“I grew up with the model of the President [David O.]-McKay-type of marriage,” Rick says, recalling the happy picture that President McKay and his devoted wife, Emma Ray, made. “And my wife and I were married in the temple by Elder Spencer W. Kimball.”
Then, after four children, they were divorced.
“Talk about a sense of failure!” Rick says. His laugh is short and sharp, and the look in his eyes is not one of humor, but of pain.
Al, another divorced Latter-day Saint who was widowed at the death of his first wife, recalls:
“Divorce was harder on me than the death of my first wife. I was almost numb for eighteen months. Every day seemed like a sad, rainy one.”
Rick, a handsome businessman in his early forties, and Al, an executive in his mid-sixties, are part of a group—divorced men—whose needs may easily be overlooked by some of us. Their names, like others in this article, have been changed to protect their privacy.
In a way, Rick and Al are success stories. Some LDS men drop out of Church activity after their marriages break up, even when they have not been guilty of transgressions or disciplined by Church courts. These men may feel they have sunk below the standard required in a church that teaches the sanctity of eternal marriage. Or they may feel abandoned by friends and priesthood leaders now that they are not part of a family unit. The sense of rejection and isolation bred by divorce is intensified in many cases when they leave their homes and children behind with their ex-wives.
But the strength of their own testimonies or the Christlike charity of friends and priesthood leaders—or both—have helped many Latter-day Saint men stay active after divorce. In their experiences are lessons for Church members wishing to help friends whose marriages have ended in court.
The Need to Be Needed
Bill, who was converted to the gospel with his girlfriend before they were married in their twenties, comments that “knowledge of the truth of the gospel does not necessarily keep one active.” But the opportunity to serve—being needed in the Church—can keep members active after divorce has stripped away many of their moorings. Bill’s calling as elders quorum president, he says, was “my anchor, … the only thing that kept me in the Church.”
After the divorce, he drifted in life and in his real-estate career. There were times, at home alone, when he would simply sit, unable to rouse himself to do anything. His own spiritual reserves were perilously low, but his calling gave him an opportunity to serve others and an incentive to stay close to the Spirit. A calling as a counselor in the bishopric gave him additional opportunities to serve and further helped to repair his damaged sense of self-worth. Compassionate, married LDS friends who continued to involve him in their circle also provided strength. It was through them that he met his present wife.
President William W. Tanner of the Los Angeles California Stake has dealt with many men like Bill; approximately two-thirds of his stake membership is single. “I think the only thing you can do to heal the heart is to build the spirit,” he says. There are specific measures President Tanner takes to help divorced members who are in need of strengthening and healing.
First, he tries to help the individual learn to forgive him- or herself. The first move toward eventually being able to build another marital relationship is to learn to forgive themselves, using steps outlined by the Lord, President Tanner says.
Frequently, the divorced must also learn to forgive their ex-spouses. Unless they do this, they will be unable to give unconditional forgiveness or love to another. President Tanner reinforces the lesson taught by the Lord: We must forgive, for our unwillingness to do so is a more grievous sin than the abuse we may have borne. (See D&C 64:9–11; Mosiah 26:29–31.)
It is essential, President Tanner says, that worthy divorced members also be given positions of responsibility in the Church. Men, particularly, may feel that they are unworthy if they do not have the opportunity to serve. “They just need to be involved. If you go to the Lord and find a place for them, and if you have the Spirit with you, marvelous things will happen. They’ll start feeling better about themselves. They’ll develop an ability to love.”
It is all part of building the network of support that divorced members need, President Tanner adds.
Bill expresses gratitude for the love of priesthood leaders and friends who helped him hold onto the gospel and maintain a feeling that he was contributing. “I think one of the key things we need to do with people going through divorce is to love them and,” Bill adds with emphasis, “let them know they’re needed.”
Rick is also grateful for his calling. He went to his bishop and asked for a job in the ward. A dedicated Scoutmaster, Rick has a large troop that includes a number of non-LDS boys and leaders. His own two sons are members of the troop, even though they live with their mother, several miles away. Other ward youth leaders take pains to include his sons and daughters in activities when they know his children will be visiting.
