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Recovering from Divorce

 

Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

“But He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).

Over the past thirty years a substantial percentage of the marriages in our country have ended in divorce. Estimates range from thirty to fifty percent. Yet, these statistics do not begin to tell the entire story. In the wake of these staggeringly high statistics is a trail of pain and suffering that has negatively impacted hundreds of thousands of souls.

This article has been written for those who have suffered a divorce. But it should be emphasized from the outset that my objective is not to evoke more pain, guilt and shame. People who have gone through the divorce process, our Lord knows, have suffered enough. In keeping with the church’s compassionate, redemptive, restorative message of hope, the information that follows is intended to provide encouragement, guidance and assistance to those seeking to recover from the painful process of divorce:  that you might “come forth as gold.”

The Orthodox Church’s View of Divorce

The Orthodox Church does not promote divorce. It maintains that marriage is not simply a relationship we enter “until death do us part,” but further asserts that love relationships transcend death. Spouses continue to maintain a relationship with one another even after death, although the relationship will be qualitatively different. Nevertheless, it endures.

Despite the church’s position with regard to marriage, the church acknowledges that some marriages cease to be viable places in which those involved can “work out your [their] salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). With deep sadness, it acknowledges the fact that some marriages die, and it maintains that broken and seriously dysfunctional relationships are destructive to spouses’ and children’s well-being. In these cases, the church permits its faithful to exit an inherently destructive situation.

The Painful Path toward Divorce

“Divorces don’t simply happen. It’s not as though people are married one day and they decide to divorce the next day. It’s a long difficult process.” These words were shared with me by an e-mail respondent. The truth is, it is a “difficult process.”

Thanks to some valid and reliable research, today we know that divorces are preceded by a lengthy, painful and predictable period of conflict that place spouses on a very slippery slope toward marital meltdown and divorce. During this process, negativity in the form of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling begins to slowly saturate spouse’s exchanges. These toxic interactions slowly poison the ecosystem of a marriage. They negativity undermine mutual trust, understanding, friendship and the love that brought two people together.  

Many spouses who get caught on this slippery slope admit to beginning marriage as soul-mates. In time, they feel more like roommates, and eventually end up feeling like cell mates. During a particularly emotional therapy session, an excerpt from one divorced person’s remarks describes some of the reasons why marriages fail. “I really wanted it to work, but I simply couldn’t live with the same unresolved disagreements. Our arguments resembled a broken record…. The finger pointing, and unfair accusations; and endless arguing proved to make us both absolutely miserable. In the end, it was just too hard to be together. The pain needed to end. Divorce seemed like the only way out.”

Eventually this process compels one or both partners to seek legal counsel, landing both partners in one of our nation’s crowded divorce courts. By the time the civil divorce is finalized, partners are often emotionally, spiritually and financial depleted. If children are involved, parents will often remain conflicted for years. It is no wonder that the Homes and Rahe Stress Scale, a respected psychometric instrument, ranks divorce as the second most significant stressor affecting adult health and well-being, behind the death of a spouse.

Does God Still Love Me?

If you are suffering or have suffered through the divorce process, you have likely experienced a myriad of mixed feelings ranging from exhilaration and hopefulness, to crippling forms of anger, resentment, sadness, guilt and shame. Experiencing these feelings is common and a normal part of the process. One e-mail respondent observed, “In my head I know I was doing the right thing, but in my heart it was harder to accept what happened. Lately I’ve felt considerable amounts of guilt and shame, often questioning if I am lovable, and even if God still considers me worthy of His love. In my heart I know He does, but in some of my lowest moments, when feelings of guilt and shame overwhelm me, I question everything.” Another e-mail respondent described his feelings this way. “Some days I’m so angry with her for breaking up the family. I’m suffering, and our children are suffering, and I don’t think she cares. She’s off having a grand old time with her new boyfriend…  All this makes me feel like God is somehow punishing me for something.”

Divorce has a way of making people question everything about their lives. Regaining perspective, a love of self, and a deeper awareness of God’s undying love are crucial to recovering from divorce. Authentic recovery usually includes most of the following “spiritual steps.” These steps involve a slow, deliberate process toward recovery.  As difficult as these steps may be, they bring healing and a broader, healthier, holier perspective.

  • Step toward God and seek to reconnect with him, however inadequate your efforts.
  • When taking the first step, identify and acknowledge your sins rather than your partner’s sins.
  • Confess your sins.
  • Understand and seek repentance.
  • Receive and accept God’s mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love.

When taking these steps, most people require some help. As a result, you might consider participating in a divorce support group that has a decidedly Christian orientation. Many groups are available online, and in all likelihood, in your local community. Two online sites that are particularly good sources of information are:    

www.divorcecare.com

www.smartmarriages.com         

Together with a support group, an optimal approach would also involve your pastor’s support and guidance. If your pastor does not provide this type of spiritual counseling, then consider a professional couples counselor who has a Christian orientation and/or is comfortable working with religious populations.

