“My husband was president of the elders quorum, vice-president of the state Jaycees, and county chairman of a political party. When I’d see our kids running down the street—happy, clean, and warm—and think about what we had together, I’d kneel down in the kitchen and thank the Lord for it.”
Then divorce. Now this sister faces the anguish of her teenage daughter: “Why are we like we are?”
Divorce is an ugly word and a shattering experience, but the victims of divorce are not ugly or evil people, especially the children. Some couples, of course, are guilty of family-destroying sins that must be dealt with appropriately by priesthood officers. At the same time, there are many divorced people who are essentially victims of their spouses’ behavior.
For the general membership, our responsibility is to leave judgment to those who have that assignment, and to provide sensitive help and sincere love to divorced people as they rebuild their lives.
My Ward Went the Extra Several Miles
Several months ago the Relief Society General Board called me to work with a few others in preparing a set of lessons and some tapes to meet the needs of single women in the Church. In order to discover and define those needs, we called together groups of widowed, divorced, and never-married women and asked them to talk with us and each other about the problems of their single status. One thing we discovered was that while most of them shared some of the same kinds of problems, the divorced women in particular had some problems unique to their group.
We learned that one of the most difficult things a divorced person has to handle (and this seems to be true for both men and women) is the reaction other people have to him or her as a divorced person. For years that unfortunate label has carried with it all kinds of negative suggestions. Happily married couples fear divorcees as possible homewreckers. Children think something is wrong with them or that they are evil. Voters think they are not trustworthy. Landlords fear they won’t pay the rent. The public in general thinks they are promiscuous and irresponsible. Perhaps we can partly blame movies, television, and cheap books for creating this image, but placing blame does not remove the image from our minds.
And it is not just the divorced person who has a problem. His divorce presents a problem to his associates as well. They don’t know what to say to him or how to treat him. Think about yourself: when you learn that your neighbor or your child’s Primary teacher is getting a divorce, what do you do? Can you treat that person just as you always have, or do you find yourself uneasy and tongue-tied around him? Why should you regard him differently? Isn’t he the same person he always was? Well, yes, he is, except that now he is divorced.
Let’s go back to that term for a moment. We in the Church have rightly been taught that divorce and broken homes are destructive to society and to individual happiness, but certainly we have not been taught that we, therefore, have the right to judge divorced people as evil. They are usually, in fact, people who have suffered much anguish, who are burdened with a terrible sense of their own failure, and who have made a decision to separate only when it seemed to them that no other avenues were open. For members of the Church, such a decision is perhaps the most difficult of their lives. Only the Lord, who can see into their hearts, is in a position to make a judgment against them. For the membership of the Church, Jesus’ instructions seem clear through his example of forgiveness and his warning to sinners who would cast stones at other sinners.
As I sat listening to the discussions in our meetings with divorced women, I came to realize how much their happiness depended on the way they were treated in their home wards. As I heard some say that they now felt like outsiders among their old neighbors and friends, my mind wandered back a few years to the summer I returned to my home ward in Madison, Wisconsin, just after my husband and I had decided to separate. I had written a close friend the sorrowful news while I was visiting in the West and had asked her to tell my friends in Madison before I got there so that I would be spared that agony. My parents had suggested that I remain in the West and not go back to Wisconsin, but I somehow knew that the people in my own ward would understand best. They did.
I remember how scared I was to go to Church that first Sunday. Facing those people was more than I could bear, especially because I loved them and did not want them to be disappointed in me. I almost stayed away. But if I had stayed away the first Sunday, would I have gone the second? I don’t know. Trembling, I walked into the building. The first sister to see me came up, put her arms around me, and, with tears in her eyes, said, “Welcome home.” She didn’t probe me with questions, or shake her head in pity, or act as if she would like to escape. She simply let me know by a look and a gesture that my changed circumstances would not change anything in our relationship. In short, she treated me as she would any friend who had encountered sorrow. We didn’t talk about my impending divorce that day or any day thereafter. It wasn’t necessary, because I knew immediately that I didn’t have to justify anything to her.
No one made a big thing out of what must have been shocking news to them. Everyone seemed genuinely glad to see me, and those I knew best reassured me with a hug. After that first Sunday, it was as if I had always been in their midst as a single woman whom they accepted and loved.
