When my husband filed for divorce, I was shamed for staying faithful to our vows

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, on July 17, 1794, 16 Carmelite nuns were executed in Paris during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and the crusade to rid France of Catholicism. These martyrs chose the guillotine over renouncing their vows. I first learned of them at a performance of Francis Poulenc’s modern opera, Dialogues des Carmélites. As I watched the story of these brave 18th-century women unfold on stage, I felt their strength under pressure pulse through me. It was noon on a Saturday in May 2019 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but on stage it is 1789, the start of the French Revolution. Frightened by an angry mob, Blanche, the daughter of an aristocratic family, flees to a convent in Compiègne, France, where she struggles to accept a calling to religious life. Revolutionaries eventually close the convent and strip the nuns of their habits. But a group of them continue observing their religious life in secret. They are discovered, imprisoned, swiftly found guilty on trumped-up charges of hiding arms and are sentenced to death.

In the final scene—set on July 17, 1794—they proceed single file up a cross-shaped ramp, hands clasped in prayer, unwavering, singing the “Salve Regina” until the sound of the guillotine’s blade removes their voices from the chorus one by one. Blanche, who has been burdened by her fear of death and of making a full commitment to her life’s calling, steps out of the shadows and joins her sisters.

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While composing the opera, Poulenc became so obsessed with the story that he felt he had actually known these women. In them he had also found a mirror to his own experience in the accidental death of a friend who had been decapitated.

The nuns’ decision to remain steadfast to their vows called to mind my determination not to turn my back on mine.

The opera triggered an uncanny feeling of kinship in me, too—not that my hardships could ever equate with those of the nuns or the composer. Still, we tend to filter the tragedy of others through our personal experience. It is what enables us to identify with them and cultivate compassion.

Crying softly in my seat, I recalled a day 14 years before in a Brooklyn courtroom. The nuns’ decision to remain steadfast to their vows called to mind my determination not to turn my back on mine.

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In 2003 my husband sued me for divorce and custody of our children. He was having an affair. New York State had not yet adopted no-fault divorce, so he had to prove I had committed some legal wrong. Given his affair, I had the grounds, not he. But I could not imagine suing my own husband, and I wanted to save my marriage and family. My husband sued me instead.

For years, judges and lawyers pressured me to accept the divorce, warning me they held my future in their hands.

Every time I was called to court, I struggled to be strong and silently recited Psalm 23 over and over.

For two and a half years judges and lawyers had been trying to silence me, wear me down so I would accept the divorce without a murmur.

On June 6, 2005, I was summoned to the witness stand, raised my right hand and was sworn in. I had been given many opportunities to retreat, right down to the morning of trial, when the lawyers scurried in and out of the judge’s chambers, exchanging settlement proposals. For two and a half years judges and lawyers had been trying to silence me, wear me down so I would accept the divorce without a murmur. One judge even encouraged me to move on with the next partner, as my husband had done. “No,” I told my lawyer as we entered the courtroom that day.

By then I had probably been in a dozen different courtrooms. They all looked pretty much the same, but it was the first time I had noticed the small black placard on the wall behind the judge’s bench. It read, “In God We Trust.”

“Please state your name for the record,” the court clerk said. And so it began, the call to remain faithful to my own vows in a moment of deepest foreboding. It would be years before I converted to Catholicism. I had been raised Southern Baptist; and my grandfather, a Southern Baptist minister, had united me and my husband, a nonpracticing Jewish man, in holy matrimony. I’d gone on to study Buddhism for a decade, eventually joining a nearby Episcopal Church with my children. None of these faiths considered marriage to be a sacrament the way the Catholic Church did, and yet I had intuitively always believed marriage to be a sacred undertaking and a lifelong commitment. The trials I faced during my marriage had provided many occasions for me to run, but I had remained.

Some say I have brought suffering on myself by standing up for the promises I made at the altar. In a sense that is true.

I had heard my grandfather preach from the pulpit about the love between Christ and his church, the bridegroom and the bride, and the New Testament’s comparison of the human union to the celestial one. My grandfather pronounced us husband and wife, but God had joined us.

