TRIUMPHING OVER DIVORCE 101
By Gretchen J Stockman, MA, LMFT
Divorce is an alarmingly common occurrence in today’s society. According to statistics published at divorcestatistics.org, 45%-50% of first marriages end in divorce: 60%-67% of second marriages end in divorce; and 70%-73% of third marriages end in divorce. Add to this the demise of relationships that fall short of legal matrimony, and there is a whole lot of heart-ache going on out there! While there is considerable debate regarding the accuracy of statistics like these, it is easily recognized that divorce is rampant, even among Christian couples.
The main purpose of this article isn’t to comment on divorce itself, but to provide inspiration and direction should a divorce happen to you or someone you care about.
Some divorces are long in emerging and, by the time they culminate, are no surprise. Others are sudden and unexpected. Either way, a dissolution of marriage is marked by a tremendous sense of loss. A variety of feelings may punctuate your typical mood, such as apathy, numbness, depression, relief, anxiety, fear, despair, shame, embarrassment, rage, and often an all-encompassing intense emotional anguish. Hope that things would get better are dashed, dreams and plans for the future dismantled, and trust is irretrievably broken. It can feel like you’ve lost “everything” and you must start your life all over again.
The truth is, you haven’t lost everything and you don’t have to start your life all over again!
You lost a spouse and a marriage. Perhaps you lost having your children live with you. You probably lost some possessions and maybe friends. Peace, security, and happiness may seem to have been lost (or maybe you actually gained it!) You may have lost self-respect. But if you take an inventory, you will note there are many things you haven’t lost. Your salvation and relationship with Jesus? Your children (they will always be your children, regardless of where they live)? Friends? Employment? Your church? Everything you have overcome in life, the things that God has wrought in you, everything you have learned? Strengths? Memories? Dreams? There are things that no one can take away from you, that you did not lose or do not have to lose.
And the loss of your emotional well-being need only be temporary.
You can move forward and live your life today. You are not starting over from the beginning, if that were even possible. You are picking up from where you are at.
Let’s look at some ways to live again!
TRIUMPHING OVER DIVORCE 101
Establish a Support System
Let people help. Proverbs 17:17 states that “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Similarly, John Donne’s phrase, “No Man is an Island” is widely quoted to illustrate the fact that people need interconnectedness with others to face the twists and turns of life.
A good support system is typically comprised of Jesus, close friends, loving and healthy family members, a pastor, church elders/leaders, or a mentor, and often a professional Christian counselor. One golden rule is to discriminate between negative, defeated people and those who tenderly care for you, who allow you to be real while offering constructive support, and who encourage you in your walk with the Lord.
Allow Time to Grieve
Grieving the loss of your partner and marriage is normal and necessary. Let’s be honest, you will need to grieve even if you caused or wanted the divorce or it was necessary in some way. It is highly unlikely that you embarked on your marriage without hopes and dreams of a happy future. You have lost what it was, what could have been, should have been, and/or what you wished it would have become. Don’t be tempted to minimize, deny, justify, rationalize, or sweep such a painful life event under the rug. Give yourself permission to feel and process ALL of your feelings (even those as a Christian you don’t feel a right to have) and say “goodbye” to what you need to say goodbye to.
Working with a counselor and/or attending a grief & loss or divorce support group often is a tremendous help in working through the pain of divorce.
Your emotions, or lack of them, may fight you in the beginning. Give yourself permission to mourn, yes, but resist the urge to crawl in bed and pull the covers over your head or drown your pain in destructive activities.
Breakfast with Jesus
The centerpiece of your support system should be Jesus. He is the Friend that “sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24), who promises to draw near to you when you draw near to Him (James 4:8), and who says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).
