Spiritual cul-de-sac: How the church fails the divorced

July 10, 2013
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I never expected to be a divorce statistic. I confess that I clung to a particular and private hubris: I thought that because my husband and I were ordained, we were immune to divorce. After all, didn’t I as a pastor understand the spiritual aspects of marriage better than most? Surely my faith life was such that my marriage could not fail.

Yet seven years after my wedding I found myself struggling to make sense of a lost marriage. I learned that a strong faith does not guarantee a strong marriage. I also found that divorce had an unexpected impact on my own spiritual life and my relationship with God. It was as if a firestorm had cleared away the forest, burning down the trees of my self-deception and hubris. I found myself in a landscape where it was impossible to hide from the roving eye of God. Life in this new landscape was barren at times, and yet the ashes nourished growth.

Despite the warm and loving support of family and friends, few truly understood what was happening to me. Deep spiritual questions plagued me. When I married, I believed that it was God’s will for me to be in this relationship for life. Was I wrong? Had I failed God? Could it be God’s will that a marriage end? What did God want of me now? There were few people with whom I could discuss such questions. I couldn’t share the yawning grief that would suddenly bloom when I stumbled on my husband’s handwriting scribbled in the margin of a book. I couldn’t explain the persistent questions about who I was without my spouse. And I couldn’t describe how I was wrangling with God and questioning my faith. The spiritual isolation was profound.

Over time I met and spoke with other people of faith who were divorced, and I began to wonder if there were parts of this experience that we held in common. Were any of the spiritual struggles the same? How did divorce affect their understanding of God? Was it possible to grow spiritually through divorce? My investigation into these questions led me to research and write about divorce.

I considered the role of clergy and congregations in the process of a member’s divorce. How could congregations reach out to and embrace those going through divorce? What could clergy learn from hearing the diverse voices of those who had been down this road? They receive little seminary training for the spiritual and theological questions that arise from divorce. In my case, I learned more from speaking with those involved in divorce. Their struggles, questions and stories, along with my own experience and reflections, helped me see my role as a pastor more clearly.

If and when divorce happens, it usually comes as a surprise. I have yet to meet a married couple that expects to get divorced. For most of us, the marriage vows are part of a sacred ritual surrounded by scripture, prayer and blessing. The liturgical language seals the commitment, declaring that “the two shall become one” and “those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.” Our words reflect the teaching of scripture and are spoken with reverence and awe. We light unity candles or pour sand, treasuring the symbolic gestures and visuals that mirror our words. We make vows with the utmost sincerity; we mean the words we speak.

To me, this was the most mysterious aspect of divorce. How could these words spoken before God no longer hold any truth? It’s a question that’s rarely discussed. Instead I heard unsolicited and unwanted answers to the unasked question, “Why did my marriage end?” Well-intentioned people would say, “Every marriage has its struggles,” as if my divorce came about because we couldn’t agree on the children’s bedtime. The underlying message was, “you took the easy way out,” “you’ve given up” or “you obviously didn’t try hard enough.”

These people assumed that divorce is a kind of cheating; in other words, if we had taken our marriage seriously enough, it would have worked. This assumption glosses over the fractured, damaged and sinful reality of human life. Divorce among God’s people is a fact. Even though we strive for a spiritual ideal, marriages can fail. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, divorce is not easy, and for most of us it is not entered into lightly.

Divorce is the final and painful destination of a relationship that has broken down irretrievably. How and why that breakage happens is often a mystery, but both brokenness and mystery are sometimes exacerbated by the responses of religious communities. Perhaps congregations and clergy fear that extending compassion for individuals during divorce offers a tacit support for divorce. Their reluctance to engage may reflect an unspoken fear of contagion. Whatever the reason, congregations and clergy often leave divorcing individuals alone.

My research uncovered stories of rejection by fellow Christians and a stunning lack of empathy from congregations. Participants also spoke of being ignored by clergy, judged openly and even encouraged to leave the church. This is sad but also deeply ironic. Divorce is the time when we most need our brothers and sisters in faith, the time when we crave compassionate companionship and a sense of inclusion and acceptance. This is a time when our faith may be challenged, when the providence of God seems thin and when our own guilt grows and blooms.

Divorce is the broken place. We may have experienced betrayal (our own or our spouse’s), humiliation, rage, despair and hopelessness. It’s the place where God’s presence is most needed and where a well-placed word of grace can help someone to heal.