The bishopric called me in that Sunday, and I was shaking in my shoes. I was afraid they were going to ask me for a full account of the situation—a situation that was too painful to discuss at that point. I should have known them better. They didn’t probe at all. What they did was ask me to accept two positions in the ward—teacher for the young adults in Sunday School and cultural refinement teacher in the Relief Society. I could have kissed them on the spot. That was their way of saying, “We still have confidence in you. Nothing has changed in our regard for you. We know you have a testimony of the gospel, and we want you to share it with others in our ward. You have an important place among us whether you are married or single.” That was the best thing they could have done for me. I was, in a sense, propelled into activity at a time when it would have perhaps been easier to slink off into a corner and feel unworthy to participate in the organizations of the Church.
I will be forever grateful to those dear people in Madison: they always treated me as if I were one of them. I knew I was important in their lives. Because of them I survived a very difficult period of adjustment and came through the ordeal of divorce perhaps even closer to the Church than I had been before. The feeling of guilt, of course, remained, and remains even now, all these years later. But again, for me, it was the people in my ward who helped me over some difficult moments when the grief was overwhelming.
I remember one experience in particular. A member of our stake presidency happened to choose divorce as his subject when he spoke in our ward one Sunday soon after my divorce. He didn’t know me and couldn’t have known that there was a divorcee in his audience. He was not condemning people. He was simply urging that we marry with care, that we keep the Lord with us, and that we strive with all our strength to avoid the broken hearts and broken homes and broken children that so often accompany divorce. He was completely in the right, but the talk was naturally very painful for me to hear. As the tears came, I wanted to run out but was, unfortunately, seated in the middle of a row in the front of the chapel with no door nearby. My ward friends knew I was suffering. From behind came a hand to rest on my shoulder. From one side came a fresh handkerchief. From the other came an offer to take me home. Even though I had disappointed him and failed in marriage, the Lord blessed me with those wonderful people.
An acquaintance of mine had the same kind of experience in her ward in the Chicago area. There were no recriminations, no embarrassments—just love and friendship. She was immediately given ward and then stake positions that carried a lot of responsibility. Her ward’s show of love and confidence in her helped her through her sadness and healed the wounds that were so painful.
Some of the women our Relief Society committee met with had similar positive experiences in their wards. Others were not so fortunate. The old vampire image was still haunting them. Wives were overzealous to protect their husbands from the supposed threat to their own homes that the divorcee represented to them; hence, they treated the divorced woman with suspicion and sometimes obvious ill will. We also heard these women tell of being left out of activities and ignored for ward positions. They began to feel that they were no longer worthy to participate as full-fledged ward members in good standing.
While listening to these women, however, our committee began to realize, as we all must, that the problem is two-sided. All of the fault does not usually lie with the divorcee’s associates. The divorced person, especially the newly divorced person, often feels so guilty and ashamed over his failure that he does not feel worthy to associate with active, married members of the Church. Hence, he cuts himself off from them, hurries in and out of Church (if he goes at all), avoids conversation, and assumes a beaten attitude that makes people uncomfortable around him. Such behavior makes it especially difficult for ward members and neighbors to be natural and at ease with him. In a situation like this, the ward members may have to go the extra several miles. We Latter-day Saints have always been known as people who are anxious to help each other in times of trouble. Speaking from my own experience, I would suggest that you, that all of us, can best help in several ways:
1. Try to rid yourself of personal prejudices against divorced people in general. Try to see them simply as other human beings, children of our Father in heaven, like yourself. Do not gossip about divorced people, especially in front of children.
2. If you knew the divorced person before his separation, treat him just the same as you always have. Don’t suddenly become serious and evasive, or curious and questioning. If you are accustomed to joking with him or teasing him, continue to do so. If you are accustomed to playing golf with him, keep playing. If he tries to back away from you, you should reassure him frankly that nothing has changed between you and him. What he needs most at this point is a restoration of his sense of normalcy, an assurance that a breakdown of his relationship with one person has not brought a similar breakdown in his relationships with everyone.
3. If you are married, don’t exclude the divorced person from your circle of friends. This doesn’t mean you have to take him everywhere you go, but you should keep up an active association. The divorced women we talked with who had the happiest lives were often those who felt a part of some other family in their wards. They were treated like a beloved aunt in the family group, participating in family outings, family home evenings, and birthday celebrations. These women were also called on first in times of family trouble.
4. If the divorced person appears to have made a good adjustment to his circumstances, don’t force yourself or your activities on him out of a sense of duty. You cannot assume that all divorced people, especially those who have been single for some time, are miserable.
5. Follow the example of the people in my ward. To the newly divorced, a small gesture of love and understanding means a great deal. After you have made that gesture, treat the person as if nothing had changed. Don’t urge him into painful recollections, but let him talk about the divorce if he needs to.
