Surviving divorce-how you can help

Care for those who are divorced includes support through the initial pain and emotional upset and then guidance and counsel as they rebuild themselves and their lives.

Margaret Hempe was an associate pastor of the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church. She has since retired.

Tears fill Mary's eyes and her voice quavers as she tells me, "John is leaving me. He's already filed for a divorce. Oh, Peg, I don't know what I'm going to do. This all seems like a terrible nightmare. How could he do this to me and the children? I wish I were dead!" She bursts into uncontrollable tears, pouring out her anguish, fear, anger, and pain.

At the moment Mary honestly isn't sure she can survive this experience. But she can, and, as her pastor and friend, I can help her do it. I know she can be cause after 25 years of marriage I went through a painful divorce myself and survived. I know I can help Mary deal with her divorce because in the 20 years since mine I have been helping other people go through that wrenching experience. I know it is possible to bring healing, encouragement, and insight to people who, if left to deal with the pain of divorce alone, might well sink into bitterness and despair.

As a pastor or pastor's spouse, you have probably known someone like Mary (or John),1 and wish there was more you could give than the words "I'm sorry." In this article I will be sharing how I, a female pastor, deal with people in Mary's situation. A female Bible worker or pas tor or pastor's spouse can be the best friend a newly divorced woman can have. The male pastor, of course, can use the same steps in dealing with divorced men, but will need to modify some of them when the person he is ministering to is female.

First aid for divorce

Initially Mary needs support and help simply to deal with the emotional trauma of the divorce. At this point my role is something like that of a physician aiding a skier who is lying on a ski slope with a broken leg. The physician's first concern is to prevent or deal with shock and alleviate pain; there is plenty of time later on to worry about physical therapy and rehabilitation measures. Here are some of the major steps I take to minister to Mary in the initial fear, grief, and pain of her divorce:

Communicate her worth. I let her know that I see her as a survivor, even a "survivor plus," and not as a loser, a pathetic and helpless victim. I tell her clearly and strongly that I believe in her, that she is still a person of great worth with a lot to give to the world.

Pray. I pray with Mary, asking God to be close to her. But I also pray for myself, seeking His guidance: "Lord, how can I best support and help Mary? Help me, O God, to provide the safe climate she needs for comfort and nurture. As she experiences the devastation of divorce, help me to lighten her load so that eventually healing and growth can take place."

Encourage biblical optimism. I share with Mary a biblical concept that helped me greatly when I went through my divorce. It is based on Romans 8:28, and I express it like this: "God has something better for you than you have ever known."

I don't mean that divorce itself is a good thing, because it isn't. I am convinced, however, that even during the pain and loss suffered in divorce, God works with His children. He will help us to grow, to expand the horizons of our lives, to find the good and meaningful things He has in store for us. He can bring blessings out of our darkest hours.

I encourage Mary to begin imagining what could come into her life that would make it better than it has ever been. "Let failures inspire you rather than defeat you" are my nudging words.

Enlist friends. I ask people who know Mary to send her short affirming notes and cards. I try to get her involved in a divorce recovery group as soon as possible. (Many churches and Christian counseling centers conduct these groups regularly.) Such a group will give Mary new friends, and also many helpful tools she can use in coping with her situation. I recommend a group that includes both men and women, for in such a setting Mary can learn—if she hasn't before—how to relate to men as friends and not simply as romantic partners.

The friendships that she makes in a divorce recovery group support her intellectually, as group members share books, lectures, and seminars; emotionally, as she sees that others share her feelings in time of need, and are only as far away as her telephone; spiritually, through shared prayer and shared values; practically, in providing everything from baby sitting to expertise for dealing with the new financial challenges that a divorce often brings; and recreationally, as the group shares concerts, plays, holiday dinners, and other activities.

Minimize painful memories. Together in prayer we turn John over to Jesus. Then—since I am a pastor, this may surprise you—I urge Mary to stop praying for him. Why? Because more than anything else, she needs to heal. Whenever John's name passes through her mind, scabs are torn off, the wound is reopened, and healing is impaired. In His wisdom and love God brings others into John's life who pray for him.

I do not urge Mary to attend church during this short time of intense pain, unless it is comfortable for her to do so. The church, which once meant stability and friendship, may now be a place filled with painful memories "John and I stood right here when John, Jr., was dedicated." Well-meaning church friends may ask, "Have you heard from John?" Or even worse: "Don't you think you can find some way to patch things up? John is such a wonderful person." Seeing happy families sitting together, or listening to a sermon about "building happy homes," is not likely to help Mary right now.

Listen. I listen attentively to Mary, listen some more, and then keep listening. I don't listen as a prelude to giving her advice; I listen simply to be sure I really hear her. I listen acceptingly, encouraging Mary to let out all the hostility and pain she is feeling, and I do not pass judgment or tell her "You shouldn't feel that way." I listen patiently, knowing that she will probably need to express her pain over and over and over again before she begins to find relief. An impatient "I know, I know you already told me that" will not help her.