A year after my testimony, the judge dismissed my husband’s petition for divorce. I had stood my ground and won. But my husband simply moved to New Jersey where the law permitted no-fault divorce, that is, divorce without my consent. We eventually divorced.

At the outset, my attorney had warned me that family courts were not marriage- or family-friendly. Their purpose was to effectuate the dismantling of marriages, he said, not to offer support or try to save them. I would not listen. Opposing their agenda came at a considerable financial and emotional cost.

Since then, I have written about divorce and advocated for reform. I have met many other women—and men—who have had similar experiences. We have been shamed and ridiculed, called out in the press and in private. “Idiot,” “psycho” and “insane” are just some of the names I have been called. One reader criticized my work as an attempt to “legislate morality,” comparing my view to that of “the Catholic Church circa 1732.” Some say I have brought suffering on myself by standing up for the promises I made at the altar. In a sense that is true. But the alternative would have been to betray myself.

When did “martyr” become such a dirty word in our culture anyway? And isn’t there a difference between inviting pain for the thrill of it and the willingness to take it on for a greater purpose? The Carmelites embraced it and paid the supreme price for doing so. Ten days after they were executed, the Reign of Terror ended.

Two hundred and twenty-five years later their legacy lives on in every woman—and man—who has ever opposed injustice. By setting the barometer at the highest level, these women have inspired those coming after them to drink from their own well of fortitude. In turn, when they stand, when we stand, we continue paving the road for those who come after us. We may never know whose lives we touch or the fruits of our efforts, but we must nonetheless leave our mark in whatever way we can.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Bindner
1 month 1 week ago

If your moral decisions are based on loyalty to the Church or to God, then they are based on shame, not on justice and mercy from and for you. God created human nature and Jesus declared that God was gentle and humble of heart, his yoke is easy and his burden light. Love is the commandment he gives and all others are based on love. Any that are based on shame are group dynamics, nothing more. The Church has no monopoly on understanding human nature. Indeed, asexual members of the clergy and hierarchy who think that they are heterosexuals and that their lived experience is applicable to everyone cannot even manage their own sexual behavior, let alone ours.

Should you sleep around? No. Should you let your husband go if the relationship has gone cold? Yes. If one of you was violent, alcoholic or adulterous, then the injured party should have the option of forgiving them or forgetting them - and the guilty party should not be able to marry in the Church unless forgiven by the injured spouse - and even then, maybe not. You have a moral right to go on with your life, even if it is as a celibate (always your choice).

My wife seems to have believed in an out from the start. I agreed to that if I had an alcoholic relapse, but she left when I was having mental health issues (getting the meds right) and could not work. The insecurities about not making ends meet were hers, not mine. I had no right to expect her to meet my standards. Also, if one is not free to leave a marriage, neither are they free to say. Not doctrine, but true nonetheless. Divorce is not the end of the world. I married someone whose mother left her husband because she was not happy. Like mother, like daughter. I consented to such a union.

In reality, divorce is a very common part of human life. We cannot wish it away with tribal loyalty and bad proof texting. The history of the passage indicates something to do with family dynamics (leaving the parents and becoming one flesh, rather than marrying for upward mobility). It also says nothing about homosexuality, save that gay couples are their own family, not members of their families of origin as far as kinship is concerned.

Maureen N
1 month 1 week ago

I totally agree with your views Michael. Reading through some of the comments below such as the ones from Thomas and Daniel, I am convinced that the world will never be rid of oppressors. Why would anyone go through torture, suffering and rejection yet be expected to stay? When these opinions come from men, you know that they expect loyalty and devotion regardless of the cruelty they show their wives. It's disgusting really.

Theodore Seeber
1 month 1 week ago

One should never accept the tyranny of relativism. It is slavery, not freedom, that you espouse- slavery to the abuse of divorce.

Michael Bindner
1 month 1 week ago

Or bad prooftexting by the Church or their desire for a morality for Catholics, which is tyranny by the Pope" and pure relativism.

J. Calpezzo
1 month 1 week ago

Lol

Thomaspj Poovathinkal
1 month 1 week ago

SIN speaking THROUGH the SINNER to EVANGELISE others with it's own Gospel.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
1 month 1 week ago

If your moral decisions are based on loyalty to the Church or to God, you are (a) a Catholic or (b) faithful. Sorry, Michael, but the world "mercifully" does not revolve around your navel.

