There’s a scene in the series finale of “How I Met Your Mother” I’ve found myself considering a lot lately, in which, spoiler alert, Barney Stinson reflects on the end of his marriage to Robin Scherbatsky. After revealing to his friend group that he and Robin got a divorce, one motivated by mutual dissatisfaction and pressure from constant distance, Barney comforts his friends, telling them, “This wasn’t a failed marriage. This was a successful marriage that just happened to last three years.”
Barney’s instinct to immediately assuage his friends’ worries belies a harmful habit in our society, one in which we envision the love between two people as something to be ultimately evaluated in terms of length and failure. Too often, we ascribe weakness and failure to the ends of relationships, a tendency especially evident when couples begin to pursue divorces. Catholicism even goes as far as to bar divorcees who remarry from receiving Holy Communion, seeing it as not only a failure of both partners but also a mortal sin to have allowed a marriage to end in the absence of abuse or infidelity.
The church, and much of society, gets this entirely wrong. The endings of relationships are far from moments of failure or weakness. In many cases, these endings are testaments to the strength of two people who have recognized the inability of their current relationship to adequately nurture them. These breakups and divorces are not failures of will but powerful moments of growth in which individuals assert their own dignity and affirm their independent self-worth. The church must also come to recognize the benefits of marital and romantic dissolution in certain cases, especially when abuse and infidelity are involved.
Marriage’s sacramental character in so many Christian denominations, including Catholicism, admittedly complicates this conversation. After all, sacramental marriage is seen as an unbreakable bond between two people, a promise santificied before God. Endorsing the severing of these bonds is a natural point of hesitancy for the church.
Nevertheless, church leaders, and we as a society, have a pastoral and communitarian obligation to care for individuals through romantic dissolutions. Without question, this obligation is one that overrules the degrees of morality or immorality of a divorce. Although Scripture makes it clear that marriage is a sacrosanct institution, nothing in Scripture commands people to stigmatize and cast judgement upon the brokenhearted. Scripture rather teaches us, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18.
Moreover, when relationships serve as roadblocks to the salvation and redemption of individuals, the church should recognize the positive effects of divorce and dissolution. The same is true when children are caught in the crosshairs of toxic relationships. In these cases, divorces must not be treated as moments of failure but as moments of progress, albeit difficult ones, that deserve pastoral guidance and community support.
This success-versus-failure paradigm has real implications for the ways we look at love and the ways we approach love. The paradigm’s existence disincentivizes the formation of healthy relationships and partnerships. Psychologists and therapists have identified the fear of failure in relationships, rooted in the way we talk about relationships and their ends, as a main reason why individuals remain in toxic and unfulfilling relationships.
But the biggest danger of approaching relationships solely through the lens of success and failure is that such narrow-minded dissection misses the good that can come from all relationships, even those destined to end.
At the close of his poem, “A Pity, We Were Such a Good Invention,” the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, reflecting on the collapse of a marriage, remarks that, “We were such a good / And loving invention. / An aeroplane made from a man and wife. / Wings and everything. / We hovered a little above the earth. / We even flew a little.”
Amichai’s poem, and Barney’s reflections on his marriage, ought to remind us that even when relationships end, one cannot entirely erase the joys that existed in them. By the same token, one can never entirely forget the love that served as the cornerstone of these bonds. Even in the face of a relationship ending, those moments of happiness are nothing short of lasting successes, ones which potentially transformed partners for the better in providing new opportunities for self-discovery and fulfillment. Our church, and our society, must change our discourse to better encompass this more positive reality and in turn uplift those going through some of the most difficult and painful decisions of their lives.
Eric Bazail-Eimil is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Flipping Tables appears online every other week.