Love and accept her. I express my acceptance to Mary not only in words but through gestures such as a pat on the shoulder, a hug, and holding her hand while we pray. She is my friend; she is important to me. Because I am divorced myself, I tell Mary, "I understand something of what you are feeling." (I would never use that expression if I weren't divorced.)

I do not defend John or talk about mistakes she made that contributed to the breakup of the marriage. This does not mean that I am naive; it is simply that I want to help Mary, and I know that, at this point, being "objective" about her flaws is not the way to do it. (People who cannot avoid raising these issues during this difficult time are not the persons to try to support those undergoing this trauma.)

Watch for excessive stress. I watch for the signs that warn that Mary is suffering excessive stress. Among these signs are prolonged periods of sleeplessness, total loss of appetite, persistent headache and vomiting, dramatic and severe mood swings, and severe exhaustion. If I see these symptoms developing, I urge Mary to see a medical doctor. If necessary, I may even make the appointment for her and accompany her to the office.

Encourage a daily walking program. Even if it means going along with her, I encourage Mary to begin a program of walking daily. Walking two to three miles a day is not excessive, assuming that she is in normal physical health. The exercise will help her not only physically but mentally and it's good for me, too! This kind of personal support is something that only another woman can give. Here a woman from the church who is available and willing can make an in valuable contribution.

Teach problem ownership. There will be times when Mary will feel absolutely overwhelmed and will say to me, "I can't bear this! My children are upset about the divorce, my in-laws are angry with me, my parents tell me that I should try to win John back (as if I could). Church members who I thought were my friends ignore me, and some women treat me as though I were out to get their husbands.

I've got bills that I have no idea how I'm going to pay. And tomorrow I'm due in court to listen to John tell the judge what an awful wife I was. I just can't handle it all!"

For a person facing emotional over load, the concept of problem ownership is particularly crucial. Here's how I ex plain it to Mary: "God never promised to give you strength to bear problems that belong to your parents, your children, and your former spouse. They own those problems, and they must deal with them. Don't accept their burdens as belonging to you handling the problems that you own will be enough for you to bear."

Mary must deal with her own emotions and behavior and seek eventually to make them loving and constructive. Even if she tries, she cannot solve the problems that belong to others.

Introduce how-to books. To help in crease Mary's understanding of her situation, I introduce her to how-to books about coping with divorce. To maintain her interest in the reading, I set up specific times at which I meet with her and we review and discuss what she has been reading. Some of the books I recommend are:

Amy R. Mumford, By Death or Divorce: It Hurts to Lose (Denver: Accent Books, 1981).

David Augsburger, Caring Enough to Forgive (Venture, Calif.: Regal Books, 1981).

Jim Smoke, Growing Through Divorce (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1986).

Jim Smoke, Suddenly Single (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1982).

Lee Salk, What Every Child Would Like Parents to Know About Divorce (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).

Suggest professional help. If it seems necessary for Mary's emotional health, I will suggest that she see a professional therapist who can help her deal with emotional problems that go beyond my level of competence and training. Again, I may make an appointment for her and go with her on her first visit to the office.

Help during the second phase

The length of time during which a per son involved in a divorce suffers intense pain varies with the individual. Three to nine months is common. A second phase follows that generally lasts six to twelve months. (It usually takes two to four years of processing the emotions after the divorce is finalized before a person is ready to marry again.)

As time passes, Mary completes the first phase of recuperating from the divorce, beginning to recover from the initial shock and pain it brought. She needs to take concrete steps to rebuild her life and assure herself of continued growth. To move her into the second phase, I say something like "You know, Mary, neither you nor God Himself can change history. What has happened has happened. What do you say we get on with life?"

In this stage of Mary's development, I focus with her on these major areas: Increasing her confidence. I help Mary to see how her inner strength is increasing. I point out decisions that she has made and followed through on that would have been difficult for her in the paralyzing ambivalence that accompanied the initial shock of the divorce. When I pray with her now, I thank God for providing fresh starts in life and praise Him for the strengths He has given her. I celebrate with her the resurrection of her spirit, the movement from "I want to die" to once again cherishing life and wanting to live it to the full.

Making her choices. Mary is ready now, in a way that she was not earlier in her recovery, to apply logic and reason to her situation. But rather than focusing them on her past, with thoughts like "You made some real mistakes with John," I apply them to her future. "Mary," I tell her, "what you choose now will make a real difference in your future. God has given us principles that can make your future a bright, beautiful, rewarding ad venture. But it is up to you to shape that future by making the choices that will allow those principles to operate in your life."

Among the choices I encourage Mary to make are these:

1. The choice to have faith. Too many people emerge from the pain of divorce locked in paralyzing bitterness, blaming God for what they have experienced. I tell Mary that unless she chooses to believe Scripture when it tells us that God loves us, wants what is best for us, weeps with us when we weep, and rejoices with us when we find the joy of life, she may also experience that bitterness. God has provided abundant evidence of His care in every life, including Mary's. But it is up to her to make the choice of faith, and that choice will shape her future.