Jeanne Devine
1 month 1 week ago

Thank you for your article. I too was the wife of an adulterous husband who wanted a divorce. Although we were not Catholic, I wanted to work on preserving our marriage. I would not pretend that I was as willing as he was to end our marriage. Making himself feel and look better, he told friends and acquaintances that ours was a mutual, amicable decision. I chose to maintain my silence and hold my head high. It was interesting that people thought that I had "taken the high road". I simply would not play the game and pretend that divorce is really a matter of little harm or consequence.

Michael Bindner
1 month 1 week ago

It is your option to forgive him, but still his to leave. You should be able to marry again in the Church.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
1 month 1 week ago

Bravo, Ms. Willett! This is inspiring. This is the kind of article America Magazine should have in every issue and quite a bit less about politics, climate change, and the socialist agenda. Incidentally, Mr. Bindner's comment about moral decisions based on loyalty to the Church or to God, etc. sounds like casuistry. You have it right!
One other point, the last people to die in the Reign of Terror were four Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. They knew something, because the Sister Servant (superior) said before she knelt on the scaffold, "We will be the last to die." And, they were.

Jim Smith
1 month 1 week ago

Please accept my heartfelt praise and admiration for your steadfast approach to absolute truth.

Your story is prophetic and exemplary, it is clear that your stance was from your inner heart and your strength was from supernatural grace.
Take no notice of the resident Marxist who boast of his mastery of Critical Theory, it is just a shame you should meet one of the howling mob this day via this medium.

Other doubting and complaining women, take note.

Lucie Johnson
1 month 1 week ago

Well, certainly if your conscience demanded that you resist that divorce in this manner, you did well to follow it. It is never good to "cave in" in a matter of principle. Thank you for sharing your experience and struggle with us.
However, I am struck by the fact that you never considered how such a protracted battle that took so many resources might affect the parties involved, especially your children. It could have been as helpful to be "amicable". After all when the judge pronounces the divorce that does not do anything to your vow... You can still consider yourself married before God and be open to a reconciliation... which could be more feasible perhaps if there was not a long power battle. In my opinion, letting the divorce take place may not violate your principles.
Personally, I am grateful for the existence of fairly easy no-fault divorces. It allows many women to get out relatively easily and relatively safely from dangerous or destructive situations. I have myself benefitted from this, and it was very helpful to have had a fairly smooth divorce. It made it possible to eventually heal, forgive, and develop a bit of friendly connection. God does not want to save a marriage at all cost... Sometimes it is best for both people to come apart.

Theodore Seeber
1 month 1 week ago

Amicable is always a lie. Divorce is always abusive, ESPECIALLY no-fault divorce which is little more than revenge and hatred replacing love

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

There is no real battle - no fault divorce exists in every US state and DC. My divorce, filed by the ex, cost me less than $100 and I did it myself without a lawyer.

J. Calpezzo
1 month 1 week ago

Amen Crystal

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

Before I was a Catholic, my husband had an affair and then divorced me. I didn't want the divorce and tried for years to get him to change his mind. Looking back I can see that I had a horrible self image and a terror of being alone for the rest of my life - I wasted years on a person who didn't love me, all because I didn't love myself. The church's doctrine on divorce/remarriage is destructive.

Theodore Seeber
1 month 1 week ago

Better a vow kept than a vow destroyed by selfishness.

J. Calpezzo
1 month 1 week ago

Lol

Thomaspj Poovathinkal
1 month 1 week ago

You want the Church of the Lord to become the World and promote its COMMANDMENTS instead of God's?

Michael Bindner
1 month 1 week ago

Your argument is about loyalty, not rectitude.

J Jones
1 month 1 week ago

Hi Beverly, I am very sorry for your loss.

I am trying to integrate my read of this piece with my read of this interview https://nexttribe.com/beverly-willett/.

