As anyone who has experienced it knows, divorce carries its own special pain. Loneliness, sadness, fear, anxiety, and depression are common feelings through which we live before, during, and after our divorce. Regardless of what caused the divorce, or who initiated it, we can all relate to experiences of abandonment and even a sense of shame. For those of us who consider ourselves to be people of faith and have a belief in God, however we may define it, there can be and often is an added layer of shame which we carry, and sometimes abandonment or even banishment from our faith communities which make divorce even more difficult.
In general, among the major world religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, marriage is traditionally viewed as not only a special promise between two people who love one another, but a promise of the individuals themselves and the couple together to God. Stemming from the ancient accounts of Adam and Eve, often thought of as the “original married couple”, these faith traditions uphold marriage to be a sacred covenant or promise, with a higher standard and expectation than a simple civil union. In general, devout practitioners of religion are less likely to divorce, and the correlation between faith and low divorce rates is strong. One study indicates divorce rates to be between 5% (Hindu) and 19% (Historically Black Protestant) compared with over 51% among the general population. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/marital-status/
For those who grew up in a context of Protestantism in America, the phrase “God hates divorce” was familiar and heard preached from many pulpits. Staying in a marriage, regardless of the circumstances, was seen to be more “godly” or “Christian” than divorce. Spouses are taught to “forgive one another” and “pray for their spouse” that God will change them or bring reconciliation to a broken relationship.
Judaism, while by no means monolithic in beliefs and attitudes towards divorce, nevertheless generally regard marriage as a contractual relationship between the spouses and God himself to stay with each other for the rest of their lives, therefore, to break that contract is to go against the almighty. Some Jews must get their divorce granted in a Jewish court, known as a Bet Din, where the husband and wife are questioned and arrange financial and personal issues. This is separate from the legal dissolution of their marriage in a civil court. Jewish rabbis of the Talmud considered marriage a holy contract, and the dissolution therefore an unholy act.
Like Judaism, Islam is certainly in no way uniform in belief and practices, including divorce. In the Hadith however, Abdullah ibn Umar reported that the Prophet Muhammad said, “The most detestable of lawful things before Allah is divorce.”
The Roman Catholic Church does not generally recognize divorce. A marriage can only end when one partner dies or if there are grounds for an annulment, which is a formal recognition of a marriage to be invalid due to specific circumstances. A couple may be granted a civil divorce and be divorced in the eyes of the state, but as far as the church is concerned, their marriage will continue ‘in the eyes of God’.
Divorce statistics among people of faith vary greatly, but the general impression appears to be that there is a correlation between religious faith and lower divorce rates overall. The overall theme could be summarized as “God loves marriage, and God hates divorce. Some of us can become caught in the thinking which goes something along the lines of “If I say I love God, I will not do something that he hates, so I must avoid divorce. I will try to be kinder and more loving towards my spouse, the way I believe God is kind and loving towards me.”
But what about the many marriages that begin at the altar, and end in the courtroom? What about the many marriages conducted by ministers, rabbis, imams, and other clergy, and dissolved by the court, the lawyers, and the judges? As people of faith, we began our marriages by making a promise to ourselves, our spouse, and God. However, when divorce darkens our door, we now feel not only separated from our spouse but sometimes from God as well. Questions such as “Is God angry, hurt, or disappointed? Why didn’t God save my marriage?” and “Will God punish me?” are common thoughts during and post-divorce.
Those of us who have been members of a faith community, be it a church, synagogue, or mosque, may feel scorned, ostracized, and misunderstood by others in the community. We may find ourselves feeling that others hold them responsible in some way for the breakup of the marriage, and that we just “didn’t have enough faith” or “weren’t forgiving” towards a wayward spouse. These feelings, coupled with embarrassment, anger, or resentment towards the former spouse who may still be attending religious services in the same place, may lead us to leave our faith community to worship elsewhere, leaving longtime friends and long-established routines and relationships. For those of us who have been involved as leaders, or even on the staff of the church, for example, the feelings are often magnified. Gossiping members may whisper “Pastor Bob got a divorce. I’m shocked, they always seemed like such a perfect family” or camouflage their gossip more subtly under the guise of “prayer requests” for the divorced. To say to one another “We really need to pray for Susan, she seemed to really be such a strong believer but since her divorce she seems to have really gone off the deep end with those tight jeans and high heels!” can make us feel not only unsafe, but guilty and ashamed.
