, imperiling our marriage. As in any long marriage, there were children to care for, bills to pay, household chores to be done; and we somehow lost focus on the love we have for each other. 

For now, all I can do is pray desperately for a grace-inspired thaw, so we may surrender to God’s creativity. I pray we are merely on temporarily divergent, independent journeys to our best personal selves so that, someday, we can meet again downstream in conjoined bliss. 

And I force myself to pray also for the most gut-wrenching grace of all, to embrace the possibility that each of us might follow our individual soul’s movements down the creek, only to ultimately drift, despite ourselves, to separate spots in the ocean.

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arthur mccaffrey
2 months 1 week ago

Neglect. You neglected to nurture the relationship, Pascal. Forget all this abstract Jesuit spirituality--your wife wanted someone to be there for her 24/7, and you flunked. You have to work at the relationship fulltime. I am actually surprised that your wife stuck it out for 30 years--obviously the children were a factor. I would not look to Jesuits for answers, go to a support group for guys like yourself, don't get seduced by big picture melodrama. Instead of looking at streams, look deep inside yourself, identify patterns of behavior that may have distressed your wife, without you being enough self-aware enough to "get it". Maybe if you had been more self aware, her urge to depart would have been less of a surprise.
Good luck and god bless!

Michael Bindner
2 months ago

Don't text after happy hour.

rose-ellen caminer
1 month 3 weeks ago

You don't know that he neglected his wife. Her snide comment that she greets him with at the airport, shows her to be the one with a bug up her .... .Maybe she was resentful and envious of the fact his job entailed going overseas but hers didn't. Instead of admitting this she attacks him.That she likes being alone, as if this were some great insight[ all people need to be alone]as if married people are never a lone, as if he were following her around like a puppy dog for 30 plus years, sounds like she is not being honest with him, and most likely even with herself.She's the neurotic passive aggressive, that he is a victim of.;I like living alone so I'm leaving you after 30 years!That melodrama, that cruelty , hiding self awareness is hers, not his.[IMO]
I'm sorry you have had to go through such an ordeal;my prayers and empathy to you Pasky.

Michael Bindner
2 months ago

Very poignantly said. You have no control of her feelings. Give up that you need her to return. She may, she may not. Whether she does is up to her. Love whomever she wants to be, even if it is not with you. The hurt really does go away. Even if she does come back, the pain of her departure will still be something to get through. Let God carry you. And ignore Arthur.

Andrea Campana
2 months ago

I kind of like what Arthur wrote. Women want to be cherished. It's that simple, guys.

Judith Jordan
2 months ago

I also liked what Arthur wrote. I thought he spoke to the issues.

E. Commerce
2 months ago

An important topic for Catholics, and one over which many leave the Church. I have never understood the marriage laws of the Church--and especially, how they seem to pose an impossible contradiction sometimes between how best to love and how best to be a faithful Catholic. Sometimes the situation is such that the best way to love involves separation, and then, opening to love after that, or at least accepting when the other party chooses that. I have no wisdom on this to offer, but a couple of thoughts as I have wrangled with the issue as a daughter, a parent, a spouse affected by divorce, while at the same time being a committed Catholic. First, as St. John reportedly simplified the entirety of the Gospel as he aged: "Little children, love one another". We are required to do our very best to love. We will fail, and God will forgive when we acknowledge our failure to Him. 2) God seems concerned more with love than legalism. For example, when He said 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.' I struggle to understand the apparent contradiction that 'not one jot or tittle' of the Law will pass away, yet Jesus said that "Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of men's hearts, yet in the beginning it was not so". I will always attempt to resolve that apparent contradiction within the Church Jesus founded, and will not reject the Church, but I may well see Him face to face with that particular question unanswered. Meanwhile, I must love the people before me and accept their judgement on how best they can love. It is unsatisfying, but I don't know that I can do any better, and I believe/hope Jesus accepts that when I see Him, and forgives my failures to understand and to love when I acknowledge them to Him.

J Jones
2 months ago

Pasky, thank you for the gift of your very personal, very specific journey through life. Your willingness to be vulnerable with God, yourself, the women you love (your wife and daughter) and each of us is a gift. I will remember this. Bless you and your life's walk.

John Barbieri
2 months ago

Please get professional help. However well meaning, your Jesuit friends are, they simply don't have the training and experience that you need at this vulnerable time in your life. I wish you well.

Steven Krause
1 month 4 weeks ago

Thank you, Pasky, for your willingness to share a very personal struggle. Having been married for 34 years myself, I know I'd be devastated if my wife made the announcement that yours did. Your effort to continue loving her as best you can, even knowing that this may eventually require you to accept the unwanted loss of your marriage, requires tremendous courage. I will pray for you both.

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