Perhaps congregations and pastors struggle over the divorce issue because it presents an empathy dilemma. People have a better understanding of how to cope with death or a malingering illness. In these cases we know who the victims are. We can draw from cultural and theological scripts. Divorce, on the other hand, lacks a script. It can go on for years (think custody battles) and is rarely ever simple. With few exceptions both partners share the responsibility for a divorce, and that responsibility can be messy and discordant.

Loved ones of mine were eager to put divorce into categories they understood, such as perpetrator and victim. They vilified my husband and declared me either a victim or at least “better off.” The complex emotional reality of divorce confused them. They wondered why I claimed responsibility when it was my husband who had the affair. How could I still be grieving three years later? How could I still love someone who had hurt me?

Sometimes the complexity of divorce is veiled even to those in the middle of it. It is easier to proclaim that “my divorce happened because my husband couldn’t stay faithful” than to admit one’s own role. It takes time, patience, flexibility and humility to tease apart the multiple strands of choices, reactions, decisions and experiences that lead a marriage to an end. A healthy outcome is clarity about one’s own role in both the marriage and the divorce.

What happens if we don’t take the time for that reflection? The result can be perpetual spinning in a spiritual cul-de-sac, a place of stuckness, stunted growth and limited vision. We lose our forward momentum, and our focus strays from God. Despite the constraints, cul-de-sacs are also attractive and comfortable. Take the cul-de-sac of victimhood. To see myself as a victim in my divorce earned me compassion and support from others. It felt good to be told that the divorce had nothing to do with me.

Yet over time the label of victim didn’t sit well. Did it reflect the truth? Was it spiritually honest? Was “victim” now my spiritual identity?

The cul-de-sac of bitterness offers temptation as well. How many men and women refer to their former spouses only by a derogatory epithet? When one defines one’s life by “what was done to me,” one embitters and desiccates one’s soul. Other cul-de-sacs include vengeance, despair, isolation, guilt, rebound relationships, perpetual anger and the belief that one is unlovable. Each offers sweet yet unfulfilling fruit. Clergy are uniquely placed to encourage us out of cul-de-sacs and point us to a more expansive vision of life with God, a vision that acts as a new orienting point.

Clergy can also help when reflection takes divorced individuals to dark, secretive corners where the raw or battered conscience hides. Here we explore sin and brokenness in our own lives. Who better than clergy to speak to forgiveness and repentance? A minister can bring a balm of grace while also helping to untangle the knots of guilt, responsibility, recrimination, remorse—and forgiveness of one’s self and the other. This task is a holy service.

Cul-de-sacs remind us that divorce affects all aspects of one’s life. There are few other experiences with such far-reaching and insidious consequences. The divorce blade cuts into our sense of identity, our self-esteem, our perception of God, our hopes for the future, our relationships with family and friends, our jobs, finances, beliefs and worldviews, and our faith. It’s an indiscriminate process that tears a fabric that’s been woven over years. Wise pastors know how to listen without judgment. They remember that every marriage is a deep, private, multifaceted reality that outsiders can never completely understand and that the cracks that lead to the chasm of divorce are often hidden. The life of a couple grows more complex as years pass, with every experience adding to the unique tapestry that is their marriage. Pastors must treat that tapestry with humility and with respect.

Pastors can meet people where they are and offer compassion without commiseration. They can expect tangled emotions and self-esteem issues. They can expect questions of identity and remind the divorced person that he or she has an identity as a beloved child of God. For someone who’s been left by a spouse, pastors can provide comfort in grief and companionship as that person walks toward new life. For someone who initiated the divorce, pastors can provide a place where that person will be heard without judgment. Pastors must remain mindful of their own biases, resist gossip and speculation and instead offer a place of careful listening and authentic acceptance. They can ask, “Where is God in all this?” and admit that they may not know the answer. But they can encourage the question. They may not see the place or role of God clearly, but they can stand beside someone as he or she rebuilds a life and can bless that building.

That act of blessing by clergy or congregation can be critical. My research revealed that participants’ spiritual lives either flourished after divorce or withered away. All were challenged and none were unchanged. Some believers felt drawn to God in new ways and experienced God anew in religious rituals and faith groups. A loving religious community brought healing. Their perception of God underwent an expansion, and they leaned on a God who was both larger and closer than they had previously realized. Hand in hand with this shift in perception was a change in their view of themselves. The greatest gift of divorce, some said, was humility. They no longer claimed to control their futures and no longer judged themselves or others with unreasonable expectations. Their empathy expanded in concert with their humility and turned into gentleness, a softening of the spirit.