6. Believe in your heart that divorced persons have as much right to participate in the Church and the gospel as married persons do. The Church does not condone divorce, but neither does it exclude people who are otherwise worthy to share in its blessings.
It is true that many divorcees, after the first months and years of sorrow and sometimes humiliation, again find real happiness and meaningful experience. Some of the women we talked with had made this kind of adjustment. Others had not. From those who had not, we kept hearing one strain over and over again, regardless of the subject currently under discussion: loneliness—one of the hardest things the divorcee has to live with. One young mother of three small children said she would give anything just to have a friend to go hiking with. She had almost no association with anyone but her children, and the people in her stake Special Interest group were all much older than she. Another said, “Oh, if only I had someone to talk to when I’ve read or thought about something that was exciting to me!” What we heard was the yearning for companionship, the need for human association that goes beyond necessity or duty. We all need to be genuinely sought after and to have people around us who are there because they want to be. Divorced people do not want to be “looked after” and “cared for” as part of someone’s assignment. They want to be able to forget that they are a “problem case” in a ward, that they are any different from any other worthy Church member. Most of the members of my current ward do not even know I am divorced. I like to think that they would not treat me any differently if they did. I don’t know which is worse—to be known as a divorcee or to be thought of as a never-married. Now I keep getting that old line, “How come a nice girl like you … ?”
Continuing as a Whole Person
Of all the losses of life, divorce is certainly one of the greatest. A marriage, the most sacred of God’s institutions, dies; and those involved feel as though a part of themselves also dies. Although death in righteousness will be followed by an eventual reunion, divorce dissolves the marriage relationship; there is no hope for the future of the family unit as it once was.
Yet when we accepted the opportunity of coming to earth, we also accepted our participation in and responsibility for experiences that would bring us joy and experiences that would bring us sorrow. Our purpose in life is to grow, and I feel that Heavenly Father is more concerned with how we react to the experiences of our lives than that we simply have those experiences.
I have learned through my experience of divorce that I have a Heavenly Father who personally cares about me, and a Savior to take my hand as I have learned to walk on the water of faith. Perhaps because of these experiences, the things I share might help others going through the experience of divorce. The problems are serious; we all ask ourselves these questions after a divorce:
1. What is my responsibility to reach out to others?
The greatest service I can give another person is to put myself in the healthiest mental state I can. Anger, shame, and despair are normal feelings after negative experiences such as divorce. It is not wrong to feel this way, but it is wrong to hang onto these feelings and to let them fester and grow. It is a great service to ourselves and to others to face these feelings in the context of the gospel instead of withdrawing because we don’t feel worthy to serve or attend meetings. The best thing I did at these times was kneeling and honestly saying, “This is the way I feel. I don’t like it. How can we work together to overcome these feelings?” We are accustomed to using our prayers as a report of our good deeds so we can feel a “pat on the back”; but it is usually when we feel least like talking to our Heavenly Father that he wants us to come to him so he can help us. At no time are we alone unless we ask to be.
Getting ourselves back on firm ground is our responsibility to those dependent on us for their own feelings: our children and our families. We never go through a crisis alone. Others are involved, if only because they care for us. Children involved in a divorce feel confused feelings and carry more feelings of blame than we might suppose. They want to know whether they did something to cause the divorce, or whether they were not loved.
The greatest gift we can give our families at this time is to really learn the meaning of forgiveness. I have found that to forgive my ex-husband—to learn to love him as a son of my Heavenly Father and even as a friend, and to accept his forgiveness—has been an immeasurable service to my children and others as well as myself.
After I have been able to help myself and my own family feel healthy and good, then I can reach out to others with greater empathy. Death, illness, injury, unemployment—the lessons of suffering are very similar, and there is a greater love among those who have grown through these trials. Because of those who stood by me when I needed help, I feel a responsibility to help others, whether it is by stepping in to assist with children when a neighbor is ill or lending an ear to one who just needs someone to listen to them and care.
Sharing means giving insights more than it means reviewing sordid details. I was greatly helped with my own problems when one friend who lost her husband and another who lost a child shared the lessons they learned from their experiences.
2. How can I use the resources of the Church to help in the adjustment period?
Since others need the blessings of helping us, we need to tell them what our needs are. One thing we need is the blessing of the priesthood.
I have felt the priesthood in action and I’m sure I have often had its protection. During my divorce, I moved back to my home ward. Before I left, my bishop gave me some of the best counsel I’ve ever received: to get close to my new bishop and follow his advice. Since I am a convert and since the priesthood doesn’t preside over my home, I trust my bishop and home teachers.
