No one enters a marriage expecting it to end in divorce. But the latest statistics on family breakdown make for grim reading. A child born today has only a 50 per cent chance of living with both birth parents by the age of 16. And while the number of divorces has dropped in recent years, more than 100,000 couples still split every year. Nor is divorce just a problem outside of the Church. Although some studies suggest that church-going couples are more likely to stay together, divorce among Christians is still relatively common.
What are the experiences of divorcees in the Church? Are they supported, or treated as outsiders? As a divorced woman, I’ve had first-hand experience of how the Church acts towards those who have been through a divorce.
By the age of 5, I already had preconceived ideas about marriage. I can remember thinking relationships are like the fairy tales I’d seen in Disney films. I assumed that one day in my early 20s I’d meet my magical knight in shining armour and we’d live happily ever after. Simple, right?
Disney and its predictable storylines and happy endings are all very well for children’s fairy tales but they don’t help us when we enter into an adult marriage, with its struggles and difficulties. Personally experiencing marriage and divorce in my 20s taught me things I could never learn through Disney films. One lesson was the change in how those inside the Church would view me.
I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t accompany my grandmother to church on sunny Sunday mornings; taking communion, singing hymns and attending Sunday school. It was there that I learned right from wrong, recited the Lord’s Prayer and was taught to pray before I ate.
I was baptised at 16 when I was in my first year of college. And aged 18, after a school friend’s cousin died in a car crash, I recommitted my life to God. Life became real then, and God became the person I ran to for answers.
Growing up in the Church, I learned that sex was only for marriage and that marriage was something special and sacred between two people who loved each other. I had perfect real life examples of this – my aunt and uncle’s marriage, along with my grandparents’ exuded what true Christian love and commitment should look like. But what I didn’t learn was how to deal with the realities of life when they hit.
As the Church, we’re comfortable when it comes to talking about courtship, love languages, marriage and raising a family. We’re also great at encouraging godly unions by celebrating and supporting a couple’s journey to marriage, all while providing sound biblical teaching on relationships. But few churches are positioned to effectively support members of their congregation who are facing the prospect of a divorce, currently going through a divorce, or trying to heal from the impact of a broken marriage.
“Like every Christian, when I got married I hoped that it would be forever. Not long after my son’s first birthday, my husband and I separated and a couple of years later we got divorced. My two biggest fears were to be divorced and a single parent, and now I’m both of those. Divorce was the end product of a lot of pain and things going on. It wasn’t a goal or a resolution. It was just what happened after we realised that there was no going back. People in my church found it really difficult to know how to support us both. Some church leaders, who had been very involved with us before, didn’t know how to handle it, so they just withdrew and hid. On the positive side I had some Christian friends (who weren’t close friends before) who were amazing. They reached out to me in a really difficult time. You really find out who your friends are when you go through a difficult time, that’s for sure.”
The elephant in the room
Imagine that a large pink elephant walked up to you right now and started staring at you. You wouldn't be able to ignore it, but you might try to – especially if no one else around you noticed the creature’s presence. In your mind, it’s probably not real and doesn’t actually exist, so you shake it off; secretly hoping that the thing would just go away.
It’s a strange analogy, but this is how divorce is sometimes treated in the Church. Whenever it comes into the room it’s ignored, misunderstood or bypassed. Few seem willing to address the elephant in the room.
In my mini-documentary The D Word: A personal view of divorce and the Church, I and three other Christians talk candidly about our experiences of divorce. Premier Christian Radio presenter Loretta Andrews hit the nail on the head when she explained why the Church avoids discussing divorce: “I can see why the Church shies away from it, because they don’t want it to be the norm…”
Although Loretta’s description is no doubt true for some church leaders, those in the Church who treat divorcees like unwanted lost property are without excuse. Couples who are struggling in their marriage or on the brink of divorce should never feel that they can’t speak about what they’re going through. Yet they often feel muted.
Our community’s perception and understanding of divorce needs to change
Another Christian divorcee, Erik Castenskiold spoke frankly of his experience when the topic of his divorce comes into a conversation: “You certainly get a different reaction in their face when they find out you’ve been married before,” he said. Whether it’s down to the Church fearing that people may see divorce as an ‘easy’ option, or that it somehow taints and casts the Christian faith in a bad light – it shows that our community’s perception and understanding of divorce needs to change.
What it feels like
My intention wasn’t to make people feel comfortable when they watched The D Word. Through the documentary I wanted people to gain an insight into how Christian divorcees often feel. I want them to understand our journey.
Divorce affects every part of society. That’s why the video draws together the stories of a diverse range of people. From myself, a 30-something, childless Afro-Caribbean divorcee, to Erik, a British remarried white male – the one thing we had in common was experiencing divorce while in the Church.
The D Word intentionally covered the hardest moments of our journeys, our view of God during and after, how we were treated by others and how we coped with weddings, birthdays and ex-anniversaries after being divorced. When asked about how she coped with these events, Loretta responded with the heartfelt and honest answer, “I did find it difficult but I just hardened to those things. I very much felt ‘well, obviously these things work for other people’, it just didn’t for me.”
