Thoughtful Pastor: Failed marriages and mental illness

January 13th, 2016

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: How does one trust this institution of marriage after a failed one?

Oh, this is a short question heavy with layers of hurt, disappointment, sadness and often despair. I am genuinely sorry.

Every culture essentially reinvents marriage. It’s a fluid institution and ongoing experiment.

I’ve been reading recently about the history of Islam and male/female relations and marriage customs. From what I can glean, women around the time of Mohammed could and did enter and exit marriages at their convenience. They stayed in their family compounds after marriage rather than needing to move to their husbands, thus retaining power and position.

Christy Thomas

This has all changed radically, of course, and women have been systematically stripped of power in most of the Muslim world, but it opens a fascinating glimpse of the way marriage has worked in the past in the Arab culture.

Marriage for the vast majority of human history was primarily an economic transaction, arranged by parents and extended families. Long marriages and love marriages are relatively new.

“Death do us part” vows often meant less than 20 years. Women, in particular, tended to die young from too many pregnancies and child-bearing deaths. One infection or a broken bone could end a life in a way not seen today.

Vast disparities in wealth meant that every family member contributed economically to the always perilous group survival although the few rich and privileged elite had some ease.

Today, with women having more economic and personal power than has been available in the past, I think that fewer are willing to put up with marriage miseries that many of our parents and grandparents did.

But we humans long for intimate contact, to be in relationship with another who both knows us and loves us. And that is why we keep getting married, even after marital failures have devastated us. We want to be with another.

Essentially, it is not the institution we must trust. I’d suggest you leave behind the idea that “marriage” itself needs to be trusted. Instead, we must trust ourselves enough to be able to be vulnerable yet once more with another person and trust them to enter into the relationship with similar honesty and vulnerability. I suspect today that those marriages that finally break do so because trust has become irrevocably lost between the partners.

When you can find that level of trust again, then you can relinquish the pain of the previous marriage and move on with your life.

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: Is religion hiding from the problem of societal violence from those afflicted with mental illness? Is the religious community willing to dive in here, or is it hiding behind outdated beliefs in order to avoid the consequences of taking on some of the current plagues in the world?

I fear the answer is “yes” to question one. Too much of religious thought suggests that a momentary conversion, “accepting Jesus into my heart” experience is adequate to stop violence, whether a person is mentally ill or not.

But then you ask, “Is the religious community willing to dive in here?”

I think not. The church as a whole genuinely does not know what to do with mental illness leaving them quietly complicit with the problem.

Religious groups have long taken leadership in establishing both educational and medical facilities. Many top-notch universities and research hospitals boast religious roots. Yet some religious practices even today proclaim a link between physical illnesses and sin, essentially stigmatizing the physically ill.

It seems to me that we have a larger and wrongful unacknowledged link between “mentally ill” and “unredeemed sinner.”

I wonder if it is because of the longtime religious association of the mentally ill with “the demon possessed.” Most people are clueless and afraid to find out about what goes on in the head of mentally ill persons, whether they are violent or not. There is fear in ignorance. It is easier to stigmatize than to face that fear.

We do great harm here. Much mental illness has a strong biological base. Supportive communities balanced with effective medications means many who live with mental illnesses function astoundingly well. But putting the combination of those two together takes a bundle of money and energy.

Churches, of all places, have the wherewithal to be brave, yet they refuse to rely on their faith to have a voice in the midst of the social angst caused by violent mentally ill people as well as those that are just plain miserable.

Churches alone cannot solve the large issues here. However, they can speak out far more loudly here about our national tragedy of refusing to adequately fund mental illness research and can actively work to become supportive communities and offer acceptance and care — and not try to cure them.

Email questions to A version of this column will appear in the Friday January 15, 2016 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle. Christy blogs at

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