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Yes, I cheated on you…. I love you but am not in love with you anymore…. I’m addicted to pornography and can’t quit…. You are a horrible person…. I don’t believe in God anymore, and I’m leaving the church and you.
Hurtful words like these are devastating when shouted at a spouse clinging to an unraveling marriage. They can signal the beginning of the end. Often they are the end. They can be verbal indicators of months or years of betrayal that ultimately rips apart a bond once ushered in with dreams of eternal, divinely inspired love.
Divorce, particularly in the LDS Church, crushes many victims—the couple breaking up, children, parents and grandparents, siblings. At least one of the spouses whose dreams end with the breakup is left scarred, scared, and hopeless.
Divorce has long seemed a sad but distant consequence of our secular world. But increasingly, it has torn at the heart of many, many faithful church members.
Months ago, I felt impelled to write on this topic that has concerned me for a while. Proposing the idea to a divorced friend, I was surprised at her response: “What gives you the right to presume what I’m feeling or to speak on my behalf?” she demanded.
Her point was valid: I’ve been happily married for 35 years and am no clinical expert on divorce. But in the past four years, my eldest son divorced and another died suddenly, and so I understand pain. I also teach global communication and culture at BYU. These domains embrace the concept of voice – public representation for those who have become marginalized by a given cultural mainstream.
“Is it possible that voice is critical for those who are divorced?” I asked my friend. “Do divorced people in the church need someone to champion their concerns to other members and leaders?”
My friend agreed that such an effort would be helpful to those whose marriages and lives have been blown apart. I have since listened to dozens of divorced church members. Many said something like, “I never in a million years thought I would be dealing with the aftermath of my own divorce; now I don’t know where to turn.”
And so that is what this article is about—an outside champion for those individuals.
Divorce may be more devastating than the sudden death of a son or even a spouse. While such loss certainly is painful for those left behind, we can be soothed with warm memories of the departed for the rest of our lives. Divorce is the opposite; it forges a mangled trail of hurt, betrayal and confusion, and mounds of self-doubt, anger, and uncertainty. The loss and loneliness is as real as a death, even if it also harbors certain relief from the painful chaos of the marriage.
In the LDS church, the pains of a breakup can be compounded if a ward does not rally around the victim to offer continual loving aid. Unfortunately, our culture seems to breed discomfort with divorce, and often members are reticent to understand those very souls who are crying out for understanding and love.
As Lisa McDougle, a long-time, faithful member of the church, explained, “When one dies, everyone brings a casserole; with divorce, you don’t get a casserole.”
Why is it difficult for those who go through divorce to experience the welcoming warmth needed from church members? It is important for non-divorced members and leaders to understand this so they can make the hard landing smoother. Here are a few reasons, though, for the difficulties:
Shattered expectations: LDS youth, girls in particular, learn that temple marriage is the gate to a fairy-tale life—not just one step in an undulating journey home to Heavenly Father, but an end in itself, with scant attention to the inevitable future challenges. This approach can create heartache for women who never find Prince Charming. It is devastating for those who do find him, commit to marriage, and then see it fall apart—often with that very Prince as chief perpetrator.
Cultural misfit: After divorce, where does one fit in a church that revolves around marriage? In the current ward, where the newly divorced suddenly feels judged and isolated? One woman said, “I had to fend off looks of pity or the offensive question, ‘whose fault was it?’” How about a singles ward? Such units promote dating and mating—now repulsive to a divorced person. And, once the word inevitably spreads (“he’s divorced, she’s damaged goods…”), it becomes easy to feel unwanted scrutiny.
Returning to parents often is a step backwards and raises stigmas similar to a missionary who returns early and faces members who don’t know how to react. Several have told me they were forced to move, sometimes at great cost, to a ward where no one knew them and they could start anew.
(False) feelings of failure: Disappointment is natural when a vital endeavor fails. But since marriage is a sacred institution requiring great emotional investment, its collapse causes immensely increased anguish. Even when things crumble from pornography, infidelity or spousal abuse, the sheer failure raises inescapable self-doubt: Did I do something wrong? Could I have been a better wife (or husband) so he/she would not have needed to abuse or cheat on me?
Women can be vulnerable to comparisons—especially to pornographic images in their husband’s mind. In these circumstances, it is hard to be convinced emotionally (if not logically) that she did not fail; she was wronged. Professional therapist Dean Byrd has reported that men, too, typically feel a deep sense of personal failure after divorce, and often carry an extra burden of deeply hiding their emotions.
Destruction of trust: Divorce engenders anger and feelings of betrayal toward the other partner. When this partner is a male, all males can then be seen as sources of pain and distrust. One key to staying rooted in the church after divorce is a trusting relationship with a bishop and good home teachers. This can be problematic for women not only because these are men but often they also are friends of the ex-husband and thus perhaps prone to be sympathetic to his views. If not handled carefully, such a situation can raise complexities that can compound the feelings of betrayal and send a divorce victim to other, more sympathetic means of comfort.