God will quiet you with His love. – Zephaniah 3: 17
During your healing process, regularly pour out your heart to God. When going through something rough, I like the format that King David espoused. For example, in Psalm 31 David shared his feelings of turmoil with God: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; My eye wastes away with grief, yes, my soul and my body! For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing.” Yet a few verses later, he speaks these faith-filled words: “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand.” Be honest about where you’re at in your circumstance and emotions, but also let your mouth testify of God’s faithfulness, provision, protection, and healing.
One of the suggestions I give to all clients facing a struggle of some kind is to have Breakfast with Jesus. In today’s hustle and bustle, with family members going in various different directions upon rising, few families eat breakfast together. After a divorce, breakfast time can be especially lonely, and a painful reminder of what and who is missing. Instead of facing this meal alone, consider seizing the opportunity for intimacy with Jesus. Visualize the Lord sitting across the table from you as you eat and talk with Him as you would any close friend or family member. Bring items like your Bible, a devotional, and a notebook. Worship Him with your words and singing, and if they are there, let your tears fall into his bottle (Psalm 56:8). Encourage yourself with His Word and seek the comfort of His presence.
Seeking God in the morning, even if it’s brief, can help set your mood and your focus for the entire day. Of course there is no right or wrong time to spend time with God. The important thing is to make the time to connect with Him some way, at some time, every day.
Practice Good Self-Care
Self-care means looking after your own needs--body, soul, and spirit. This includes good nutrition, physical exercise, intellectual stimulation, creative outlet, adequate rest, social interaction, fun and recreation, well-managed finances, and disciplines that promote spiritual growth and a close relationship with God. Taking care of yourself is not selfish. To the contrary, it is your responsibility as a steward of the life God has given you and your role as an ambassador of Christ in this earth. You may be a father or mother, a sister or brother, a son or daughter, an aunt or an uncle, a grandparent, a friend, a co-worker, an employer or employee, a neighbor, or worker in the church. No matter which hats you wear, your value and impact does not end with being or not being someone’s spouse.
Sometimes, when you are feeling sad, hurt, angry, or guilty, motivation for self-care lags. You may feel like numbing your feelings with food, drugs, or alcohol or distracting yourself with excessive work, sleep, gaming, social media, shopping, or other indulgences. Or conversely you may suffer appetite loss, stay up too late, toss and turn all night, or lose interest in activities you once enjoyed or were committed to. It is at such times when actions need to be especially governed by conscious choices and not feelings---choices that reflect what you know to do, not what you feel like doing. Poor lifestyle choices can and often do intensify the negative emotions associated with divorce and can become additional problems in and of themselves. Healthy lifestyle choices, on the other hand, can facilitate positive emotions and support the recovery process so that you can pursue the future and hope that God has for you.
Make Your Home Your Sanctuary
Home should be a physically and emotionally safe place for you and your children, if you have any living with you. If your home is or ever has been a place of strife, violence, or other trouble, now is the time to restore it or make it the place of peace, pleasance, and safety it is meant to be for all who dwell there. I have several ideas for tackling this.
First, pray over your home. Ask for God’s presence to fill it and pray for His provision and protection. This can include the symbolic act of anointing the door posts with oil, serving as a point of contact to invite the Holy Spirit, command all evil spirits to depart, and proclaim the sanctification of the home. In Exodus 12, the Jews were instructed to anoint their doorposts with blood so that the death angel would “pass over” their homes and no harm would come. Sanctification and holiness are no longer obtained through the shedding of the blood of animals, the blood of Jesus has been shed for this purpose once and for all, and the Holy Spirit, represented by the oil, is the seal of this fact and our redemption. In addition to anointing the outer doors, stand in every room and pray over it. If it is a bedroom, anoint the bedposts with oil and pray for the life, the healing, and the specific concerns of the person who sleeps there. If it is a living area, pray for all who come in to sense the sweet spirit of the Lord.
Making your home your sanctuary may require getting help and support for yourself and/or your children if anger and acting out have become a problem. Disrespect and disciplinary issues are common and should be addressed, yet without withholding the validation of or prohibiting expression of real feelings. Books, videos, articles, blogs, and other materials abound with suggestions for dealing with negative emotions in healthy ways. Support groups for both children and adults are available in many churches and communities, and often professional counselors offer individual or group counseling for those impacted by divorce.