Let me share one experience I had that showed me the priesthood in full operation. Following my divorce, the terror of facing the full responsibility of providing for my family was almost more than I could take. I had prayed about what direction to take, but lacked the courage to set out on my own. When I went to my bishop in Portland, he looked at me in that unmistakable way and said, “Sell your home. The Lord wants you to go to Utah and finish your education. You’ll be taken care of and we’ll help you get there in any way we can.” I struggled with that. It was mid-winter, and I knew no one in Utah. I had been away from college for 12 years and didn’t even know how we would eat. Two days after I said I’d go, my home was sold, the elders quorum packed my belongings, I found a place to live, two former missionaries looking for a ride to Utah volunteered to drive the truck, and my bishop was in contact with my new bishop in Utah.
This is one of the many miraculous in my life resulting from leaning on the priesthood. I know I need it as much as anyone ever could. I cannot rear my family alone. I honor the advice of my home teachers. My Relief Society presidents have been as mothers to me. I am not afraid to take the needs I might have to them after I’ve done all I can do, for I know they are servants of my Heavenly Father here to help me with my family until the priesthood occupies the place it should in our home.
One of the greatest resources the Church gives us is the opportunity to receive personal blessings for ourselves and our family. I have not been afraid to go for a blessing when I have felt the need. It has been direction, comfort, protection, and confirmation of my own inspiration from answered prayers.
3. What should I do in a new ward?
My bishop in Portland helped answer this question, both by discussing with me the feelings I might have in a new ward and by contacting my new bishop. Still, it helps to realize that other ward members might feel as uncertain as you do, and as a new neighbor, I’ve found that it’s nice to bake something and take it to my neighbors. Avoiding contact with others is a sure way to discover that people are unfriendly.
When I moved into a residential ward after attending a Brigham Young University student ward with a number of other single parents, I was nervous. When I attended my new ward for the first time, I went to the bishop, gave him my name, said I was divorced with two children, had been attending such-and-such a ward, had held such-and-such positions, and was ready to serve wherever I was needed. That evening my Relief Society president visited me and called me to be a visiting teacher; the following week my bishop and his first counselor came and appointed home teachers. I was at home.
There are many people who want to be friendly, but some don’t really know how. If someone doesn’t treat you as you wish to be treated, then you have the responsibility to set a better example.
Some people are hesitant to explain that they are divorced because it seems to strangle the conversation. I think of it this way: I’m a divorcee, but I’m many other things as well. I’m the mother of two adorable children, a musician, a teacher, a student, a homemaker, and, most importantly, a daughter of my Heavenly Father and active in his church. I have many more interesting topics of conversation than the negative circumstances that led to the one tragic event of divorce.
When questions bounce back and forth while we’re getting acquainted, I’m not uncomfortable to mention that I’m divorced—it’s background information. I’m not opposed to discussing it, either, if the conversation develops comfortably in that direction; everyone is interested in how they and others adjust to many problem situations.
4. How do I act around the opposite sex now?
Many divorces are caused by infidelity on the part of one mate, and frequently the other will want to get revenge in some way or prove that he/she is still desirable. This is a deadly attitude. When you have been faithful to your marriage vows, you can’t improve your self-esteem by being less moral now that you are released from those vows. You still have vows to yourself and your Heavenly Father.
However, even without the special problems caused by infidelity, dating after divorce is not easy. The habits of affection developed in marriage are no longer appropriate, even though they seem natural, and, consequently, there are special temptations. It’s most important to know your own goals, and to be able to discuss your feelings with your friend.
When two mature people are investing time in getting to know each other, they should be able to raise their relationship to a higher level than two teenagers playing romantic games with each other. I find that it can be a profitable time of learning to care for someone in an intellectual or spiritual way.
Since these are my goals, I know how important it is to stay away from any relationship—no matter how seemingly innocent—that cannot take me in the direction I want to go.
At times it seems unbearably lonely, and some would do anything to have someone else around. The time may seem long now, but our promise is that if we are obedient now, we need never fear being alone throughout eternity.
On the other hand, if those who are married do not use this life to build an eternal relationship, they may find themselves without a mate during eternity. Because of my professional work with family relationships and my personal experiences with divorce, I have been asked to discuss the subject with marriage classes. Once, after I had finished speaking, a young co-ed with tears in her eyes told me that the experience I had shared helped her make the difficult decision to break an engagement that she knew would not make a good marriage. Marriage never solved any problems by itself. I know now, more keenly than ever, how special it should be.
Joset Western is a graduate student in family life education at Brigham Young University and the mother of two children. She serves as special interest leader and Relief Society visiting teacher in the Orem 51st Ward, Orem Utah Sharon West Stake.