Growing secular enticements: Sadly, this sympathy often comes outside the church. A survey of 1,000 divorced members found that, of ten different sources of support post-divorce, “non-member friends” ranks second only to family members. This means respondents felt more aid outside the church than from bishops, Relief Society presidents, and former Young Men’s or Women’s leaders.
Such support might be from long-time friends or from the Internet and social media. Typically the interactions there entice a divorced person to escape perceived judgments in the church and “be free,” as some divorced members have shared. If one’s faith does not remain rock-solid, it is easy to succumb to the increasing digital vitriol that casts doubt on the teachings of the gospel and actions of the church.
What Members Can Do
These categories represent just some of the crucial pivot points that can prove the difference between remaining faithful or leaving behind the light and joy of the gospel. There are many more vulnerabilities, as well: instability, loneliness, moral challenges, financial concerns, etc. If not understood and handled sensitively, these issues can become wedges of anguish and cynicism. It is then understandable that a divorced person would go inactive or leave the church. One study suggested that more than half of divorced members do leave church activity, at least for a time.
This article, therefore, is written not to for instruction or relief to those who are divorced. Outstanding resources exist for that: discussions on the lds.org website of the church; the websites ldsdivorcesurvivors.com, ldsdivorce support.com, created and maintained by the above-mentioned Lisa McDougle; the LDS Divorce Survivors Group on Facebook (a closed group but those in need will be welcomed); the twitter group LDSDivorceSurvivors@Lisa_McDougle; and more. Instead, this article is created in the hope that members and local unit leaders of the church will gain greater understanding of the susceptibilities during the aftermath of divorce.
So, here are some bits of advice for member support:
- Don’t judge. Divorce is unnerving; self-righteous judgment only makes it worse. In reality, when a marriage breaks up, it is no one’s business whose fault it was or why it happened; what does matter is how to nurture in picking up the pieces.
- If you were a friend before the divorce, remain a friend afterward; if you weren’t a friend beforehand, become one.
- Talk to the person and empathically listen to and take seriously their concerns; they are still God’s children and desperately need validation and support.
- Don’t pry; let the divorced person share information as he or she becomes ready.
- When appropriate, touch the individual—touch is a fundamental human need, and with the marriage breakup, they lose that nurturing “warm hug.”
- Take him or her a casserole!
With hesitation, I also have suggestions for priesthood leaders. I was a bishop and am well aware that, while subject to human mistakes, bishops and stake presidents also have access to inspiration that on some occasions may contradict this advice.
Nonetheless, generally it would be well for priesthood leaders to:
- Be sensitive to marriages in peril. Especially watch for signs of abuse. The abused can be so emotionally damaged as to deny their victimhood. Ask direct questions: Does he or she get angry when you don’t perform in the “right” way? Have you lost connection to friends and family? Are you able to get out and do something for yourself once in a while? Would you like me to mention anything in particular to your spouse? All of these suggest major red flags in an abusive marriage. In the handbook is a chart called the abuse wheel; please use it in relevant interviews.
- Meet with the individual often, before and after a divorce, to assess temporal or financial needs, feelings about the gospel, possible faith crises, and other issues.
- Strongly consider, if needed, helping to obtain a professional counselor; most bishops are not trained to do counseling. In your sessions, stick to temporal and spiritual needs and simply ask how things are going with the counselor.
- DO NOT take away divine agency and making decisions for the individual; give counsel, but leave actual decisions to the individual and their own revelation.
- Assign excellent home teachers who have wisdom and experience in life; in the case of a female, consider assigning a husband and wife team.
- Barring reasons of specific unworthiness, DO NOT release a divorced individual from his or her calling; this only compounds feelings of failure and isolation.
- Make sure the ward members shower the individual with love—not pity.
- You may want to let them know that real support does exist within the community of divorced LDS members. You may refer them to the website ldsdivorcesurvivors.com, the secure Facebook group, LDS DIVORCE SURVIVORS, or the Twitter group: LDSDivorce Survivors@Lisa_McDougle. While not officially endorsed by the church, they all are great resources where a divorced member can find people who have survived and even thrived in the gospel under the same challenges.
Divorce is certainly one of the many major trials that are besieging faithful members of the church with fears and doubts. This issue is affecting members of all ages, all walks of life, every financial level, and at all stages of membership and leadership. Far from isolating and judging those whose lives are ripped apart from divorce, members need to envelop them in the soothing blanket of love. By so doing, they and all other members will learn more about love and get much closer to the Savior—and we will lose fewer of the Savior’s most precious children.