Understanding for the divorced

Nicky Lock

Why bother? Is it an issue for the church?  We all know the shock horror headlines “Christian have higher rate of divorce than the rest of the population” or more prosaically “Christians have the same rate of divorce as the surrounding population”. So is it a problem for church communities or not? As with all statistics, there are many and varied answers about the actual rates of divorce in religious groups. The Australian Institute of Family Studies report on Divorce and Separation is less sensational, noting that those religious groups who strongly oppose divorce have around 13% of their populations registering their marital status as “divorced” as against those of no religious affiliation at 22.3%. Anglicans come in at 18.2%, but the report notes that more people in mainstream religions are only nominally related to their religious group. But taking them together, that means in every congregation of 100 adults there are somewhere between 13 and 18 who are divorced.

So statistically they are a reasonable percentage of each body of believers. Next question is do they need special treatment? Maybe not for the ones who were divorced some years ago and have to a large degree healed from the trauma, but for those who are in the midst of the process of separating and dealing with parenting and property matters alongside the overall emotional roller coaster, almost certainly, yes.

How can we be a useful supporter as people travel this difficult path? Understanding the general overall process that many go through is starting place. Firstly to recognise that the two adults in the situation may well be at different stages emotionally. The person termed rather unhelpfully as the “dumper” by Bruce Fisher in Rebuilding After your Relationship Ends has often been struggling in the marriage for some years, swinging between pain and despair as they have attempted in various ways to reinvigorate or restore the relationship.

By the time they actually make the decision to leave, they may be less emotionally distraught than their spouse whom they have “dumped”. Conversely, the “dumpee” is thrown into their own depths of shock, anger, hurt and sadness when their spouse talks about separation and divorce. Often at this point the couple attend for counselling: the person leaving is wishing to negotiate a “good” divorce, whilst the “dumpee” desperately wants to attempt to salvage the marriage. For the counsellor, this is problematic because there is no shared agreement for what the counselling is meant to achieve, even when both partners are Christians and share a stated view that in theory they are committed to lifelong marriage. However, counselling at this time can assist a couple to repair their relationship if both are committed to change, and there has not been irreparable damage done prior.

For those couples who cannot reach agreement about restoring the relationship, they start the pathway to divorce, which is often long and difficult. In the midst of dealing with their own disordered emotional lives, they attempt to “undo” their physical years of living together; then move to establishing new homes and choosing which of the photo albums they want. Amongst all that, there are children to be cared for on a day to day basis along with working out the complicated arrangements of “time with” each parent, a legal but also a psychological necessity. Children often have their own emotional and behavioural reactions, and need extra support and reassurance through this time. Finally there are legal matters to deal with, untangling shared financial affairs and material assets, eventually sealed through a binding legal agreement arranged by lawyers. At the very end, the arrival of the finalised divorce papers after some 12 months or so can be an anti climax. 

So can we really understand what is going on for someone in the midst of this painful and complex process? Probably not, but we can learn to love our divorced brothers and sisters using some of the ideas from Cath Finney Lamb’s article about the “hows” of caring for the divorced.