In your efforts to take these steps, remember that a proactive approach is better than a passive one. However, finding the motivation will not be easy, especially since you might be struggling with doubts and sadness, but the spiritual payoff will prove indispensable to your recovery.

Like a Death

Because the divorce process saturates people with toxic emotions like frustration, anger, resentment, guilt, shame and lots of free-flowing anxiety and symptoms of depression, many divorced persons compare divorce to an unexpected death. This is especially true of the partner who did not initiate the divorce process and did not want it. This does not mean that the initiating partner did not experience these types of visceral reactions and feelings. In most cases, they did.  

With regard to the partner who did not initiate the divorce process, the pending divorce is especially hard to accept. One spouse I counseled put it this way. “Some days I feel so lost. My emotions range from anger to depression. I’m short with the kids, and I don’t want to get up in the morning. It’s terrible. It’s sort of like someone died, but they didn’t die…. I’m going to a funeral every time I meet with my attorney.” Because divorce is like a death, a healthy, holy grieving process is often associated with divorce recovery. 

The Grieving Process

Like the death of a loved one, the recovery process from divorce will require you to get in touch with your ambivalent feelings and encourage you to grieve the loss. Many people have a hard time with this step. One woman I counseled vigorously objected when I suggested she take time to unpack her repressed emotions and lament her sins. “How do I do this?  The kids need me. I have to get up and go to work every day…. I feel like I need to attend to their needs right now and my needs have to come second.” Another man stated, “It’s been almost a year since the divorce, and I haven’t shed a tear. All I really have felt is numbness. I guess that’s not too healthy. I want to cry, but the tears just won’t come.” In these instances, both needed to grieve their loss, and with additional counseling, both eventually did grieve and felt its cathartic, restorative effects. If you are like these two people and you have not grieved the loss of your marriage, I would suggest you find a way to do so.   

You might also be interested to know that the grieving process is different for each person. In some cases, it will be short in duration, and in other cases it will take more time. Whether the process is short or long, it cannot be rushed. So, give yourself permission to grieve through the entire process. A release of some emotion a few times is simply not enough.

On average, researchers suggest that it takes people five years to recover from the emotional impact of a divorce. One e-mail respondent stated, “The civil divorce took about a year. It’s been three years since I received my divorce and I’m still fighting with my emotions. Without warning, some days I still feel some anger and on other days I’m in the dumps.”

Elizabeth-Kuber Ross, a pioneer in the hospice movement, identified the following stages of grieving and recovery. I have often used them in conjunction with the work I do with people who are struggling through the emotional side of divorce. They have proven helpful to them, and they should prove helpful to you. In most cases, people do not seamlessly pass from one stage to another. Sometimes they are caught between one or more of the following steps simultaneously:

Denial.  When the “d” word (divorce) is broached, many people have a very hard time accepting it. They believe that their partner will change their mind. In some instances they do, but in most cases they do not.

Anger/Resentment. Once the person understands that their partner does not intend to return and work on the marriage, many people experience high levels of anger and resentment. The anger and resentment is extremely toxic and pervasive – often affecting their interactions and transactions with their partner and others.

Bargaining.  In the midst of the anger and resentment, it is not unusual for one partner to try to bargain with the other partner. In these instances, the partner being left behind might make promises and try to strike bargains to convince their partner from leaving them. In most cases, these efforts fail.  

Depression.  When partners realize that there is nothing they can do to prevent the divorce, the person being left behind will generally experience symptoms of depression. In these instances, many benefit from a physical, some medication and some psychotherapy and spiritual counseling.

Acceptance.  After a lengthy period of struggle, which often requires cycling through many of these steps, most people will accept the inevitable and seek to piece their lives back together. It is at this point when many begin to accept the emotional divorce.  

The Stigma of Divorce

Despite the high divorce rate, and the fact that divorce in our society is viewed as an acceptable way of exiting a dysfunctional marriage, some divorced persons still attest to experiencing varying amounts of social stigma. This is especially true for people in high profile positions, for some religious people, and persons influenced by a subculture that condemns divorce. An excerpt from one Greek-American woman’s e-mail makes this point clear. “It’s been almost two years. At first I didn’t know how to face my family and church family. It was very awkward. I felt people were judging me; I also felt embarrassed and like a failure. People didn’t really know what to say to me, and I had a hard time explaining what happened. Before the divorce, we were role models in our community. That changed during the separation and especially after the divorce. It was very awkward. But thankfully, as time passed, things got better and people were more understanding, but from time to time, I still feel some twinges of embarrassment and awkwardness when I meet people I haven’t seen since the divorce.”  As this woman’s observations suggest, social stigma is still alive and well in many sectors of our society, and divorced persons still encounter judgmental attitudes during their efforts to recover. Often, Greek Orthodox Church communities are no exception.

