Our tendency as people of God is all too often to conclude there’s nothing we can do (other than prayer) to help our Christian brothers and sisters through the process of divorce. That’s wrong. God calls us to act.
Make it safer to talk about it. It’s almost impossible in most Christian groups to confess marital troubles and get help dealing with them. Yes, there are plenty of opportunities for “bitch sessions” where one spouse confides in a group and the group lends support. That’s easy to find. What’s missing is the opportunity for couples to get help together within the Body of Christ. We need to make that happen.
I think the best way to make it happen is for couples in secure marriages to speak more freely of the difficulties they have faced in the past, and even of those difficulties they continue to face. Couples struggling with challenges to their marriage need to know they’re not alone – that problems can be confronted and overcome.
It needs to be okay to get counseling. Again, I think this will happen only when couples in secure marriages are willing to say that they have sought and have benefited from counseling to resolve issues they faced.
Create a culture that supports marriages. We can be caring and accepting of people who are going through divorce without abandoning our role as defenders of the marriage. God has the power to redeem marriages. It happens every day, even within marriages where the trust level has reached almost zero and divorce seems inevitable. I’ve seen it happen.
We must never shy away from our role as defenders of marriage. It is totally permissible, and scriptural, to advocate for couples to stay together. It is totally permissible, and scriptural, to confront both spouses with the sinfulness of their abandonment of their marriage vow.
It’s just that we need to treat all sin equally. If we choose to confront people about their sin in relation to their marriage vow, we should also be confronting our minister who overeats, and our own tendency to break the laws against speeding. God views sins equally, and so must we. Be circumspect about marriage. Perhaps the most important thing we can do to head off marital troubles before they start is to be circumspect about marriage. I think this is already underway and that it needs to continue. What I mean by this is that we must temper those joyful squeals and congratulatory handshakes with which we have always greeted news of a wedding.
Can we be more neutral? “Oh, I see. Tell me about him (her). How are the two of you alike, and how are you different? You’re sure this is the right thing to do?” It’s not nearly so much fun, but it may be the finest gift you can give. As a minister and dear friend of mine says, “If I can talk you out of marrying, I should.”
Listen. Best thing to do. Hardest thing to do. Finest gift you can give. Listen, and keep your mouth shut. People who are going through divorce get loads of advice from family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, even their dental hygienist. They rarely find people who will just listen. Don’t give advice until the divorcing person asks for it. Then still don’t give advice. Listen some more. Let the silence just sit there. It’s after the silence that you may get to the real “ouch” behind the pain a person feels.
Normalize. People going through divorce feel alone. They’re shocked by their spouse’s behavior and powerless to understand it. Help them understand that this behavior is actually normal for people going through divorce. Help them understand where they fit in thethree divorces.
I’m also a big believer in what I call “de-demonization.” People going through divorce sometimes start to view their spouse as evil, Satanic. Make no mistake about it – some spouses are evil. Most aren’t. They’re just doing what people do when they’re going through the cruddy experience of divorce.
Clarify your role. Our tendency when we first hear about divorce between two friends is to insist on remaining neutral. That’s fine if that’s what the divorcing couple wants. Sometimes, though, both spouses may want a person to be an advocate and confidant for one spouse. If you are willing to fill either role, ask both the husband and the wife to clarify what that role should be. “Do you need me to be on your side? Do you need me to be on your spouse’s side? Do you need me to be neutral?” Insist that the husband and the wife reach consensus on your role, and then stick with it.
Help them think strategically. There are three questions I encourage people going through divorce to ask themselves constantly:
- How much is this issue worth to me in today’s dollars?
- How likely is it that I’ll win?
- What is it costing me to fight about it?
If they don’t know the answers to all three of those questions, or if they’re not sure from the answers that it’s worth it to keep fighting, it may be time to explore a graceful concession. You can help them by continuing to ask those three simple questions and insisting that they know the answers.
Encourage them to stay in control. It’s easy for people going through divorce, particularly in the beginning, to want to turn over the whole process to somebody like a lawyer who will protect them and “get them a good deal.” It rarely happens that way. People who insist on staying in control of their divorce will spend less money on people like me, they will resolve the issues they face more quickly and be more satisfied with the outcome, and they’ll even be more likely to have a good working relationship with their spouse when they finish. Help them understand how important this is.
Pray. Paul told us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). Jesus told us to pray and never give up (Luke 18:1). I encourage you to insist on specificity in your prayers. When a divorcing person says (as they often do) “Please pray for me,” or “Please pray for us,” ask “What are we praying for?” They’ll usually be able to tell you.
Next, ask, “Is it okay if I ask other people to pray for this too?” Then abide by their wishes. Actually pray for them in the way you and they have agreed. And when you see them, tell them what’s happening. “I’m praying for you and Mary to be reconciled, and my Sunday School class is too.” That can be a powerful way to confirm your support for them through this cruddy process.
Be tolerant of visitation. Kids whose parents are divorced can’t always come to choir every Sunday afternoon, because they’re often with Dad. We Christians must figure out a way to affirm their spending time with both parents, even if it means they’re absent from important activities.
Be sensitive to acting out behavior. Children of divorce, particularly boys, are prone to suppress their anger at the way they’ve been treated. When they do, it usually bubbles up somewhere else, often in the form of aggressive behavior directed at their friends, neighbors, mother, or teachers. When that happens, it’s easy for us to lash out in anger, because the behavior really is distressing. If we can figure out the anger behind the behavior, however, we may be able to address it in a more meaningful way.
Special role for men. Children of divorce usually see less of their dad. That means that if you’re a man in today’s world and you spend any time around young people (boys or girls), they’re probably watching you to see how a man is supposed to behave. They’re watching you to see how what kind of language a man uses; how a man treats women; how a man drives; how a man spends his money; and how a man resolves conflict. ‘Nuff said.
Help with transportation and supervision. Single parents have all the responsibilities that parenting couples do but fewer resources. They’re also more likely to be struggling with money issues. You can help. If you’re going to be in the neighborhood, offer to pick up or drop off a child. Offer to take a shift in the nursery, or watch the kids so Mom (and it usually is Mom, isn’t it?) can catch a movie with friends.
People who have divorced almost always still have feelings for the person who once was their lover and their spouse. They feel much of the same pain that a widow or widower feels, but they also grieve over the relationship that might have been, and they also often go back and relive the divorce experience itself. It’s an awful time.
I have a special interest in the way we deal with the divorced spouse of a person who has died. As a society, we just don’t know what to do with them. There’s a separate page on this, Death After Divorce.