PRIVATE LIVES / The anatomy of modern marriage: An absence of communication: Holy Deadlock

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Joy Mason, who is now 48, was married to a Church of England vicar for 20 years: they were divorced in 1987. She was herself ordained a deacon last year, and she hopes to become a priest next year. She has three children and now lives in Birmingham.

Our trouble probably started even before we got married, with my assumption that marrying a clergyman meant total security. I was caught up by the romance of it - and the respectability and acceptability. I thought, 'They'll treat me as grown-up, now I'm married to a clergyman'. But there was always something wrong, because I could never talk to him about anything that really concerned me, even about the children. He always backed away. And I wondered why he came home from meetings so late: but he always had a good excuse. I remember him saying, 'Well, when I don't come back at night - then you can be worried'. Later, he told me he was having an affair with somebody in the youth fellowship. Pretty corny, really.

My mother said he should be defrocked - because of his adultery, basically. A lot of the people in the parish knew what was going on, because they were flaunting their relationship. In the end his colleagues said they weren't prepared to have him preaching in church. Clergy marriages are under great pressure. There's a lot of misery. Many couples stay together simply because of the church's teaching. And the sense of failure is worse, because of the expectations placed on you - not only by the congregation, but the husband and wife, too.

I've heard of women in my position being shown the door by the church, but his colleagues stood by me and pressured the church to give me more than my moving expenses. I didn't have a career or a job. After university I'd worked for a year, but then we'd married and gone to work abroad and had our first child, and I'd really devoted myself to looking after the family.

I felt that perhaps it was my fault that I couldn't communicate with him. Years later I found from his colleagues that he couldn't form relationships with anyone. He was a damaged person. But he refused all offers of help. He did agree to a year's psychotherapy with me, but it was like getting a horse to water - he wouldn't drink.

I didn't know I was angry. I just thought the whole thing was very sad. But when we came to Birmingham I started attending a Julian meeting, which is for silent prayer, and that helped me enormously. If you open yourself up to God, you open yourself up to everything, and things you've repressed for years come bubbling up. I also met another vicar's wife, who was a Gestalt therapist. It means facing up to what you are, and getting in touch with your own feelings, which I never had - not the way I'd been brought up] In my family we didn't discuss anything serious or important, and we certainly didn't admit our feelings. It enabled me to get all the emotions out - which was very healing, but it took a long time. It's so draining and exhausting. I was tired all the time. But through this process I found I didn't have to have my husband's opinions. Even if I was wrong, I could have my own.

The marriage was disintegrating - it was dead. But it took me years to admit it. Marriages breaking up was something that happened to other people. I still couldn't believe it could happen to me. I said: 'How about staying together for the children?' They were about 10, eight and four. He wouldn't wear that - that wasn't honest. Yet he didn't mention divorce either. It was my son who used the word for the first time, at the dinner table. He said: 'Are you going to get divorced?' And we both jumped on him and said 'No] Rubbish, of course we're not]' We just couldn't face up to it.

I tried to ask clergymen what I should do - though I didn't have the courage to spell it out. They said: 'I can't give you permission to leave your marriage. It has to be your decision.' I got quite angry, because I wanted them to tell me what to do. Time and again, they would say: 'What do you want?' And I would feel, it's not what I want: it's what the church teaches, what, as a Christian, I'm told to do. But eventually I found it is about what you want. As a mature adult, I have to act on my own interpretation of what the Bible is teaching.

I hovered on the brink. 'Shall I? Shan't I? May I?' I thought: 'This is awful, it's not what the church teaches.' But in the end I suppose I took that decision because I could see no other way. If someone came to me as a priest in this state, I would hope to do what my friends did - stand beside the man or woman, and help them in whatever way I could - except by telling them what they should or could do.

I did feel that the church's teaching was pressing on me to go on with the marriage. Because we're taught about self-sacrificing love, and forgiveness, and enduring to the end. At last it dawned on me how unhealthy it was, and it was not doing the children any good, and that was not what God was about. I believe you have to work at a marriage, but that you also have to recognise that things die, and you have to let them go - and the idea of resurrection and new life comes into that. I had to accept that something in me had died. And then I actually found new life for myself. I actually found myself. Liberation, I suppose, is the word that springs to mind.

It certainly wasn't expected. I suppose I'd gone through years of depression, and feeling that I was sunk in the pit, and I was all alone, and everything was darkness and blackness. It didn't come all of a sudden. I suppose it was part of the process of coming to know myself. It's the feeling of being made new, and released from the past. You can never be separated from the past. But you can be no longer dominated by it. I discovered that I did have power, that I could shape my own life. That was a revelation. And the possibilities of life began to open up.

I had had a sense of vocation since university. But I had no opportunity to explore it, or even tell anyone. I had no idea of what contribution a woman might make in the church. My husband made it clear before we married, in words of one syllable, that he didn't want to talk about religion with me. I only ever talked about it to one or two people. My spiritual director said: 'I'm sure God's calling you, but to what, I don't know.'

When I put myself forward for selection for ordination, I know a couple in the parish wrote to the bishop saying that, as a divorced woman, I should not be allowed to come and work in the parish. That's one extreme. But in some ways I think all this is a gift. Because people will know that I know what it's like to go through a major life crisis. I don't think anything can remove the hurt and the anger. If you touch a scar, it hurts. It would be nice to think we could be friends, be civil to each other and easy in each other's company. But he's not given himself the opportunity to have the healing I have, and I can't see him ever coping with it.

For myself, I don't feel defined by having been a vicar's wife. Most of the time I forget that I ever was married, and that it was to a clergyman. I'm just me. Most of the people I meet will never know, or have any reason to know.