If the present trend continues, one of four couples in the United States will get a divorce. Though the figure is generally lower in other countries, the worldwide shift toward more divorce is apparent.
Generally speaking, most of us are naive and unknowledgeable about legal, financial, spiritual, and psychological aspects of divorce unless we are personally involved in some way. But each of us needs to learn what we can about divorce so that we can give intelligent support to those who may experience this difficult challenge through the dissolution of their marriage.
While there are many important areas related to divorce—causes, prevention, legal implications, separation, one-parent families, remarriage—this article will focus on some of the effects of divorce on the participants and on those with whom they associate, and also on some of the prevailing attitudes about divorce held by those who are nondivorced, whose actions and attitudes affect the divorced who must live among them.
Marriage is part of the plan for our salvation, and each of us is commanded to seek and develop a marriage relationship that will help us attain eternal life. Most Latter-day Saint adults enter into marriage with this principle in mind and maintain successful marriages. Yet in spite of their best intentions, some couples have insurmountable difficulties that result in separation or divorce.
Divorce as a solution to marriage problems is not a decision most Latter-day Saints make quickly. Usually such despairing couples seek help from a variety of sources first—families, friends, bishops, Church social service marriage counselors or other counseling agencies, attorneys. A divorce may be sought by a couple only after years of trying to salvage their marriage. Though most of these people would choose to remain married, life together has become intolerable for them.
Divorced couples have experienced failure. No matter what the circumstances of the divorce or if one was actually more at fault than the other, the relationship has failed, and each partner leaves with serious doubts about himself as a person and as a marriage partner. “Could I have done more?” “If only I had known!” “Will I ever learn?” These thoughts and many others run through their minds, causing confusion, discomfort, and doubt.
The disharmony that precedes divorce may foster anger, hurt, disappointment, sorrow, and uncharitable acts that display a person’s most unbecoming traits. Consequently, many things are said and done that seem to be out of character for both husband and wife who were once sweethearts deeply in love. In many cases these negative happenings are unbelievable in retrospect and yet very difficult to forget. Each may have judged himself and his partner by action and word as a failure. Thus each may leave the marriage with a damaged ego and a poor self-concept.
At a time when divorced couples most need support, their good friends sometimes begin to avoid them, perhaps for fear they will be accused of interfering or taking sides. Frequently, divorced couples are excluded from groups to which they were formerly welcomed. People show their embarrassment and awkwardness in talking with them, and many subjects now seem to be taboo.
It is not unusual for both husband and wife to receive letters that evaluate their behavior and criticize them, with the inference that they must not understand or be able to live the gospel if they can’t make their marriage work.
In some instances divorced persons have been asked to drop out of study or social groups because they are no longer married. Suddenly there doesn’t seem to be a social group for them. If they are fortunate, the age group to which they belong may have anticipated their needs and provided fellowship and integration through activities in the ward and stake; but unfortunately, this wise procedure isn’t always followed.
Because of the feeling of failure, and because of attitudes against divorce, the divorced person often feels inadequate, incomplete, and of little worth. Too quickly he may move back into a dating pattern, frantically searching for a companion who will contradict what he believes about himself. Sometimes he will be drawn toward a person with lesser values than his own, because he is convinced that he isn’t good enough for anyone better.
Unthoughtful and ill-conceived remarks are sometimes spoken with great conviction. The following are common expressions: “Think twice before you go with him; he’s divorced and you know how divorced men are.” “She could do an excellent job there, as she is a fine person with a strong testimony; but we hadn’t better use her—she’s divorced.”
In some cases testimonies are shaken as a couple go through the anguish of a divorce, especially if their testimonies were weak initially. No matter how strong the testimony, no matter how carefully one tries to keep the commandments, failure in marriage may cause a person to doubt his interpretation of the commandments and his ability to keep them. Perhaps one marriage partner has kept the marriage vows and tried to live the gospel, but his or her companion has lost interest in that goal. Without judging the “rightness” and “wrongness” in a divorce, experience usually indicates that divorce produces some erosion or questioning of one’s testimony.
Analogous to the divorced person who is overanxious to date again is the well-meaning friend who tries to arrange dates for recently divorced persons. Eligible partners are prominently displayed or their seating positions carefully arranged at dinners or parties. For most people coming out of a divorce this is too soon. It is embarrassing and awkward and often ends in another failure experience.
Another point that is confusing to those who are contemplating divorce and those already divorced is a prevalent feeling in the Church that if you keep the commandments, marriage is secure and eternal. Whether the couple divorcing keep the commandments or not, they see other couples who obviously don’t keep some of the commandments and whose marriages to all appearances seem to be happy, or at least not torn by strife as is theirs. Consistent understanding and encouragement during the breakup from the bishop, home teachers, and ward members is needed to sustain church attendance and involvement in spiritual experiences.
These couples most of all don’t need more failure experiences. In order for them to build their self-esteem and their testimonies, they need to feel accepted, to be provided with worthwhile church responsibilities, and to be surrounded by wholesome companionship. Discussions with bishops, friends, family, or professional counselors that provide understanding of why they feel the way they do and with suggestions on how to overcome those feelings are helpful and in most cases necessary.