Finally, if it isn’t already, now may be a good time to make your home look and feel the way you like it! If you have children at home, ask them how they would feel if you make some changes—some children derive a much-needed sense of continuity when as many things as possible stay the same, while other children welcome the idea of changing things up. Whether you have the financial resources to do a complete overhaul, are able to start with only one change at a time, or have moved to a different residence--if the light is green, this is a chance to tailor your surroundings to your own personal tastes. If you like light, get rid of the dark. If you like dark, get rid of the light. Plant flowers or get rid of the flowers and put in beauty bark or gravel. Modify the décor, the furniture, or paint a room a different color. Swap out the bedding or get a new bed. Clean the carpets or get new flooring. Hang up different pictures. Dispose of the curtains and install blinds, or replace blinds with curtains. Put things where you want them and get rid of things you don’t want. If you’re a man, want a man-cave and haven’t had one, make one! Fill your home with sights, smells, and sounds that are pleasing to you and are an expression of who you are to all who enter in. Changes you implement can represent a fresh start and a new beginning.
Pour out Your Heart to God
The centerpiece of your support system should be Jesus. He is the Friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18: 24), who promises to draw near to you when you draw near to Him (James 4: 8), and who says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28)
Make it a point to regularly pour out your heart to God during your healing process. I like the format that King David espoused when going through something rough. In Psalm 31, David shared his feelings of turmoil with God: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; My eye wastes away with grief, yes, my soul and my body! For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing.” Yet a few verses later, he speaks these faith-filled words: “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand.” Be honest about where you are in your circumstance and emotions. But also let your mouth testify of God’s faithfulness, provision, protection, and healing.
Pray Over Your Home
First, pray over your home. Ask for God’s presence to fill it and pray for His provision and protection. This can include the symbolic act of anointing the door posts with oil, serving as a point of contact to invite the Holy Spirit into your home, command all evil spirits to depart from it, and proclaim the sanctification of the home. In Exodus 12, the Jews were instructed to anoint their doorposts with blood so that the death angel would “pass over” their homes and no harm would come. Sanctification and holiness are no longer obtained through the shedding of the blood of animals, for the blood of Jesus has been shed for this purpose once and for all. It is the Holy Spirit, represented by the oil, who is the seal of this fact and of our redemption. In addition to anointing the outer doors, stand in every room and pray over it. If it is a bedroom, anoint the bedposts with oil and pray for the life, the healing, and the specific concerns of the person who sleeps there. If it is a living area, pray for all who come in to sense the sweet spirit of the Lord.
Reach Out for Help
Making your home your sanctuary may also require getting help and support for yourself and/or your children if anger and acting out have become a problem. Disrespect and disciplinary issues are common and should be addressed, yet without withholding undermining or denying people’s real feelings. Books, videos, articles, blogs, and other materials abound with suggestions for dealing with negative emotions in healthy ways. Support groups for both children and adults are available in many churches and communities, and professional counselors often offer individual or group counseling for those impacted by divorce.
Consider Changes to Your Home
Finally, now may be a good time to make your home look and feel the way you like it, if it isn’t already what you want it to be. If you have children at home, ask them how they would feel if you make some changes—some children derive a much-needed sense of continuity when as many things as possible stay the same, while other children welcome the idea of changing things up. Whether you have the financial resources to do a complete overhaul, are able to start with only one change at a time, or have moved to a different residence ̶ if the light is green, this is a chance to tailor your surroundings to your own personal tastes. If you like light, get rid of the dark. If you like dark, get rid of the light. Plant flowers or get rid of the flowers and put in beauty bark or gravel. Modify the décor or the furniture, or paint a room a different color. Swap out the bedding or get a new bed. Clean the carpets or get new flooring. Hang up different pictures. Dispose of the curtains and install blinds, or replace blinds with curtains. Put things where you want them and get rid of things you don’t want. If you’re a man, want a man-cave and haven’t had one, make one. Fill your home with sights, smells, and sounds that are pleasing to you and are an expression of who you are to all who enter in. The changes you implement can represent a fresh start and a new beginning.