For those who turned away from God, the landscape was more barren and hostile. Their exile usually came from assuming that their faith would protect them from suffering. A woman said to me, with equal measures of anger and confusion, “How could God do this to me? I’ve done everything right.” She had attended church regularly, been a “good” wife and mother, cared for her husband and done as the church commanded. In the sacred space between parishioner and pastor, ministers can carefully and lovingly question the assumptions underlying this woman’s question and gently remind her that when it comes to suffering, God offers us presence, not protection.

Finally, there were those who drew closer to God even though they left their faith communities. There was the realization, for some, that the behavior of a congregation did not mirror God’s attitude toward them. Where the congregation rejected, God accepted. Where the congregation judged, God forgave. This reimagining of God as separate from a specific church body was liberating and healing. Private study, prayer and conversation with trusted others were largely responsible. Eventually some of those individuals found their way to a new set of spiritual practices where they flourished.

Every divorce is the result of two people’s characters and choices, not just one. Pastors are in a unique position to help explore and clarify that reality. They can encourage divorced individuals to walk out of their spiritual cul-de-sacs, the places where they may spin in circles as victims or as perpetrators or as unlovable or in despair. Clergy can remind those who are divorced that God desires that they flourish, be forgiven and be loved. The road to spiritual health following divorce is a rocky one, and reaching a healthy horizon is not guaranteed. Clergy can be compassionate companions on the journey.


Divorce; the new beginning

Divorce happens to millions of people. Always has, always will. The stages of it are predictable. Even the odds of returning to a pre-morbid state of happiness and well-being are well understood. Every race and class of people are subject to it. It is a fact of life. It is not as bad as other vissisitude of life, like a brain injury or the death of a child. It is a most recoverable condition. The fact that a blissful married life is idealized by some cultural brokers (read religious leaders) simply underscores the gullibility of some and the abuse of power by others who refuse to love and support divorcing couples. Love and the promise of love is the cure for divorce, that is (as everybody knows) there is life, a wonderful life after divorce ... only learn your lesson well and learn how to love with greater intention knowing that all relationships are fragile and subject to human imperfections. Love and love again regardless to potential for pain and temporary suffering. The music directors (a married couple) of our church ( I am the pastor and we have be collegues for 19 years!) divorced. Their jouney through the "valley of divorce" was typical. I watched, and so did our congregation, as they struggled through week after week providing sacred music in the midst of separation and divorce. We simply loved them through the entire process (and continued to pay them their much need financial support). We thought "We have to love them, this is what God wants us to do." The results was that week after week we proved that love is stronger than death and divorce. All the drama and emotion about divorce among Christian and in churches must stop. Faithful Christian people have no choice but to love and support people, even leaders, pastors, etc., as they navigate through difficult passages of life, even divorce.

I greatly appreciate this

I greatly appreciate this article, and especially the author's candor, but I wish there was more on the complexity of the clergy's role when both members of a divorcing partnership retain their shared faith community.  I would agree that the role of clergy is to move beyond roles of victimhood and perpetrator but how does the pastor "encourage us out of cul-de-sacs and point us to a more expansive vision of life with God" when the congregation around them is still stuck attempting to define the former couple within these narrow confines?  In other words, how does the community live into being the supportive, transformative people of grace when so often we place our attention on liberating the two people involved in the divorce but it is the entire community which needs liberated from the desire to create dichotomies (good and bad, wrong and right, winner and loser)? 

I appreciate the author’s

I appreciate the author’s candor regarding her own experience and the experience of divorce generally. I also appreciate her call for the church not to get stuck permanently with labels of victim and perpetrator. Certainly, God does long for healing and new life for all involved.

I praise her willingness to be self-reflective and claim ownership for her role in her former marriage. I am confused, however, by her claim of responsibility for her divorce, while it was her husband who had the affair.

As both a former paramour and cuckold in the end of two marriages over 20 years, I have come to understand a few things about affairs. Most importantly, I understand that they have far more to do with the betrayers than the betrayed. As psychologist Dr. Shirley Glass concluded in her research on extra-marital affairs (see her book, Not Just Friends), many people healthy marriages have affairs and many in unhealthy marriages do not. They happen within a context, both of the marriage and of the internal life of the betrayer. Often, one of the betraying couple is a bit of a predator, who has a pattern of dealing with their own brokenness with the power and thrill of pulling someone’s marriage apart. Ultimately, though, it is the betrayer who seeks to deal with their external and internal context in a way that is destructive and devastating to all involved, rather than in any of the nearly infinite constructive options that are available. In the end, for Christians, an affair is the violation of a sacred covenant. While we may or may not be statistically less prone than the general population to extra-marital affairs, I hope we at least grieve more deeply when such a covenant is broken in that way.