2. The choice to forgive. Most of all, Mary needs to learn to forgive herself. Now that the initial pain is past, she will probably begin recognizing that she made mistakes in her relationship with John for no one is a perfect spouse. Faced with that realization, Mary may replace her anger at John with self-hatred, overcome by thoughts such as "I see now that the divorce was all my fault. No one could live with me!" But as she confesses her mistakes, God forgives her. She must choose to accept His forgiveness and to make it real by forgiving her self.

Beyond forgiving herself, Mary will further her own growth if she can forgive John. I do not mean that she should take him back into her bed or home. Unless significant changes have been made, taking him back would only lead to yet an other agonizing breakup in the future. But anger and bitterness consume tremendous amounts of energy. If Mary can come to a realistic view of John, seeing the weaknesses that were so destructive to their marriage and yet wishing him no ill, she will free her energies for use in building a better life.

3. The choice to love. Loving is always a risk, and when Mary took that risk with John, she got hurt badly. She may be tempted to say "I'll never take that risk again," and to distance herself emotion ally from her children, other family members, and even her best and most loyal friends. But as a single person, she needs more than ever the emotional strength and sustenance that can come to her from these relationships. She needs to choose to love and to allow her self to be loved.

Making her commitments. As Mary moves into her future, it is also important that she make two basic commitments. Without them, she may never find the better things that God has for her, and may end up trapped in nonproductive and even destructive behaviors. That's why I discuss these commitments with Mary and urge her to make them. They are:

1. A commitment to herself and her growth as a person. The specifics of such a commitment depend, to some extent, on who Mary is and what specific strengths she wishes to develop in her self. Whatever those may be, however, she must choose not to be intimidated by the past, nor to be immobilized by fear of the future. She must commit herself to living life actively and eagerly, to being involved in the wonders of the world God has created, to being, in John Towell's powerful phrase, "fully human, fully alive."2

2. A commitment to God and His values. Like other divorced people, Mary faces some alluring traps. Having been married, Mary knows how enjoyable sex can be. In addition, her divorce may give her a sense of freedom from the constraints that formerly governed her life. Under such circumstances she could fall into casual sexual relationships because of her desire for closeness and warmth and her need to reassure herself that she is still attractive to the opposite sex. Such relationships are destructive under any circumstances, and have grown even more dangerous with the tragic spread of diseases such as AIDS.

Beyond that trap, Mary may find her self drawn toward a variety of destructive compulsive behaviors overeating, over spending, chemical dependencies, etc. To escape emotional pain and challenges, too many take refuge in such behaviors. God's love and the values He has set out in Scripture can help Mary to avoid these traps. He has not given us these values to rob us of happiness, but to keep us free from destructive practices. That may not always be evident to Mary in the short term, which is why it is so important that she make a long-term commitment toiler God and the values He has communicated.

Setting her short- and long-term goals. "Mary," I say, "Do what's right because it is right. Jesus Christ has seen you through this far; He's not going to leave you now." That's not an abstract motto to me; it is the reality of the life I have lived since my divorce, and I know it can be Mary's, too.

I encourage Mary to think through and then write down for herself short- and long-term goals for her life. To aid her thinking, I suggest that she ask her self such questions as: "What kind of per son do I want to be a year from now? What do I want to be doing? Where will I be living? What dream do I have that I can make real in the next five years? What kind of role model do I want to be for my children?"

I have seen the power that is set free when people think through and write down such goals as: I will build and enjoy a new identity for myself. I will continue to accept God's forgiveness for the mistakes I made that contributed to the breakup of my marriage. I will continue to believe that because God accepts and loves me, I am acceptable and lovable. I will be a good parent and an interesting, involved friend. I will be more involved in the church because I need its fellow ship and the opportunities for service and challenges to growth it provides, and be cause I believe I have something of unique value to offer the church.

Much has changed for Mary since she first came to see me. In the time that has passed since her divorce, I have seen God's grace at work in her life, sustaining her through an experience that may be as close to hell as most people go through. I have seen Him strengthen her as she has begun to rebuild herself and her life. As she has dealt with the pain of the past and begun to shape the future, I have had the joy of helping her through many difficult moments.

When I see Mary now, she looks sharp and has a confident air about her. She is motivated and enthusiastic about life. She respects herself, and because of that self-respect and her self-confidence, she has good relationships with others. She has rebuilt her life and has, with God's help, brought something positive out of the terrible minus of divorce.

Mary will always be my friend, but she no longer needs my help in the same way she did right after the divorce. I have done what I had hoped and prayed I would be able to do—I have worked myself out of a job!

1. The names used in this article are not the real names of the persons who were involved in this experience.

2. John Powell, Fully Human, Fully Alive (Valencia, Calif.: Tabor Pub., 1976).

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Margaret Hempe was an associate pastor of the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church. She has since retired.

November 1990

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