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

The church allows for annulments/remarriage. The Orthodox church allows for divorce/remarriage. Keith Ward (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Ward) wrote that Jesus didn't literally mean that when someone in a marriage is deserted, they can never divorce/remarry ... https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/theres-nowt-so-queer-as-folk-gender-and-sexuality

Thomaspj Poovathinkal
1 month 1 week ago

Staying FAITHFUL to the vows taken in the Presence of God and his Church always PAYS back in 100 fold and more, for it is our faithfulness to GOD first of all.

Loopholes can always be made or found. For the un-Godly and the Anties it is natural. Let them have their way. Lord, have MERCY on all of us.

A faithful Wife can BE as good as the CRUCIFIED Savior, RESURRECTION for her is as clear as the LIVING God, Jesus the Lord.

Judith Jordan
1 month 1 week ago

Thomaspj Poovathinkal:
You remind me of a priest I saw on TV years ago. He told his interviewer that a woman must stay with her husband regardless of what was going on within the marriage. The interviewer was stunned and ask what if the man was frequently beating his wife. The priest said she must stay. Interviewer: What if he is beating her to the frequency and extent that he could kill her. Priest: She must stay in the marriage even if she dies…like Christ did.

I kept waiting for either his superior or the bishop of his dioceses to publicly denounce what the priest said. To my knowledge, it never happened.

Some poor women out there probably listened to this misogynist priest and lived a life of abhorrent violence. Sometimes people ask if an abusive man also abused his children and the answer was no. Incorrect. Any man who abuses his wife is innately abusing his children. For children to witness their beloved mother being abused is traumatic and abusive of them. Their innocent hearts and souls are scarred.

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

It's still church policy that you can't divorce a wife-beater. In 2013 Müller, then head of the CDF, said ... "there are situations – as every pastor knows – in which marital cohabitation becomes for all intents and purposes impossible for compelling reasons, such as physical or psychological violence. In such hard cases, the Church has always permitted the spouses to separate and no longer live together. It must be remembered, though, that the marriage bond of a valid union remains intact in the sight of God, and the individual parties are not free to contract a new marriage, as long as the spouse is alive ..." ... http://www.osservatoreromano.va/en/news/the-power-of-grace

Thomaspj Poovathinkal
1 month 1 week ago

IF LEGITIMATE ground for divorce is there, it has to go THROUGH the Court of the Church in the case a Church member.

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

Before you criticize people for honestly admitting their marriage has failed and taking responsibility for that, let's address the annulment - the pretense that a marriage never actually occurred so that people can divorce and the church can make a buck. That is a cynical end-tun around the scripture that you all seem to believe in.

Judith Jordan
1 month 1 week ago

Crystal:
I agree and think that annulment is a total farce and sham. Annulments are handed out like candy at Christmas. It makes the Church look silly. It should just be honest about it and recognize divorces. I particularly don’t understand how this impacts the children. Historically, the Church and society have viewed annulment as also making the children of that marriage illegitimate. The Church now denies that is what its annulments do. So, there is the hypocrisy of annulments for the asking and the changing of the centuries old definition of what an annulment does.
The Church is going through all sorts of mental contortions to do what it is doing. It would be honest if it just recognized divorces.

Christopher Lochner
1 month 1 week ago

Everyone whom I've known who has received an annulment has always been connected with church hierarchy, either their relatives or friends were Priests. A local Jesuit college had a CFO who eyed and subsequently married his personal secretary who also worked at the college. Of course this was after the annulment of the marriage with his wife who bore him eleven, yes eleven, children! Power has the benefit of capability for multiple levels of abuse doesn't it? Unfortunately, as in so many human organizations, there are multiple levels of justice with "undeniable justice" reserved for those with the greatest amount of money and power. For all of their words, it is a sham indeed.

Michael Bindner
1 month 1 week ago

If someone marries a closeted spouse who comes out, should they be free to marry again? What if he had been part of Courage? How about a Trans spouse?

Stanley Kopacz
1 month 1 week ago

Would anyone board a plane that has a 50% chance of reaching its destination? Yet people still get married. And as far as no-fault divorce is concerned, the parties seem to find plenty of fault with each other nevertheless.