As Laurelle Blake explains (see box), divorce is like a bereavement. It’s the death of a relationship. All the hopes and dreams of a lifelong union with the person you love and prepare to spend the rest of your life with, are gone. You go from ‘Mrs’ to ‘Ms’. From ‘us’ to ‘me’. From ‘we’ to ‘I’. Your entire life is changed – and it doesn’t help that it often happens in a very public way.
Humiliating and tedious things such as social media status changes from ‘married’ to ‘single’ provoke questions. Having to provide divorce certificates to companies for name changes can be painful. Constantly having to explain yourself to people who you haven’t seen for years is tough as well. Other more serious effects of divorce can include the deterioration of physical and mental health, as described by mother-of two Laurelle, “I lost all of my hair, I broke out into really bad eczema. I’m still an outpatient at a hospital.”
“After four years of marriage, my wife turned to me one day and said that she was having an affair. I still remember the time, the place, the smell of the room – it hits you like a train. Divorce was a word that didn’t come until a few months later when I realised that might be what we were looking at. I never wanted it. It wasn’t a nice word to think about. I was fortunate to have people come round me in church. It wasn’t the people you expected, it was some different people who were amazing at just listening and coming alongside me. I was fortunate enough to go on a course for divorcees so that helped me a little, but I think the biggest support was friends being there and normal Christian life of having home groups and church. This wasn’t God’s plan. But I held onto a picture of God as a rock that I could hold onto and not fall any further.”
I’ve been divorced for five years. It’s been a long and traumatic journey. I’ve lost shocking amounts of weight, not to mention my confidence and even my sense of self-worth. At one point, I nearly lost my mind. Thankfully, I’ve had awesome family and friends around me who have been pillars of support when I felt like things were too hard to deal with.
Having said that, not everyone has been so supportive. I’ve been reminded that the Bible says remarriage is a sin and whoever marries a divorced woman will be committing adultery. I have been described as ‘tainted’ and I’ve sometimes felt as though I haven’t been taken seriously when I’ve shared my story, because of my age. Years on, I’m a whole, confident and mature woman who knows herself better than ever before. God’s mercy and love for me is more apparent than it was and I feel closer to him.
“I’m not divorced yet, but it’s the next stage of the process for me. I’ve always been very against divorce. I knew marriage was a lot of hard work. When I first separated from my husband, it was with an intention to get back together, it was never meant to come to this. There’s been a lot of shock from my church circle. I’ve had people ask me if I really tried, or that they never imagined that might happen to us. When you’re going through a divorce there is a massive loss because you’re rediscovering yourself as an individual again, now without your husband. Grieving is what I call it. There have been occasions where I’ve attended a wedding and am fine. However, there have been other times where I’ve had to leave and go into the toilet because I’m crying and asking questions – trying to be happy for the person but still questioning why my marriage didn’t work and why this couldn’t happen for me. You just ask questions over and over again.”
Although I’m through the hardest seasons, living with the day-to-day reality that I’m no longer married can be challenging. These moments are more apparent when you have friends who are married, engaged or in a 51 relationship. Old feelings from the past can take you back to those moments of deep sadness and loneliness.
The perception of divorce in the Church and the lack of understanding of its effects can be hugely isolating for those going through the process. It’s easy to feel like an in-betweener, a failure, or someone left on the shelf. Sometimes it feels like no one really knows where to place you. You ask yourself questions: “Why didn’t my marriage work?”, “Was there something wrong with me?”, “Am I going to be single for the rest of my life?”
The bestselling book and blockbuster film The Girl on the Train grittily portrayed how destructive the breakdown of a marriage can be on the party that desperately wanted the marriage to work. It also showed how, if not given support, the impact of divorce can spiral into a dungeon of depression, darkness and despair for the person facing it.
The Church’s response
The Church needs to change. Instead of shying away from the issue of divorce or simply sweeping it under the carpet, more effort should be made to come alongside and support Christian divorcees. If the congregation can’t do that, leaders should at least point people in the direction of other help and support.
Erik Castenskiold heads up the Recovery from Divorce and Separation course, which was developed in partnership with Holy Trinity Brompton. Offering some advice on what the Church could do better, Erik says, “It’s important for us to have a discussion about it so we can have a healthier view, because we don’t talk about it as a Church anymore.”
If you’re reading this and you’re a church leader, or a relative or friend of someone going through this, please don’t let your lack of understanding stunt your actions towards those in your congregation that desperately need your support.
Disney characters are allowed to have happy-ever-afters because they’re fictional. Unfortunately real life doesn’t always work like that. So when things don’t go to plan, as Loretta says, “We the Church should be showing people how to deal with life when things don’t go the way we expect.” The Church often prefers to focus on success stories but Jesus can still be found in the darker moments. We are told to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, ESV). Having Christians around who don’t judge or look the other way, but instead stare that elephant in the face and weep with you can make all the difference.