As people recover from the effects of divorce, they are better able to handle the social stigma. After some considerable work with a man whose second marriage ended in divorce, with some pride, he stated the following:  “Since my first wife died from cancer, when people asked if I was married, I would tell them I was a widower and didn’t allude to my second marriage, which ended in divorce. I no longer do that. I simply tell them that my wife left me and I’m divorced…. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m still concerned with what people think about me, but not nearly as much. So, if people ask, I just tell them that I’m divorced. ” It takes time to get to get to this place. If you are not there, do not become discouraged. As you intentionally expend the time and energy to recover from divorce, like this man, you will be able to cope with the stigma associated with divorce.    

Post Divorce Examination

People who do not take the time to prayerfully process through a divorce are generally destined to relive their mistakes if they remarry. These people generally end up on the same slippery slope that led them toward marital meltdown and divorce. Taking the time to evaluate what went wrong and how you contributed to the divorce is time well spent. Here is what one e-mail respondent shared with me after a lengthy e-mail exchange whereby she consulted me for a second opinion during her recovery. “I’m so glad I took the time to look at my sins after the divorce. Mind you now, it wasn’t easy. For the first six to nine months after the divorce I was fixated on him and what he did to me. Then my therapist came along and challenged me to look at my sins. At first, I resented this, but in time I realized it was sound counsel. I still remember the verse you quoted from Scripture when I asked you for a second opinion:  ‘…first take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the sliver out of your neighbor’s eye’ (Matt 7:5). I took my therapist’s advice and your second opinion to heart and began looking at my mistakes…. Swallowing humble pie and looking at my mistake wasn’t easy, but I won’t be as likely to make them again if I remarry.”

A handful of sessions – perhaps six to eight sessions – with your pastor or a couple’s therapist should be sufficient to help you broaden your perspective of the events that led to the divorce. They should help you prayerfully process some very toxic feelings that can inhibit the recovery process after a divorce. These sessions should mitigate fears related to remarriage and another divorce.

The Children

Almost all parents who are fatalities of divorce have heard that they should insulate their children from their parents’ conflicts. Unfortunately, research suggests that in a significant percentage of cases, this does not happen. In such cases, parents end up demonizing the other parent.

Some triangulate their children, placing them directly in the middle of their arguments, often forcing them to take sides. Often parents who are fatalities of divorce engage in these and other similar unhealthy tactics because they are angry at one another and fearful their relationship with their children will be irreparably compromised. So, if you are tempted to engage in any of these unproductive strategies, for your children’s sake, avoid these temptations. These and other similar destructive traps will ultimately end up making you feel worse about yourself and harm your children. The following guidelines should prove useful in your efforts to help your children during and after the divorce process.

  • Avoid the temptation to use the children as a bargaining chip to obtain leverage during and after the divorce. This is not conducive to children’s best interests.
  • To the best of your ability, keep children as well insulated as possible from the emotional fallout that occurs between the two of you during and after the divorce.
  • Despite your best efforts to insulate your children, you will be unable to insulate them from all the fallout that accompanies divorce. Like you, your children will struggle with the painful process of divorce. Engaging in regular damage control is the best course of action to help them work through the negative residual effects.
  • In your efforts to deal with the fallout, be prepared to answer their questions in an age-appropriate manner, and make certain that they know they can come to you with their issues and problems. If they do not come to you, do not assume they are not suffering; they are. You go to them.
  • Ensure they do not feel responsible for the divorce. Many children do.
  • Reassure your children that God and you will always love them and be there for them. This consistent, unending, dependable stream of love “bears all things,… hopes all things, endures all things”  (I Cor. 13:7).
  • Despite your best efforts, your child may need additional assistance working through the emotional fallout associated the divorce. Professional counselors who are trained to work with children and their families can make a difference. When seeking professional help, always consider a therapist’s training and experience.  Asking a few simple questions like:  How much of your case load involves children and their families?  How much experience do you have working with children whose parents have divorced?  Are you comfortable working with religious populations?  If the therapist’s answers do not satisfy you, continue your search. Marriage and family therapists, social workers, clinical psychologists and professional counselors who do play therapy and also work with parents are well equipped to help.