Allan McWilliams
1 month 1 week ago

Thank you for your witness, Ms Willett. As one who received the sacrament of marriage, then had it abandoned by his spouse, I think I understand your experience. I never wanted to participate in a divorce, but I was dragged through the civil process by laws which made it possible for my wife to simply avoid our home for two years, upon which time the divorce was automatically granted by the state. Although I sought and obtained an annulment from the Church, I did so on the basis that only one of us had discarded her vows. I truly sympathize with all those who are pushed to accede to the impetus that says if one wants to give up, giving up is the only possible conclusion.

J. Calpezzo
1 month 1 week ago

False obedience, to be sure.

Lisa Fullam
1 month 1 week ago

With all due respect to some of the previous commenters, the issue here really isn't about divorce and remarriage in the Church. If I understand Canon Law correctly, (and please correct me if I'm mistaken on this,) while any (otherwise valid) marriage between baptized persons is considered sacramental, marriage between a baptized person and an unbaptized person is considered a natural, not a sacramental marriage, and is invalid from the start (unless previously dispensed by the bishop.) If Ms. Willett chose to remarry in the Church, the Petrine privilege would apply, not an annulment process. The real point here is how one regards promises made before God and their binding character. Ms. Willett promised God that she would remain faithful to her marriage vows, and found herself without support in a civil legal process. Her decision to fight a divorce she did not consent to because it would violate her conscience to divorce seems admirable to me, an act of witness to the seriousness of marriage. Note that when the legal process concluded, she has accepted the judgment, even as she remains faithful to her vows and works for legal reform. I am comparing her situation to that of conscientious objectors to war, e.g., who exercise all their legal options, and accept the legal outcome, (which for them is often imprisonment.) Those on the forefront of civil rights struggles likewise. While I respect Ms. Willett's decision, regret the struggle she had to undertake, and congratulate her on remaining faithful to her conscience, I would remind her of the Catholic tradition of the Petrine privilege, if she should find herself considering remarriage.

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

I was married and divorced years before I became Catholic to a non-Catholic. I was still expected to apply for an annulment (with the necessary cooperation of the ex) and to pay at least $600, according to my diocese marriage tribunal. In some diocese. it is much more expensive. There is a reason why only 15% of divorced Catholics ever even consider applying for an annulment ... http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2013/09/divorce-still-less-likely-among.html

Lisa Fullam
1 month 1 week ago

Hi Crystal, Yes, if he was baptized, (or even likely/possibly baptized,) then annulment would be required. Catholic vs non-Catholic doesn't matter, only baptismal status. (The reasoning is that baptism is the "ur-sacrament," if you will--you can't celebrate other sacraments without the foundation of baptism.) And yes--tribunals can do this well or badly, and financial "expectations" vary tremendously. A huge proportion of all annulments in the Church are to Americans, while, as you correctly note, only a minority of divorced Catholics seek annulment. So when Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetita about the divorced/remarried sans annulment: "it can no longer simply be said that all those in any 'irregular' situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace," it was kind of a huge deal.

J Jones
1 month 1 week ago

Brava! The author is an entertainment lawyer marketing a book, this time to Catholics through an overwrought self-characterization of "martyr". The writer did NOT martyr herself to her marriage vows. She fought in civil court but as regards the religious vows? Her self-proclaimed martyrdom was short-lived: the author writes elsewhere about extensive dating, and she disparages several of those men in humiliating ways, saving her praise for a man young enough to be her son. That story was marketed as an article about dating much younger men at Huffington Post. At the link I shared above, she wrote about fighting her husband's request for a divorce because the civil law at the time required cause (fault) and, because her husband was the petitioner, she was positioned as the wrongdoer rather than her cheating husband being positioned in that way. Elsewhere, she argued for federal law to address persons seeking "unnecessary divorces" where there are children. This is marketing. I am not judging her choice to refuse her husband a divorce or her decisions about dating afterward. I am judging her decision to exploit as a market her new faith community, and I am judging America's decision to participate.

Michael Ward
4 weeks ago

I find it interesting and amusing that some folks seem so spooked and irritated by this honest woman's standing up for herself. Wonder what that all says.

J Jones
3 weeks 4 days ago

Standing up for oneself is never wrong.

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