How can faith and religious practice help us move forward through our divorce successfully, towards a new life? Here are several ideas to keep in mind that may be helpful:
1. Seek to understand – Educate yourself on the religious beliefs and teachings of your own faith tradition. Within each belief system are layers of differences to appreciate and while we don’t have to be experts, a general knowledge and familiarity can go a long way. Thoughts and teachings about divorce come in all shapes and sizes, and what you may think that your religion teaches about divorce may not actually be true or may vary depending upon your own individual circumstances.
2. Honor yourself – Spend some time thinking about your own beliefs about faith and divorce, and how they may be helping or hindering you in your divorce journey. Even though you may adhere to a certain faith or belief system, you may not believe in all the things which that religion teaches or advocates, especially about divorce.
3. Consider an expert – Clergy can become valuable resources on your team. Be open to having your thoughts and beliefs about faith and divorce challenged, but careful, even if you have similar religious beliefs, to not allow yourself to be told what is the right course of action for you. For people of faith who believe in an afterlife, it helps to remember that it will be you, not the clergy member, who must live with the consequences of your decisions, including how to handle your divorce. Books, articles, and websites can also provide expert opinions. Simple internet searches will turn up various resources.
4. Beware of spiritual abuse – Religious leaders, even while well-intentioned, can come to engage in subtle forms of manipulation, control, guilt-tripping, and shaming the divorcing or already divorced person. If you are initiating the divorce your spiritual leader may try to talk you out of it, convincing you that it is better to “turn the other cheek” than to end the marriage. As divorced persons, regardless of our own unique divorce stories, non-divorced couples may look at us in a judgmental, condescending way. “If they had only prayed more, their marriage would have stayed together” they whisper. Such tactics can become toxic and turn faith communities and houses of worship into nothing more than groups of nicely dressed bullies on a playground.
5. Accept and affirm your “need to belong” – As religious persons, we have often been a part of a community, usually comprised predominantly of couples and families. As a divorcing or newly divorced person we can often feel left out and have a hard time fitting in with others as a single person in a family atmosphere. We may find friends hesitant to talk to us, for fear of saying the wrong thing, or just not knowing what to say at all. Others may avoid us and sever their relationships with us if they blame us for the divorce or believe we should have done more to save the marriage. The loss of our own family compounds with the feelings of alienation and loss of our spiritual family to create an incredibly deep sense of loneliness and sadness. Consider a different congregation, parish, synagogue, or mosque where you can begin to make new friends, or to visit other churches for example, that may have social groups for singles.
Divorce affects everyone differently. As people of faith, we are no different, other than often experiencing an extra layer of shame and guilt stemming from an intangible sense of somehow having disappointed or angered God, reneged on our promise to God at the altar, and becoming alienated from other people of faith by our new status as perceived spiritual and marital “failures”. By understanding this dynamic, we can acknowledge, explore, and move through our sense of shame and isolation, on towards the new lives that God has in store for us!
Reverend Sean H. Gartland, M.Div., M.Ed., A.C.H.E., CDC®
Founder and Director of Christian Divorce Recovery (www.christiandivorcerecovery.net) has spent over 30 years serving in various roles in Christian ministry and healthcare including as a missionary, pastor, chaplain, therapist, and administrator, and in various settings, including inpatient, psychiatric, rehabilitation, and geriatric facilities. His assignments have included locations in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. He currently serves as a therapy manager in the national federal healthcare system, and a Chaplain in both a local hospital and a Fire and Rescue department.
He is married, has 2 grown daughters, and enjoys outdoor adventures, especially anything related to the open water and ocean, including kayaking, whitewater rafting, water skiing, body surfing, and scuba diving. In addition to over 10 years of experience providing Christian divorce recovery services, he is available for customized training and consulting on spiritual-emotional resilience specifically tailored to members of the Fire/EMS/First Responder communities and their families. Areas of specialization include marriage, divorce, relationship, and addiction resilience, suicide awareness, and spiritual/emotional care.