Building a Social Life
Rick is appropriately ambitious, physically active, well-employed, and seemingly has many other good qualities to offer a wife. But his opportunities to marry are limited. There are few single women in his ward, and he finds that if he is to have a social life, he must make time for it.
Larry feels more comfortable in a singles ward. Like many divorced LDS men, he feels not only the desire for marriage, but also a spirit of obedience that motivates him to search for a new spouse. But finding opportunities to socialize with other single Latter-day Saints takes effort, he says.
“There are plenty of [LDS singles] activities, but you may have to hunt them out,” Larry explains. Even in southern California, with its comparatively large LDS population, dances or other activities may be up to sixty miles away. Furthermore, social life must fit in with parental, Church, and work obligations.
“I want a companion,” Jonathan says. But like Rick and Larry, he faces some obstacles to his search. He is beyond thirty-one, the upper age limit for attendance at a singles ward, where the numbers of single women would give him more opportunities for dating.
There is effort involved in searching for a new spouse, as in any other worthwhile activity, President Tanner says. But people make time for the things that are of value to them. In his stake he tries to provide many “low-risk” activities for members who may be struggling with rebuilding social skills; these activities help them regain confidence in themselves. When he calls single men to positions, President Tanner says, “I tell them as part of their Church responsibility I expect them to be involved in quality dating” at least one night a week.
“They need to be shown by example that they have plenty of time,” he explains. “They all have plenty of time.”
They also must learn to listen to their priesthood leaders, to the Holy Spirit, and to the good LDS women they are dating. That way, they can come to recognize women who love the Lord, love them, and will love their children—all qualities the Spirit may point out to them.
Sometimes, though, if we are not careful, we set up a screening system that reflects as many standards of the world as it does the standards of God. Brethren need to learn to listen to the Spirit and ask the right questions as they seek worthy companions.
Early application of gospel principles could help prevent some divorces, say men who have gone through the experience.
“I think perhaps most young people don’t work as hard as they might at marriage,” Dale reflects. “We’ve got to do some things for ourselves,” he explains. “I believe that we shouldn’t dump everything on the Lord and ask him to solve all our problems.”
Divorced twenty-five years ago, Dale appreciated the efforts of his bishop to help him, but found no one else to turn to. “I buried myself in my work,” he says, and dropped out of Church activity for a number of years.
Al’s experience was similar. He had been married to his first wife for more than twenty years; they had children, were active in the Church, and were a model LDS family in many ways. Then his wife passed away, and he later remarried. His first inkling that there might be trouble in his second marriage was when his new wife began to balk at the time he spent fulfilling his Church assignments. Eventually she withdrew from him, broke her covenants, and left the Church.
While he was going through the trial of his life, Al recalls, there was no reaching out to him from priesthood leaders or from the brethren of his quorum. “I felt as if I was going through it alone, and nobody cared.”
But Al’s testimony kept him active in the Church, and he has since remarried. As for Dale, his own early home training, along with the love of priesthood leaders and friends, brought him back. He now holds a stake leadership position and is also remarried, to a woman who, like him, went through divorce.
“I guess one of the things I’ve learned in this life is that it’s a lot easier to practice preventive medicine, to repair a relationship before it has broken down completely,” Dale comments. Latter-day Saints should be taught as early as childhood how to resolve problems so that when they marry as adults they will be able to build a strong, healthy relationship with a spouse, he says.
Rick agrees. “We prepare young people to get married. But we also need to prepare them to be married.” They must have positive but realistic role models, he says. Young men and women preparing for marriage must realize that no two people always agree, and that there is no sin in having differences of opinion—but that there is danger in being unable to deal with those differences. By the time Rick and his wife learned this principle, it was too late.
Divorced members need to feel a genuine caring from others in the Church, a willingness to accept them while they work on overcoming their problems, Rick says. It is important that programs reflect love of people and that they be kept flexible enough on the local level not to shut out those who do not fit the ideal family mold.
When a man has been divorced, Rick cautions, he should not be made to feel blame for factors in the breakup that were beyond his control. “There’s enough condemnation that’s internal,” he says, as the man looks back at the all-too-real mistakes he knows he made.