Letter from James Leehan

Carolyne Call’s revealing reflections on how the church fails the di­vorced (“Spiritual cul-de-sac,” July 24) raises many issues which the church needs to address--not only how the church responds to divorce or how it prepares people for marriage, but what kind of resources it offers married couples to recognize and respond to “the multiple strands of choices, reactions, decisions and experiences” that can stress even the best of marriages.

There has been much study in the marriage and family therapy field about how the various stresses of life (including certain professions) spill over into relationships and can contaminate them. This issue is not given much reflection by church leadership about clergy marriages. Despite all the studies, lamentations and workshops focusing on clergy wellness, few, if any, focus on the marital relations of a clergy family. 

My wife and I developed a survey that asks clergy and their spouses/partners to rank the effect, level of effect, and significance of the clergy profession on their marriage. The most significant trend is the disparity between the rankings given by clergy and those provided by spouses/

partners, including in regard to the spiritual life of the family.

If clergy couples are not communicating well about the “multiple strands” in their marriages, how well can they empathize with and assist members of their congregations?

We have been surprised by the level of resistance (most of it passive) on the part of denominational leaders to investigating this aspect of clergy wellness. Are there a wide variety of spiritual cul-de-sacs thwarting spiritual journeys?

James Leehan

Santa Fe, N.M.

Letter from Thomas Van Brunt

Carolyne Call is certainly correct that many in the church, clergy and laity alike, do not know how to provide for the needs of divorcing couples. Often, in my experience, clergy do not know there is a problem in a marriage until one member of the couple comes to announce that a divorce is imminent. Rarely has a couple come to see me to ask for help to avoid divorce. Too often I have heard, “Bill and I are getting a divorce; how soon can Jim and I be married?”

For whatever reason, it seems that couples with marriage problems don’t want the church or the priest to know until it is too late to help.

Thomas Van Brunt

Hamlet, Oh.

Letter from Martha Witwer

Thanks to Carolyne Call (“Spir­itual cul-de-sac,” July 24) for

conveying beautifully the deep emotional connection we have in marriage--and the profound sense of loss and failure we are left with when it ends. 

I am not surprised that others find it hard to include divorced people in their lives. Most church members are paired, and couples are more comfortable spending time with other couples, leaving those of us without partners feeling even more disconnected. One way that churches can help is by building community through small groups, service projects and social events involving the whole congregation.

Ideally, couples should seek and find the help they need, but that may not always be possible, and it is hard to give back to the community when we are experiencing distress at home. As Call describes so well, the church can help by focusing on wholeness and spiritual growth for all people, and by assuring us that God is still with us. 

Martha Witwer

Wilmette, Ill.

Letter from Phyllis Savides

As someone who has been twice divorced and struggled with the Christian faith, I appreciated Call’s wisdom and insight. It was particularly powerful given that the author herself is divorced. Somehow, that alone was comforting. I am particularly grateful for her comments about the care and compassion needed by the one who did the leaving. I am grateful for the ministry that Call offered through her article. 

Phyllis Savides

Afton, Va.

Letter from Mark J. Tjepkema

What a gift Call’s article is to the Christian community, moving us beyond tolerance to acceptance and growth, and to acknowledge that some marriages need to end, that some relationships fail, but individuals in them can go on with life and not just survive but spiritually flourish. 

What I as a clergyperson who has experienced divorce found especially helpful was Call’s image of the cul-de-sac, and her insightful statement: “Every marriage is a deep, private, multifaceted reality that outsiders can never completely understand, and the cracks that lead to the chasm of divorce are often hidden.” This should give us all pause in the Christian community before saying anything of a judgmental nature.

Mark J. Tjepkema

Pendergrass, Ga.


A friend sent this to me to ask for my interpretation.  He was in a situation that required him finally to acknowledge that he could not fix his marriage.  He had been in a cul-de-sac of suffering and self-blame, trying to contort himself finally to be a good husband, because he had embraced the notion that, if he could just fix himself, he could save his marriage.  What may have looked like a detour into a cul-de-sac of "victimhood" was actually, in this friend's case, a crucially necessary turn out of a notion of self-blame and self-correction.  Some Christians mistake ourselves for Jesus, and believe that our suffering can transform or save another person or marriage covenant.  There are extreme examples of this mistake in Christianity. Mark Driscoll suggested that Mrs. Haggard was to blame for Rev. Haggard's homosexuality, to name one obvious example.  I submit that pastors need to name from the pulpit that the sin of pride is not the besetting sin of every Christian.  Sometimes Christians suffer from the sin of self-humiliation, and the only way out may be through a path that looks to all the world as pride.