After struggling for years through a very contentious divorce process, one mother’s remarks illustrate how parents can compound the pain and suffering that accompanies the divorce process. “He’s turned my two girls against me and convinced them that I am an evil, loose woman. My oldest has been especially brainwashed. He’s used the Bible like a sledgehammer to break up any meaningful connection between us. After obtaining counsel from a very conservative religious group, my daughter’s father has convinced my two girls that divorce is wrong and that I am living in sin because I remarried. They don’t’ care that he was physically abusive and highly manipulative. They don’t care that I worked to put the food on the table for years and he stayed home doing nothing. They just think that I’m a sinner – even after I got a church divorce. It’s been a real nightmare. I haven’t had contact with them in months…. The worst is that I believe these kids – now twelve and fifteen – will grow up really, really damaged.”

There are many books written from a child’s point of view that chronicle the pain and suffering that children experience. One resource I often recommend is as follows: 

Marquardt, E. (2005). Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. New York:  Crown Publishers.    

Life after Divorce

In order to regain perspective and some emotional, psychological and spiritual stability, you must walk through a process, painful as it may be. I have asked a number of people who passed through the divorce process to respond to the following question:  Is there life after divorce? Here are some of their comments.  

“I never thought the pain would end. Slowly, as I did my part and confessed my sins and sought a better life, I was able to dig myself out of the pain and suffering. If you’re going through a divorce, hang in there. It gets better.”

“I never thought I could show my face at church again. It was amazing how much support I got when I did. Not from everyone mind you, but from a select few. I never expected comfort and support from some of the people who approached me. It was great. It helped a lot.”

“The old adage, ‘Time heals all wounds.’ applies here. Tell them it will take time and some considerable effort. If you do your part, it gets better.”      

“In time you gain perspective and see things as they were rather than in a skewed perspective. In the beginning I thought it was all her fault. In time, you’ll see that you did some things, and she did some things that killed the marriage. Once you get past some of that and gain a better perspective, your view of the future begins to change – it gets better.”

“Is there life after divorce? Absolutely! Sooner or later you stop feeling sorry for yourself and you stop wondering about what could have been and you start looking at life after divorce. That’s when life gets exciting.”

Getting Back Into Good Standing With the Church

As you may know, when Greek Orthodox Christians divorce, they lose their good standing in the church and must obtain an Ecclesiastical Divorce in order to regain it. Many Orthodox who belong to a Greek Orthodox Church are not aware of how this directly affects them. As a way to facilitate the recovery process, the following information which has been taken from the 2011 Yearbook which the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese publishes should clarify any questions you might have:  “Orthodox Christians who have obtained a civil divorce but not an ecclesiastical divorce may not participate in any sacraments or serve on the Parish Council, Archdiocesan District Council, Metropolis Council or Archdiocesan Council until they have been granted a divorce by the Church” (p. 264). (By the way, this process varies from one Orthodox jurisdiction to the next. Please check with your priest if you are not part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He will be in the best position to outline what is required of you after you obtain a civil divorce.)

The process of obtaining an Ecclesiastical Divorce is not complicated. However, when Greek Orthodox Christians find out that this additional step must also be negotiated, many are not interested in revisiting the painful circumstances surrounding their divorce. Some even resent this requirement. Here are some typical reactions.

“I have to do what? That’s not fair. I don’t want to go back and rehash everything with my priest. It will be painfully embarrassing.”

“I won’t do it - plain and simple. I would think that the church would be more understanding and not require this.”

“I don’t want to air my dirty laundry in front of my priest. I’m afraid the priest will tell others what happened.”

“Alright, but I’m not happy about the fact that a tax is attached to this process!”  

Despite these and other visceral reactions that some Greek Orthodox have in their efforts to get back into good standing, there are sound reasons why the church requires that its faithful take this step. Among other things, it affords its faithful the opportunity to prayerfully put closure on a painful chapter in their lives. Up to this point, divorced persons have found closure legally, emotionally and psychologically. However, many fail to obtain closure spiritually and religiously. This step permits Greek Orthodox Christians the opportunity to not only get back into good standing with their faith group, it also permits them to restore their relationship with God. All too often, many have neglected to consider the value of asking for God’s forgiveness and seeking and receiving repentance after the divorce. These steps are as important as any others in the recovery process after a divorce.     

Conclusion

The other day, I came across the following statement:  “We are all a work in progress.” I believe this statement is a good way to end this article. No matter where you are in the divorce process, remember that we are all a work in progress. Our loving God does not wish that we remain mired down in the destructive emotional, psychological and spiritual fallout associated with divorce. That is ultimately why, in the words of some Fathers of our church, He would take on flesh like ours and become like us that we might become like him. Yes, we are all sinners, and we all make mistakes that we regret, but we are also God’s children; and so the church, in the spirit of God’s restorative message, understands that we deserve a second chance.  

What has happened cannot be changed. However, while you struggle to recover from divorce learn from your mistakes, ask God for mercy and forgiveness, and embrace the undying, unconditional love He has for you: to God’s glory and our salvation. Amen.