I was a young man. She was a young woman, an ex of a friend. Both of whom belonged to my church. She was attractive: slim, blonde, fair-faced but most importantly, a pleasure to be with. I had no real aspirations on her if I’m honest – she had quickly hooked up with another guy after the end of her time with my friend. I suppose had she been available, I would’ve been interested, but there was no pining after her that young men can find themselves doing at times. However, we became good friends, and our mutual interest in drama led us to form a drama group within the church together.
The relationship with this new bloke (who quickly became her fiancé) didn’t bode well. We (the circle of friends in and around the drama) noticed the drama developing between them: rows in front of others that one associates with couples long married and prone to that crushing familiarity and weariness of the other’s foibles. Murmurs rumbled around us of things like incompatibility and ‘recovering from the rebound’ of a previous relationship. And there was the first lesson not learnt: I was not a good enough friend to be able to sit down to address this problem with her before she walked down the aisle. We all did the ‘polite’ thing and butted out of it and just talked about them out of their earshot.
And so they married: the ceremony was standard, uneventful, as expected, with the normal tones of romance. I had a feeling of unease though, as if I just knew this bloke (who was genial and friendly enough, don’t get me wrong) didn’t really appreciate the beauty of this rose. Was I jealous? Maybe I could see myself in a different life with the opportunity to propose marriage to her, able to be loving and devoted, but as I said, there was no real chemistry between us. I was a concerned friend, but saw no vision of me jumping out of my pew and saying “STOP! I wanna kiss the bride!”
So it really was a surprise when one day, only weeks after she married, she traveled the 15 miles from her marital home to see me. I still lived at my parents’ house then, and my Dad made a quick excuse to go out once I introduced this attractive young woman, thinking he would be a bit of a gooseberry. She sat down and exchanged small talk for a brief few moments once I’d brewed some coffee before she suddenly landed the bombshell in a conversational pause:
“You know, I always thought when I was younger that if a man raised his hand to me, I would leave him immediately!” I was young and inexperienced, and I do have something on the autistic spectrum radar, which makes me often unaware of non-verbal communication and inept at reading emotions, but I knew enough then, without going into the theory of implicature in conversation, to grasp what she was saying, albeit indirectly. She should have packed her bags already, and left that unhappy marital home, and chalked up the brief marriage to experience. But the young man she was talking to… no, appealing to… was unable to offer advice or even a shoulder. I was dumbstruck, literally. I recall mouthing something like “oh! That’s… awful! Emmm?..” and that was maybe it. Silence followed. I think she changed the subject, but the rest of the conversation cannot be brought to mind now. She wasn’t there for a nice chat; she wanted somebody to do the right thing by her. But I had no idea what the right thing was. Marriage is sacred, isn’t it? Our vows mean something. They have to! Why walk to the end of an aisle and utter them, in the presence of everyone dear to you, and God, and not believe they mean anything?
She left my house, and I never saw her again.
She hadn’t shown up at church for a few weeks, so eventually I asked a friend about her. Those were the days before mobile phones, and long before Facebook, so communication was not so easy: I had just expected to see her and talk again after a church service. The friend I asked, said “oh hadn’t you heard? She left her husband, and moved into a flat in Belfast somewhere. She’s not coming back to church, she’s too ashamed.” I cannot describe the emptiness I felt. Somehow I knew I’d not see her again, maybe ever. No point in trying to ring a telephone number I didn’t know, or visit an address few knew too, and as I said, I was lost for words anyway the first time, what more words would come to my useless tongue? At least she was out of that relationship!
Much later, after some soul-searching over why I couldn’t help a friend who sought my comfort, I realised what I should have said on that day:
“Your marriage vows mean something, yes, but they work both ways. His are as important as yours, and he promised… promised to love, honour and cherish you! In what universe does abuse measure up to the standards of love and cherishing? He has already broken the vows, so you are under no obligation to stay. Get out! I’ll go with you now and help you pack what you need. Go back to your parents, tell them. I’ll go with you. If you can’t face your own family, or you want to get away from where he can find you, I’ll ask my parents; I’m sure they’ll let you stay here for a while once I explain. Take my bed, I can sleep on the sofa. Stay as long as you need until you sort things out. Do you think you’ll need a counsellor? If you just want to talk, I’m here, or if you just need a shoulder for your tears.”
That is what I have promised myself I will say if I ever encounter a friend in this situation again.
Though we never met again, many years later, she came back to my mind in my prayers. For about a year, every time I prayed, I said one for her, then the desire to pray faded. A year after that, I met a friend who had known her too and asked if he knew how she was. He said, “yes, she settled down and married again, and has two kids now. She backslid from her faith for a long time, but about a year ago, I was told she came back to the Lord.”