Since my divorce, I’d been on a few dates, nothing serious, just slowly reacquainting myself with the company of a woman over dinner or drinks, like easing back into warm water. Dating again was invigorating, and scary. But I needed the companionship. And I knew that eventually I’d want that companionship to mean more than dinner and a movie.
So I’d just keep dating and see what happened, right?
Well, there’s more to it than that, some Catholic friends told me. If you want to get remarried in the Church, they said, an annulment is necessary. I had only been Catholic about four years, so annulment—like many things Catholic—was a new concept to me. So I made an appointment with my priest to discuss it.
I entered the humble rectory office, and sat across from Father Albert, a kind, soft-spoken pastor with an Egyptian accent. His warmth instantly calmed me. He asked a few questions about my relationship with my former wife.
“How did you meet? How long did you know each other? Did you have any children?”
Then he settled into his chair and looked at me. An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce,” he said. “And you can’t necessarily get one just because you’re unhappy, even if your spouse cheated.” Then came the words I’ll never forget.
“An annulment declares that your marriage never existed.”
A sudden wave of sadness washed over me, a hot and unexpected grief. I understood what he was saying with my mind. But my heart violently resisted.
My marriage never existed?
Sitting there in the priest’s office, my mind instantly raced back to the moment my ex and I met online, our whirlwind courtship, our first kiss. I saw myself proposing to her under a pink evening sky in upstate New York, and laughing on our cross-country honeymoon drive to relocate in California. I saw us making love and unwrapping wedding gifts in our first apartment.
And you’re saying that never existed? But it did.
We adopted a pug, jogged together through our neighborhood training for a marathon, and spent every Saturday morning at our favorite restaurant eating chorizo scrambled eggs and mimosas. We fought, argued about finances, and she stormed out in tears one night to go for a drive.
We sang together in Mass on Sundays. I was there in the crowd, clapping when she accepted her graduate school diploma. She held my hand as we attended the premiere of a TV show I wrote.
I had loved her. And she had loved me. It was not a fantasy.
As my mind reeled with memories, Father Albert gently explained that if I was granted an annulment, it essentially meant that our marriage had never existed in the eyes of God. It didn’t mean you were never civilly married, or that your shared experiences were invalid, or that any children from your union were illegitimate. It just meant that there was some defect from the beginning that prevented a true sacramental union from taking place.
Okay, so I grasped this theologically. According to the Church, a sacramental marriage may have never happened. Meaning… certain criteria had not existed at the time of our vows. For instance, did we truly intend to stay faithful to one another for life? Were we open to having children? Were we fully in control of our will (not forced or drunk or otherwise impaired) when we stood at the altar? I got all that…
But it’s one thing to understand something intellectually. It’s another to grasp it emotionally. I was caught in the gap between the two.
I knew I wanted to eventually get married again if God allowed. But… how could I deny all I had lived through with my former wife? Could it really have all been… a mistake? Isn’t that what an annulment would basically be saying? Were the last seven years of my life never supposed to have happened?
I had come looking for answers. Now I was saddled with more questions.
But that’s the whole purpose of doing the annulment paperwork, the priest explained. Sixty-two essay questions force you to face your past, excavate your pain, and see what went wrong. It’s not meant to be cruel. It’s not a weird formality of the Church. It’s not so the Church can make a few bucks (you’re asked to pay a fee, but even that is negotiable). It’s meant to heal you.
So maybe that grief I felt in the priest’s office was just the opening salvo of the hard healing process that the annulment would bring about. All I know is, that day my heart wasn’t ready.
Father Albert handed me the annulment packet. He would be my advocate, he said, but the work was up to me.
I left the church, my spirit laid low, as the late afternoon sun cast shadows across the street. I drove home, slipped the paperwork in a drawer, and shut it.
That was more than a year ago.
Yesterday, I dug up the annulment packet. I skimmed it over, then studied the first question: “Please describe the home environment in which you grew up.”
I stared at the question. Thought about it. Then… started typing my answer.
For divorced men and women: It’s important that you have been through the annulment process and have a decree of nullity stating that you are not bound to your ex-spouse and are free to date and marry. If you date without having taken this step, you are taking a great risk, emotionally, spiritually, and practically.
Because you’ve already endured the traumatic loss of your marriage, you need to make sure you are not dating with the intention of finding a cure for your hurt. In addition, the Church assumes that all marriages are valid unless proven otherwise by the annulment process. If you don’t give a tribunal the opportunity to determine whether or not you had a valid marriage bond, then you are considered married in the eyes of the Church, regardless of having a civil divorce decree. For the sake of your soul, it is essential to be sure you are truly free to date in that sense, as well.
If you have questions about the Church’s teaching on annulments, talk with your parish priest or local marriage tribunal.