Ken found divorce “so traumatic, so devastating that I barely survived.” It was his wife who abandoned their marriage and the Church. Still, he struggled with guilt. An LDS man who is divorced, he explains, carries the burden of having been the priesthood leader in a family unit that failed; he may feel that he surely must be spiritually substandard, or the divorce would not have occurred. Sometimes other members take the same attitude toward him—and let him know it.
Often, loved ones or friends of the two ex-spouses partake of the bitterness of a divorce, harboring ill feelings. Members need to recognize that when we fall into the trap of judging others, “we only limit our own ability to receive the Spirit, and to help other people grow,” Bill says.
The Reorientation Process
Because of the devastation that divorce wreaks on self-esteem, an individual may go through intense, healthy self-examination and efforts at self-improvement. Other members may feel that they are too inadequate to be desirable as a marriage partner. Such a conclusion is erroneous. The truth is, we all need to improve as marriage partners or potential partners, and the changes we need to make differ with each individual. Recognizing this fact can lead us to seek the Lord’s help and inspiration. This, in turn, can involve completely new levels of reliance on our Father in Heaven, Bill says.
“I had to seek the Lord’s help in a lot of different ways,” he explains—in part because of his own deep feelings of failure. “A lot of our realities are based on what we’re thinking, and our negative thoughts are self-created roadblocks.”
During the three years while he was divorced, Bill clung to prophetic and scriptural counsel that he learned to quote from memory. He also learned the power of prayer in dealing with personal challenges. “Prayer is designed to open our hearts and minds to the Lord,” he says, offering the opportunity for the Lord to strengthen our faith and testimony.
Like Bill, Ken found that prayer helped him through the ordeal of divorce and also led him to become a better person.
One day, he sat outside the Oakland Temple pondering his difficulties while he waited to attend a temple session. Though he had not been the one who precipitated the divorce, “it came to me that I—I—had to resolve my relationship with the Lord.” He had often taught about repentance in Church callings, “but I had never taken the trouble to do it”—to change in ways that would make him a better spouse. Ken realized that he was being given a chance to alter the direction of his life. “I was a totally different person when I came out of that temple. During that day, I found a way to open my heart and humble myself,” he says. Thereafter, he genuinely sought improvement.
Humbling himself, he reflects, allowed the Lord to touch his heart and let the healing process begin. At times, Ken would become impatient for things to change more quickly in his life. But he learned the need to wait for the Lord’s will to be done.
Ken has since remarried—to a widow who provides the kind of spiritual companionship he has always desired. His experiences with divorce and remarriage have led him to develop a two-question personal test as a barometer of his own need for action when life becomes difficult.
The first question can apply to any member, single or married: “Am I living the gospel as best I can as an individual?” If the answer is no, one needs to repent before moving on to seek additional blessings from the Lord.
The second question is: “Are my spouse and I living the gospel as best we can together?” Again, if the answer is negative, Ken says, repentance is needed before the couple can seek greater blessings from the Lord.
If the answers to these questions are positive, he explains, the proper procedure is to continue in obedience, stop punishing yourself for events or factors beyond your control, and endure in love and faith.
How Can I Help?
Do you want to help a divorced loved one or friend over the rough spots? There are a number of things you can do.
Keep him or her in your circle. Help the individual feel he or she has not been abandoned. Involve the person in your social activities.
Don’t know what to say? Try “I love you,” and indicate you’re willing to listen. Having a loving, listening ear can help the person fight feelings of being all alone.
Don’t feed the bitterness—no matter how you feel about the ex-spouse. You’ll poison your outlook along with the divorced person’s. Help your friend or loved one focus on healing his or her feelings.
Encourage prayer and Church activity. With prayer, the divorced person can feel the healing love of our Heavenly Father. In Church service, he or she can draw closer to the Lord and feel the guidance of the Spirit.
Pray for your loved one or friend so that you may receive spiritual impressions to help you meet the individual’s needs.
Give time and service where you can. Babysit his or her children during dates and social activities or help with shopping, car repairs, etc.