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Divorce Care and Recovery Ministries

“Divorce is the final and painful destination of a relationship that has broken down irretrievably,” writes Carolyne Call in How the Church Fails the Divorced. (The Christian Century, Vol. 130, No. 15, July 24, 2013, pages 20-22). She proceeds to point out that the church community sometimes exacerbates that pain by its response – or lack thereof. Do church people think that showing compassion for those going through divorce implies support for divorce? Do they suspect that divorce might be “catching”? Do they fear that if they try to understand and accept the factors leading to divorce, the cracks in their own relationships might widen? Maybe they just don’t know what to say. One woman told me that when she was sick, people called, brought food, and asked how they could help. When she was going through divorce proceedings, however, no one reached out to give her a hug and ask, “How are you doing? What do you need?” Church members can listen with empathy and offer condolences regardless of their own feelings about divorce. If church members can avoid taking sides, they may be able to continue relationships with both persons, but they should respect the wishes of divorced persons about participating in activities together.

Divorce can be a dreadfully lonely time, explains Call, and people going through divorce may desperately need compassionate friends to offer comfort, care, and support. Some will struggle with a deep sense of failure. Some will experience an agonizing identity crisis while trying to figure out who they are and who they will be without this marriage to define them. Some may descend into bitterness, placing all the blame on the other party, when –in fact – the problem may not be in either person, but in the way they relate to each other. Learning new ways to speak, listen, and solve problems and deepening their understanding both of themselves and each other can be most helpful early in a marriage, before harmful habits and reactions become too deeply ingrained to change and before too much damage is done.

Building a lasting relationship requires couples to work intentionally to “bridge the space between” them and to heal whatever woundedness each individual brings into the relationship. In fact, once the honeymoon is over, couples often, sooner or later, slide into a state of disappointment and discontent. If they experience enough positive interaction to keep them together, most marriages improve over time, with or without intervention, as couples learn to adjust to their differences. Participation in marriage education and enrichment or in effective marriage counseling may help them achieve a happy, healthy relationship. Differentiating - understanding that they are, after all, two different people with differing points of view - encourages them to take responsibility for their own behavior and role in the “marital dance,” rather than focusing on changing the other. Churches, through their preaching and teaching, can help people learn to apply spiritual principles - such as empathy, compassion, and forgiveness – in all their relationships. They must be careful, however, not to encourage victims of domestic violence – physical and/or emotional – to stay in situations harmful to their health and safety. (See Shedding Light on Domestic Violence.)

However, even in churches providing effective marriage preparation, education, and enrichment, couples may find themselves in such pain that one or both of them will decide that divorce is the only solution. Sometimes, sadly, such couples disappear from church life because they fear that they will be judged. Churches that project compassion and acceptance of human frailty may more likely have opportunity to minister with couples in crisis. See Ministering with Couples on the Brink of Divorce)

Couples who decide to divorce may find it difficult to keep negotiations amicable, or even to minimize the emotional damage. Because some lawyers seek to protect their clients and to establish the other party as the enemy, divorce proceedings may set the couple on an adversarial path. Resentment that has built up over the years because of unaddressed disappointments, frustrations, and grievances may spill out at this time. Churches can help by sharing information about local mediators and "collaborative divorce" lawyers, who are trained to help couples negotiate a settlement before filing divorce papers, greatly reducing the hostility, anxiety, and cost of the process. Such information, along with announcements about marriage education and enrichment and crisis interventions) could be posted on bulletin boards, displayed in the church library, and mentioned in newsletters and sermons, inviting couples to reach out for support. For more information, see the Collaborative Practice “Knowledge Kit,” a free download from www.collaborativepractice.com; the Collaborative Professional Locator at the same website; and articles posted at www.collaborativedivorce.net.

Divorce is not a one-time event, but a life-changing step with often unforeseen ramifications and consequences. Even without children, the distribution of property may become contentious, and the financial fallout may be life-long, since divorce settlements often include division of possessions, savings, and retirement pension funds. If there are children, divorce will not get the parties out of each other's life, but may push them into an adversarial relationship which can complicate future holidays, graduations, weddings, and relationships with children and grandchildren. If custody is shared, the parents will need to cooperate to help the children adjust to and manage living in and transitioning between two different homes. Dating and/or remarriage by either or both persons may further complicate transitions between households. Basic communication and problem-solving courses, like Nonviolent Communication, wouldv equip divorced persons to deal with each other without inflicting more pain. (See Helping Stepfamilies Thrive.)

Children of any age may be caught in the crossfire of divorce. If they have observed their parents interacting with hostility over time, divorce may seem like a relief to them. However, if the parents have hidden their disagreements from the children and worn "happy couple" masks, the children may be shocked and disillusioned. Many schools and community agencies offer support groups for children of divorcing parents, and some may benefit from individual counseling to help them sort out and express their feelings. Divorce will impact them not only in the present, but for the rest of their lives. Judith S.Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, in their ground-breaking Second Chances: Men, Women, & Children a Decade After Divorce (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989) coined the phrase "sleeper effect" for the tendency of children who appear to be adjusting well at the time of the divorce to experience anxiety and stress later in life, perhaps at the time of their own marriage and child-rearing. Churches can help by making sure children of divorcing parents have ample opportunity to talk about what is happening and about their feelings - to the extent they are willing and able; by sharing information about normal reactions both in the present and future; and by alerting them to the wealth of helpful resources. Church members and friends can stand alongside these families by offering to spend time with the children and intentionally including them in intergenerational worship, study, fellowship and mission.

Churches and church people who proclaim a gospel of forgiveness, mercy, and hope will perhaps more likely provide a healing ministry for those who divorce and those who are impacted by divorce. The following Resource List includes a number of books and curriculum materials for use by individuals or in small groups. While support groups and mentor relationships with others who have faced the same situation can help immensely, divorcing and divorced persons still need to feel included in the general life of the congregation and welcomed to participate in worship, study, fellowship activities, and mission projects. As in any trial, what persons need to experience most is acceptance, validation of their feelings, and unconditional love - both in the present and for the years to come.

An updated and expanded version of this article and resource list is posted at www.marriagelovepower.net under Best Practices and Recommended Resources/ Ministering with Those in Crisis and Transition. You will also find there related articles such as “Cultivating Compassionate Connection,” “Why Marriage Education and Enrichment?” “Ministering With Couples on the Brink of Divorce,” “Strengthening Stepfamilies,” “Shedding Light on Domestic Violence,” etc. ; or you can search Discipleship Ministries' resources by topic or title.

Download the Divorce Care Resource and Reading List [PDF]

Jane P. Ives, United Methodist Marriage and Family Ministries Consultant
10 Quaker Lane, Portland, ME 04103, 207-797-8930, [email protected]

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