Do Things You Used to Do
Sometimes in a marriage, you give up a hobby or favorite pastime—maybe even more than one. This can be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one of the hobbies you use to enjoy was expensive and your financial priorities changed when you got married. Maybe it was time-consuming. Maybe it wasn’t something your spouse enjoyed or was more appropriate for a single person. It’s possible you lost interest or just stopped looking for or finding opportunities to indulge. Now might be the time to resurrect activities and pursuits you once enjoyed but haven’t engaged in for quite some time, maybe even years.
What did you love to do? Hike? Ski? Going to concerts or plays? Drives in the country? Putting together model cars? Motorcycle riding? Scrapbooking? Participating in a club? Attending Little League games? Sailing? Make a list of all the activities and hobbies you can remember ever enjoying in your life and pick out one or more to bring back from the dead.
Try Something New
Even early on, you should take breaks from grieving.
Have you ever thought about taking a class or exploring something that has piqued your curiosity but you didn’t follow through? When depression, apathy, and isolation loom, it can be an excellent time to nudge yourself and commit to something such as a painting class, dance lessons, or horseback riding.
If a friend or acquaintance invites you to do something you’ve never done before or are not sure you’re really interested in, instead of automatically declining, why not give it a go in the spirit of adventure? You just might discover a new passion, and make new friends along the way! And you won’t be sitting home mired in your memories and hurt.
Get Involved In a Ministry or Cause
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work. (2 Thes. 2:16-17)
All believers are called to serve. The Bible does not say we only serve when things are going terrific in our lives. Often, to get out of a funk we need to get out of ourselves. One of the ways to do that is find or start a ministry or cause that we care about and get involved.
Most, if not all churches, have in-house ministries like greeter, worship team, or children’s department, as well as outreach ministries such as missions, clothing the homeless, or distributing food baskets at Thanksgiving. Some ministries require weekly participation, while others are seasonal or a one-time deal involving a day, a weekend, or some other limited block of time.
Likewise, the world is full of important and impassioned causes. The funds are often low and the workers few. Consider the many possibilities, such as tree planting through the Audubon Society, becoming a Boy or Girl Scout leader, volunteering in an animal shelter, distributing toys to children sick in hospitals, visiting the disabled and elderly in nursing homes, joining a search and rescue group, getting involved in a political campaign, or becoming and activist for social change, just to name just a few. There are countless opportunities everywhere to give of your finances, your time, your skills, your labor, and/or your knowledge to benefit others and the world we live in.
In Acts 20:35, the Apostle Paul quoted Jesus, saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” There is a blessing when we give, both to others and to us—it feels good to give. In the dearth of positive feelings, giving of yourself is one way to produce some.
Learn From the Experience
After a period of grieving, attending to your wounds, and starting the process of rebuilding your life, it is time to reflect and learn from your own mistakes. “MY mistakes?” I can hear some of you gasping. “You don’t understand what my spouse did to me. The divorce wasn’t my fault!”
The old saying, “It takes two!” can be insensitive and inaccurate. Clearly, in many divorce situations, one partner is responsible for considerably more damage than the other, such as in the cases of addiction, adultery, and abuse. Still, in any relationship of substantial duration, more often than not the offending parties had marital counterparts. Examples are an addict wife whose husband was an enabler, an unfaithful husband who felt neglected by his wife after the baby was born, or an abuser who married someone who could be victimized. People do not generally choose and employ destructive behaviors in a vacuum. The issue isn’t as much about blaming as it is about participation, and facing your own weaknesses and flaws, especially since those are the only ones you have any control over.