Marriage relationships are sacred, and the many intimacies shared should not be subjects for gossip. Just because a marriage may end in divorce does not mean that all the happenings in that marriage are now open to public scrutiny. Sometimes when a marriage is in trouble the husband and wife, because neither feels understood, and in a desire for some validation of the rightness of the position they are taking, may talk indiscreetly to almost anyone who will listen.
Well-meaning friends and families may try to understand and help. However, the information they receive is rarely accurate because of the emotional clouding that accompanies the recital of the facts of the breakup. Such admissions or explanations only add to the divorced couple’s feelings of worthlessness, because they have revealed against their conscience intimate details of a marriage once held sacred.
A reasonable approach for couples having marital problems or for those who divorce is to select one or two appropriate and trusted people with whom they can speak freely and to refrain from talking about their problems with others. A general but explicit statement to other interested parties might be, “Thank you for your concern. We couldn’t work out our difficulties and we have agreed not to talk about them.” This will satisfy most inquirers and leave the divorced person with a sense of privacy.
Those who are genuinely concerned about their friends and loved ones who are divorced can find ways of showing their concern other than asking for and listening to the details of the disharmony. Sometimes because of their relationship with the divorced person or because of his emotional state, they will be given information they do not want to hear. If they do listen, they must accept the responsibility of receiving private and important information; or they may instead put their arms around that person, express love and understanding of his distress, and with kindness and tact direct him to his bishop or a professional counseling service.
One approach is for friends who are genuinely concerned to tell the troubled person that they don’t need to know all the details to understand. Many times detailed information is given only to have them respond to the rightness or wrongness of the divorced person’s behavior and the subsequent decision to divorce. Then the friend will find himself in the role of judge whether he wants to be or not. By indicating that he doesn’t want to dredge up the past, and then by focusing on the present concerns and future plans, he can demonstrate most effectively his love and understanding. Maybe the divorced person will be temporarily hurt or confused by this attitude, but once he knows he doesn’t have to report and defend, he won’t feel compelled to tell all.
The divorced person has to make many adjustments. It may be difficult to live independently again, to modify living standards because of changes in income, to give up comfortable and familiar furniture and surroundings, to assume tasks that were once done by the marriage partner, to accept most of the responsibility of the children, to rarely see the children, to reach for someone who is not there, to find oneself in the middle of a project that calls for two people. No matter what the circumstances of the divorce, the memories and habits are still there.
Many times it is difficult for friends and loved ones to understand why the divorced person seems to be grieving over the dead marriage and why he continues to contact the rejected partner. One reason may be that as a result of the failure experience, the individual begins to doubt his decision; he wonders if the situation and what he experienced was as bad as he remembered. Some exploration of this type must be done and in some cases has resulted in the solution of the conflict and remarriage.
Undue resistance by family and friends to a reconciliation between divorcing parties and a rehearsal of the bad features of the other person only aggravate a couple’s differences, sometimes enlarging them out of all proportion. Support by family and friends with success experiences that build the ego and help a person face reality and regain happiness will be more satisfactory for everyone.
Another reason some people seem to grieve and even court a broken marriage is their inability or reluctance to give up the “dream” that often accompanies marriage. Many hours of planning and dreaming have gone into their marriage—dreams of being a mother, father, or grandparent, of having a certain kind of home and living style, of being part of a married community, of having certain responsibilities that seem to be given only to married couples.
Even though marriage fails to satisfy all of the expectations of the “dreamer,” he may continue to fight for that dream, while in reality his marriage is foundering, because he is unable to cope with the true facts of his crumbling marriage.
Discussion groups for divorced people, where topics such as reality are examined, help them to adjust and perhaps start a new and more possible dream. Families and friends who understand rather than ridicule can help frustrated couples face their problems and make necessary adjustments. A spirit of love and kindness is paramount for those seeking ways to help salvage a broken marriage.
Perhaps the most difficult problem for the divorced person is the number and variety of reminders of the good times or the dream that often intrude unbidden into his daily activities. It may be the refrain of a song, the smell of perfume or shaving lotion, the way someone walks, vacation time, a favorite color, a phrase, an activity. In learning a new way of life, it is only realistic to be tormented a little by the past. Accepting the recall and understanding it as a way to improve and forgive will help to insure an effective new life.
It is wise for those who are divorced to exchange some of their hurt and resentment for feelings of magnanimity when dealing with gossips, accusers, and those who are only inquisitive, understanding such responses as examples of weaknesses in human nature that those people have yet to overcome. Few people are truly vindictive. There will, of course, be those who are genuinely concerned and who will stand ready to help.
Three simple rules for all of us will be helpful if our concern to assist those who are divorced is sincere: (1) Don’t judge. Not only are we commanded not to, but we rarely have accurate information enough to make any kind of an assessment whether we express it or not. (2) Don’t invade the privacy of a marriage relationship uninvited, even though it has expired. (3) Be direct with support and concern.
For those of us who are divorced, perhaps we could remember some rules also:
First, retain the privacy and sacredness of the marriage relationship even though it has been dissolved. Find one or two people with whom you can talk openly. Seek help from your bishop, and if he so advises, from Church Social Services or counseling. Oftentimes one or two hours with a professional counselor clears away much of the mental debris and helps a person chart a new life.
Second, serve other people and in so doing build success experiences that will restore confidence and self-esteem.
Third, be cautious about whom you date and how soon. Reestablish your values and maintain them through activities and associates that support those goals.