As I have navigated through my own painful experiences in life, my prayer has continually been, “Lord, do not let my suffering be for nothing!” Always remain humble and teachable. Even if your contributions to your marital problems seem small by comparison, identify what they are and seek out your “takeaways” so that you can protect yourself and those you love better, as well as offer a healthier you in current and future relationships.
Forgive & Seek Forgiveness
Emotional and spiritual health requires a willingness to forgive anyone who has wronged or mistreated us and to forgive ourselves for the ways in which we have harmed others. Often there are other people who have hurt you or whom you have hurt in addition to your ex-partner. Examples are in-laws, your own relatives, friends, church leaders, and even children. Forgiveness does not change the fact of what has occurred, or the wrongness of it. It is not a feeling first, but a decision made in the heart. You may have to decide to forgive many times for a while before the feeling of forgiveness follows and sticks along with the decision. Don’t give up! God has commanded us to forgive, and as you seek Him in this matter He will help you to stop dwelling on the past and what cannot be changed, and to release yourself and others from your bitterness and unforgiveness.
It is also appropriate to seek forgiveness and make amends to those you have hurt, where possible. Although it can, owning up to your own failures and sin to a partner you are now separated or divorced from does not have to have anything to do with reconciliation. Whether you choose to meet face-to-face or correspond with a heartfelt letter or some other form of communication, sometimes the apology is better heard and received when a little time has gone by and emotions have had a chance to de-escalate. Be prayerful.
Dream New Dreams
If you will press through the damage-control phase in the aftermath of divorce, grief and loss eventually gives way to a “new normal” and with it the capacity to start dreaming again about life possibilities. With the freedom of singleness comes an opportunity to make some rather independent decisions about what course you would like your life to take. Where do you want to live? What self-improvements do you want to make? What career pursuits sound appealing? What experiences would you like to have? Would you ever consider marriage again? Broached with an attitude of curiosity and anticipation, this can be a very exhilarating time contemplation and planning.
Draw Up a Five-Year Plan and a Bucket List
Once you have ideas about some things you’d like to do with your life, it’s time to develop some goals and action plans. A great tool for achieving this is a developing a Five-Year Plan. If you have the ability to do so, I suggest taking an entire weekend for yourself and going to a peaceful place, like the woods, ocean, or mountains, where you can rest, think, pray, and brainstorm with few distractions. Bring only your Bible, notebook, and basic necessities for your travel. Even if you can’t spare a weekend, carve out a chunk of time, find a private place locally, and get ready for God to meet you there.
During this special time read, pray, and take lots of notes. Don’t discount ideas that come to mind just because it sounds like you in your own head. Consider possible goals for various areas of your life: spirituality, relationships, recreation & hobbies, career, learning/education, home and location, ministry and/or civic pursuits, travel, family traditions, etc. You may want to organize your plan into 6 month, 1 year, and 5 year sections. Keep in mind that the plan is not intended to be carved in stone, but somewhat fluid. Expect to make modifications over time.
A Bucket List is simply a list of all the things you would like to see, do, or experience at least once in your life. Things on the list can range from the totally doable to the outrageous long shot. You probably won’t do everything on the list before leaving this earth, but in making the list you will have identified your yearnings, which increases the likelihood of pursuing and satisfying some of them, which will improve your overall enjoyment of life.
HOW CHRISTIAN COUNSELING CAN HELP YOU HEAL FROM DIVORCE
Divorce is a traumatic, major life event and should not be shouldered alone. A Christian counselor can be a vital source of support and will listen with empathy as you sort out all of your thoughts, feelings, and concerns. If you or someone you care about is going through divorce or struggling with the aftermath, I have personal and professional experience to help. Together, we can explore ideas and strategies for getting through such a painful experience, regaining clarity, and moving toward goals for a fulfilling future. To reach out for understanding and compassionate care, feel free to contact me.